Tin Man: A Book Review

What’s better as a ‘start of the summer book’ than one covered in glimmering sunflowers? I’m a big fan of Impressionist art and Van Gogh is definitely a favorite, so I must confess this may be my favorite book cover of the year, so far. I was fortunate to see some of his work a few years ago as a collection was on tour and it is even more mesmerizing in person. Long heralded for his use of color, you see it vividly come to life in bold brush strokes that shouldn’t mean anything, but together they mean everything.

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The brush strokes are layered, swoop after swoop of color. Sometimes colors you wouldn’t have chosen, but their existence on the canvas is what makes the portrait truly stunning. The novel Tin Man, by Sarah Winman, is “Sunflowers” come to life. This novel is so quietly stunning and perfectly petite, I will be rereading it for years. The humanity Winman was able to capture with such a surprising feeling of simplicity is marvelous.

Like the book jacket says, “This is almost a love story. But it’s not as simple as that.” This is a tale of two twelve-year-old boys who bond through life’s challenges and life’s beauties. Ellis and Michael are fast friends who run amok through Oxford, swimming, cycling, sharing a love of poetry until something shifts and they are more. Fast forward into adulthood and Ellis is married to Annie, a girl who became their third Musketeer, but Michael is gone. What has happened in the years between and after? The answer is where the painting analogy really gets cooking. Winman effortlessly weaves the lives of the boys together by telling their story in stunning vignettes and memories. And as it unfolds you find yourself heartbroken and tenderly hopeful all at once. Like a painting, it is beautiful at first glance, but you know each time you return for another look there will be a deeper richness waiting to be discovered.

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The complex relationships aren’t dramatic or overdrawn, they are so damn true and I have rarely met characters so realistically drawn. I want to hug them, all of them, and thank them for their lives lived within the walls of this beautiful little book, and for allowing me to read them.

If you want to know what it would feel like to read art, this is the book.

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Unbury Carol: A Book Review

I am so very glad that I chose to engage with my readers and include you guys in deciding what books I read and review. I’ve been exposed to some really amazing books thanks to you, so first, I’d like to say thank you! I’m branching out more than ever and finding some real gems. Like this one! Unbury Carol by Josh Malerman was April’s pick and I dove headfirst into this thriller and held on for a wild ride.

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Carol has a secret. A secret clutched so tightly in fear of what ifs, but will her allowing only a few people in her life to know the truth ultimately cause her death? From time to time, with very little warning, Carol falls into a death-like coma and dwells in a world of darkness where raspy breathing she suspects is her own slowed exhalation is her only companion. She can hear the world around her, but cannot move or speak until she wakes again, days later as if nothing was amiss. Her mother long in her grave, and her best friend newly departed leaves her gold-digging husband as the only person in her life that knows her secret, and when she falls into yet another trip to her inner prison, the opportunity is too much for him to resist. An old lover, the final keeper of Carol’s wicked secret, is notified of her death and races time and the looming gravediggers to halt the unthinkable horror of being buried alive.

This book held many surprises, not just as the plot untwisted to reveal the wholly unexpected ending. A vague setting with a western, post-civil war feel lends to the mystery and plays up the magical realism. The reader is thrust into a world where the towns are small and the Trail that connects them is wild and dangerous, home to the many outlaws who prey on the accepting occupants of a time when the law is lenient and questions thought impolite.

Malerman’s prose is loose and billowy with a casual air that disarms you, making the moments of sharp clarity, the harsh realizations, all the more gutting. You know, and you don’t know how the story will unravel and I found myself gasping, mouth open in surprise anytime I dared think I had it figured out. A backward whodunnit where your exclamations at the players still putting the pieces together are as deaf to you as Carol’s yelling from the darkness, Unbury Carol is a fun and soulfully creepy tale. I found the deranged villains perfectly believable with a toe into unnaturally sinister, a personified voice of the past that cruelly twists doubts into the fissures of the would-be hero’s mind.

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A step toward Stephen King, a Tim Burton dream, this strange and unusual story is utterly creeptastic. Malerman manages to make a two-day quest up a long dirt road feel like the ultimate test of patience and trust as you hope just one of the many threads of spun plot leads to Carol remaining above ground and not clawing for her life under six feet of earth. I recommend this book wholeheartedly to anyone who likes that prickly feeling of suspense but prefers to skip outright terror.

The House of Broken Angels: A Book Review

As I have jumped head first into this whole “being a serious writer” thing, I’ve exposed myself to pretty incredible literature that I can’t believe I’ve been missing. I think I’ve mentioned before that I had a decades-old habit to only read old classics, or best sellers long after they’ve lost their new book luster. I think I had some twisted sense of responsibility to catch up somehow with all the books I’d missed before I read the new stuff. Like that makes sense, or is even remotely achievable. Along with featuring new publications in my book reviews, I’ve been listening to several podcasts about the current goings-on in the literary world and I’ve come to the conclusion that I’ve been starving myself. Yes, the classic greats will always be great, but there are some truly incredible authors living right now, publishing right now, creating right now, that are simply too good to miss.

