book review: Madame Zero

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Madame Zero: 9 stories by Sarah Hall. Custom House| July 2017| 192 pages | $23.99| ISBN: 9780062657060

RATING: ****/5*

In this brilliant collection of dark and strange stories, author Sarah Hall deftly examines relationships, sexuality, existence, nature. She dips into different characters and POVs with exquisite writing throughout, making for a compelling and rewarding read. Leaning into middle age, I’m immersed in existentialism and appreciated the subject matter as well as Hall’s bold, often disturbing and unique writing style.  It’s easy to become engulfed in each story. I prefer to read a short story and let it settle a bit before delving into another. These stories seethe into your mind and you need time to fully absorb the details.

A woman transforms into a fox and her husband attempts to sustain a relationship with her in “Mrs. Fox.” At first he brings her home and tries to co-exist but the fox yearns for freedom. He resigns himself to this new reality. Later, he runs into her out in the woods and they develop a comfortable, respectable bond of sorts. Hall writes: “To be comfortable inside one’s sadness is not valueless. This too will pass. All things tend towards transience, mutability. It is in such mindful moments, when everything is both held and released, that revelation comes.”

In “Wilderness,” a woman on a dangerous, challenging hike with her boyfriend and one of her boyfriend’s friends [ “Zachary’s prevailing mood was melancholia bordering on despair.”] contemplates her mortality. Hall writes: “The railway tunnel had a strange industrial eeriness, a primed feeling, like its memory of trains hadn’t faded or it was convinced trains were still coming. The clinker ground underfoot like old bones.”

An epidemiologist examines guilt during a deadly viral outbreak in “One in Four:” “The truth is, we’re all so desperate to carry on, but we’re nothing really, just specs on the glass.”

In “Evie,” a woman’s sexually charged behavior turns alarming for her husband. And Hall really delves in. She GOES THERE: “The man on the screen pulled out of the woman. She presented herself, wider. Her genitals were depilated, the flesh dark purple. The man knelt, put his face between her legs and began to tongue the crease. Evie rolled on her back, held her head up so she could still see the screen.”

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Custom House.

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book review: Mrs. Fletcher

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Mrs. Fletcher by Tom Perrotta. Scribner| August 2017| 320 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 9781501144028

RATING: *****/5*

It’s amazing sometimes that you read the right book at the right moment. In reading you might feel connected with and find solace in characters on the page. It’s comforting to read relatable characters. Although I’ve never been married and don’t have any children I felt a kinship with Eve Fletcher. She’s figuring out what she wants to do next. Me too. She’s taking a class. Me too. She works as executive director at the senior center. I’ve worked in elder care. An apt description: “It was hard sometimes, dealing with old people, having to cast out the unfortunate souls who could no longer control their bladders or bowels, trying to reassure the ones who couldn’t locate their cars in the parking lot, or remember their home address. It was hard to hear about their scary diagnoses and chronic ailments, to attend the funerals of so many people she’d grown fond of, or at least gotten used to. And it was hard to think about her own life, rushing by so quickly, speeding down the same road.”

After Eve’s son went off to college, she felt a bit adrift and disconnected. She’s looking for meaning. Eve enrolls in a gender studies class at the community college which is taught by a trans woman. Once she starts class she finds how much she enjoys being part of this intellectual experience and academic community. At night she scrolls though her Facebook feed “reminding herself that she wasn’t really alone.” She also finds herself hooked delving into porn. And why not? She’s exploring her sexuality. Her marriage ended after her husband met a woman through the Casual Encounters section of Craigslist.

As he’s effectively done in previous novels, author Tom Perrotta details the tragicomic trials and travails for Eve and those around her. On her family: “Her only real alternative was to drive down to New Jersey and spend a couple of days with her widowed mother and never-married sister, who were living together in the house where Eve had spent her childhood. She was overdue for a visit, but it was always so exhausting to see them—they bickered constantly, like an old married couple—and she just didn’t have the patience right now.” He provides biting and relevant commentary on suburban life– from its quiet moments to its meticulous homogenous appearance. Mrs. Fletcher contains several points of view: Eve Fletcher; Eve’s colleague Amanda; Eve’s son Brandon and Brandon’s classmate Amber. Perrotta excels at developing colorful, flawed characters in an amusing yet warm manner.

Amanda: “Without realizing it, she’d been part of a hipster reverse migration, legions of overeducated, underpaid twenty-somethings getting squeezed out of the city, spreading beyond the pricey inner suburbs to the more affordable outposts, like Haddington, transforming the places they’d once fled, making them livable again, or at least tolerable.”

Amber: “You were supposed to love the weekend, that all-too-brief window of freedom, your only chance to wash away the stink of boredom with a blast of fun. Use it to drink and fuck yourself into a state of blissful oblivion, the memory of which would power you through the work week that followed, at the end of which you could do it all over again, ad infinitum, or at least until you met the right guy (or gal) and settled down.”

Eve: “It had been like this all winter long. She found it difficult to relax after dark—couldn’t curl up with a book, or settle down long enough to watch a movie from beginning to end. She was full of nervous energy, a nagging jittery feeling that there was somewhere she needed to go, something else—something urgent and important—that she needed to do. But that was the catch: there was nowhere for her to go, and nothing to do.”

