Posts Tagged book reviews by Amy Steele
With or Without You by Caroline Leavitt. Algonquin| August 4, 2020| 288 pages | $26.95| ISBN: 9781616207793
The way you expect your life to be isn’t often the way it ends up being. Societal pressures and outside influences affect decision-making. People change over time and sometimes love relationships don’t work anymore or just don’t fit. Why do some people languish in relationships that aren’t particularly satisfying anymore? When do you just let go of a relationship, even if you’ve been in it for a substantial amount of time?
Stella and Simon, both 42, live in New York, have been together for 20 years and don’t have any children. An RN, Stella wants a stability and a family. Simon, a musician, still dreams of success and fame in the music industry. Stella and Simon have different personalities and demeanors. Stella is strong, independent, organized, goal-oriented. Simon is laid back and not super responsible. He lives the musician lifestyle— he’s laid back and frequently takes drugs.
“She had given up things for him before. After their first year together, she’d left her job as an RN because it was so exciting to travel with him. And then being on the road got old, or maybe just she did. But by the end of her second year touring with him, she began to feel the need to be a nurse again. It was like a physical pull. She missed having a community of doctors, nurses, and staff that she saw every day.”
It had almost been out of character for Stella to fall in love with Simon— “He came over to see her the next night, and the next, and suddenly there she was, responsible Stella with both feet firmly planted, Stella who never missed a shift, who read books and adored classical music, falling heedlessly for a rocker with an impulsive lifestyle and a way with words, simply because he cared so much about her, Iike no one ever had before.”
As someone who has tried to make relationships work with people who don’t have the same values as me or who don’t have a compatible personality or aren’t going to learn and grow over the years, I found myself deeply connected with this novel. As a music journalist I’ve had many encounters with musicians. I understand the charisma and the draw involved. Someone you might not look at on the street becomes 10x more attractive on stage playing an instrument and/or singing. As a middle-aged woman, I completely comprehend wondering how time flew by and why aren’t I more fulfilled in my life?
On the eve of the start a tour that he hopes will catapult his stagnant music career, Simon convinces Stella to take drugs with him and she falls into a coma for two months. Simon can’t make it out on tour and his band mates find a replacement. He doesn’t know what to do with himself now that he’s no longer in a band. The coma completely transforms Stella. She’s now an artist with a remarkable ability to draw portraits in which she’s able to capture a person’s innermost desires and feelings. While Stella was in the coma, Simon got close to Stella’s best friend. Do Stella and Simon choose loyalty or independence?
At turns melancholy, amusing, relatable and infuriating, With or Without You is a thoughtful novel about choices, identity, self-worth in relationships and careers and remaining true to yourself. It’s about questioning everything that makes you happy and what you should do vs. what truly fulfills you. It’s a complex and unique read.
An American Marriage by Tayari Jones
–As its title suggests, this is a novel about marriage. About an American marriage. about the institution of marriage and how it fits or does not fit individual aspirations and dispositions. Recently married couple Celestial and Roy have promising careers in Atlanta—Celestial as an artist and Roy in business. Celestial earned an advanced art degree in New York. She’s focused and determined to excel in the art world. Both she and Roy graduated from historically black colleges. Growing up with wealthy parents affords Celestial the ability to pursue her creative endeavors. Marriage often doesn’t align with a creative spirit.
At its core it’s a novel about the black experience. About what it means to be black in America. According to the NAACP, African Americans comprised 34% of the 6.8 million correctional population in 2014. African Americans are incarcerated at a rate of 5 times that of white Americans. It’s a reality that black Americans will be more likely to know someone in prison or be personally affected by the criminal justice system. It’s a reality that black men get targeted and get wrongfully accused or generally screwed over by the system.
As the novel progresses, the strong, vibrant writing allows readers to become absorbed in Celestial and Roy’s marriage and relationship as well as their relationship to their friends and family. Through these characters, author Tayari Jones explores family and love by delving into step-parenting, wandering biological fathers, fidelity and abandonment. How does the type of family the characters grew up in affect them as adults.
Any Man by Amber Tamblyn
— If you’re looking for an intense, intelligent and engulfing feminist thriller, you must read ANY MAN. Author Amber Tamblyn challenges rape culture and the problematic treatment of victims and glorification of violence and misogyny through this thriller about a female serial rapist. The novel follows six men: an English teacher, a struggling standup comedian, a bi-racial web designer, a high school student, an alt-right media personality and a transgender man. A uniquely irreverent and impressively original novel, social commentary and crime thriller meld with insightful, sharp prose and diverse writing styles. She weaves in tweets, poetry, internet chat room, a radio talk show. She also flips everything one expects in thriller.
