‘A Shadow Bright and Burning’ by Jessica Cluess

a-shadow-bright-and-burning-cluessAn evocative and exhilarating read, Jessica Cluess’ first novel in her Kingdom on Fire series, A Shadow Bright and Burning is nearly impossible to put down. A young adult fantasy novel that addresses coming of age themes, feminist mentality, and issues inherent in discrimination and exclusion, A Shadow Bright and Burning is a book full of riveting content both on the surface of its plot and in the deeper realms of its layered meanings.

Henrietta Howel is a young orphan who finds that she might be the first female sorcerer in over 100 years, but can she live up to the expectations set for her? Living in Victorian England, Henrietta and her band of soon to be commended sorcerers are doing their best to fend off the seven Ancients, a group of demons released from Hell by a magician some years ago. Magicians after all are all bad: deceitful, evil, uncontrollable. Or are they?

Some people in the book say the same things about women, especially those women with magical powers. Henrietta is thrown into the world of sorcery with no training, and now she has to prove herself not only as a sorcerer, but as the lone female in a male dominated world. Coming up against issues many teenage, non-sorcerer women come up against, like love, lust, and sexuality, Cluess does a fantastic job of painting Henrietta as a strong-willed but conflicted female character.

The quintessential young adult fantasy novel, A Shadow Bright and Burning has all the right elements: an orphaned girl, multiple love interests, and a world in dire need of saving. But Cluess also brings so much more to the Kingdom on Fire series: she brings lessons of acceptance, empowerment, and loyalty.

Slated for released on September 20, 2016 by Random House Books for Young Readers, A Shadow Bright and Burning is available for preorder at your local bookstore.

Read more young adult 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.

‘I Take You’ by Eliza Kennedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Published by Broadway Books in 016, I Take You is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

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


‘The Little Paris Bookshop’ by Nina George

the-little-paris-bookshop-georgeThe Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George is an enchanting tale of love, loss and living through them both. Much more than just a sappy love story though, The Little Paris Bookshop looks into the very soul beneath human action and into the internal passions that drive us all.

Set in Paris and in the south of France, The Little Paris Bookshop follows the story of Monsieur Perdu, a just past middle aged bookshop owner who is still pining for his unrequited love twenty one years after the dissolution of their relationship. M. Perdu spends his days prescribing books to people from his Literary Apothecary which is housed aboard a boat named Lulu, and his nights alone and mourning the absence of his lover.

Perdu’s self-contained world, though, is shattered when a new tenant moves into 27 Rue Montagnard and finds the unopened letter that Perdu’s lover wrote to him twenty one years ago when she left. Finally, moved to open the letter Perdu embarks on a journey to unravel the mysteries concerning both his lover and himself.

Along the way, Perdu encounters many characters who do for him what he has done for countless others with his Literary Apothecary: they prescribe to him just the right action for leaving sorrow, embracing grief, finding joy and releasing himself. From tango dancing to eating succulent foods, Perdu slowly begins to loosen the hold he has on himself, his past, and his willingness to love again.

A magically charged tale of enchanting depth and beautiful coincidence (or fate), The Little Paris Bookshop delves into themes that touch every human being. George explores what it means to live fully, to love fully, and to be fully human all while telling a story that will make readers tear up at the turn of every other page. A brilliant, funny, terrifying, and inspiring novel, The Little Paris Bookshop is an absolute must read.

Published by Broadway Books in 2016 and translated from the original German into English, you can purchase The Little Paris Bookshop at your local bookstore today.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

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

“Hausfrau” by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander EssbaumHausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum at first appears to be the somewhat typical story of an unsatisfied housewife searching for meaning in her life and filling the void that has become her world with copious amounts of sex. Quite rapidly, though, the novel reveals itself as something much more discerning and intuitive.

Anna is the wife of Bruno: a woman with no driver’s license and no bank account, a self-proclaimed outcast American living in Switzerland. She has three children, one of whom she loves more than the rest, and another who holds for her the most painful part of her past.

