‘The Gap of Time’ by Jeanette Winterson

the-gap-of-time-wintersonShakespeare is arguably one of the greatest literary figures of all time. In saying this, who could ever retell his stories with, at the very least, an equal caliber? Jeanette Winterson does just this in her latest novel The Gap of Time.

Based on William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, The Gap of Time picks up all of the characters in the play and sets them down in the modern day to explore both the themes presented in the original and more. Winterson takes the gap of time that occurs in the original play of some sixteen years, and extrapolates on the significance, terror, and beauty of time and its passage.

The story is one of an abandoned child lost and found. It is a story of a power-hungry and jealous father who must come to terms with the limits of his ego in order to find happiness. It is a story of two children grown to adolescence: young lovers connected in a way that they could never dream of. It is a story of old and new love, of the importance of understanding your own self-worth and fighting for the truth, even when it’s hard to hear. Most of all, it is a story of redemption, forgiveness, and renewal.

The poetical appeal of Shakespeare’s language is retained and modernized in The Gap of Time, and most especially through Winterson’s lush descriptions of time itself. Time is something that “holds the world still” that follows “you like a shadow,” and sometimes “[t]his is time. You are here. This caught moment opening into a lifetime.” What is perhaps the most magical and insightful aspect of The Gap of Time is Winterson’s treatment of time as a dynamic and fluid player in all our lives. Instead of viewing time from a single perspective, Winterson drives at it from all possible vantage points, and forces the reader to inquire into the many significances that time brings to life.

Though nearly all of the characters in The Gap of Time are much more accessible than Shakespeare’s in The Winter’s Tale, Winterson stays trues to the motivation behind most while also intermixing even more threads of love, lust, gender, sexuality, and humanity.

The Gap of Time is an absolute must read whether you are familiar with The Winter’s Tale or not. While coming to the novel with The Winter’s Tale as a background proves for a more thorough and insightful read, Winterson gives a full recap of the play in the book’s beginning, and the novel itself can stand alone just as strongly.

Published by Hogarth in June of 2016, The Gap of Time 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.

‘I Take You’ by Eliza Kennedy

i-take-you-kennedyWhat does it mean to be an adult? What does it take to be a parent, a husband, a wife? Where is the line between being flawed and being a bad person? Above all of the questions, though, hovers the central tension in author Eliza Kennedy’s debut novel I Take You: what is the value of marriage and monogamy?

I Take You is a novel about a woman in her twenties, Lily Wilder, who is about to marry Will, a man she has known for six months and who proposed to Lily after only weeks of knowing her. Not only that, but Lily is a pathological liar, cheater, drug abuser, and borderline alcoholic – none of which her fiancé Will knows about.

Throughout I Take You, Lily is at constant war with herself as to whether she should marry Will or not. Should she quit her gallivanting and devote herself to a single man? Is that what she wants? Is she even capable of being faithful?

Surrounded by a hoard of divorced mothers and a libertine father, Lily has a hard time discerning what is right and wrong in the world of love and marriage. How much can you ever know a person before marrying them anyway? How can you ever truly know it’s the “right” person or that the relationship will last forever? What if that person is the right person for that moment in time, but you change and evolve in different ways that make you incompatible later?

While these are valid questions to raise, they become slightly less valuable in the face of Will and Lily’s rather overzealous engagement: there’s no way they can know each other by the point of their marriage. Nonetheless, they are important questions to be asked, because in the end, what does it mean to be in love? How does love then become qualified for marriage? Is a strong feeling the same as love; is it just passion, or something else entirely?

In Lily’s particular case, she is chronically unfaithful to her fiancé, and the reader wonders what this has to say about Lily. She is fully aware of her actions, of the pain she’s sure her actions will cause, and yet she doesn’t change. Is she incapable of change? Does she simply choose not to change, and does this selfishness make her a bad person?

The book spirals into wild developments that change the entire nature of the arguments presented and delve into deeper, harder, and more terrifying questions about love, marriage, and monogamy. Kennedy does a great job of tying up her ends without a total “happily ever after” or doomsday ending.

I Take You, is a book about so many different things, but when it comes down to it, it’s really about being human, about experiencing the human condition of loving and being loved, and about both living in the present moment and being aware that a future exists where your present actions will have an impact.

Published by Broadway Books in 016, I Take You 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.

 

‘Ruler of Hearts’ by Jason Kerzinski

ruler of hearts-kerzinskiRuler of Hearts by Jason Kerzinski is a poetically driven collection of works that glimpses the lives of those in the French Quarter of New Orleans with a searing depth.

Kerzinski divides his collection into four different sections: Ruler of Hearts, Little Abyss, In Bloom, and Exceedingly Beautiful. Each section features a host of mini character sketches focusing on a different aspect of life for those characters. From the effect that New Orleans has on in its people, to ideas of both spiritual and physical death, Ruler of Hearts captures the most intimate moments of life in mere pages.

