‘The Book of Esther’ by Emily Barton

the-book-of-esther-bartonIn an alternate vein of reality, at the dawn of World War 2, lives Esther bat Josephus, the daughter of the Khazar kagnate’s kender (the leading policy advisor). Esther has seen firsthand, the terror that the Germanii enemy has the potential to rain to on her people, and while her father and country seem to sit idle, Esther feels that she alone must take action in Emily Barton’s latest novel The Book of Esther.

Esther, 16, borrows her father’s mechanical horse, Seleme, some money, some candle sticks for prayers on the road, and her adopted brother and father’s slave Itakh, 9. Esther and Itakh embark on a long and arduous journey to the mystic Kabbalists in the hopes that they can turn Esther into a boy. She knows that only as a man can she lead her people into warfare and save her country.

At the very outset, author Emily Barton sets the tone for a novel of not only magical capabilities, but also of deep introspection. Esther wants to be a boy only so that she can save her country, not because she dislikes being a girl. In fact, she is set to be married in a few months, and is begrudgingly excited about it. Esther is a conflicted woman and a conflicted Jew. There are certain elements of her sex and religion that she feels hold her back from doing her greater duty to her country, and so she seeks ways around those barriers. Esther finds that though these obstructions may exist in her mind and those of her people, perhaps they are not wholly true. Perhaps Esther does not need to be a man to lead an army. Perhaps a Torah Jew need not dismiss another for not being Jewish in the same way.

Throughout the novel the theme of exclusion features prominently. Esther is excluded because she is a girl. The Khazar kagnate is being discriminated against and excluded because of the religion that they follow. Even the Khazar excludes others who are not Jewish. At first, Esther subscribes to some of these exclusionary notions to the extent that they are all she knows, but as The Book of Esther progresses, Barton probes deeper into the disadvantages of exclusion, and she fights to show that inclusion can lead to far greater success.

A book of faith, acceptance, and rebellion, Emily Barton does a superb job of blending history with fantasy and fiction in The Book of Esther. Creating a perfectly conflicted main character, Barton ensures that her readers will stand behind Esther from page one.

Released by Tim Duggan Books on June 14, 2016, you can purchase The Book of Esther 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.

 

 

‘One Half from the East’ by Nadia Hashimi

one-half-from-the-east-hashimiA book so compelling you could read it in a single sitting, One Half from the East tells a story much larger than the characters involved. Nadia Hashimi’s second novel follows Obayda, a ten-year-old bacha posh, or a girl dressed as a boy, living in Afghanistan. Obayda’s family turns her into Obayd to bring the family honor and with the magical hope that in doing so, their next child will be a boy.

Obayd must navigate school, people, and the world around her without her dresses, her long hair or sisters, and most of all without the confidence she had in being who she was. Along the way though, Obayd learns how to survive as a boy, how to live as a boy, doing the things she was never allowed to do as a girl. She meets another bacha posh who shows her how to fit into her new skin, and soon enough, Obayd does not want to be Obayda again. But that is the tradition of bacha posh – a young girl is turned into a boy only to bring luck and fortune to the family, not to be a boy forever.

Obayd and her friend know that the time is coming for each of them to return to their old ways of life, but now they are stuck in the middle. They are not quite girls and not quite boys, and they fear the return to a life with less freedoms, one that they don’t identify with any more: the life of a girl.

In One Half from the East, Nadia Hashimi not only exposes readers to what life in Afghanistan is like for women especially, but she also brings to light larger, worldwide questions of gender and identity. At one point in the novel, Obayda wonders what makes a girl, a girl. Her and her sisters muse whether it has to do with the length of a person’s hair, the clothes the person wears, or with how the person acts.

Obayda simply wants to be a boy, but Hashimi also questions this desire. Does Obayda want to be a boy to bring honor to her family, is it to have the freedoms she would otherwise not have? In the end, Hashimi starkly points out that learned behavior can easily become associated with “boy” and “girl,” and yet the society surrounding that culture takes those behaviors as inherent. Boys play soccer. Girls sew dresses. But a girl can just as easily learn to play soccer, and a boy can just as easily learn to sew. So what is the “boy” thing to do, and what is the “girl” thing to do?

Hashimi wrote One Half from the East as a middle grade novel for grades three to seven, but the novel is by no means strictly a children’s novel. The book is a culturally eye opening work of art that is just as moving and heartbreaking for any aged reader.

One Half from the East will be released by HarperCollins on September 6, 2016. Preorder a copy from 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 House of Secrets’ by Brad Meltzer and Todd Goldberg

the-house-of-secrets-meltzerEvery mystery needs to be solved. That’s what Jack Nash told his daughter Hazel when she was a child, and that’s what sticks in Hazel’s head after she wakes up in a hospital with nearly no memory of her former life. Through Hazel, Jack and other characters, Brad Meltzer and Todd Goldberg take readers on a wild ride through a myriad of conspiracies and mysteries in their latest novel The House of Secrets.

Jack Nash was a reality TV superhero: the host of a conspiracy television show called House of Secrets. Now, Jack Nash is dead after the car accident that Hazel and her brother Skip were involved in too. But, not only is Jack dead, two other mysterious men, potentially involved with Hazel, Jack, and Skip are also dead, or so Agent Rabkin says. Strangest of all, the other two men were found with bibles in their chests…odd that Jack told Hazel a similar story in her youth: a story of a deceased man found with Benedict Arnold’s bible buried in his chest.

Hazel is compelled to live by her father’s rules and solve the many mysteries surrounding not only the death of her father, but of who she is, and if she had anything to do with the murders that have been committed. Who can Hazel trust? Who does she really know? Who was she? As Hazel delves further into her father’s past and her own, she begins to uncover things about her father and herself that she wishes she had never found, yet she can’t stop herself. She needs to solve the mysteries.

