‘Lola’ by Melissa Scrivner Love

Lola-Scrivner-LoveWhat could a book about gangs, murder, drugs, and rape possible shed new light on in 2017? Besides death, heartbreak, and inequality, it seems like modern day gangster novels don’t tend to give much more. Lola, by Melissa Scrivner Love, though is a whole new kind of gangster novel.

A book in a league all its own, Lola, the main character of the title novel is a character of a similar caliber. An underground gang leader, Lola heads the Crenshaw Six, a small gang in East L.A. that focuses mostly on drug trade and tends to lay pretty low. Until, the Crenshaw Six get a job that could change their entire trajectory and all of its members’ destinies, especially Lola’s.

The neighborhood of Huntington Park thinks that Garcia, Lola’s boyfriend, is the leader of the Crenshaw Six, and Lola struggles constantly to deal with both the perks and the frustration of leading a gang from behind the scenes. Lola is unintimidating, she can easily make her way into important places without being suspect, she can sit down with a man and make him feel like he’s in power simply by virtue of being a woman. It’s part of how Lola has made her way so high into the gang, but it’s also something that infuriates her. She wants to have an equal: someone who not only she sees that way, but that sees her as an equal as well. That seems an impossible feat when every other leader is a man and that somehow makes them more than her.

In fact, Lola itself is a feminist calling to reevaluate the way women are perceived in society: weak, small, and incapable of little else than cleaning floors. Lola does her best to defy these stereotypes while also constantly finding herself bogged down by them. Every time she cooks meal, cleans a floor, feels compassion, she chides the thought that she’s only doing it because she’s a woman, not because she’s a person. For every woman who finds serious issue with the gender norms of our time, Lola is a hero of sorts.

What makes Lola so magical and the reader feel so connected to her, despite her tendencies to cut off fingers and shoot people in the head, is that she leads from a moral compass, even if slightly skewed. She’s a feminist, she cares for the innocent people around her and for those who are loyal. She is disdainful of drug addicts, but adoring of children. Most of Lola’s morals make up the remaining themes and messages of Lola the book. Issues of race, inequality, injustices, parenting, and the meaning of love are just a few of the deeper themes that run through the pages of Lola.

Love’s only slip up comes in the form of her point of view. Mainly the book is told in a close third person point of view with Lola leading the way but the narration coming from an unknown third party. However, there are times where head hopping can throw the reader for a loop. Suddenly we are inside of another character’s head who we’ve potentially never even met, feeling what he feels and understanding his motives in a way we probably shouldn’t. Usually Love sticks with Lola and makes it clear that even evaluations of other characters are Lola’s, and that makes those evaluations even more valuable and interesting. Nevertheless, the slip ups can be a bit distracting for readings watching closely.

Overall, Lola is a fantastic and riveting book that will keep you reading all the way to the end. Just the right mixture of violence and terror, Lola is not overly graphic and though violent, it is never gratuitous.

Lola by Melissa Scrivner Love is slated for release by Crown Publishing on March 21, 2017. You can preorder a copy from 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.


‘Mexico’ by Josh Barkan

mexico-barkanMexico by Josh Barkan is a series of epic, terrifying accounts of the lives of Mexico’s citizens. Told in a series of short stories, Mexico follows a host of different narrators, from gangsters to victims. The stories all revolve around crime, usually involving drugs, extortion, and often murder. What strangely ties all of the stories together though, beyond their setting, is their endings. Each narrative closes with a message of hope, or at least a glimmer of it, despite the tragedy that ensued for the pages of that story.

Some memorable characters include the drug lord’s abused wife who gives hope to a woman about to lose her breasts to a mastectomy, the famous, philandering painter who is turned honest by an encounter with a gangster who sells drugs to the painter’s daughter, and the young boy whose mother sacrifices her dignity to bring her son to America and out of the family’s gang-ridden neighborhood.

Each of these stories includes hardship and often a main character who is difficult to like at first. However, by the end of each story, the protagonist has learned something from the horror she’s experienced and claims that she will life a better life because of her experience. It is slightly suspicious that the reader never sees any of these characters actually enact these assertions; though, there is at least the idea of change planted at each stories end. Whether the characters follow through with the aspirations they’ve set for themselves is up to the reader to decide.