The long form poems range from one paragraph to a few pages, but the poignancy with which Kerzinski is able to grasp and dissect the lives of his characters is what propels the collection forward. Each piece focuses on a different person who the reader has never met before, and yet by the end of that piece the reader feels as if she knows this character in an intimate way, as if she’s been reading about him for 150 pages already.

Rather than flowery language, Kerzinski utilizes short terse descriptions to feed the narratives, and he does so in the most compelling way. Though he might be simply telling the reader exactly what’s happening, the images that he procures are visceral and moving in a way that transports the reader directly to the scene. Kerzinski also includes illustrations throughout Ruler of Hearts: black and white sketches that symbolize some aspect of a particular poem or section.  The illustrations are uniquely oblique, and some of them are utterly terrifying; yet, all of them throw you into the piece with greater fervor, wonder, and dread.

Ruler of Hearts is a beautifully crafted work that gets at the heart of life in the French Quarter in the most direct and concise manner. Kerzinski is a master of descriptive poetics, and his first published collection is a testament to this claim.

Published by Obzene Press in 2016, Ruler of Hearts is available for purchase online at Obzene Press.

Read more book reviews of small press published work 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.

‘The Valley’ by John Renehan

the-valley-renehanWar is a terrible and terrifying experience no matter the situation, but take crime, drugs, manipulation and scandal and you have a whole new world of terrible and terrifying. That is the exact picture of the war in Afghanistan that John Renehan paints in his novel The Valley. Renehan, a former field officer in Iraq, writes The Valley from an intimate vantage point, though he is clear in stating that he has never visited the places he mentions in the novel and that he depended more on research than on personal experience when it came to the setting.

Though Renehan jumps a bit between characters, the main protagonist in The Valley is Lieutenant Black, a desk officer who is assigned a 15-6, or an investigation. This particular investigation involves a troop that is stationed in the Valley, a mysterious and notoriously dangerous place between the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Black arrives to investigate a stray bullet that was shot in the village by one of the soldiers stationed there. Immediately upon arrival though, things seem a bit out of sorts, and Black slowly begins to unravel the pieces of a well-weaved story.

In a way, Renehan writes The Valley as a mystery novel, dropping clues for the reader to try to figure out the mystery for herself. The mystery, though, is so convoluted and twisted up in other mysteries that it is at times hard to follow who is manipulating who, who is lying, who is the good guy and the bad. But really, these are the lessons of war, the uncertainty bound up in fighting violently with other cultures, with one another, and with ourselves. Renehan is sure to wrap everything up in the end, and in the final pages, the reader is able to sigh a breath of relief: everything makes sense.

Beautifully written, Renehan weaves not only literal poetry into his work, but his writing style in itself is poetic. The mysterious aura of the Valley and of particular characters in The Valley makes the novel an almost ethereal and majestic read at times.

The Valley is Renehan’s first novel, and was nominated for Indie Next List in 2015. The Valley was published in 2015 by Dutton, a Penguin Group publisher.

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.

‘2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas’ by Marie-Helene Bertino

2am-at-the-cats-pajamas-bertino2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino is the tragi-comedy of 2015. With pages full of characters that not only pull on the core of your heart, but annoy and baffle you to no end, Bertino does an excellent job of capturing what it is to be human: imperfect, beautiful, ugly and loved.

The cast of characters that make their appearance in 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas ranges from nine-year-old Madeline, a motherless vagabond with an abusive father, to her teacher the love-lust Sarina, to the gruff owner of the night club The Cat’s Pajamas, Lorca, who is about to lose his club because of violated city ordinances. These are only a few of the featured characters into whose heads we are allowed access, among others are Pedro the dog, Madeline’s father, Madeline’s pseudo caretaker, and Madeline’s principle.

At first, Bertino’s head hopping is a bit jarring, and makes 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas hard to fully delve into. It takes a bit of time to become acclimated to not only Bertino’s style of jumping from character to character, but also to the characters themselves; since, in all the jumping, readers aren’t able to get to know the characters as well so quickly. However, once you settle into Bertino’s style, the novel careens off at high-speed, and each section is a drum roll for a new character that you can’t wait to hear about. You begin to fall in love with Sarina and Madeline, with Lorca and his son, while chastising them for their impatience or ignorance or lack of action, while at the same time realizing these are many of the actions that we all tend toward for a majority of our lives, especially when it concerns anything important.

Bertino captures the human essence in this way. She shows it in the way that everyone is a little bit self-doubting no matter how talented or hard working they are, in the way that we can’t help but love the people we love even if they treat us poorly and especially if we are children, in the way that love is unexpected and shows up just when you need it most but when you are expecting it least, in the way that we often treat the ones we love with harshness out of love, out of protection. Bertino reminds us that no one is perfect but that we can all be loved and love ourselves if we just let go a little bit. Even the most terrible characters in the novel you can’t help but love by the end and find empathy for them in their plights.

