‘Midstream’ by Lynn Sloan

Lynn Sloan’s Midstream is a novel that captures what it means to be woman in America agnostic of time or place. 

We see a forest through what looks like a cracked mirror on the cover of Lynn Sloan’s new novel, Midstream.

Polly Wainwright works as a picture editor for Encyclopedia Britannica (EB). It’s 1974. A once aspiring filmmaker, Polly has settled for a steady job in Chicago while her boyfriend is off across the seas covering the end of The Vietnam War. Polly, though, has responsibilities. She has a mother to take care of, a paycheck she needs to collect to keep afloat. She doesn’t have the time or space to galivant into the jungle, to pursue her dreams, like all the men in her life.

Until…

Polly’s life is thrown askew when she finds out the project she’s working on at EB will fold at the end of the year and almost the entire staff will be laid off. There’s that, and her relationship with her boyfriend is slowly sinking. And on top of that, Polly is faced with her own mortality when her best friend falls seriously ill. Oh, and a mysterious package arrives. 

All of this sets Polly on a different life course she always dreamed of, but never dared to pursue.

Polly takes us back to 1962 when she worked as an assistant on a film project, showing us all the ways things went wrong and why she ended up where she did. But Polly’s past creeps up on her in more than just memories as she is reunited with old acquaintances to uncover a potential mystery.

Midstream is a novel about a woman who is midstream in an unsatisfying life, when she decides to turn it around. Polly makes the decisive effort to forget about, or ignore as best she can, the sexist tropes that have kept her down and to subtly fight against them. 

Sloan reveals in a number of ways how being a woman forces us into boxes, creates untrue narratives that are perpetuated (even by other women), and gives us hope that we can break free. With the overturning of Roe v Wade and the rapid descent back into a time of even greater oppression and subjugation for women, Midstream is a very welcome novel.

Slated for related from Fomite Press in August of 2022, you can preorder a copy of Midstream by Lynn Sloan 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.

‘Still the Night Call’ by Joshua Senter

A row of trees is reflected by the sun to show their image in the water as well.

While America has been a politically divided country for over two centuries, the gap between America’s parties seems to grow wider as their values become more and more associated with a sense of an old and new America. Still the Night Call by Joshua Senter is an attempt to bridge that gap, or at the very least to encourage empathy for those standing on the other side.

Still the Night Call’s lead character Calem Honeycutt is a dairy farmer in the Ozarks of Missouri. When we meet Calem on page one at 4:30 AM, he tells us almost immediately about his plans to kills himself that night. Over the course of the day, we follow Calem as he works the farm with his father, attempts to reconcile his deep debt, and reveals to readers his struggle with depression. Through it all Calem is constantly linking his problems back to changing America, the corrupt politics of all parties, and the recognition of his own ineptitude at truly understanding things beyond the farm.

To illustrate many of these issues, Senter introduces us to a host of characters who are both like and unlike Calem. We meet Calem’s parents who are quintessential American traditionalists—Dad milking cows, Mom making breakfast. We meet Calem’s sister Caitlyn through memories and phone calls—the rebel who ran away to the city to live out her liberal dreams. Then we meet Calem’s friends and neighbors—people he loves and who have tried their best both to find happiness for themselves and for their families often by doing things like voting for Trump. Senter shows each of these people’s biases and the way they judge and define one another by their values and politics.

Calem time and again reminds readers that he is not your stereotypical red-American-farm-boy. He actually stands somewhere in the middle of the radically left and right people around him. Sure, Calem (like everyone in his community) voted for Trump in 2016 even though he thought Trump was incompetent and ridiculous. But Calem voted for Trump because Trump promised something no one else did: a return to the glory days of traditional America when farmers didn’t struggle the way they do now. Even though Calem believes in gay rights, abortion, and a host of other human rights issues we don’t often associate with Republican leaning individuals, he chose to vote for Trump to better his own life.oldjjj

Calem openly claims that he doesn’t understand the wider world. And part of that understanding Calem is missing is his own place in the world. Calem identifies with many marginalized groups in America including transgender people and women and can’t seem to understand how being a white man makes him anymore advantaged than a person of color or someone of a different gender. What Calem doesn’t understand is intersectionality. He hears chanting of “down with the patriarchy” and assumes everyone hates straight white men. Calem doesn’t have the education or bandwidth to step back from his own situation and examine the ways in which men have dominated American decision making since its founding and how problematic that is. There is some sense that if only Calem could have a wider experience of the world, he would see himself and his place in that world differently. Instead, Calem is deeply attached to his life and career and doesn’t want to experience change on the farm, in his community, or within the world at large.