While Mexico is beautifully written and the characters utterly enthralling, where the novel falls short is in its untimely release. At a time of political turmoil, when those people who represent the United States are claiming that Mexico is nothing but a drug-ridden war zone, the last thing the public needs is a book that claims just that. I admit that there is an air of redemption for each character, but this does not go for the country as a whole. Rather, Barkan almost seems to suggest that the people of his narrative are redeemable, but the country is not.

Mexico is enthralling, captivating, and chilling, looking at a side of humanity that is often ignored.

Released by Crown Publishing January of 2017, Josh Barkan’s Mexico 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 Wolf Road’ by Beth Lewis

the-wolf-raod-lewisTerrifying, gripping, and raggedly beautiful, The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis is this year’s most thrilling post-apocalyptic novel. With a heroine as gruff and chilling as the book’s villain and a plot twisted and muddled with murder, lies, and disparagement, Lewis draws you in from page one.

Elka has been raised by her pseudo father Trapper in a hut in the woods since she was seven years old. That’s when the Thunderhead took her away from her home and the only family she knew. The rules with Trapper are: don’t ask, don’t speak about Trapper to anyone, and survival is the most important thing. Learning to hunt and survive in the wild with Trapper’s help, Elka soon forgets her old life in the village with her Nana and her letters – she hated them both anyway. In the wild, she is more herself, more at home. And with the man she calls Daddy, she is safe.

That is, until ten years later when she goes into a nearby town one day and finds pictures of Trapper’s face plastered all over the walls of the town; pictures with a price on his head. What could he have done? The magistrate claims murder, but Elka can’t believe it. How could she not know that Trapper was a murderer? All those years – ten years with him – she’d have to know.

Suddenly, Elka is propelled into a world fiercer than the one she has known these past ten years. On a hunt to uncover the truth and bring justice and light to the lies hiding in her past, Elka embarks on journey riddled with trial after trial. Testing the limits of her strength, her humanity, and her individuality, Elka struggles against the powers of nature, the law, and herself.

Told in a wild and uniquely brusque voice, Lewis captures language in a post-apocalyptic world nearly perfectly. Lewis uses slang and names for things such “the Great Stupid” for war which give The Wolf Road an edge beyond the present. There are times though that Lewis slips in language that points to knowledge that Elka can’t seem to have based on her upbringing and isolation. Words like “Charger.” These moments are far and few between, and on the whole The Wolf Road is a beautiful and blunt novel.

Published by Crown Publishing and released in July of 2016, The Wolf Road 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.

‘Lucy & Andy Neanderthal’ by Jeffrey Brown

lucy-and-andy-neanderthal-brownMeet Lucy and Andy Neanderthal, the main characters of Jeffrey Brown’s most recent episodic graphic novel Lucy & Andy Neanderthal. The book is a series of adventures that Lucy and Andy embark upon together from hunting mammoth to sewing clothing. Lucy is a misunderstood artistic genius, while Andy is your typical annoying little brother.

The novel is both hilarious and informative. While Lucy, Andy and other members of tribe undergo some wacky experiences, Brown is always quick to point out when the fictional tale clearly strays from known facts about Neanderthals. Interspersed between the slides are commentary and notes on the current scientific information we have about whatever the main topic of the episode is. Whether it is communication, weaponry or socialization, Brown lays out all the facts while also taking the liberty to give Lucy and Andy well-developed personalities, and his story an imaginative edge.

At the end of Lucy & Andy Neanderthal, Brown also gives the reader a full synopsis of where science is in terms of what is known about Neanderthals. He points out that science is always changing, and that what information he has provided in Lucy & Andy Neanderthal in 2016 is not necessarily what will be true 20 years from now when we have even more information to work with.

A fun, educational and fast-paced read, Lucy & Andy Neanderthal is a worthwhile read for both children and adults.

Crown Books for Young Readers will release Lucy & Andy Neanderthal on August 30, 2016. You can preorder a copy 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.



‘Shylock Is My Name’ by Howard Jacobson

shylock-is-my-name-jacobsonA modern retelling of William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice finds the perfect balance of traditional and contemporary in Howard Jacobson’s Shylock Is My Name.

Jacobson’s novel follows Simon Strulovich, a character in the image of Shakespeare’s Shylock himself: a man who feels he is on the verge of losing everything, including his daughter, his respect, and his wealth. Mirrored by Shylock, a fellow man of Jewish descent that Strulovich meets in a cemetery, the two characters stroll through the pages of Jacobson’s novel sometimes almost as a single unit, sometimes as the perfect antagonist to one another.

