Posts Tagged Algonquin Books



While on assignment in India, Clare, an international journalist, becomes stricken by an illness which destroys her memory. Once back in the states she’s forced to rely on her husband Charlie and her best friend Rachel to reconstruct the past and her memories. Does she remember specifics of her marriage and her friendship, the things that sustain these relationships? Claire senses that something isn’t right but doesn’t know if it’s her marriage or her friendship or a combination. Can she even trust Charlie and Rachel. The novel is effectively told in different points of view and jumps back and forth from present to past and back again.

I spoke with author Joanna Luloff by phone earlier this month.


Amy Steele: Where did you get the idea for this novel?

Joanna Luloff: My mom and I talked about her memory loss and how she had to borrow other people’s memories. A lot of years later when I was actually in graduate school, we started to have this correspondence where I would send her a photograph and I’d ask her what she saw in it and she’d do the same for me. I also did an experimental project for a class that I was taking.

I became more interested in the people surrounding someone with memory loss and how it affects them. To lose the confirmation from other people. The story got shifted away from just a person with memory loss to those people surrounding that person and it started to shift away from my family into fictional characters and what it meant to gradually recover their love for each other and the secrets and all this conflict.

Amy Steele: A lot of times you want to let things go from the past and live in the present but obviously there are certain connections which affect how you’re fitting in with certain people.

Joanna Luloff: The idea that memory is very subjective anyway. We frame the story as we remember it. My brother and I have very different recollections of the same event. As a fiction writer, I love to elaborate and add to the story. I know my stories are often changed through imagination.

Sometimes I think you can rewrite and event or create the situation you’d want to have or rework a situation/ investigate it.

Amy Steele: Did you prefer writing a certain character?

Joanna Luloff: I probably had the easiest time writing Rachel’s character because she gets to be an observer and be on neutral ground but she also has her own secrets. She sees so much so it was fun. And Charlie might have been the hardest because he’s a man from England. I lived in England for a really short time and I was really struck by the reserved politeness and stoicism. I tried to channel a bit of that restraint which British men seem to have.

Amy Steele: Do you think writing his character was the greatest challenge in the overall writing of the novel?

Joanna Luloff: I think the biggest challenge I had was not about character or voice but the structure. I needed to figure out the story’s chronology. For Claire, obviously her memories were super jumbled and the characters are constantly moving from the present to the past. My first drafts of the novel were disjointed.

Amy Steele: I was skeptical of everyone involved. How do you organize? How long did it take you to write the novel?

Joanna Luloff: It didn’t take me a long time to write the first draft. I was at least able to knock out the basic foundation of the book. It was a lot of revisions and layering in the mystery or base suspicion of what the truth might be.

I wrote it out longhand and it worked out well because I was able to rip out pages and lay them out on the floor and play around with what needed to go where and I think it helped to be able to see it in different forms. Once that was in place then I did some adding and subtracting where I thought there needed to be more questioning of the character. I was able to play a bit more with how much the characters were withholding from each other, why they were doing that, all the secrecies and the past injuries to layer in eventually.

Joanna Luloff received her MFA from Emerson College and her PhD from University of Missouri. She teaches at the University of Colorado.

She’ll be appearing at Harvard Book Store on Monday, July 16, 2018.


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book review: We Love You, Charlie Freeman


We Love You, Charlie Freeman by Kaitlyn Greenidge. Algonquin| March 8, 2016| 326 pages | $25.95| ISBN: 978-1-61620-467-9

RATING: *****/5*

We Love You, Charlie Freeman stands out as a thoughtful and provocative novel which effectively and creatively winds together numerous subjects from coming-of-age, first love, adolescence, sisterhood, race, anthropology, history and family dynamics. In 1990, a family relocates from Dorchester, Massachusetts to the Berkshires to teach sign language to a chimpanzee at the Toneybee Institute for Great Ape Research.

Mainly Laurel, the mother, will work with Charlie, the chimpanzee. Both daughters– teenager Charlotte and 11-year-old Callie– know sign language and the entire family with live with Charlie as if he’s another member of the family, sort of a brother. That’s the intent. Charlotte and Callie went to a “black, deaf overnight camp in the backwoods of Maryland.” Charlotte surmises it was for the two to make friends. She notes: “In Dorchester, our constant signing, our bookish ways and bans from fast-food restaurants and booty music, assured that me and Callie were unpopular on the block.” Debut novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge grew up in Boston and accurately describes Dorchester, the Berkshires and race in Massachusetts. The family soon learns about the institute’s notorious reputation, insidious rumors and unusual history.

Greenidge rotates points-of-view between the family members as well as a black woman name Nymphadora with an unusual association with the institution in 1929. Nymphadora describes herself: “I am a thirty-six-year-old unmarried, orphaned Negro schoolteacher, in charge of a room full of impressionable young colored minds and every night, I sing a dirty nursery rhyme to help me go to sleep. It is enough to laugh, if I did not always feel like weeping.”

Nymphadora lives in the mostly black Spring City. Back then researcher Dr. Gardner hires Nymphadora as a model to sketch. He sketches her nude and asks her to pose in unusual style. One day Nymphadora comes across the sketches Dr. Gardner made but instead of her face they contain the face of one of the chimpanzees. Appalled and upset, Nymphadora takes one of the sketches with her and writes to Dr. Gardner. Attempts and fails to collect an explanation or apology. The layers to Dr. Gardner’s shocking studies highlight misconceptions and stereotypes about race. Greenridge writes beautifully about the relationship that develops between Nympahdora and Dr. Gardner. She’s naïve. She trusts him enough to expose herself fully to him. He takes advantage and embarrasses her as well as many others.