Meltzer and Goldberg create a fantastic and terrifying mystery that is driven not only by plot, but by the intimate characters woven within that plot as well. From The Bear, a terrifying (we think) bad guy, to Butchie, Hazel’s only friend and a sometimes criminal, the reader can’t help but become enthralled in each storyline, waiting for the moment when they all converge.

Meltzer and Goldberg also bring in deeper themes and questions revolving around ideas of being able to change oneself, the importance of family, and forgiveness.

An exhilarating and chilling read, Meltzer and Goldberg’s The House of Secrets is worth the 352 pages of reading, or 10 hours of listening.

The House of Secrets audio book was released by Hachette Book Group on June 7, 2016. You can find the hardcopy or audio version at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

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

‘Vinegar Girl’ by Anne Tyler

vinegar-girl-anne-tylerShakespeare never gets old, but when someone makes him new again (and in the most engaging, hilarious, and Shakespearean way), it is somehow exhilarating. That is exactly what Anne Tyler does with her latest novel Vinegar Girl. Rewriting The Taming of the Shrew in a contemporary context, Tyler takes what is one of Shakespeare’s most sexists plays and turns it into a dialogue about feminism and equality.

Kate Battista is a twenty-nine-year-old house-daughter who packs her scientist father’s lunch, makes dinner for the family, and keeps on eye on her younger sister Bunny. This very classical female role does not mean that Kate is an obedient or boring character; rather, she is an acerbic, assertive woman who speaks her mind no matter the occasion. She was even kicked out of college for pointing out an error in a science teacher’s lecture. Now she works at a preschool, not that she likes kids or anything.

Kate’s humdrum life is thrown off kilter when her father, Louis, suggests one day that she marry his lab assistant Pyotr. He doesn’t propose the idea because he thinks Kate and Pyotr will be great together, or because they are even dating, but because Pyotr’s Visa is about to expire. Pyotr has no other way to stay in the country and help Louis Battista with his twenty-year-long experiment. At first Kate is appalled by the idea of being married off to someone, especially someone that she finds as repulsive as Pyotr. But finally, Kate relents, and a courting game ensues with a level of caustic hilarity that mounts as the novel continues.

In the same vein of Shakespearean humor, language is a main means by which Tyler brings comedy into Vinegar Girl. Her characters use words with wit, stupidity, and ferocity. Tyler has a unique way of playing with language in the most simplistic of ways. Nothing is too fancy, and yet everything is calculated and perfectly arranged so that the text reads smoothly and the subtleties of the characters’ often nuanced words are not lost.

Vinegar Girl ends in a much more optimistic place than Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Instead of ending in submission and a hierarchical understanding of marriage, Vinegar Girl ends with a firm understanding of equality. Kate is not tamed; instead she comes to a place of understanding about her own position in her father’s household, as well as an understanding about what it means to be accepted and loved. Kate transforms into an empathetic character without losing any of her quirk or pizazz.

A fun, funny, and fast-paced love story, Vinegar Girl is a great read whether you are a Shakespeare fan or not. Released by Hogarth Publishing in June of 2016, you can find Vinegar Girl 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.

‘Chronicle of a Last Summer’

chronicle-of-a-last-summer-rashidiYasmine El Rashidi’s first novel, Chronicle of a Last Summer, tells a story of power, loss, and survival in Egypt during times of deep political unrest. The main character, an unnamed narrator, speaks to the reader from three different summers of her life: 1984, 1998, and 2014.

Chronicle of a Last Summer begins when the narrator is a young girl. The reader can sense this not only because of her more naïve thought processes, but also because of her short, terse sentences, and overall ignorance of larger issues going on around her. There is mention of divisiveness among Egypt and Israel, as well as a pervasive feeling that the government is not the most positive entity. However, these ideas never quite become fully teased out. We know that her activist father, Baba, has recently disappeared, and the narrator is left with her depressed and dejected mother who spends the majority of her time on the phone or in front of the television.

We come back into the narrator’s life while she is a film major at a local university. In 1998 the narrator begins to explore ideas around what it is to be human, what happiness means, and the activism rampant in Egypt at the time. There is significant maturity that happens over the first fourteen-year gap in the narrator’s life. Her thoughts become more fully developed, and Rashidi’s sentences go from being short, poetic bursts of thought to longer, more lyrical strands of philosophical musing.

During the narrator’s last summer, unexpected events pull the reader into a whirlwind of action previously missing from the novel. Though still a very intellectual and philosophical section, the last portion of Chronicle of a Last Summer is where we see the bulk of action take place. This section is also filled with the greatest sense of hopelessness and despair. Though these feelings pervade the story in the earlier sections, they are offset by the narrator’s youthful and, at least somewhat more, optimistic outlook which becomes diluted with time and experience.

Activism and politics play a large role in Chronicle of a Last Summer: particularly the idea of observation rather than direct participation in relation to activism. The narrator brings up this idea multiple times, questioning whether mere observation should be equated with complicity. Hand in hand with the political upheaval that sets the background of Rashidi’s novel comes the censorship, discrimination, and criminalization of activists standing for a just cause. Throughout all of the hardship though, comes the pervasive sense of place that ties the narrator, her family, and the activists of Egypt to their homeland.

Chronicle of a Last Summer is a beautiful and interrogative book that delves into the deeper subjects surrounding politics, activism, and a person’s roles and duties in society. A masterfully composed and artfully vetted novel, Chronicle of a Last Summer is one of the most relevant books of our time, not only for Egypt, but for every person wrapped up in their own country’s politics.

Published by Tim Duggan Books in June of 2016, Chronicle of a Last Summer 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 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.

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.