After Strulovich and Shylock meet in the cemetery, they proceed to spend the rest of the novel mostly discussing the very similar situations in which they find themselves. Both feel abandoned by daughters who have chosen Christian men as lovers, both have wives who are not fully present, both feel the weight of anti-Semitism that surrounds them, and both struggle to fit themselves into a world they understand as specifically anti-Jewish when they themselves don’t always align with Jewish heritage, culture or religion.

The irony, facetiousness, and comedy bound up in many of the very serious topics at hand, imbues Jacobson’s novel with an air of Shakespearean wit. While exploring themes of materialism, collective culture, the irony of malice and revenge, as well as the importance of relationships both familial and plutonic, Jacobson is able to move with a grace and ease that make the topics, though heavy, somehow more digestible. The prose itself is near poetic, and any Shakespeare fan will not only be thrilled by meeting numerous Shakespearean characters, but also by the many borrowed lines and plot points as well.

Despite all of the Shakespearean references, allusions, and outright proclamations, Shylock Is My Name is a book that could be enjoyable to any population. The themes explored, the power of the prose, and the depth of the characters make for a deeply moving, hilarious, and frustration inducing novel.

Published by Hogarth Press in 2016, Shylock Is My Name 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 Little Paris Bookshop’ by Nina George

the-little-paris-bookshop-georgeThe Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George is an enchanting tale of love, loss and living through them both. Much more than just a sappy love story though, The Little Paris Bookshop looks into the very soul beneath human action and into the internal passions that drive us all.

Set in Paris and in the south of France, The Little Paris Bookshop follows the story of Monsieur Perdu, a just past middle aged bookshop owner who is still pining for his unrequited love twenty one years after the dissolution of their relationship. M. Perdu spends his days prescribing books to people from his Literary Apothecary which is housed aboard a boat named Lulu, and his nights alone and mourning the absence of his lover.

Perdu’s self-contained world, though, is shattered when a new tenant moves into 27 Rue Montagnard and finds the unopened letter that Perdu’s lover wrote to him twenty one years ago when she left. Finally, moved to open the letter Perdu embarks on a journey to unravel the mysteries concerning both his lover and himself.

Along the way, Perdu encounters many characters who do for him what he has done for countless others with his Literary Apothecary: they prescribe to him just the right action for leaving sorrow, embracing grief, finding joy and releasing himself. From tango dancing to eating succulent foods, Perdu slowly begins to loosen the hold he has on himself, his past, and his willingness to love again.

A magically charged tale of enchanting depth and beautiful coincidence (or fate), The Little Paris Bookshop delves into themes that touch every human being. George explores what it means to live fully, to love fully, and to be fully human all while telling a story that will make readers tear up at the turn of every other page. A brilliant, funny, terrifying, and inspiring novel, The Little Paris Bookshop is an absolute must read.

Published by Broadway Books in 2016 and translated from the original German into English, you can purchase The Little Paris Bookshop 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.

‘In A Different Key’ by John Donvan and Caren Zucker

in-a-different-keyThe history of autism is a winding road of pain, love and inspiration that is told beautifully in John Donvan and Caren Zucker’s In A Different Key. Tracing the history of autism from the first diagnoses to the most recent form of advocacy, the neurodiversity movement, Donvan and Zucker capture perfectly the spectrum of autism as a biological factor in a person’s life as well as an historical arc.

Donvan and Zucker provide hard facts in an appealing and approachable manner, writing In A Different Key as if it were a novel. The doctors, parents and children profiled in the book take on the personas of characters as the reader sits on the edge of her seat eager to find out just how good or bad things will turn out. The authors take a tough topic with a dark history and turn it into a compelling work of informative and insightful literature.

The objectivity that In A Different Key puts forth is refreshing for a conversation that is usually weighted heavily toward one argument or another. Among the many controversies in the autism community that Donvan and Zucker bring up is the vaccine scare. Instead of attacking one side or the other, the authors present the case as hard facts and let the reader draw from the available evidence to make his own decision on the matter.

The book ends with a spin toward the positive by bringing attention to the most recent movement in the autism community. Neurodiversity is an idea headed by autistic individuals who claim that autism is a part of their biological makeup and they are happy to be autistic: they don’t want to be cured, they don’t want sympathy, they simply want acceptance. While Donvan and Zucker bring attention to the issues even within this movement in regards to more severely handicapped autistic people, In A Different Key still closes its pages with an inspiring and hopeful message.

