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.

‘Skating on the Vertical’ by Jan English Leary

skating-on-the-vertical-learySkating on the Vertical by Jan English Leary gets at the most human part of life: the suffering, the challenges, the joys of living life always on the edge between joy and despair. Each of the sixteen short stories gets at something a little bit harder than the last, a little bit deeper, a little bit something more for the characters to push through. The thing that makes each story so beautiful is the humanity with which Leary brings the characters to us. There aren’t always happy endings; in fact, they’re often nowhere near happily-ever-after, but Leary always make sure to close her stories in just the right way, leaving the reader feeling completely fulfilled, if never satisfied.

Some of the most visceral stories are those that dive into issues like addiction, abortion, and self-injury — stories that reach into the readers heart and dig a bit further for the most intense reaction.

“Eskimo Pie,” for example, tells the story of grade school teacher with a history of eating disorders who is frustrated with her less than cool student and finds herself spiraling back into addiction in the middle of a class field trip. “Eskimo Pie” tugs at that part of us that feels for every nerdy kid, the part that cries for someone to make the right choice even when the moment to make that choice has already passed. “Eskimo Pie” is one of Leary’s stories that does have an ending that brings at least the smallest hint of a smile to the reader.

Another, story “Rocky Road,” brings into play a mother and daughter with a once perfect, now strained, relationship. Now that Leigh has cancer, things are different. More different though because of Vena, Leigh’s live-in nurse that her daughter Candace can’t stand. As Candace begins to feel further and further from her fading mother, she becomes more and more resentful towards Vena, until Leigh reminds Candace of a life they once had, and a life she wants Candace to always remember. Leary does a fantastic job in “Rock Road,” of tying the story into the most imperfect, beautifully searing bow.

As a whole, Skating on the Vertical, is lyrical work of art that grabs your heart at every turn.

Slated for publication by Fomite press on November 1, 2017, you can preorder a copy of Skating on the Vertical by Jan Leary 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.

‘To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts’ by Caitlin Hamilton Summie

to-lay-to-rest-our-ghostsTo Lay to Rest Our Ghosts by Caitlin Hamilton Summie is by far one of the most emotionally riveting books of 2017.

A series of short stories, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts is told from various viewpoints that are interconnected in ways the reader might not even at first realize. This connection gives the stories more weight, more value to the reader, because they’re validated by being told from different perspectives. Everything becomes more vivid and alive as it begins to feel familiar yet different.

The stories cover a range of topics from miscarriage to belonging, from self-reliance to the meaning of family. And yet, they all seem to relay a similar message in some underlying way. Beneath the surface of each story’s words, there is the theme of forgiveness, of moving on. This theme though is not quite represented or expressed in the traditional sense of “forgiveness.” Instead, Summie takes the idea of forgiveness (or movement toward forgiveness) to a very realistic and heartfelt place. Forgiveness doesn’t have to mean forgetting what has happened, instead, for Summie’s characters, it means an acceptance of the circumstances, a willingness to face the circumstances, and the courage to at least attempt to change them, even if only in that character’s perspective.

Each story is enthralling in its own way, and it’s a challenge to put the book down. Even though many of the stories are only vaguely connected, the end of one piece is a propulsion into the next. The writing is smooth in a way that flows off the page and makes the stories seem more like experiences than something that’s merely being read. In this way too, Summie draws her readers into the depth of who the characters actually are, and it’s hard to let them go.

Overall, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts is a beautifully crafted work of art that tells the simple and intricate story of what it means to be human, to suffer, and to keep moving on.

To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts by Caitlin Hamilton Summie is slated for release by Fomite Press on August 8, 2017. You can preorder a copy of the book 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.

‘Principles of Navigation’ by Lynn Sloan

Principles of Navigation by Lynn SloanA story of love, hatred, selfishness, faith and most importantly, the dualities bound up in being human, Lynn Sloan’s captivating first novel Principles of Navigation is a psychologically tormenting exploration of the human condition. Alice Becotte wants a child more than, and at the cost of, anything else in her life or anyone else’s. Her husband, Rolly, an artist and university professor at a local Indiana college, is much more concerned with creating art and living by the ways of passion than he is with having children or settling into a traditional idea of family life.

At first, the novel focuses primarily on the struggles of Alice and Rolly’s marriage as well as the difficulties bound up in their seemingly incompatible relationship and tumultuous love for one another. However, as it progresses, Sloan veers readers off their perceived course toward plot bumps of infidelity, loss and more internal struggles.

At fundamental odds with one another, Alice and Rolly vacillate between affection, annoyance, and adoration for one another – as will you, the reader. Throughout the book, you will both love and hate each character a hundred times over and more. Sloan threatens to break readers to pity, to disdain and to compassion as each character showcases the spectrum of his or her duality. Nobody is a reliable narrator, and (or perhaps because) nobody is a static character. This is what makes Sloan’s novel so fascinating and gripping. Just as in life, no one person is the protagonist or antagonist – each character becomes another’s antagonist, or their own, as they navigate the waters of life’s imperfections and unfairness, as well as the consequences of their own actions.

There is nothing about Principles of Navigation that segregates it to one particular genre, nor does it target one group of readers. The book raises questions that are essential to every reader’s life: questions of humanity, love and growing older. Questions that will propel you from page one to the end of the novel without a backward glance as you are ripped through the pages of Alice and Rolly’s tumultuous lives.

Sloan, already a success in the field of short story writing and photography has broken into the novel industry with a strength and vivacity that will be sure to propel her into the ranks of great American novelists. Published by Fomite Press, Principles of Navigation is scheduled to be released February 15, 2015.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

Disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book for a fair and honest review of the text.