‘Migrations’ by Charlotte McConaghy

A thrilling expedition to the literal ends of the Earth, Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy is a novel that aims to do more than tell a story. Instead, McConaghy forces the reader to dig deep into the darkest pits of emotionality, something few authors can pull off. 

Migrations follows Franny Lynch, a recluse of a woman looking to trail a flock of artic terns from Greenland to the Antarctic. The only problem is that no boat will have her. In this near-apocalyptic version of Earth, over 80% of wildlife is dead. The terns are the last of their kind, and any vessel in the Artic is on the hunt for fish and fundamentally at odds with Franny’s mission.

At the outset of the novel, Franny meets Ennis Malone in a freezing fjord and, seemingly miraculously, they end up on his vessel, the Sanghani, with the hatched plan to follow the terns south. As the journey of the Sanghani’s crew unfolds, so does Franny’s tormented past. The deeper we delve into her memories, the more we get the feeling that something awful – or a lot of something awfuls — are haunting her past.

Poetic and rhythmic and twisting as the ocean they sail, McConaghy’s novel is a riveting masterpiece that tears through to a deeply held place – a place we often don’t want to go to, a place that will leave you ruined.

While McConaghy asks the reader to suspend belief again and again to get from plot point to plot point, it is well worth the effort. Migrations is a work of metaphor and almost dips into elements of magical realism with its far-fetched happenings. But when you step back to see that the book is not at all about terns or global warming, but about home, relationships, trauma, fear, and the migration that every soul makes from birth to death, you will see that the novel holds more than the need for plausibility.

Published by Flatiron Books in August of 2020, you can purchase a copy of Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy at your local independent bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

‘The Book of Old Ladies’ by Ruth O. Saxton

What does it mean to age? To be old? Particularly, what does it mean to confront old age as a woman? How have the peculiarities and challenges faced by women changed (if at all) over time? 

The Book of Old Ladies: Celebrating Women of a Certain Age In Fiction by Dr. Ruth O. Saxton seeks to answer these questions and rectify the, somehow, universally held ideas about women, and more specifically older women. Namely that women are defined by their romantic relationships; that they inherently seek to be wives, mothers, and caregivers; and that their artistic or personal passions are second to their roles as women.

Saxton takes a look at thirty different novels and short stories with older women as the central characters to analyze how the writers of these works handle aging and end of life issues. In each section, Sexton provides an in-depth analysis of a story, parsing out the characters’ motives, how their lives differ (or not) from the given stereotypes about aging women, and how the stories and characters fit into the larger, collective narrative of women as we know it. 

An essential piece of non-fiction, The Book of Old Ladies draws attention not only to the works highlighted, but to the overarching issue of our society’s provincial view of women in old age. Saxton brings to life characters who are so far from the narrow-minded perception of the old bag, the lonely widower, and the crazy old lady to name a few. Further, Saxton creates a sense of urgency to both read the fiction she features and to champion the older women of our generation who are living these fictions daily.

Even if you haven’t read the books and stories Saxton focuses on, each chapter and section is still captivating and, by the end, almost makes you feel as if you have read the book or story discussed. That being said, reading the analyses of the works I had read was by far the more enjoyable reading experience of the book. If anything, Saxton creates a reading list for every reader!

Eye opening, heartbreaking, and thoroughly thought-provoking, The Book of Old Ladies by Ruth O. Saxton comes highly recommended to all readers no matter their age, gender, or beliefs.

Slated for release from She Writes Press in September 2020, you can preorder a copy of The Book of Old Ladies: Celebrating Women of a Certain Age In Fiction at 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.

’13 Billion to One’ by Randy Rush

13 Billion to One is $50 million-dollar lottery winner Randy Rush’s memoir detailing his life before and after his tax-free Canadian lottery win.

Born and raised in Canada, Rush lived a less than luxurious life as a child often moving between apartments, growing up with a single parent who was emotionally absent, and later battling with substance abuse and depression. In his later adulthood, Rush went on to live an upper-class lifestyle as a sales representative for Hertz but made it big with his 2015 $50 million-dollar lottery win.

