‘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.

‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

the-vegetarian-han-kangWhat is the difference between living and enduring? What is life when it is controlled by someone external to yourself? What is reality and how do we know that the place our physical being resides in is it? Among many other esoteric questions, Han Kang tackles these in her novel The Vegetarian. Addressing issues of abuse and the effects of trauma on the human psyche, Kang provides a unique glimpse into the convergence between sanity and insanity.

At the beginning of the novel, Yeong-hye has just become a vegetarian. Living in a very patriarchal Korea, Yeong-hye is berated by her husband for not eating meat herself or cooking it for him. The most interesting aspect of the first section of Kang’s novel is the fact that it is not told from Yeong-hye’s perspective, but from her abusive and oblivious husband Cheong. The reader feels even more intensely for Yeong-hye’s plight in hearing the misogynistic remarks that come from Cheong’s mouth. The skewed lens through which he views his wife as an object only serves to fuel the rampant anger we build for Yeong-hye.

The next section is told from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a washed up artist who when we first meet him is imbued with the passion to pursue a new artistic project: that of painting his sister-in-law in flowers and filming erotic visions of her. The reader is once again privy to the working of the patriarchal mind. In viewing the objectification of both Yeong-hye and her sister In-hye, the horror only continues.

Throughout the course of the novel Yeong-hye struggles with anorexia and eventually appears to be losing her sanity. The men around her can’t fathom why she is going to such great lengths to reclaim her body and herself: it is only her sister who can relate in some distant sense to the horrors that Yeong-hye has experienced. The final portion of the novel is told from In-hye’s perspective, and in accessing the female mind, we are also granted better access to Yeong-hye herself. In seeing herself in Yeong-hye, In-hye begins to question the very fabric of reality and the lines between lucidity and insanity.

The Vegetarian is a tragic and beautiful tale of the terror that abuse brings, and the lengths to which the abused will go to assert their power

The Vegetarian was original published in 2007, but was recently translated to English and published by Hogarth Press in 2015. You can purchase a copy of The Vegetarian 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.

‘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 Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing’ by Eimear McBride

A Girl is a Half-formed Thing by Eimear McBrideEimear McBride’s debut novel A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is a modern-day Joycean expedition into the disjointed thoughts of a haunted, unnamed girl. Following this unnamed narrator from birth until twenty years old, McBride’s novel takes on a prosody which mirrors the alacrity of events that take place. Told as a stream of consciousness, the narrator takes us through the horrors of her child and young adulthood all along addressing “you,” her brother, as if he were the recipient of her tale.

Within pages of the novel, we find that the narrator’s brother was born with a brain tumor and his sight, hearing, equilibrium and brain development have been severely affected by this past illness. The narrator’s mother is an abusive single parent whose love of religion and the ideas bound up in religiosity far outweigh her actual participation and investment in the ideals of the church. We meet other significant characters in the narrator’s life, all of whom negatively impact her and lead her further down a road toward corruption and dissociation with herself and her body.

A major theme in A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is the disparate ideas of purity that surround the narrator. What purity means to those within the Christian faith, what it means to the narrator, to her mother, and to the world at large severely shadow the events of the novel. The narrator, though she seems to denounce Christianity, cannot help but feel the pull of its ideals that have been instilled in her since childhood. Constantly obsessing over purification and baptism, the narrator simultaneously seeks out disdainful actions and repels them at the same time, though she hardly ever escapes a negative situation with success.

Coupled with this idea of purity is the role of the body and the question of whether purity of body or mind is more important. There is constantly a disassociation of the self from the body, as the narrator begins to use sex and physical abuse as a form of consolation for her troubles. Echoed by the slow death of her brother’s body, the narrator too becomes more and more detached from the body which she subjects to abuse, often commenting on the emptiness inside of her that she seeks to fill.

The novel moves at a pace that often cascades so quickly, it’s easy to lose sight of exactly what’s happening as you get caught up in the often fragmented, sometimes half-formed, language that fills each page. The rapid cadence of A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing proves to propel the novel forward with a dire momentum that positions the reader constantly on an edge: just as the narrator is.

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing is a terrifyingly beautiful look into the formation of a young girl and all that can and will go wrong in her life. The dual simplicity and complexity of McBride’s language mirrors the themes and ideas of the novel that, though they are often blatant, are deeply profound and driven by an emotionality that the reader can’t help but be absorbed by.

A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing was published by Hogarth in June of 2015.