A sort of backwards fairytale that doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, but ends more happily than it begins, 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas is beautiful and hilarious examination of the human condition placed in a ridiculously believable setting that makes it all the more real and magical at the same time.

Published by Broadway Books and released in 2015, 2 A.M. At the Cat’s Pajama’s 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.

A Free, Unsullied Land by Maggie Kast

A-Free-Unsullied-LandIn a A Free, Unsullied Land, Maggie Kast tells Henriette Greenberg’s coming of age tale as she grows up in prohibition era Chicago. Henriette is a troubled nineteen year old girl when the reader meets her, and as a sheltered teenager, she is wooed by stories of the greater world that she has yet to experience. She has just enrolled at The University of Chicago and is about to set out on an adventure to live her own life and to separate herself from the dysfunctional household from which she comes.

Henriette though, like most teenagers, is plagued by a myriad of thoughts, issues and desires that often throw her off her course or make it challenging for her to actually find her course. Her interests range from psychoanalysis to anthropology, from communism to civil rights. However, her emotional and relational sense of self is shadowed by a secret of her past that mars her relationships, especially with men, propelling them into states of utter dysfunction.

The reader learns within the first hundred pages that Henriette has an unresolved sexual experience that she does not fully remember, nor does she fully understand how to process it even years later. Though the reveal seems to come rather late in the novel, it is easy to pick up on the clues Henriette leaves prior to the reveal, and the reader knows from the outset that she has a troubled past in relation to sexuality.

Henriette can often seem like a self-entitled, privileged moaner, and this at first makes it hard to always sympathize with or understand her in regards to her motives. However, as the novel progresses and we not only learn more about Henriette, but she learns more about herself, it becomes apparent that Henriette is simply a teenager. As she grows, she becomes less spastic and more rational, less demanding and more understanding of the world around her and the other people in it.

What Kast does a phenomenal job of is showing Henriette’s transformation from a sheltered and privileged seventeen year old girl to a young adult living on her own and dealing with her own problems not only with the outside world, but with herself. The arc of Henriette’s development from a damaged self into a stronger, more assertive and resilient woman makes her, in the end, a relatable and noteworthy character. The troubles that she goes through and the deluded way in which she often handles her problems in her youth are not only recognized, but remedied in that recognition. Henriette sees her own foolishness and is simultaneously able to understand and accept herself and her past in a way that she can’t at the outset of the novel.

A tale of growing up, of dealing with pain and of learning to love the self that other’s can’t always see, A Free, Unsullied Land  also drips with relevant historical underpinnings and shows readers a glimpse of what life must have been like in the 1920s and 30s.

A Free, Unsullied Land was released by Fomite Press on November 1, 2015. Don’t miss the launch of the novel at Women and Children First on Friday, November 13.

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.

‘Thicker Than Blood’ by Jan English Leary

Thicker-Than-Blood-Jan-English-LearyWhat is a family defined by: blood, love, proximity? This is the central question of Jan English Leary’s first novel Thicker Than Blood.

The book mainly follows Andrea and her daughter Pearl from the time Andrea adopts Pearl through Pearl growing into young adulthood. Issues of race, discrimination, and acceptance also come to the forefront of the novel in record time as Andrea struggles with the difficulties of raising an African American daughter in Chicago, an already racially charged environment. In tandem with the above themes, those of expectation, self-worth and self-confidence also play a central role in the thematic make up of Thicker Than Blood.

At first the reader accompanies Andrea as she struggles to be a confident and successful single mother, but the novel quickly hops to other character’s heads giving differing perspectives on the difficult situations at hand.  We see what life is like from Pearl’s point of view, from Andrea’s boyfriend Mike’s point of view, from Andrea’s mother Nancy’s point of view, as well as from other minor characters. Though this sort of head hopping can often jar a novel and its reader out of the flow of the story, Leary does it in such a thorough and uncomplicated way that there are never any questions as to whose head we are in, or why we are there. Every character’s perspective adds weight and value to the central themes of the novel in ways that would be otherwise inaccessible.

We come to understand what the issues of family, race and self-confidence mean for Andrea, Pearl and Nancy as we discover secrets about them that even they don’t know about one another. Gaining access to the deepest darkest parts of their pasts, the reader is able to sympathize and interact with these characters in a way that the characters themselves are not able to do with one another. In turn, the characters are strengthened and we become more invested in their imperfect and disjointed lives.

A beautiful and moving piece that explores questions relevant to every human being, Thicker Than Blood is a momentous novel. Leary has done a brilliant job of gathering universal themes and holding them up for the reader to observe and judge for herself. An excellent first novel, Leary’s Thicker Than Blood will be released by Fomite on October 20, 2015.

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.

‘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.