Published by Crown Publishers in 2016 you can purchase In A Different Key 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.

‘Armada’ by Ernest Cline

Armada-by-Ernest-ClineThe Armada is coming. An Armada of aliens that is – from a videogame, that main character Zack Lightman and his friends play nightly. Has Zack gone insane?

This is how Ernest Cline’s second novel, Armada begins as we delve into the very confused and tormented mind of eighteen-year-old Zack Lightman. The high school senior, like many high school seniors, is entirely unsure of what he wants to do with his future, and knows only what he loves. In Zack’s case, this is playing videogames, particularly Armada. In Armada Zack fights, along with his friends online, to save Earth from the Sobrukai, an alien clan of octopus-like creatures yearning to take over Earth and extinguish humanity.

When Zack looks out of the window of his classroom and sees a ship that looks exactly like a Sobrukai ship from Armada, he begins to wonder if he is losing his mind, like he suspects his late father did. From here the plot unravels into an intricate conspiracy theory about the intention behind numerous science fiction films, books and videogames, luring the reader into the book with a hook that makes you question your own reality.

The typical trope of “regular boy becomes hero” is what moves Armada forward, but Cline uses this trope in such a way that he imbues it with a fresh and unique aura. Though Zack’s story echoes so many other science fiction hero narratives, particularly that of Luke Skywalker, the setting and contemporary references make the plot so palpable that the reader can’t help but be drawn in. Cline is continually referencing not only popular videogames and science fiction characters that only the ultimate geek will pick up on, but he also weaves classic rock references into nearly every chapter calling out the old school rock nerds as well with his laugh out loud comments.

There are also certain points where the plot seems overly contrived, but once you step back and realize that all novels are in fact contrived and there’s sometimes no way around bridging the gaps in a story except by making certain things happen that need to happen, you can move past this hiccup. Plus, Cline’s characters give such weight to Armada, that you can easily overlook these seemingly forced spots and keep going with fervor.

Overall, Armada is by far one of the most engaging reads of 2015. The characters, plot, references and tone of Armada propel you into this near futuristic world with a gusto that results in absolute immersion. After the success of his first novel, Ready Player One, Cline has done it again, creating a fascinating world that seems so real, you will begin to question your own sanity.

Released by Crown Publishing on July 14, 2015, Armada is available at your local bookstore.

Read more science 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.

‘Spinster’ by Kate Bolick

Spinster by Kate BolickA book with the title Spinster immediately evokes images of bag ladies, cat ladies, and posh, man-hating ladies with better things to do than marry someone of the opposite sex. At first Kate Bolick’s Spinster, an autobiographical look into the author’s own life as well as that of five prominent female writers who impacted Bolick, seemed to be a book filled with such characters of the above described demeanor and mindset. This wasn’t quite the case though.

Within the first page, Bolick claims that ideas and questions of marriage “define every woman’s existence.” I have to admit that I was a little put off about the direction Spinster seemed to be taking off in. Sure, I understand that the idea of and questions surrounding marriage effect a large population of women; however, I wholly disagree that these ideas or questions define every woman. It seemed that Bolick was taking it upon herself to determine universal truths for women regarding men, relationships, and marriage. This was aggravating to me as a woman who does not personally align with these thoughts and ideas.

Nonetheless, the book proved unavoidably engaging. Bolick’s interweaving of the lives of Maeve Brennan, Neith Boyce, Edna Millay, Edith Wharton and Charlotte Perkins Gilman with her own made the narrative read more like a novel, creating a cadence that sped the book along at an almost non-stop pace. Not only does Bolick draw on historical experiences from her own life and those of her “influencers,” but she also examines situations from psychological and sociological viewpoints compelling the reader to use these same lenses to examine similar situations in her own life.

Bolick also discusses the hatred of time that single people experience. “You hate it, rail against it, do whatever you can to get rid of it-” This is again an assumption that can’t be made universal. As someone who has been single nearly all of my life and who loves my alone time both when single and even now when I am not single, I can confidentially say that I’ve never wished away time out of loneliness or any other reason for that matter. To me, the issues mentioned above seem more seated in a lack of fundamental contentment with the self rather than with being single.

As the narrative progressed, I began to see that Spinster is not necessarily about being single or about men at all. Rather, the central idea of the book focuses on self-awareness and self-confidence. Bolick admits that in her past, her own self-perception was often informed and molded by the men whom she shared her life with, and thus her adventure into spinsterhood began a much needed journey of self-discovery. In the end, Bolick advocates for self-fulfillment through independence, and not necessarily physical independence from a significant other, but rather independence for yourself before you even engage with that other.