Anna is constantly trying to convince herself of her own happiness and to make sense of her past decisions, as if granting herself pardon from her mistakes will erase them or make them easier to bear. It is obvious, though, that all of Anna’s internal warmongering, is nothing but a distraction from the fact that she cannot forgive herself or understand how and why her life has turned out the way that it has.

When we first meet Anna she has begun to see a therapist, Doktor Messerli a devout psychoanalyst, who serves no better purpose than to further reinforce Anna’s own submissive and subsumed nature. Ironically, Anna is not even truthful to her doctor, and we are compelled to stand in Anna’s lies as Messerli, often in a macabrely ironic way, tries to interpret Anna’s life with only half the details. Meanwhile, Anna goes about her life trying to divine significance, find the ability to feel, and understand her purpose in a world that has gone utterly gray.

Essbaum’s simplistic and yet deeply nuanced language lays the basis for the multitudinous layers running through the novel. Sentences are often short and terse, matter of fact and bitingly honest, while the metaphors of Hausfrau run in effulgence. Not only does the language surrounding Anna and her relationships directly correlate to those very relationships, but things as simple as the fact that Anna lives on a dead end speak volumes to the physical events in the book.

While the most potent drama of Hausfrau lies within Anna, there is an equally balanced physical component to the novel as Essbaum perfectly marries both internal and external conflict. We travel through Anna’s past, as well as her day to day life as she rides the train to her German language classes, has steamy sex with men in sheds, and confronts her husband and mother and law on a day to day basis.

Essbaum develops characters so tangible and situations so terrible it’s hard to accept that they are fiction. Even the worst of characters is so distinct and despicable that you want to know more about them. We move through the novel with Anna and feel her anguish, her pain, her annoyance with herself and we though we recognize that she is a woman utterly depressed and entirely lost we feel the sanity in all of her seemingly insane actions. A novel that at certain points will make you scream “no” and while at others it will burrow you deeper into your couch with “yes,” Hausfrau hits on every emotion in the human spectrum with a sheer brilliant aptitude.

Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum was released by Random House today and is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

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

“The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand” by Elizabeth Berg

The Dream Lover: A Novel of George SandThe Dream Lover by bestselling author Elizabeth Berg is the fictionalized historical account of George Sand: one of the most influential and subversive female writers in France during the 19th century. Sand, born Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, not only published novels and articles at a time when women were primarily confined to household living, but she did so in plain view of the public, often cross dressing as a man, smoking cigars and engaging in open love affairs with some of the most prominent artists of her time. In her own novel, Berg  both draws from historical records and adds some of her own flair as she traces Sand’s life from early childhood until past her own death.

Sand traverses the years of her own life as the book’s narrator offering us only her single perspective. In this way, Berg often leaves conspicuously gaping holes in the thoughts and actions of Sand’s friends, family and lovers. As readers, all we have is Sand’s word that the events she recounts have happened in the way that she claims they have happened, but there are always parts of the story that seem missing. There are always things that we as readers are compelled to fill in, imagine, and understand, things that the character Sand perhaps does not want to fully admit to herself more than anyone else.

In this way, Berg points directly to an issue that she encountered during her research of Sand’s life. In Sand’s own autobiography, as well as in the historical records detailing the writer’s life, Berg notes there are major discrepancies in terms of dates, names and places associated with the famed writer. Berg took these discrepancies and did what she could with them: told them from a point of view. A point of view that Berg explains in the afterward of The Dream Lover, is not rooted in pure fact; rather, it is a mix of the real and imagined truths that she unearthed while steeped in her research.  This marriage of fact and fiction as form is echoed in Sand’s narration, as we often wonder how much of what she is telling us in imagined in a certain ways and stretched from the hard facts to suit her wildly imaginative and romantic mindset.