Where our empathy for Calem is strongest is in his struggle with mental health. His inability to act, his inability to truly understand anyone else’s position but his own, seem all to tie back to his struggle with mental health. Another important issue that is covered in Still the Night Call is the stigmatization of mental health issues, especially among men. Caitlyn volunteers at a women’s shelter in the city, and Calem wonders if something like that exists for men, but Caitlyn quickly explains that men don’t seek help the way women do. So while the undeniable truth that being a white man in America gives you some sort of upper hand, we see the price that comes with: how we’ve raised so many of our boys into men who can’t ask for help, who need to achieve greatness, who can’t empathize and understand because they’re taught instead to get ahead, to hide weakness, and to never admit defeat.

Still the Night Call addresses all of these important issues and more. If you are a staunch liberal or a staunch conservative, your politics and values likely won’t change after reading Senter’s book, but it seems his hope is that at the very least you’ll gain some empathy and understanding for the other side. If nothing else, Still the Night Call highlights the way mental health affects people’s lives no matter their social status, gender, or political values.

Named best Indie Book of 2021 by Kirkus review, Still the Night Call by Joshua Senter is available for purchase at your local independent bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

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

‘City of Orange’ by David Yoon

The cover image of City of Orange by David Yoon is a futuristic scene of rolling neon orange hills.

David Yoon’s latest novel City of Orange has the feel of a post-apocalyptic novel with the emotional verve of true literary fiction.

City of Orange follows a nameless man who wakes up in a desert with a splitting headache and only echoes of memories of his former life. He knows he has a name, but he can’t remember it. He knows he had a daughter and wife, but he can’t remember their faces. He looks around him and he knows the world has ended. Our nameless protagonist must battle the heat, the barrenness, the unlivability of the desert, but most of all he must battle himself, his fractured memories, and the mystery of his own past. 

As City of Orange progresses, Yoon gives us more and more of his character’s past, what the world was like before the fall—until it becomes clear that something is missing. Suddenly, readers are whisked into an entirely unexpected turn of events as memories and events unravel to reveal a truth that seems all too obvious once revealed.

While the setting of City of Orange appears post-apocalyptic in nature, the narrative itself is pure literary fiction. Tackling topics of loss, the effects of social media and technology on mental health, and the complicated nature of our deepest relationships, Yoon accomplishes a difficult feat with City of Orange. A truly compelling story told in a truly compelling world will grab at the heartstrings of readers in this emotionally charged novel.

Slated for release in May 2022 by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, City of Orange by David Yoon is available for preorder 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.

Geographies of the Heart

Geographies of the Heart by Caitlin Hamilton Summie is a beautiful and all-too recognizable story about family, love, and aging.

Told as a series of short stories (some previously published as standalone pieces), Geographies of the Heart traces four generations of the Macmillan family. Each chapter or story is told from a different perspective, centering issues of viewpoint, empathy, and one’s personal history. Hamilton Summie illuminates through each character’s perspective how these elements inform the way a person acts, interacts, and responds to the challenges life throws at them. 

The main character of the three perspectives is Sarah Macmillan. We meet Sarah in a college coffee shop on a first date with a (maybe) great catch. We follow Sarah through breakups, her marriage to this same coffee shop date, the birth of her first child, the death of her grandparents, and through the challenges of navigating family relationships within and outside of these life events. Over the course of Geographies of the Heart, we also hear from her husband Al, her sister Glennie, and even a few others.

Hamilton Summie does a beautiful job of capturing not only the struggles of what it means to be a family, but also the most beautiful and touching pieces of that relationship. Even as someone who doesn’t have a sister, who hasn’t lost a grandparent in the same slow grueling way Sarah does, I found myself deeply connected to her character, her struggles, her constant questioning. Themes of forgiveness, remembrance, our connection to our past—however desirous or repelling to us— are only a few of the topics explored in Geographies of the Heart. Hamilton Summie also asks readers to question what responsibility in each of these contexts mean: who is responsible for initiating and accepting forgiveness, who is responsible for remembering and documenting a collective past that involves more that just one person, and who is responsible for the marks (for better or worse) left on a generation as they age? 

