‘The Dark Side of Memory: Uruguay’s Disappeared Children and the Families That Never Stopped Searching’ by Tessa Bridal

The Dark Side of Memory is Tessa Bridal’s latest release since the her highly acclaimed novel The Tree of Red Stars. A thoroughly researched and deeply personal narrative nonfiction book, The Dark Side of Memory chronicles the military take over and proceeding dictatorship of Uruguay, Argentina, and other neighboring Latin American countries in the mid-1970s-1980s. 

Bridal, born and raised in Uruguay, returns to her home country to interview survivors and investigate the dozens of disappearances (most of them children) reported during this era. Through a storied retelling of these interviews, Bridal paints a scene of Uruguay and Argentina that feels both apocalyptic and eerily familiar.

To set the scene: a small subset of the population, mostly comprised of the military and with military backing, take over the civilian community. This militaristic government determines (largely in regards to political leaning) who is an enemy and who is not. Over time, being an enemy of the state becomes synonymous with capture, torture, and often complete erasure. 

Because of these atrocities, a generation of young revolutionaries suffered for their ideas and values, but another entirely innocuous and helpless generation suffered as well: the children of the opposition. After their parents were killed or imprisoned, these children were often put into orphanages, left at churches or firehouses, or adopted by the very people who participated in murdering those same children’s parents.

After the dictatorship is dissolved in 1985, few parents remained to look for their missing children, but the families and grandparents of those children did survive, and they looked ceaselessly for their loved ones. Tessa Bridal captures both the humanity and depravity wrapped up in a situation with impossible answers. By the end of the dictatorship, many of these children were nine-ten years old. They had lived whole lives with a family that wasn’t their own, living under a name that wasn’t their own. How would they feel to find out they’d been kidnapped? Lied to? That their birth parents were potentially killed or tortured by the people they called Mother and Father?

Already, fans of Margret Atwood will see a perverse amount of overlap with her postapocalyptic novel The Handmaid’s Tale, and rightfully so: Atwood has said numerous times she did not invent The Handmaid’s Tale, but rather used the inspiration of actual events happening around the world in the 1970s-1980s. But fans of Bruce Miller’s Hulu adaptation won’t be able to help but call to mind the episode when Hannah rebukes her birth mother and the main character, June, whom she has been separated from for years and whom Hannah doesn’t even remember any more. It’s a climactic moment in the show when viewers feel entirely hopeless: all of June’s work, all of her sacrifices, her unending love for her daughter seems lost when we realize Hannah loves her adopted family—a family that essentially kidnapped her. But what’s the right answer? Tear Hannah away from the people she calls her parents? Fill her with the terror of her own past and kidnapping? There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer in Miller’s show, and there was not an easy answer for the families portrayed in The Dark Side of Memory

The unnerving similarities between this speculative novel and the reality of life in South America for many only a few decades ago may shock some, but Bridal reminds us to look at our own government in the United Stated: the separation of children from their families at the U.S.-Mexico border, the lengths to which the U.S. went after 9/11 to protect our democracy, often at the cost of human rights—and the list goes on.

A terrifying, beautiful, and absolutely essential chronicle of a continent, a people, and an era often glossed over in our history lessons, The Dark Side of Memory is a must read. While you may have many of the facts at the outset of the novelization, that does not at all detract from the heightened emotions you’ll feel as you read Bridal’s account. It is riveting, heart wrenching, and almost entirely unbelievable.

Published by Invisible Ink in October 20201, The Dark Side of Memory by Tessa Bridal is available for purchase 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.

‘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.

‘The Bohemians’ by Jazmin Darznik

Bestselling author Jazmin Darznik is at it again with her latest historical fiction novel The Bohemians. Set mainly in 1920s San Francisco, The Bohemians follows photographer Dorothea Lange from her arrival in The Golden City to becoming the artist she never claimed to be.

When we meet Dorothea, she is a cautious and withdrawn young girl only planning to pass through San Francisco when she’s robbed and left with nothing but her camera and the kindness of a few strangers. She quickly befriends Caroline Lee, a seamstress and artist herself, who introduces Dorothea to Monkey Block. Monkey Block is the core of the bohemian scene in San Francisco at the time, and Dorrie quickly rises through the ranks of artists surrounding her to become the first woman to own a portrait studio in the city.

Along the way, we meet a host of famous (and often infamous) characters including artists Maynard Dixon, who eventually becomes Dorothea’s husband, and Ansel Adams. Each new introduction enlivens the novel with fresh verve as readers not only recognize, but grow eager to learn more of, these historical figures. While the novel is a fictionalized account of Lange’s life, there is an element of pure fun to reading about legendary artists whose lives can only be known through what little pieces we have left of their pasts.

Darznik takes on numerous thematic and moral feats with The Bohemians drawing connection to modern day issues that still haven’t resolved over 100 years after Dorothea Lange experienced them. There’s systemic racism and politicians who support and further that ideology. There’s plague and pestilence that result in mask mandates, shuttered businesses, and social isolation. There’s misogyny. And then, perhaps most central to Dorothea’s own life is the issue of how we see ability in our society. 

Dorothea survived polio as a child, leaving one of her legs with a limp that she is wholly ashamed of until Caroline starts to convince Dorothea to see things differently. Dorothea’s embarrassment stems from how society views her and how she believes she should view herself based on societal norms and values of “beauty” and “perfection.” However, as Dorothea’s fame grows and with it her confidence to see beyond more traditional viewpoints, we hear less and less about her leg as something problematic and shameful. She is wildly successful, she is happy, she is loved by others and by herself and not despite her disability but because of who she is and how she defines herself, disability and all. At one point in the novel, Dorrie proclaims that without her differing abilities, she wouldn’t be the photographer that she is. A rare and powerful view of disability that is widely lacking in fiction (as well as our society), Darznik does a superb job portraying disability as it should be: something not to be lamented, ashamed of, or less in any way, but rather a part of the human condition that adds insurmountable value to individual lives and society as a whole.

A fast-paced, captivating novel that draws you in from the very beginning, The Bohemians is the perfect novel for history buffs, artist, or anyone looking for a delightful read that doesn’t shy away from hard topics.

Published by Ballantine Books in April 2021, The Bohemians is available 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.

‘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.

‘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.

‘The Hilarious World of Depression’ by John Moe

tHWoD-MoeThe Hilarious World of Depression by John Moe is the radio personality’s first foray into writing. Part memoir, part self-help, Moe’s book combines real-life experience with a sort of analysis of the knowledge gained from that experience.

Moe tells not only his own story in The Hilarious World of Depression, but the stories of his family and a slew of famous people who have been featured on his podcast by the same title. Moe delves into the topic of depression and how it has affected him, his family, and others head-on with comedy as his sidekick. One of the repeated themes in the memoir is how humor has been used for generations to combat trauma. Moe interviews a variety of comedians who have suffered from depression and finds solace in the traits, ideas, and experiences that they all share.

Aside from the relationship between humor and depression, The Hilarious World of Depression also covers topics of intergenerational trauma, micro-traumas, suicide, and more. Reading the book, one gets the sense that for much of his life, Moe was actually fairly well off. But that’s part of his point: depression doesn’t care if your life is middle-class, mediocre, or actually going pretty well. Later, when Moe’s own brother is claimed by suicide, Moe delves into the effect external circumstances can have on an already inherently challenged mindset.

The Hilarious World of Depression is a book that explores important, often undiscussed topics with ease and a healthy dose of humor.

Slated for release by St. Martin’s Press on May 5, 2020, you can preorder a copy of The Hilarious World of Depression by John Moe from 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.