‘Woman No. 17’ by Edan Lepucki

woman-no-17-lepuckiWoman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki is a novel about nothing more complicated than identity. Told from dual perspectives, Lepucki tears readers back and forth between two opposing yet coexisting worlds. The first, the world of Lady, is the perspective of a middle-aged house wife turned writer who is in the middle of a self-maintained separation from her husband and who is constantly thinking about her ex-boyfriend of 18 years ago who was verbally abusive. She is grappling to raise both her toddler Devin and her teenaged son Seth who suffers from some type of disability that keeps him from speaking. So, in her struggles Lady puts a call out for a nanny. And who arrives but our second main character and voice, S. S is an artist who has just broken up with her boyfriend and who has decided to relive her mother’s past in an attempt to better understand her alcoholic, juvenile mother’s point of view.

Both Lady and S are constantly trying to redefine themselves through new names (Lady was once Pearl and then becomes @muffinbuffin41 on Twitter; S’s really name is Esther who is actually wearing the persona of her mother Katherine Mary), new titles (Lady is a housewife turned aspiring writer; S is an artist turned nanny), and even through the actions they partake in to become the personas they are trying to embody (Lady seeks companionship in the much younger S as well as romantic relations with the man who abandoned her for a $2,000 check; S has become an alcoholic and her mother for her character).

Woman No. 17 is twisted with heartbreak, humor, and a constant reminder of the pressures we put on ourselves to be everything that we aren’t. Lady and S are plagued by their inadequacies, by their pasts, and by the generational failure of their mothers to be good mothers. In their constant search for their own identities, Lady and S are also grappling with the identities of their deluded mothers who couldn’t take care of their children.

My one critique of the book is about Seth’s disability. Seth does show some of the hallmark signs of selective mutism (SM) in memories that Lady has from his childhood, especially because of the unstable home life that he had and the potential anxiety he was experiencing. However, in his adulthood, his lack of speech is clearly not a form of anxiety. He is not even shy, let alone suffering from social anxiety. Selective mutism is in and of itself an anxiety disorder and often does not persist past childhood, though symptoms of anxiety will follow children through their whole lives. While, Lady admits that she doesn’t know the cause of Seth’s disability, and perhaps it is just from her point of view that he has SM, I struggled with this label for him. Lady is clearly not thorough in any of her research, thought processes, or other areas in her life, so if we could chalk it up to Lady’s perspective and not Lepucki’s I’d feel more comfortable with the label. Nonetheless I feel like labeling Seth with SM in the novel portrays a false perception of the disability to readers, and SM needs a lot more coverage than it gets to begin with.

Despite this critique, a beautifully written and often tragically hilarious novel, Woman No, 17 has all of the elements of a success. While it often reads a bit slow, I would argue that’s part of the structure and purpose of the book. Life is moving inexorably slowly for the character’s living in Lepucki’s world, and so it is for the reader too.

Woman No. 17 by Edan Lepucki was released by Hogarth in early 2018 and is available for purchase 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.

‘Dunbar’ by Edward St. Aubyn

dunbar-edward-st-aubynDunbar by Edward St. Aubyn is the latest in Hogarth’s Shakespeare project. A modern retelling of one of Shakespeare’s greatest tragedies, King Lear, Dunbar takes on the themes of greed, family, and madness with verve and anguish.

In St. Aubyn’s version of Lear, Dunbar is a media mogul who has recently decided that he needs an extended, if not permanent holiday from working, but with all the same perks of being the head of his corporation. He tries to convince his lawyer, Wilson, to put his two daughters in charge while still leaving him with all the proper bonuses. Wilson, in attempt to save Dunbar from what he sees to be a terrible mistake, tries to persuade Dunbar against making the decision he’s so set upon. Dunbar, in a fury fires Wilson, and after a chain of rather uncertain events in his memory, ends up in a mental institution in England.

We meet Dunbar in the institution where he has made friends with a famous alcoholic actor who promises to help him escape. Close on his heels though, are the two daughters he realizes have upended his plans in an attempt to take over the entire company and divest their father of all power. They aren’t the only one’s perusing Dunbar though. Dunbar has another daughter, Florence (Cordelia reincarnated) who had been stripped of her shares in the company after divulging her disinterest in ever being a part of management in the business. Dunbar, in his enlightened state, realizes the mistakes he’s made regarding his daughters, and makes every attempt to right his wrongs.