That is my disclaimer and poor excuse for never having read anything by Luis Alberto Urrea until now. Holy cow, can this dude write. I mean, it says “Pulitzer Prize Finalist” next to his name on the cover, so I should have known, but sometimes there’s a certain…pretentiousness in books with that honor…or books even close to that honor. There was nothing pretentious about this book. The House of Broken Angels is humble even in its striking beauty.

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The story spans two days with the De La Cruz family as they come together for a final birthday celebration for the ailing grand patriarch Big Angel. A week before the party, his mother passes away at nearly a hundred years old sweeping the family up in a blur of reminiscing and dreaming of what the future holds.The partitions between the aging generation that made their way to America from Mexico in their youth and the younger ones who barely speak Spanish are blurred, as the De La Cruz house bulges with familia and theatrics of emotion.

A slow read, its lingering sentences draw you to read them again just to bask in their light. This is a book you read a bit at a time, letting each moment sink in before you continue. The structure reminds me of music composition. The first third of the book serves as an overture, explaining the scope of the story, introducing themes and revealing backstories of the many players. You are then submerged in a dance of perspectives as you jump from character to character, what they see and experience in the forty-eight-hour period. You fall in love with their individualities, their simple pleasures and jagged pains, known, but not acknowledged by the others.

I felt entirely immersed in the culture of this family, each person so distinct but part of a powerful whole that leapt from the page. I stopped reading at one point and announced to my husband, “This man needs to write a screenplay.” The dialogue and simple painting of the picture are so pure and perfect I couldn’t help but make small exclamations of pleasure, adoring the very act of reading his work.

This is not what I would call an easy book, but it’s not hard either. The language is easy, the story is a meandering family fable with sharp gut-checking moments when a revelation hits true north. A stunning story that deserves to be savored for every delicious word. Luckily, it’s written in bite-sized portions, easily consumed in spare moments, but the words will follow you off the page to percolate through your mind long after closing the book.

As fate would have it, while I was reading The House of Broken Angels, I listened to another podcast, not literary-related, yet they referenced and quoted Urrea’s book The Devil’s Highway as they spoke about the history of border control and immigration from Mexico. Just the small bits they read were enough to prove that this guy is not a one-hit wonder. I will be reading as much of Urrea’s writing as I can get my hands on.

Children of Blood and Bone: A BONUS Book Review

This is a total indulgence, but I can’t help but talk about this book. It wasn’t what you guys voted for this month – that review is coming up next week – but after all the buzz, I couldn’t wait to read this one! I could hardly put it down during Spring Break, and I haven’t really shut up about it since. Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi is a debut novel and the first of the Young Adult trilogy, The Legacy of Orisha. It’s a fantasy novel inspired by West African culture, so it combines the familiar feeling of your favorite quest sagas with a refreshing new look at magic and how it works in this intricately created world.

Adeyemi is an incredible talent with deep wisdom and clarity that she steeps into every page. The symbolism is stunning and powerful and the characters are a force to be reckoned with. Perfectly flawed and wonderfully redeemable, you are cheering for these people not just because you fall in love with them, but because you come to care so deeply about their success. Each has their own motives and unique personalities that create a dynamic that feeds the fire from the first page.

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A quick summary: Magic has been dead in the land of Orisha since Zélie Adebola was six. Her mother was part of the magi, a people gifted with a variety of powers from the Gods, but when a vengeful king eradicates them, the whisper of magic fades into nothing.

Now a young woman with a knack for finding trouble, Zélie discovers a way to bring magic back to Orisha. She races against the threat of the King, and his dutiful Crown Prince to restore power to her people. With the help of her brother and a rogue princess, perhaps her deepest desire is finally attainable.

I went into this book expecting it to be decent, but how could it possibly live up to the hype? It far surpassed my expectations, and dare I say…this is the best YA I’ve read since Harry Potter.

You can watch the book trailer here. You can follow Adeyemi on Twitter @tomi_adeyemi and I highly recommend you do. She couldn’t be more charmingly enthusiastic about how her book is being received. There may or may not be a video of her dancing in a wombat suit when Children of Blood and Bone hit number one of the New York Times Best Sellers List…

Please check it out. I’m reluctant to even share that Fox has already bought the film rights because this is something that needs to be read. Adeyemi has told a story that needs to be heard with every bit of richness she brings to the page.

They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.

Now we rise.

An American Marriage: A Book Review

What to say about a book that was added to Oprah’s Book Club a few days after I pre-ordered it and is currently sitting at #4 on the New York Times Best Sellers list? Well, I could start by saying that I try to approach books without expectation. I don’t like to read a bunch of reviews before picking something up because I abhor spoilers, – so worry not, you won’t find them here – and I really just want to have an honest and organic relationship with a book as I’m reading it. No influences. Just living in the printed moment. That being said, the summary I read had me expecting one thing and Tayari Jones delivered something infinitely better.