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 Shore’ by Sara Taylor

The Shore by Sara TaylorThe Shore is a place of beauty and nightmare, of magic and perversity, of both horror and insight. In this collection of interconnected short stories, author Sara Taylor takes readers on a journey of genealogy that explores themes of family, the cyclical nature of violence, the importance of self-preservation and perseverance, as well as the complexity of what it means to love and be loved by others and by oneself.

Female characters are at the center of most of the stories, and the strength and vulnerability of the female condition is explored in depth. One of the most valuable aspects of the novel though is Taylor’s ability to shift her perspective from male to female, from past to present, from first to third person and back again. We hear from the raped and the rapist, from the abused and the abuser, from mother and child and from friends, lovers and cousins all to culminate in the telling of not only the individual stories, but the larger, over-arching themes that span the entirety of the novel.

In narrating The Shore in such a way, Taylor creates an air of empathy that would otherwise be vacant space. Because of the multiple perspectives offered, though, the reader is better able to gain access into the minds and spirits of characters whose connections to one another only ensure the reader’s own attachment to that character. Though this by no means absolves any of the characters of their often malevolent personas, and in some cases the reader is made to hate the already detestable characters even more so.

The Shore is unarguably a work of literary fiction; however, Taylor is still able to weave elements of magical realism, dystopian narrative and thriller inspired mystery into a number of her stories. Though Taylor is often successful in seamlessly shaping these deeper stories despite their more plot-driven impetus, the reader can at times get distracted from the value and significance of the story as she is drawn into the what rather than the who of the narrative.

Nonetheless, The Shore is an emotionally charged read that forces you to contemplate larger questions of violence, love and hatred while encouraging the growth, development and perseverance of the individual despite hardship, failure and horror.

Published by Hogarth, Sara Taylor’s The Shore was realeased May 26, 2015.

Pick up a copy 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 Book of Strange New Things’ by Michel Faber

The book of Strange New ThingsWhat makes us human: love, compassion, faith? What happens when we are stripped of human contact with the people we love most, when we are encouraged to flout compassion in favor of rationality, when faith is all that is left for us and we aren’t sure we even want or can muster an ounce of pure belief? These are only a few of the questions Michel Faber addresses in his latest novel The Book of Strange New Things. A literary adventure into the speculative world of aliens, religion, and relationships, Faber paints a reality peopled with the unexpected, the unsavory, and the utterly flawed.

Peter Leigh is a pastor recruited by the USIC, a government corporation that has recently taken over NASA as well as other large corporations and sectors, to act as a missionary on a newly colonized planet Oasis. Peter is forced to leave behind his wife, Bea, who the USIC will not allow to accompany him on the undertaking even though all of their missionary work has been done as a team in the past. In leaving Bea, Peter feels that he’s not only left the better part of himself behind, but that he is failing in his pastoral duties without Bea’s scrutiny and levelheadedness.

Upon entering the Oasan atmosphere, Peter befriends the USIC staff as well as the native Oasan people the latter of who hunger for his knowledge of Christianity. Apart from Peter’s day-to-day action, we are also privy to a series of letters, epistles as Peter calls them, between himself and Bea. At first they are affectionate and filled with the mundane conversation of everyday life that the couple were used to having prior to their separation. As the gap of time between their last moments together widens though, the physical gap of the distance between them becomes more palpable, and the metaphysical connection that they once thought so strong is deeply shaken. Peter becomes more distanced and distracted by his mission as Bea becomes wrapped up in the world around her which she describes to Peter as being in a steep decline.

Peter becomes a frustrating character that despite or perhaps in light of his understanding and calmness shifts into an almost vapid husband. Though he claims to love his wife, his letters to her lack the emotion he wishes to portray, and the words that come out on paper betray his idealistic notions of love amidst a world so far away from Bea’s problems. Similarly, it is hard for the reader to sympathize with Bea, since all we have of her in terms of contact are her letters to Peter. We know she is suffering, that things are going badly on Earth, and that she is not getting the emotional support that she needs from Peter, but we also see her lack of understanding for her husband’s issues on a planet that she can’t even conceive of. Both lovers are caught in their own worlds, unable to understand, sympathize or support one another in the way that they used to, and they are forced to question if their love can survive despite these obstacles.

Throughout the arc of Peter and Bea’s relationship, we see the strains and constraints that love is capable of, and perhaps the limits of its power. Peter’s fidelity to his wife comes into question as he begins to fantasize about other women in a St. Augustine-esque fashion, feeling immediate guilt for what he sees as the inherently male reactions to a woman’s body and sexuality.