A thought-provoking and emotional read, Geographies of the Heart might especially call to you if you are a parent, a sibling, or have recently lost a loved one.

Published by Fomite Press in January 2022, Geographies of the Heart by Caitlin Hamilton Summie is available for purchase at your local independent bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

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

‘One Must Tell the Bees’ by J. Lawrence Matthews

A reimagining of Sherlock Holmes’ last adventure, One Must Tell the Bees: Abraham Lincoln and the Final Education of Sherlock Holmes by J. Lawrence Matthews starts out as a delightful and light read.

In Matthews’ version of this Holmes installment, we get stories within stories, mysteries layered on mysteries, and all in model Holmes style. At the beginning of One Must Tell the Bees, Watson receives a letter from the retired Holmes indicating that Holmes has started abusing narcotics again and needs Watson’s aid as a doctor. With his letter, Holmes also sends a manuscript detailing his first ever case and his own origin story. This is a story Holmes claims he’s told no one, not even Watson: one that involves the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation, and Abraham Lincoln. Watson, perturbed by the urgent nature of his friends’ request, rushes to Holmes’ aid in the English countryside, taking the manuscript along with him. From there, readers are whisked on a wild journey to 1860s America through Holmes’ manuscript while simultaneously following Watson on a harrowing train ride. 

Charming, spectacularly detailed, and thoroughly engaging, One Must Tell the Bees unfortunately falters hard in one major place: Matthews’ portrays all of the African American characters in the novel as subservient and deferential. While it could easily be taken for granted that a freed slave (such as the leading African American character, Abraham) would act in such a way, I wanted that assumption to be challenged. In his portrayal, Matthews reduces the African American characters in the book to stock characters with colloquial vernacular that Holmes narrates in an entirely unhelpful way. In an interview with Big Blend, Matthews talks about the research he did to accurately portray the history and people he depicts, including reading the diaries of enslaved people. But what I wondered the whole time I read the book, was not what research Matthews did, but to what lengths he went to involve real, living black, indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in accurately portraying BIPOC in the past. Did he have sensitivity readers, editors, reviewers that were people of color?  

Similarly, Matthews portrayal of Holmes and Abraham Lincoln only further espouse problematic white-savior narratives. Not only is there a feeling of “white man saves the day” in the book, but there’s also a strange moralizing component as well. These perspectives aren’t uncommon, and often garner a wealth of positive reviews (e.g., The Greatest ShowmanThe Help), but that doesn’t mean we need any more of those perspectives circulating.

All of these feelings were tangled in the fast-paced, engrossing narration, and I often found myself second guessing what I was thinking. Was I over analyzing Matthews’ portrayal of people of color, of white men in the novel? And then I found the interview with Big Blend mentioned above, and my suspect feelings were confirmed. In the interview, Matthews argues for maintaining Confederate statues so as not to forget our past. And while the sentiment of remembering our past and learning from our mistakes is a commendable one, doing so through glorifying slave owners and people who fought to enslave other human beings (no matter what their arguments to the contrary were), is not quite the way to go about remembering our past. Unfortunately, the interview only confirmed the hunches I had about the book.

Matthews has already announced a sequel to One Must Tell the Bees, and my greatest hope is that he does the work to address the above-mentioned issues in his sequel in order to write a more social justice conscious book.

One Must tell the Bees was beautifully written, captured the style and tone of Holmes with fervor, and was undeniably enjoyable most of the time; however, its major flaw is one that can’t be overlooked.

Published in May of 2021 by East Dean Press, One Must Tell the Bees: Abraham Lincoln and the Final Education of Sherlock Holmes is available for purchase at your local independent bookstore.

Read more historical fiction reviews on Centered on Books.

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

‘Caroline’ by Adrian Spratt

In his debut novel CarolineAdrian Spratt poses a question that has likely been on many people’s minds since March of 2020: In the face of hardship, difference, and isolation, what makes us who we are?

The cover of the novel ‘Caroline’ is an olive green color with an illustrated collage of pictures related to the book: a swatch of red hair layered on a scene from New York City, atop a vinyl record, atop an army green type writer.