A thrilling and often terrifying account of one’s man’s effort to repair the mistakes he’s made in the name of greed, Dunbar is a beautiful parallel to Shakespeare’s King Lear. The hatred the readers build for nearly all of the characters is matched only by the overwhelming love we are made to feel for Florence. St. Aubyn’s best character by far though, is Peter, the alcoholic actor who, as nearly all other characters do, gives way to the greater temptations of greed.

St. Aubyn does a beautiful job of recreating one of Shakespeare’s arguably greatest works, and he does so by not simply retelling the story, but entirely reinventing it.

Released by Hogarth press in October of 2017, Dunbar by Edward St. Aubyn is available for purchase 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.

‘How to Behave in a Crowd’ by Camille Bordas

how-to-behave-in-a-crowd-bordasA novel where everything and nothing is said all at once without the slightest regard for conformity, How to Behave in a Crowd is both a hilarious and gloomy collection of pages.

Author Camille Bordas follows the life of a family in France over the course of a very short time during which a very lot happens. From realized dreams to actualized death, the Mazal family finds its way lost in a tangle of happiness and despair without often being able to distinguish between the two. Told from the perspective of the youngest of six siblings, Isidore, How to Behave in a Crowd is a novel about so much more than the words let on.

Told in a stark and rather dry tone, Isidore takes on the persona of someone who, despite what the title suggests, often does not know how to behave in a crowd. His thoughts are based in pure reason without much emotion, yet his actions, more often than not take into account the people around him. He, unlike his brothers and sisters, is not a child prodigy working towards a first or second PhD after skipping years of schooling. Instead, Isidore is the odd one out. The one who does infuse compassion into his encounters with others (unlike his siblings), the one who takes everything literally, including the advice given to him by homeless people who are clearly taking advantage of him.

Over the course of the novel, Isidore, sees people he loves achieve their dreams, lose their passion, and sometimes even die. Throughout his experiences, he is always looking at others, always trying to determine their thoughts, always trying to impress them without ever realizing that he has something to offer.

In the end, we can only infer what Isidore has learned from his experiences, as always he won’t really tell us what’s going on in his mind, or maybe he doesn’t know what’s going on beneath the literal thoughts that fill his head, but we know he’s learned something important. Bordas does a beautiful job of portraying the very real experiences of the human condition through the literal though never static view of Isidore.

Published by Tim Duggan Books in 2017, How to Behave in a Crowd is available for purchase 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 Original Ginny Moon’ by Benjamin Ludwig

the-original-ginny-moonWhat would it be like to be different? Truly different? What would it be like to be loved despite your differences? These questions are the very questions that set the foundation for The Original Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig.

Ginny Moon, the main character is a teenager girl with autism, an adopted teenage girl with autism who is looking for her baby doll. Ginny was taken by social services from her mother when she was nine-years-old after the police stormed her mother Gloria’s apartment and found signs of drug use, abuse, and cat-slaughter. Now, Ginny is living with her Forever Mom and her Forever Dad in her Forever Home. The only problem is, she left her baby doll at Gloria’s.

For five years Ginny has been trying to get back to Gloria. Not really because she loves Gloria, she’s not even sure she knows how to fee love, and she knows that Gloria abused her and that she used to go hungry and get beat up. All the same, though, she has to get back to Gloria’s, because that’s where she left her baby doll when the police came to take her away. She hid her baby doll in a suitcase so it would be safe, but she doesn’t know if anyone ever found it, and she knows Gloria’s not taking care of it, because that was Ginny’s job, and now she’s not doing her job, so she has to go back.

The trouble is, her Forever Family is intent on not letting her get in touch with Gloria. So, years go by, and Ginny does her best to find Gloria, but it’s not until a friend in Room Five, where all the kids who are special go to class, gets on the internet for her and helps her track Gloria down. Now, Ginny is on a mission to get kidnapped by Gloria so she can find her baby doll and make sure it’s getting enough milk and that it’s diapers are getting changed.

A beautiful and soul moving book that shows the truth behind and beyond what it means to have an intellectual disability, The Original Ginny Moon is one of the most important books of our time. Told from Ginny’s perspective, the reader gets so close to Ginny that despite the complete absurdity of her thought process or the danger of her actions, the reader understands, the reader sees it her way, the reader wants her to succeed even though that’s not what the reader wants at all. Ludwig has an amazing ability to draw you in and show you what the world is like from Ginny’s eyes, and it’s so hard to get out, and you don’t want to get out because it’s so sad, and beautiful, and earth shaking.