Definitely one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Perfect summer reading.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Scribner.

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book review: Girl Ghosted

girl ghosted

Girl Ghosted by Lucy English. New Sun Press| August 15, 2017| 285 pages| ISBN: 9780692882238

RATING: ****/5*

Social worker Penny Wade connects with a guy she met online but then doesn’t hear from him. Has he ghosted Penny? Ghosting occurs when someone abruptly ceases all communication with a person they’ve dated. It’s the worst. In my experience men are terrible at communicating and it’s easier for them to just not communicate at all. Most women appreciate respect and honesty. Penny reflects: “It takes months, if not years, to get to know someone well enough to decide on a partnership. Maybe. Or maybe you can know kind of quickly.” My therapist has said that to me a few times after telling me I bail on guys I’m dating too early. I think that being in my 40s I know what I like and what I don’t like. While I’m open to letting a relationship develop as it will, I’m not going to invest a ton of time in an unworkable situation.

Relatable conversation between Penny and her roommate:

[Penny] “Is he hot?”
[Gloria] “Pretty hot.”
“Smart?”
“Very.”
“Thoughtful?”
“Yep. He makes suggestions about what we should do but lets me know he’s open to other ideas. I like it when guys take a little initiative instead of saying ‘what d’ya wanna do?’ you know?”
Yeah. I definitely know. And you learn some stuff from their ideas and also how they react if you suggest adjustments.”

Penny’s a friendly, determined, earnest 30something who works for Community Counseling Services which often assists the Department of Children and Families (DCF). Penny’s tasked with investigating a neglect case involving a young mother named Ashley and her two children, eight-year-old Olivia and six-year-old Noah. School administrators reported that the children were “dirty, hungry, and often missed school.”

Author Lucy English worked as a sociology professor and she provides extensive detail and an authenticity to this case and Penny’s work. This novel appealed to me with its focus on the germane subject of online dating as well as its Boston setting. English peppers the novel with plenty of Boston area locations such as Henrietta’s Table in Harvard Square, Mela in the South End, Kickstand Café in Arlington, Granary Tavern in the financial district, Trade on the waterfront, the New England Aquarium and Panificio Bakery on Charles Street. Penny visits some prime spots.

This is the third novel in the Penny Wade mystery series and the first I’ve read. It definitely reads as a stand-alone. There’s plenty of character development and description which allows readers to become invested in Penny, her work and her social life. Her supervisor Nathan gives Penny sage dating advice: “What if you started with evaluating a man’s ability to see and love you for who you are, to communicate well, to practice give-and-take. If he doesn’t get gold stars on those, you move on, no matter how good-looking or otherwise compelling he is.” Absolutely. It’s challenging but it’s the best thing to do. Wish I’d learned it in my 30s instead of my 20s. After reading Girl Ghosted I’d absolutely read another Penny Wade mystery.

–review by Amy Steele

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book review: Morningstar

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Morningstar: Growing Up with Books by Ann Hood. W.W. Norton| August 2017| 192 pages| $22.95| ISBN: 9780393254815

RATING: ****/5*

I meandered my way through these essays because that’s generally what I do with essays and short stories. I read one, read something else and then read another. It’s quite a thoughtful mediation on reading and growing up with books. Ann Hood [Comfort, The Obituary Writer] recalls memorable and influential books. Hood writes: “How can I describe what reading gave me? An escape from my lonely school days, where girls seemed to speak a language I didn’t understand. A glimpse into the possibilities of words and stories. A curiosity about the world and about people—the young Amelia Earhart seeing her first airplane, Helen Keller’s silent world, Nancy Drew solving mysteries, David Copperfield surviving the streets of Victorian London.” She provides plenty of insight into her personal life, family and growing up in a mill town outside Providence, Rhode Island. I’ve read some of the books mentioned and will likely read many others she referenced. Bookworms will find much in which to relate in these essays. She writes: “…whatever book it is, it falls into your hands at just the right moment when you need to read it. It transforms you. Perhaps it lifts you up when you are at your lowest; perhaps it shows you what love is, or what it feels like to lose love; perhaps it brings you places far away or shows you how to stay put when you need to.” When I finished these essays I semi-smiled and nodded knowingly about the power in reading and the comfort one finds within the pages of books.

on Marjorie Morningstar:

“Maybe that’s why i reread it every year. Maybe. as time beats me up and grief or loneliness or a new kind of bittersweet melancholy take hold, I need to remind myself to keep going, keep reaching, to not forget the girl who believed she could have everything and anything at all.”

On The Bell Jar:

“An immediate bestseller, Plath’s story of beautiful, brilliant Esther Greenwood’s breakdown spoke to my generation. The minds of women were just being discussed openly as feminism soared. Questions of career, sex, marriage, and finding yourself were, I suspect, what kept me up at night.”

On The Grapes of Wrath:

“When I finished reading The Grapes of Wrath, so many things about writing a novel became clear to me. Plot. Character. Conflict. Escalating stakes. Metaphor. The Grapes of Wrath begins with a drought and ends with a flood.”