Once Rush was a millionaire, the distinction between friends and those who wanted to use Rush for his money blurred. Caught in a multi-million-dollar scandal that resulted in the unearthing of years of fraud, Rush decides to fight back against white collar crime. 

A quick moving memoir that keeps you reading, 13 Billion to One is a harrowing yet often lighthearted read that dips into deeper themes of selflessness, emotional health, and spirituality.

Scheduled for release by Rantanna Media on June 24, 2020, you can preorder a copy of 13 Billion to One by Randy Rush at 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.

‘Copy Boy’ by Shelley Blanton-Stroud

Part noir, part historical fiction, Copy Boy by Shelley Blanton-Stroud is a fast-paced, non-stop debut novel.

Jane has lived her life mostly on campsites, or in other makeshift homes, with her abusive father and neglectful mother. Things change though when Jane’s father tries to beat her mother and Jane steps in to stop him. A crowbar and a ditch later, Jane finds herself in San Francisco at the doorstep of her mother’s lover’s daughter. Set on leaving the past behind her, Jane assumes the identity of Benjamin Hopper and determines to become a copy boy for a local newspaper.

Things get messy when a woman is murdered, and Jane’s father gets somehow pulled back onto the scene. Fighting to make a name for herself at a paper that doesn’t respect her as a man or a woman while also struggling to both leave behind and reconcile her past, Jane comes up against enemies both internal and external.

Copy Boy investigates issues of psychology, sexism, justice, and social welfare by means of a mystery and a thriller. While the reader is not always left with answers to the questions asked in the novel, Blanton-Stroud certainly sets the scene for the reader to challenge and examine the issues presented.

A quick and easy read, Copy Boy is slated for release from She Writes Press in June of 2020. You can preorder Copy Boy by Shelley Blanton-Stroud 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.

‘If Anyone Asks, Say I Died From the Heartbreaking Blues’ by Philip Cioffari

cioffari-bluesPhilip Cioffari’s latest novel If Anyone Asks, Say I Died From the Heartbreaking Blues is set in 1960’s New York and tells a story of boyhood and growing up.

Hunt is the book’s main character, an eighteen-year-old kid from the Bronx whose expectations seem to be constantly flouted. The novel takes place on his birthday, which is also the day of his school’s prom, and he believes, the next big moment of his life. The night doesn’t quite pan out the way he expects though, and things turn from bad to worse as Hunt finds himself not only turned down by the love of his life but also on the run from a notorious gang.

While the plot points of the book are empirically action packed, the narrative itself lacks luster. Hunt is your typical, ego-centric, blithely chauvinistic man-boy of the 1950’s while his friends and enemies are equally stuck in their stock characterization. Perhaps for a certain generation, Cioffari’s novel could be a sentimental amble down memory lane, but for the average reader without any nostalgic stock in the time or place, the novel falls fairly flat.

Slated for release on February 14, 2020 by Livingston Press, you can preorder a copy of If Anyone Asks, Say I Died From the Heartbreaking Blues by Philip Cioffari 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.

‘What You Have Heard is True’ by Carolyn Forche

what-you-have-forcheWhat You Have Heard is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance is a moving piece of non-fiction that gets at the heart of what it means to be human and what it means to be a human who acts. Written by poet Carolyn Forché, the memoir is an account of her time in, and relationship with, El Salvador and the man who helps her form that relationship: Leonel. Told through a mixed media lens, the book includes narrative, poetry, and photographs to help build the image, scene, and emotion of El Salvador at the time of Forché’s visits there.

Forché is twenty-seven when she gets a mysterious knock on her door and a request from someone named Leonel (the uncle of a friend) to enlighten her about the plight of El Salvador. It’s the late 1970s, and Forché is teaching poetry at a university; she is recently unmarried, living with a roommate, and trying to figure out what to do with a fellowship she’s unexpectedly earned. When Leonel shows up at her door with his two daughters, he wastes no time in sharing the history of oppression in El Salvador and its roots in European invasion. Leonel insists that Forché has a part to play and convinces her to come to El Salvador to see for herself the injustices running rampant through the country.