A book that explores all angles of humanity in a way that forces you to question your own ethics, morals and understanding of the natural ways of the world, Michel Faber’s The Book of Strange New Things is an adventure into the depths of the human soul.

Released by Hogarth, you can find The Book of Strange New Things 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 Room” by Jonas Karlson

The Room by Jonas KarlssonA gut bursting novella that reads like a tragicomic production, The Room by Jonas Karlsson is smart, hilarious and such a quick read that you’ll want to start it over again as soon as you hit the last sentence. The 186 page, 8 ½  x 6 ½ inch novelette is packed with irony and hilarity in its apt portrayal of the mundane and inane nature of office life as well as the many formulaic characters that reside there.

Björn has recently acquired a job working for the Authority, an organization with phantoms for leaders referred to only by their initials. These “leaders” send down numbered (never named) reports to the lowly office workers who in turn have no idea what those reports are about. Björn is hired as a sort of administrative assistant, and he takes his job extremely seriously. However, he is determined to move to the top, mostly at other people’s expense. His office mates are awkward, sometimes cruel and entirely suspicious of Björn, and he treats them no differently, though he often tries to say that he does. The unreliability of the narrator here is stark, though we can never be sure what the truth is behind Björn’s or his office mates’ distorted perceptions of reality, we can be sure that something is amiss.

To illuminate this point, Karlsson brings into the story “the room:” a small space in the office, right beside the bathroom where Björn gets most of his work done, but that those around him doubt the very veracity of. Björn must assert his rights to the room by proving that it aids him in his work, but even this does not keep his coworkers from thinking he is crazy.

Among the many themes Karlsson addresses, the idea of conformity and the erasure of individuality are paramount. Amidst all of Björn’s ridiculous antics and highbrow, self-serving thoughts and actions, there is the desire, the human need, to be a self and not just a member of the herd which is admirable in his character. Björn as well as his coworkers tend more to the side of despicable and annoying, yet each character holds a certain quality that is recognizable and relatable either within oneself or within another. These qualities might not be what we want to see in ourselves and others, but they are truths that are unavoidable.

At times highly frustrating and at other times laugh out loud funny, Jonas Karlsson’s The Room is a hilarious and light yet profound read that will keep you on your toes and make you think deeply about the state of human affairs in contemporary urban life.

The Room by Jonas Karlsson will be released by Hogarth on Tuesday, June 9, 2015. 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.

“An Untamed State” by Roxane Gay

An Untamed State by Roxane GayAnother book about rape.

That’s what I thought when I first picked up An Untamed State by Roxane Gay. But I had read Bad Feminist and loved it, and I was dying to see what Gay could do with fiction. So, I bought the book, and I procrastinated.

There are so many books about rape, about broken bodies and broken women and the terror of a person’s dignity being ripped from her body and soul. There are too many books that take me too long to read because they’re just too hard to get through. Finally, An Untamed State found its way into my car on a camping trip, and I was compelled, if I wanted to read at all, to read the only book I had brought with me. And so I began, and once I did, I couldn’t put it down.

An Untamed State differs profoundly from so many of those other books I mentioned above that detail the destruction of the spirit and the grotesque actions taken against so many women and men. It differs because for the most part the book is told from the first person perspective of Mireille Jameson-Duval, a young wife and mother kidnapped in Haiti and held for a ransom her wealthy father is not wont to pay.

From the beginning, Mireille is a fighter, a resilient captive, something every woman who has ever been raped wishes she had been. In many ways, Mireille embodies this woman, this ideal survivor: someone who fights, someone who doesn’t let the most precious parts of herself be so easily taken, someone many women who experience rape aren’t even given the chance to be because of drugs, coercion, false security and bondage. For women everywhere who have experienced even a fraction of the pain that Mireille does in An Untamed State, the main character offers a sliver of redemption, a reason for the celebration of the strength of women despite their circumstances, despite what can be done to the body.

Though the book is riveting with action, what comes out most clearly are ideas of what it means to be raped, how it feels to be robbed of your dignity, and what the path to healing looks like. Gay, a survivor of rape herself, is able to capture these sentiments in a way that makes the novel less about the horrors that have happened to Mireille and more about Mireille, the person, the survivor, the woman. Unlike so many other books that merely describe graphic scenes with seemingly little purpose but to provide shock value and make the reader hate the criminal, An Untamed State focuses on what is happening on the inside for the survivor.