Spinster isn’t about men, or a man, or a woman’s relationship to a man, it is about a woman’s relationship with, and discovery of, herself. And in that, it is a fantastic and introspective work.

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.

“Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania” by Erik Larson

Dead Wake by Erik LarsonDead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson tells the story of the famed Lusitania, the passenger vessel sunk by a German submarine on May 7, 1915. Aside from the tragedy and horror of the event, the ship’s demise became solidified in history because it became one of the turning points in America’s involvement in World War I. Larson, best-selling author of Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts, is known for his unique ability to retell historical events with a literary quality paralleled only by novels of fiction.

Reading Dead Wake feels like reading a history textbook that’s far more interesting and accessible than your average 600+ page academic compilation of events. A large part of this intrigue is owed to Larson’s profile of individuals whose lives were bound up in the Lusitania’s last voyage. Larson zeros in on the Lusitania’s captain William Thomas Turner, the U-20 submarine’s captain who sunk the Lusitania Walther Schwieger, as well as a number of passengers aboard the vessel. While some of the information provided can falter to the side of dry or disinteresting, for the most part Larson provides a strong platform for the reader to build empathy and connection with the “characters.”

We meet Charles Lauriat, a bookseller and collector who was travelling across the Atlantic with a rare copy of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Other notable figures included Theodate Pope, “the first female architect licensed in Connecticut,” through who Larson shows the gross injustices done to women in the early 1900’s. Perhaps the most memorable and intimate though is the portrait Larson paints of the then United States President Woodrow Wilson. Larson not only shows the figure known to the public, but delves into the intimate life of Wilson’s pining love for Edith Galt.

Larson’s sources ranged from letters to diaries to news reports and beyond, and by far the most engaging aspect of the novel is the number of quotes that he includes. Not only are these snippets of discourse and dialogue fascinating in and of themselves, but they are also a window into the hearts and nature of their speakers.  Admiral Scheer of the German fleet was quoted as saying:

“Does it really make any difference, purely from the human point of view, whether those thousands of men who drown wear naval uniforms or belong to a merchant ship bringing food and munitions to the enemy, thus prolonging the war and augmenting the number of women and children who suffer during the war?”

Juxtaposed by this statement is that of Austrian U-boat commander Georg von Trapp who said “we [U-boat soldiers] are like highway men, sneaking up on an unsuspecting ship in such a cowardly fashion.” von Trapp envied those in the trenches and aboard ships for their closeness and intimacy with war that he felt gave them the moral advantage of actin on rage, fear and out of self-defense.

This and other statements by German, British, American and other country’s prominent naval and political figures provide insight into the general attitude of each country’s militaristic force. These quotes and notes though are not meant to act as general blanket statements for whole nations. Larson points out “that while on distant patrol the [U-boat] captain received no orders from superiors” and was thereby empowered to sink any vessel he saw fit. Because of this, Larson points out that not all U-boats and not all captains were the same: “there were cruel boats and chivalrous boats, lazy boats and energetic boats.”

Schwieger’s boat was a notably cruel boat, though as Larson points out Schwieger claimed he did not know before launching his torpedo at the Lusitania which vessel he was attacking. Larson also notes that this claim was highly unlikely. However, true to his objective telling of historical facts, Larson makes no accusations or assumptions; rather he presents the facts for the reader to decide how to interpret them. That’s not to say that Larson’s tone doesn’t sometimes betray his own feelings toward a person, nation, etc. but it does reflect the author’s intent on telling an historical accurate account.

These concrete facts extend to the survivors’ accounts of the ship’s wreck as well, as Larson explores the realities of what it means to face death and come out on the other side alive. Many passengers noted their pervasive sense of calm during the whole ordeal, and a number commented on the beauty and serenity of the sky as they floated on their backs in the 55 degree water.  These passages are what imbues Larson’s novel with the sentiment and verdure of a truly human experience that lifts the “characters” from their places on the page and makes them even more tangible and relatable and empathetic way.

Larson’s historical accuracy as well as the coupling of his statistical reporting and human profiling makes for a thoroughly engaging novel that though it may at times teeter at the edge of tedium, comes out as a strong and informative piece from which readers have much to learn.

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania was released by Crown Publishing on March 10, 2015 and can be found at your local bookstore.

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