Forché finds herself agreeing (though she doesn’t know why), and this agreement sends her into a reeling and unpredictable journey through a country she will come to love. She sees unsanitary hospitals, dead bodies hacked to pieces, she is chased by death squads, meets priests and nuns who are willing to give their lives for justice, she meets friends and enemies, and all the while she’s still trying to figure out what she’s doing in El Salvador and what her role is in bringing justice.

What You Have Heard is True is the product of Forché’s experiences (in addition to an earlier book of poetry she published about the topic), and ultimately her way of contributing to the narrative, of sharing the story of El Salvador, Leonel, and the friends who lost their lives for freedom. A poetic and enthralling narrative, What You Have Heard is True will make you think differently about your own life and the privilege of having a working toilet, the right to speak your mind, and to live a life without fear of losing it at any turn.

Slated for release by Penguin Random House on March 19, 2019, you can preorder a copy of What You Have Heard is True by Carolyn Forché at 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.

‘Rust & Stardust’ by T. Greenwood

rustandstardust-greenwoodMost serious readers have heard of Lolita, the iconic novel that barreled through controversy and outrage to become a lasting legacy in the literary world. Few people, though, have heard of Sally Horner, a young girl who potentially inspired Nabokov’s horrifying contribution to modern literature. Rust & Stardust by T. Greenwood finally tells Sally’s story, giving back the narrative that was taken from her.

Greenwood’s novel starts off as most crime inspired novels do, with something unsettling. Sally only wants to be liked by the girls at school and is willing to do anything to join their club. So, when they ask her to steal something from the local store for her initiation, Sally, though hesitant, agrees. When she’s unsuccessful in her petty crime, however, the consequences seem far steeper than she had ever imagined. A man claiming to be an FBI agent stops Sally, and tells her she is under arrest for her delinquency. However, he’s willing to help her out and take her to Atlantic City to speak on her behalf in front of the judge who will preside over her case there.

Sally, while maybe a bit gullible, is also an 11-year-old girl, living in the late 1940’s who is being told by an adult a seemingly plausible truth with which she can’t seem to argue. Besides, she is the criminal here. What can she do? This experience starts Sally’s nearly two-year-long journey with her kidnapper and abuser.

Rust & Stardust, though at times terrifying and nauseating, is a hard book to put down. Greenwood follows to a T Sally’s real route with her kidnapper adding in, through fiction, the characters and stories that only Sally could’ve known. If you go in thinking Rust & Stardust is merely a fictional novel, you might find its premise hard to believe, the sequence of events so impossible it becomes frustrating. But, when you realize that these events were the only things Greenwood didn’t fictionalize, the novel becomes even more heart wrenching.

The one area where Greenwood falls short is in the connections she makes between the reader and the characters. While it is impossible not to feel for Sally and her hardships, it does seem challenging to truly understand or get close to any of the characters. Part of what might make this so difficult is the shift in perspective between so many different characters. Nonetheless, Rust & Stardust is a novel whose pages seem to never stop turning.

Slated for release by St. Martin’s Press in August of 2018, you can preorder a copy of Rust & Stardust from your local bookstore.

Read more 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 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 discovering 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 feel 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.

‘On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, & Getting Old’ by Parker J. Palmer

on-the-brink-palmerOn the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, & Getting Old by Parker J. Palmer, is a collection of essays, poems, and stories that tell of Palmer’s coming into old age. Palmer’s main themes surround issues such as: living a full life, finding your vocation, being grateful, understanding life’s lessons, and making the choice to be happy despite your circumstances.

Palmer breaks his book up into seven distinct parts, each with a different message related to aging. Throughout On the Brink of Everything, Palmer shares personal experiences, mostly revolving around his career, his vocation as a writer, and his spiritual leanings as a devout Quaker.

Many of Palmer’s musing may resonate with people young and old, but readers who are unfamiliar with his work should be warned that On the Brink of Everything is heavily leaden with spiritual and didactic lessons that may also feel burdensome.

Released by Berrett-Koehler Publishers on June 26, 2018, you can purchase a copy of On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity, & Getting Old by Parker J. Palmer at your local bookstore.

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.