Mireille goes through feelings of guilt, self-hatred, inadequacy and hopelessness despite her strength. After her ordeal, she has an unending desire to be empty that manifests itself in an eating disorder, she is unable to communicate with her family in the same way, she is fearful and hateful towards nearly all men, and she can’t seem to find herself. She experiences selective memory and symptoms of PTSD, flying through flashbacks that are set off by things as seemingly inane as a scent. Eventually a therapist tells Mireille the truth about her road to recovery: “You will get better, but you will never be okay, not in the way you once were.”

This is the truth of rape, of trauma, of loss of control over your own body, this is the truth that Mireille, that Roxane Gay, that every woman and man that has ever experienced any ordeal even resembling that of Mireille’s must accept. The sense of power, of hope and beauty despite the horror and ugliness in the world is what raises this novel from the depths of what could’ve been tragic and grotesque to the height of inspiration. An Untamed State gives those whose bodies have been stolen, morphed and used the hope and realization that they are not shattered. They may be cracked, they may wear scars, whether physical or not, but they have the capacity to live if they can find the will and the strength and perhaps even the vulnerability to allow those around them to help.

An Untamed State by Roxane Gay is one of the most fantastic novels of the past few years, and it is by far the most inspiring novel I’ve read in a long time.

Published by Black Cat, you can purchase An Untamed State at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony DoerrAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a poetically charged tale of morality and love in wartime, as well as an exploration into the value of life even in the darkest of times. Told in the present-tense with a switchback narrative that guides the reader between different stages of past and present, All the Light We Cannot See mainly follows two characters, Marie-Laure and Werner, in the mid to late 1940’s.

Marie-Laure is a young blind girl living in France at the beginning of World War Two, while Werner is a perfectly Aryan German youth. Worlds apart and yet closer to one another than even the reader at first realizes, Marie-Laure and Werner spend the pages of the novel navigating their youth, their familial struggles, and their passions in life in the midst of wartime. Though we at first meet both characters later in their lives, we eventually trace them back to their childhood: Marie-Laure with her father in Paris and Werner in a mining town orphanage in Germany. However, within mere pages we follow Marie-Laure back to where we met her at her Uncle’s home in Saint-Malo and Werner to Schulpforta, a school for Nazi youth and eventually into the ranks.

Marie-Laure despite her blindness is a master of navigation and has a penchant for sea creatures and reading. Werner, not at all aligned with Hitler’s plan for the Germany or the world, sees Nazism not only as an escape from the mine that stole his father’s life but also as a gateway into engineering and science: his two greatest passions. From the outset Marie-Laure is a strong-willed character with a purity unparalleled by nearly any other character. She is constantly worrying about others, trying to do the right thing, and urging those around her into happier states of being through her optimism and persistence.

Werner, on the other hand, finds himself constantly silenced by a fear to act out of the ordinary and to be punished for doing so. While Marie-Laure was nearly born an outcast, Werner, with his hair of snow and eyes of blue struggles to remain neutral and invisible among the crowd so that he can pursue his passions even if at the expense of others. He does his best to protect those around him, such as his younger sister Jutta and his friend Fredrick; however, he does so passively, never actually standing up for either of them or acting on their behalves. Though rattled with guilt for his inaction throughout the novel, it is not until Werner has aged into his teens and experienced the more palpable horrors of war that he begins to act on his desire to do good.

Questions of value both metaphoric and literal are continually raised in the novel as Doerr prompts the reader to think about what riches really mean. The riches of gemstones, of family, and of the preciousness of life are examined by nearly every character and understood in a different way by each. Despite risking his life for a rare blue diamond, Marie-Laure’s father at one point comments that “a diamond…is only a piece of carbon compressed in the bowels of the earth for eons and driven to the surface in a volcanic pipe.” Of all the riches in the world, which is worth living for, dying for, fighting for?

Doerr suggests that perhaps it is all the light that we cannot see which, though invisible, guides us through the toughest of times to find purpose, happiness and rare moments of perfected and rich bliss. “All of light is invisible” Doerr notes, and yet it is there, always there, manifesting itself in different forms: in reflection, in colors, in our imagination, in dreams. Marie-Laure, the one character who is literally without light throughout nearly the entire novel proves to be the heroine: untouched by the darkness that has surrounded her.

A beautifully woven tale about finding light even in the darkest of places, Anthony Doerr’s New York Times Best Seller and Pulitzer Prize winning novel All the Light We Cannot See is both inspiring and moving with a momentum that keeps you reading page after page.

Published by Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc. All the Light We Cannot See is available at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.