The novel follows Nick, a young lawyer navigating his job, his relationships, and his disability in 1980s New York. In an industry dominated by able-bodied writers writing ableist narratives, Caroline is a welcome deviation from the norm. Spratt, a former lawyer turned novelist, lost his vision at thirteen (just like Nick), and writes a novel where, though disability is central to the character and themes, it is more than anything simply a part of Caroline the way disability is a natural part of the human condition. This is in contrast to the way many able-bodied writers incorporate disability into their books, sensationalizing or moralizing it.

Nick is a young lawyer who meets Caroline at a fiction writing class and a tumultuous relationship ensues. Meanwhile, Nick is battling ableism at his law firm, from random people he encounters, and even within his family. Through it all through, Spratt is constantly asking readers to think critically about a variety of philosophical issues related to disability including how sight contributes to the enjoyment of art, Aristotle’s argument that a mental image is central to being human, and many more. Spratt does this in a way that shows the challenges, nuances, and contradictions that surround so many of these issues, while also portraying Nick as the perfectly capable human being that he is.

SPOILER ALERT. If you don’t want any plot spoilers, skip this next paragraph.

While the central questions of the book are clear and thoroughly engaging, where Caroline falls short is in the portrayal of women and themes surrounding women. Just as able-bodied writers writing about characters with disabilities or white writers writing about characters of color often don’t do justice to the people those characters represent, multiple women in the book become defined by their experiences and trauma in ways that men can’t fully understand. While maintaining the view that writers should only write about their own demographics and personal experiences would make for a very boring literary landscape, it’s inarguable that a fair amount of thought and effort needs to be put into portraying characters that are different from the writer . I wouldn’t argue by any stretch that Spratt did not put this effort in, only that he missed the mark in his representation. So, while I commend and am absolutely ravenous about the positive portrayal of people with disabilities in Caroline, I have a hard time reconciling that with the portrayal of women in the novel. As a woman myself who actively opposes gendered, male-centered views of women’s bodies and experiences surrounding their bodies, I feel it’s important to discuss and bring these issues to light. 

Overall, Spratt brings an important voice to the literary table that offers an often ignored, but vital, perspective.

Slated for release from Books Fluent on February 15, 2022, you can preorder a copy of Caroline.

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.

‘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.

‘Beginning With Cannonballs’ by Jill McCroskey Coupe

beginning-with-cannonballs-coupeBeginning with Cannonballs by Jill McCroskey Coupe tells the story of two childhood friends growing up together. Divisions of race, class, and ideology deign to keep Hanna and Gail apart, but they keep finding their way back to one another. Across the expanse of time, the two main characters fight to both reunite and divide themselves as they grow from girls into women with husbands and children of their own. Each finds out things about one another, their parents, and their own children as they live and learn together.

The book takes on important and timeless issues of race, racism, and cultural shifts in America.

Slated for release by She Writes Press in May of 2020, you can preorder a copy of Beginning with Cannonballs by Jill McCroskey Coupe at your local independent bookstore.

Please remember during these tough times for our economy to still order your books from your local independent bookstore! Help support local businesses during covid-19!

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 Beauty of Their Youth’ by Joyce Hinnefeld

beauty-of-their-youth-hinnefeldThe Beauty of Their Youth is the latest literary work by award winning author Joyce Hinnefeld. A collection of short stories, The Beauty of Their Youth introduces five characters who struggle with making sense of their present lives through both the chartered and unchartered territories of their pasts.

From a middle-aged daughter struggling to understand her dead mother through the help of an unsuspecting neighbor, to a German woman who goes to the greatest lengths to find and preserve an authentic and different self, all of Hinnefeld’s characters are deeply tragic yet entirely relatable. No matter the age or situation of the character, Hinnefeld has a way of drawing the reader into the narrative and erasing all sense of distance or difference.

Focusing mainly on the role of the past to help understand and make sense of the present, Hinnefeld takes this idea and creates worlds in which the reader can immerse herself in that very challenge with passion and with empathy.

Beautifully told and utterly engaging, The Beauty of Their Youth by Joyce Hinnefeld is a quick but in-depth collection of stories.

The Beauty of Their Youth by Joyce Hinnefeld is slated for release by Wolfson Press in March 2020.

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.