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from W.W. Norton.

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book review: Impressions of Paris

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Impressions of Paris by Cat Seto. Harper Design| April 2017| 176 pages | $19.99| ISBN: 9780062493071

RATING: *****/5*

A lovely adult picture book. The perfect gift for someone who appreciates art and beautiful things. Cat Seto sketches her way through museums, cafes, gardens, bookstores and the streets of Paris. Recalling her time in Paris through watercolor illustrations, she divides the book into four chapters: color; pattern; perspective and rhythm. There’s a reason so many creative types find inspiration in Paris. Culture, art, architecture. There’s art in everything from the buildings to the food to the streets to the fashion and to the residents.

Seto shares her personal experiences and connections to Paris as well as various art principles. It’s a combination memoir and art class within these pages. My strongest memories of Paris include chocolate crepes, art museums and impressive buildings. And eating Chocolat chaud and French bread for breakfast every morning.

On Le Boutique de Saint-Paris: “I have sketchbooks filled with etchings of flowers, and many a pattern has emerged from these tiny discoveries.” On Jardin des Plantes: “I was going to visit the Jardin des Plantes for only a few minutes. I instead spent days there, sketching among all the wanderers, art students, and schoolchildren.” Whether you’ve visited Paris or long to visit, this striking book provides a wonderful examination of the artistic sensibility that attracts so many artists, authors and musicians to the City of Light.

Cat Seto is a San-Francisco-based artist and the founder and creative director of the stationary collection Ferme a Papier. She holds a BFA in painting and an MFA in fiction/creative writing from the University of Michigan.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

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new music: Harp Samuels; Luna; 2 by bukowski

Harp Samuels, “Secrets”

Low-key beautiful. Soothing and reflective. The kind of music I like to listen to on a lazy Sunday, or in the evening or pretty much anytime. Australian singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist Harp Samuels has composed music for television and is an award-winning professional photographer. influences include Damien Rice, Bon Iver, The Civil Wars and John Mayer. His debut album Wanting will be released September 3, 2017.

Luna, “Let Me Dream if I Want To”

This song oozes coolness with its funky swanky beat. The sonorous and self-assured vocals and that hook! Can’t wait to hear Luna’s new album of full-length covers. A Sentimental Education [Double Feature Records] as well as the instrumentals EP called A Place of Greater Safety.  Both will be released on September 22, 2017. Luna is: Dean Wareham, Justin Harwood, Stanley Demeski, Sean Eden, Lee Wall, Britta Phillips.

2 by bukowksi feat. Kid Moxie,  “Hot Summer”

dreamy new song from Berlin based duo Achilles Charbilas and George Malamidis featuring Kid Moxie. This is the first of several 7″ singles that 2 by bukowski will release this year.

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book review: Before Everything

32970440Before Everything by Victoria Redel. Viking| June 2017| 288 pages | $26.00| ISBN: 9780735222571

RATING: ***/5*

In hospice for cancer, Anna’s old childhood friends gather at her house. Before Everything moves from present to past to provide the reader with details about each woman’s connection to Anna. Comfort, support and nostalgia connect this group of friends. Each woman has a specific relationship with Anna and with each other and then as a group. There’s the group think and then the individual’s thoughts. Whenever the novel veered into the precious and perfect I lost interest. Lovely crisp writing kept me reading. Author Victoria Redel powerfully chronicles Anna’s battle with cancer and hospice care and dying. This aspect of the novel interested me most. On fear of dying: “That was what Helen had never asked, what over all these years of treatment and periods of health Helen and The Old Friends have trained themselves not to ask. It was a tacit agreement. The answer was too obvious; it loomed in each moment’s specific worry.”

Despite caring so much there’s still a level of competition between the friends: “But Helen knows the answer. She’s known it since she arrived two weeks ago and began her adamant petition to pull Anna from hospice. She knew it back at the pond when she agreed to help Anna if Anna asked. Helen’s job all these years was to keep Anna away from fear and close to the yes. But Anna is not afraid. Again, Anna is doing something before Helen. It has always been this way. Boys. Drugs. Marriage. Children. Even the pregnancy that Anna ended. Over and over. Anna went first. Now this.”

I appreciated the realistic description of outsider views of these old friends: “He was glad for her yelp. Any dose of dark humor was better than all the treacly concern he heard from her visitors.” A newer friend thought: “The Old Friends. Whatever they called themselves, there was always a pecking order. Pretty pathetic considering the circumstance.” When my friend’s mom fought cancer, some of her friends kind of pushed my mom away when my mom wanted to help. I can’t imagine still being so connected to childhood friends. At every phase of my life I’ve lost friends and made new friends. I maintained friendships with high school friends into college and some college friends post-college and sure I am still connected to some high school and college friends via Facebook but if I really needed someone would these friends be there for me? The novel started strong and petered out toward the end. It seemed too much, these women and their near perfect lives and near perfect friendships. At the last high school reunion I attended a friend said that it was impossible to know what other classmates had endured despite outward appearances to the contrary. I get it. Unfortunately, I lost a connection to the various characters.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Viking.

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