‘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.

‘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 covers are closed.

A Place For Us tells a story of the “All American” life in a very different way than anglo white Americans are familiar. 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 toward 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, the family holds some thread of remaining a unit, 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