Ludwig is a master of both language and form in The Original Ginny Moon, juxtaposing perfectly the terse, literalistic prose with an intense and interwoven story of love, betrayal, and redemption. The Original Ginny Moon is an absolute must read. It offers an opening into the world of disabilities that will be hard to ever match.

Slated for release by Park Row Books on May 2, 2017, The Original Ginny Moon is available for preorder 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.

‘Extraordinary Adventures’ by Daniel Wallace

extraordinary-adventures-wallaceExtraordinary Adventures is the forthcoming novel from Daniel Wallace, author of Big Fish. Wallace brings all the wit, humor, and superb writing style from his former works to Extraordinary Adventures.

Wallace’s main character, Edsel Bronfman is a thirty-four-year-old recluse of sorts. Bronfman has a job, sure, and an apartment of his own, but he has virtually no friends besides his ailing mother. When Bronfman wins a trip to Destin, Florida, though, he begins to make a change, or at least to want to. The thing is that in order to cash in on his trip to Florida, he needs to bring a companion, a romantic companion.

Suddenly, extraordinary things begin happening to Bronfman: he speaks to a woman at the reception desk at his work, his house gets robbed and who appears but yet another woman, a police officer no less. Such out of the ordinary things continue to happen, and Bronfman sees them mostly as acts of destiny, not his own freewill.

The book continues in this manner weaving unforgettable characters in and out of the story. There’s Bronfman’s mother who is suffering from dementia, and who is perhaps the most spectacular character of all. She is a strong willed, oddity of a mother to say the least, her biggest concern always being that her son has fun, messes around with women, and lives his life. There’s also Thomas Edison, Bronfman’s criminal, next-door neighbor, and his cohort of vagabonds and drug addicts. Among them is Coco, a young Japanese girl who Bronfman befriends though he’s sure the woman and has stolen his hat. He’s seen her wear it.

Bronfman himself is often a loveable, pitiful character who the reader cheers for throughout. However, there are aspects of “typical” male behavior that detract from Bronfman’s appeal, especially because they seem so out of character for the kind and caring man. Things like instantly falling for any woman who is pretty. Things like his constant attraction to women even while dating someone else. Though these aspects of Bronfman can be frustrating, if you take a step back and realize the man has never had a serious relationship and thinks every new feeling of lust is love, it’s a bit easier to understand his thoughts and actions.

In sum, Extraordinary Adventures is a fun, fast-paced, and extremely well-written novel.

Slated for release by St. Martin’s Press in May of 2017, you can pre-order your copy of Extraordinary Adventures by Daniel Wallace 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 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 Impossible Fortress’ by Jason Rekulak

the-impossible-fortress-rekulakThe Impossible Fortress by Jason Rekulak is a story of fourteen-year-old love in the late 1980’s: mostly love of girls and computers.

Billy Marvin is a fourteen-year-old closet videogame designer who is failing all of his classes because he spends all of his time in front of his Commodore 64. Billy is content programming and playing his own video games while failing his classes and talking about women’s breasts with his two best friends, that is until he meets Mary Zelinksy. Mary is the daughter of the local convenient store owner, and it is Mary who tells Billy about a video game design contest for kids under 18. Billy couldn’t be more excited, except for the fact that Mary tells him this while he is in the middle of trying to buy a Playboy magazine from Mary’s father. Needless to say, he leaves without the Playboy.

After this life changing event, Billy is pulled into a game of lies and deceit as he simultaneously tries to program a game with Mary, plot a plan to steal the Playboy magazine from Mary’s father’s store, and all while trying to keep his grades up. The life of a fourteen-year-old nerd.

While Rekulak does a fantastic job of keeping readers engaged and on their toes with his fast-paced prose and continual plot wrenches, where he falls short is with his gender normed stock characters who uphold all the worst and most common gendered stereotypes. Rekulak seems to argue that all young boys are horn dogs and all women care about is making themselves look good and getting laid.

Part of the issue is that Billy is telling the story from the future. So, not only at fourteen did he have the thoughts and desires in his head that he did, but looking back on it twenty odd years later, Billy thinks boys are just boys and they all think the same – they’re all jerks. Though Billy, and even some other characters, have a few redeeming qualities, overall their blanket stereotypical actions detract from the reader’s ability to ever get very close to them.

The Impossible Fortress will be released by Simon and Schuster on February 7, 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.