These discrepancies also mirror the ambivalences inherent in Sand’s own persona. Though Sand’s activities and lifestyle were controversial to say the least, there was evidence in her own writing, as well as testaments from her friends, that credited her with having a love for domesticity and for her children. Further, Sand, despite her fun-loving nature and energetic attitude, was known to suffer from depression and a pervasive sense of restlessness, which Berg translates seamlessly into her text. Berg aptly captures all of the contradictory elements of Sand’s nature and portrays her as a woman with ambition, doubt and talent, as a woman of love, hatred and anger.

Through and through, The Dream Lover reads at a fast-paced gallop, leaping through time and space to tell the most apt parts of this heroine’s life, all while mixing love, passion and longing in just the right amounts.

Set to be published by Random House in April 2015, The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand is available for pre-order from your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: I received this book from NetGalley for a fair and honest review of the text.

“The Martian” by Andy Weir

The Martian, written by Andy Weir.

The Martian by Andy Weir.

The title, the cover, the very concept of The Martian gives the illusion that its pages will be peopled with green aliens, intergalactic war, and other typical science-fiction paraphernalia. Andy Weir, though, writes The Martian not as some wild and fancifully romantic sci-fi novel, but as an engineer would write a book: entirely precise, absolutely plausible, and with zero fluff tolerated. And so it is that Weir sets the stage for his main character Mark Watney’s abandonment on Mars.

The novel begins in the aftermath of a freak accident that both nearly kills astronaut Watney, and proves to save his life. Watney comes to consciousness, and reflecting on his situation opens the book with the infamous first words: “I’m pretty much fucked.” Now it’s up to Watney to survive what would appear to be a death sentence with only his engineering and botany skills to help. As the novel progresses though, we see that it is also his positivity and perseverance that pull him along. These attributes, coupled with his very base human urges and desires, are what make Watney a character you find yourself rooting for more and more.

Watney is not the only character whose mind we are granted access to though. NASA Mission Director Venkat Kapoor, satellite engineer Mindy Park, and even members of Watney’s crew make their way into the novel to break up the journal entries that lead us into Watney’s character.

Watney’s account, most especially, tends to be pretty dense with technical content allowing for people like me (non-engineering minded readers) to occasionally gloss the text, glass over, or lose a visual of what’s going on. As a technical writer and editor, I’m familiar with reading just this kind of content, and I am equally familiar with employing all of the above techniques to get through it. However, for the average person who hasn’t taken a chemistry class in 10 plus years, Watney’s technicality and specificity can be a bit burdensome. For those like my scientifically minded engineering colleagues, the book is not only a breeze, but an accomplishment among a genre often riddled with improbabilities and unrealistic scenarios.

One of the most engaging aspects about The Martian, is Weir’s deep knowledge and wild imagination that he in turn imparts upon Watney and the book’s other characters. Whether you understand every concept or action, the book refuses to tip to the side of boring or burdensome as it might threaten to for some readers.

It might help that the characters are so endearing and engaging despite their, at times, despicable demeanors. Though raw and unkempt, Weir’s characters are all too human and thereby more relatable than the sometimes contrived characters of genre fiction novels. Weir isn’t trying to do anything with these characters except to make them who they are, and he does a superb job of compelling readers to find sympathy for and relate to even the most obnoxious of characters.

Most importantly, Weir’s cast speaks directly to the themes and intentions underlying his book. As he notes in the afterword, Weir’s goal is to show that humanity is not doomed to complacency or selfishness. When Watney gets trapped on Mars, every person at NASA, in China, and on earth is not only rooting for him, but pooling their collective resources to get him home. Weir invokes a sense of comradery among the human race, which (whether it is true of the humanity outside of his novel or not) invokes the ideal that humans have “a fundamental desire to help one another.” Though Weir may arguably be romanticizing this theme to a certain degree, it is definitely a quality that we busy, bustling, self-absorbed humans could use a reminder about once in a while.

The perfect marriage of technical and narrative writing, The Martian makes a perfect read for say a book club where you have engineers and book nerds in one place.