In her new high school, although she’s one of few black students, Charlotte enjoys being rather anonymous. She notes: “Here, in Courtland County, I had the benefit of being unknown. Back home in Dorchester, I had been with the same kids since kindergarten and they all remembered me as the know-it-all who got uppity and insulted everyone in a secret language she spoke with her hands.” Charlotte’s dealing with a crush at school on another black student named Adia Breitling who teaches her many things about black culture, its history, the music and provides her information about what’s rumored about the institute. Charlotte notes that according to the Breitlings: “Black people could love Joni Mitchell but still claim to hate white singers. According to them, these were the things black people did not do: eat mayonnaise; drink milk; listen to Elvis Presley; watch Westerns or Dynasty; read Time magazine; appreciate Jack London; know the lyrics to Kenny Rogers’s songs; suffer fools; enjoy the cold or any kind of winter.”

One day Charlotte even finds her mom breastfeeding Charlie which leads her to question the entire situation. It’s clearly upsetting and weird for her. She also comes across information about the experiments conducted on black people by the institute in the 1930s. She speaks out at a dinner with Ms. Julia Toneybee-Leroy one evening and throws everyone into a frenzy. I preferred and appreciated Charlotte’s point-of-view most of all and it might have been as effective if she told the Freeman’s story.

Immediately bonding with Charlie, Laurel carries him around like a baby. He’s instantly attached and rather protective of their relationship. He wants no one to come between him and Laurel. This position at the institute training Charlie could change everything for Laurel. She’s always insisted on using black sign language versus white. “She should have started signing white again, at least get a shot at the better jobs, but Laurel was stubborn. She truly believed that she could win people over to her side of things. They only had to see black sign language, she was certain, to understand that is was special.” And Laurel does in the end choose Charlie over everything and everyone.

Callie grows jealous that her sister has a new friend and that her mom spends most of her time with Charlie. She starts over-eating and gains lots of weight. Charles, the father—who teaches at the school Charlotte attends–begins to grow apart from Laurel, abhors the entire experiment and decides to move out. This once close-knit family feels increasingly strained and pushed by Charlie the chimpanzee and Laurel’s fervent devotion to him. Eventually everything implodes.

–review by Amy Steele

Kaitlyn Greenidge will be reading at Porter Square Books on Thursday, March 17, 2016.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Algonquin Books.

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purchase at Amazon: We Love You, Charlie Freeman: A Novel

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book review: And West is West

and west is west

And West is West by Ron Childress. Algonquin| October 2015| 320 pages | $26.95| ISBN: 9781616205232

RATING: ****/5*

“In the previous century the sin of losing money was forgivable. Bankruptcy was lenient. The rich were neither so rich nor so greedy nor so paranoid. But with the American century shrinking in the rearview mirror, the country has given up on being the land of second chances, or even first. Basically, the new millennium sucks for latecomers.”

Beautiful cover and topical themes– millennials caught in the cross-fire of war and economics– drew me to this novel. Jessica is an Air Force drone pilot in Nevada. She drops bombs on terrorists, sometimes killing civilians in the process. Author Ron Childress writes: “Jessica had always charted her long-term future like a psychic predicting happiness: a disciplined twenty years would culminate in a military pension and return her to her beachside hometown in Florida.” Wall Street analyst Ethan works on an algorithm to allow his company to profit from terrorist activities. Childress writes: “This is what makes him useful to UIB: his combination of technical skill and real-world imagination, his ability to see connections that neither the pure programmer nor the pure trader is likely to see. He binges on coffee and Provigil to keep alert.” The global ramifications for both Jessica and Ethan prove intense, catastrophic and scary. In this debut novel, author Ron Childress convincingly writes about the military, the financial world and today’s millennials.

This is the first novel by Childress who left the tech marketing agency he founded with his wife in 2000 to pursue a writing career. He’d earned his bachelors, masters and PhD in literature. Before founding the company he worked as a communications manager. I appreciate this bio because many of us with English degrees and aspirations to write novels or memoirs work in communications.

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

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book review: This is Your Life, Harriet Chance!

harriet chance

This is Your Life, Harriett Chance! By Jonathan Evison.
Algonquin| September 2015| 304 pages| $25.95| ISBN: 978-1-61620-261-3

Rating: ****/5*

Dazzling quick read. Harriet Chance, a jagged edged and flawed woman [who wants to read about perfection?], finds out surprising news after her husband’s death. She takes the Alaskan cruise her husband paid for and planned with her daughter as an unexpected and rather undesirable travel companion. Of her daughter: “It breaks Harriet’s heart that Caroline squandered every opportunity, that she sabotaged her life with bad decisions.” I haven’t read that many authors that memorably chronicle old age or convincingly can write an older character. Muriel Spark [Memento Mori] comes to mind. It’s impressive that Jonathan Evison deftly gets into the mindset of a 78-year-old female character. Evison brings Harriet Chance to the reader during various ages in her life with candor and wit. Using a game show voice the narrator takes Harriet Chance back and forth from present to past to describe what occurred during her lifetime. The paths she chose. The paths she didn’t. The results. It’s about parenting and partnering and navigating life’s messiness and pitfalls. The edgy tone makes this novel superbly inventive, unique and fast-paced. Of Harriet Chance in her 20s: “All these years later, they’re still slapping your fanny around the office. Your salary doesn’t stretch that far. The work is exhausting. As both a woman and an assistant, you’re expected to work harder.” I like Harriet Chance in her early years– a scrappy survivor with realistic expectations. By 78, Harriet’s rather resigned yet remains unapologetic and opinionated. Can she and her daughter come to terms with each other now? This is a delightful, brutally honest novel that will keep you turning pages.

–review by Amy Steele

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Algonquin Books.

purchase copy here: This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance!

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