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An American Marriage tells the story of Roy and Celestial, an educated and well-on-their way black couple living in Atlanta. Roy’s flair for business and Celestial’s budding career as an artist sees them traveling a road to success in comfort and faith in the future. Just 18-months into their marriage, Roy is arrested, convicted, and sentenced to 12 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Two people, in love and in pain, attempt to make sense of the wrong done to them and how to move forward with a life you thought you had avoided.

At its core, this book is a love story, but Jones wrote about love on the realest of real levels. Love is tricky and tangled and it changes with time and circumstance. She skips the theatrics, what you’d expect to be the meat of the story, and instead shows us the moments in between. The moments where it becomes real for the people living through it. The quiet moments when they make decisions without realizing they’ve been made. The vulnerable moments when they can’t quite face the totality of their situation so they each forge ahead toward a future they have yet to accept has altered irreversibly. Most incredibly, you are there when those layers of quiet self-deceit begin to peel away and are invited to witness the beautiful rawness of what’s underneath.

The writing was so good that I didn’t even realize just how good at first because she writes these people so realistically that it seems like you’re just looking in on these people’s lives. A story that you expect lots of flashes and bangs from, is really a slow burn. I didn’t even think I liked the book until I was finished and couldn’t stop thinking about it. I’ve gone back over and over in my mind to these people brought to life and when I re-read – something this book merits, likely more than once – I will not take the unassuming richness for granted.

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I’m having a hard time approaching the acknowledgment that Jones is a black author writing about a black family living a life that is forever altered because they are black. In a world full of people itching to be overnight experts on how someone different than yourself experiences life, I’d rather shut my mouth and listen. So I’ll just say this: I’m a white woman and that privilege does not give me a right to act like I know something about how a black family lives because I read this book. What I will say, and mean from the depth of my heart: It was enlightening, it was heart-wrenching and heart-filling, and I am better having read it. I will choose to see more because I read this book and was shown more.

The Immortalists: A Book Review

Let me start by saying thank you to my readers who voted for this book. I don’t think I could have picked a better title to launch my book review section of this blog. It’s not a long read at just shy of 350 pages, but the storytelling is rich and inviting. I think this will quickly become my favorite part of blogging because I love to talk about books almost as much as I love to talk about writing! But don’t worry, no spoilers will be uttered here.

The Immortalists begins with the four Gold siblings at various points along the bridge from childhood to adolescence. It’s the summer of ‘69 in New York City’s Lower East Side and in quiet understanding that the separation of age is threatening the closeness of their youth, Simon, Klara, David, and Varya embark on a quest to find the Woman on Hester Street who can tell you when you’ll die.

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Author Chloe Benjamin has managed to tell each sibling’s story, how they choose to accept or reject their prescribed fate, with such incredible honesty that to reach the end and remember that they are fiction is to accept a pang of grief. Each of the Gold siblings has an individualistic nature that seems to clatter and bang against their shared upbringing like rough seas against a levee wall. They each equally hold dear and at arm’s length their shared history and escape into their own versions of living, eventually leaving New York in search or in avoidance of their destinies.

I was most impressed with the underlying theme of communication. In small, easily overlooked ways Benjamin reveals the missed opportunities and understandings that are all too recognizable in our own lives. She quietly points to the differences in how we see ourselves and how others see us, gently prodding at the egocentric nature of us all. This book is filled with moments like this that invite reflection, without demanding it.

She spends time with each of the Golds, sharing their lives and the ghosts that haunted them in separate sections of the book. I’m not always a fan of this form of storytelling as it often feels disjointed and difficult to attach to the characters when only chunks of their stories are told, but this is not the case here. Benjamin skillfully allows small flashbacks to fill in the holes that feel more like the natural reflection of life than the storyteller trying to make it all connect. It almost feels like a series of novellas, each with their own arc. Writer and performer, Joselyn Hughes says, “Treat all your secondary characters like they think the book’s about them.” Benjamin executes this perfectly, allowing the impression you have of one sibling based on the perception of another to be altered entirely in raw and organic ways once you’ve entered their consciousness in the next section.

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I will warn you, there are some very graphic sex scenes in parts of this book. At first, I was disappointed to find them because I felt it was gratuitous and angling for shock value, but as I continued to read, I realized how important those moments were to the development of this particular character. There was an urgency in them that I came to realize was all too important to the story. While quite explicit, there’s something I appreciate about just how raw and real Benjamin writes these scenes. No apologies. I have to admire that in a writer.

The only real complaint I have is that I wanted more time with Daniel. His storyline started with the same richness and revelation as the others but rushed to its climax. I’m not a fan of fluff and filler, but there was a leap made that I don’t know that I was quite ready for.

People who like the show This Is Us will love this book as it follows a similar slow reveal of the varying perspectives of family members, the stories we tell ourselves, and how they become our reality. The book jacket calls it a “family love story” and I can’t think of a better term to describe it. It’s beautifully somber and yet hopeful. I finished it with a sigh.

I look forward to reading more material from Chloe Benjamin for her sharp descriptions of benign things and her spatial awareness of how stories can best unfold. This is some soul-bearingly intimate writing, and I can’t wait for more.

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