Though recently acquired by Broadway Books and Crown Publishing, divisions of Random House LLC, Weir is the poster child for self-publishing success. Originally released as an e-book in 2011 and sold for 99 cents, Weir’s novel was not only picked up by a major publisher, but a movie is already in the works. Staring Matt Damon, Jeff Daniels, and Chiwetel Ejiofor, the film is slated for release in September 2015. Even though Weir assisted in writing the screenplay, read The Martian before you see the film so that you can experience Weir’s unique writing style, enrapturing characters, and insanely plausible scenarios just as they are meant to be experienced.

If this book review peaked your interest, pick up a copy of The Martian at your local book store.

Read more science fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay’ by Michael Chabon

Pulitzer Prize Winning One Book One Chicago Michael Chabon novel is reviewed by Centered On Books.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon.

While Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay is the story of two comic book writers living in New York City in the early 1930s, it is, at the same time, an exploration of the universal condition of being human, of the unique condition of being Jewish during World War II, and of the incessant quest for self- discovery that traverses all and every plane of human existence.

At the beginning of the novel we meet Josef Kavalier, a young Jewish boy who has just escaped, rather epically, from Prague. With the help of a golem and at the expense of what small means his family could gather, Josef has made it out of Nazi-occupied Europe to New York to live with his cousin Sammy Klayman and his aunt Ethel. Sammy, a nineteen-year-old aspiring artist working as an illustrator for Empire Novelty, discovers within the first few hours of meeting Josef that his cousin is a superb artist far beyond Sammy’s own talents, and he immediately dreams up the possibility of starting a comic book series with Josef. The cousins pitch the idea to Sammy’s boss and in the Golden Age of comic books, the money-hungry mongrel Sheldon Anapol can do anything but turn the boys down.

Joe, having left behind his family in Prague, feels a looming sense of guilt in the wake of his freedom and seemingly unmerited job. In order to offset this agony, Joe centers all of his art on anti-Nazi themes and supplements his war efforts by fighting, or attempting to fight, any German he can find in New York City – and he happens to find quite a few. A reticent and stubbornly introverted young man, Joe cannot seem to express his own self-torment, his love or any part of his emotional self.

While Joe is fighting the internal battles of guilt and shame over his external situation, Sammy is fighting a battle with similar sentiments but in terms of his art, and most especially his sexuality. He is lonely, fatherless, and oddly uninterested in forming romantic relationships with any woman he meets. Constantly questioning his own feelings towards others, in particular his jealousy toward Josef’s girlfriend (but not Josef himself), Sammy is at odds with his sexual orientation in a time and place when such thoughts were so taboo, Sammy can’t even identify that this is his struggle.

The young men negotiate the difficulties that accompany success, love, failure and loss; they confront the harsh realities of imperfection, of ageing and of the restrictions and expanse of their own morality as they grow in their artistry, their familial ties and their humanity.

The novel holds the space between literary, historical and surrealistic fiction at times spotlighting on Joe and Sammy’s comic book characters and at other times featuring historical figures such as Salvador Dali. Chabon’s artistry with words (just sample this: “The cold jerked his chest like a wire snare. It fell on him like a safe. It lapped eagerly at his unprotected feet and licked at his kneecaps.” [430]) is equally matched by the novel’s moral direction and inherently philosophical bend. Themes emerge throughout the novel, are picked up, threaded through other themes and woven together in a seamless tale that never quite goes where you are expecting it to. Themes of self-expression, self-discovery, escapism (in all positive and negative senses of the word) and most thoroughly self-liberation, are only a few of the threads Chabon draws upon.

If you’re in any way shy or reserved, don’t read this book in a café or any other public place: expect multiple jaw dropping moments, laugh-out-loud scenes and characters you will fall so in love with that you will forget you are reading anything but the story of your own life in the guise of previously unfamiliar names, places and expressions you’ll soon forget you didn’t know before.

Though, as with any great novel (and this is sure to join the ranks of the American classics), the first 130 or so pages aren’t as fast paced as the rest, the benefit of patience (if you happen to be impatient) is well worth the wait: once you hit page 145 the book will haunt you every moment it’s not in your hands with its covers spread.

Published by Random House in 2012, you can find Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.