The Collector’s Apprentice by B.A. Shapiro
–It’s 1922 and a young woman creates a new identity and endeavors to recover her family’s art collection and exact revenge on the fiance who conned her out of her money and reputation. From Philadelphia to Paris, it’s a whirlwind of a historical fiction thriller.
Crudo by Olivia Laing
— The ecru cover with black lettering and a dismembered fly in the middle of Crudo’s cover pulled me in with its darkness. This might be a slim novel but it’s packed with provocative prose, eccentricities, witty observations and overall intellectual prowess not often accomplished through such brevity and through experimental style. It’s not easy to explain when nothing and everything occurs. It’s a feverish and daring stream of consciousness about our destructive and often restrictive society. Finding an element of safety and belonging can be overwhelming. Author Olivia Laing (<em>The Lonely City</em>) impressively wrote her fictional debut in real time over the course of seven weeks.
Disoriental by Nejar Djavadi
— A gorgeous, exquisite, smart and meditative novel about an Iranian family and its struggles and triumphs. As Kimia Sadr sits in a fertility clinic in Paris she reminisces about family myths and ancestry. She ponders how she got to be where she is at this moment. She recollects her family history as well as Iran’s history and how it’s made her who she is today. Kimia is a lesbian and she’s decided to have a baby with a man that she met during her travels. He’s HIV+ and so they need to use the clinic. Kimia’s been wandering for years in an attempt to figure out where she belongs. For those unfamiliar, it’s the ideal primer to Iranian revolutionary history. Abundant information gets beautifully shared throughout this novel in an accessible and manageable manner. It’s definitely a challenging yet completely rewarding read.
Eventide by Therese Bohman
With an emphasis on culture and art, Eventide is a meditation on solitude, success and meaningfulness. Working in a male-dominated field, art history professor Karolina Andersson begins working as thesis advisor to a male student who claims to have discovered new works of art by a female artist in the early twentieth century. He’s attractive and intriguing to Karolina who recently ended a long relationship and finds herself wondering if she wasted her prime years with this man and if she’s even doing what will make her the most fulfilled. She’s plateaued in her career and doesn’t have as much interest in it as she had when she was younger. As a woman who also wasted many years in a bad relationship, who never married or had children and in her late 40s, I found myself completely commiserating with Karolina.
Girls Burn Brighter by Shobha Rao
— a devastating, provocative and beautiful novel which illuminates the horrific reality of sex trafficking and domestic abuse. Growing up in an impoverished village in India, Savitha and Poornima lack choices such as furthering their education. Instead, they’re expected to marry young and start families. After Poornima’s mother dies, she’s expected to care for her father and younger siblings. Which she’d rather do than be shipped off to marry. The bright spot remains the strong friendship that Savitha and Poornima established. They create saris on looms which Poornima’s father owns. The women initially think that they might be able to succeed on their own and not have to agree to an arranged marriage. Savitha’s independent spirit and veracity inspires Poornima. Together the women become determined to forge a better reality. Although these women face repeated horrific abuse at the hands of men, author Shobha Rao makes readers both root for the women and wonder what they’ll do next to escape their current predicament.
Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot
How to Be Famous by Caitlin Moran
–as a C-level and not famous music critic, I loved this novel and found much to which I could relate in this smart, funny, observant novel.
The Incendiaries by R.O. Kwon
— this novel is weird and dark and brilliant. it’s about identity, connection, spirituality, faith. a young woman joins a cult, becomes completely immersed in it and in doing so, grows apart from her boyfriend. he feels completely alienated but he also wants to save her from this cult.
The Monk of Mokha by Dave Eggers
–I really like Dave Eggers’s nonfiction books. even though i’m a tea drinker, this book about a man bringing coffee from Yemen to the United States is extremely interesting. it’s challenging in many ways. Yemen is a tribal country with much poverty and civil unrest. He’s of Yemen descent which helps immensely. I’m fascinated with Yemen. It’s complicated.
My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh
— LOVED IT. very relatable. plus I appreciate dark humor. Before I discovered yoga and meditation I would often isolate from the world by downing a bunch of pills. After a bad break-up, I spent three weeks consuming solely Diet Coke and Klonipin. I wanted to shut everything out. It was inherently easier to sleep through the misery in hopes I’d eventually feel better. It wasn’t the best coping mechanism. In case anyone’s wondering, I no longer drink soda and rarely rely on Klonipin. I still have terrible agoraphobia and anxiety but numbing myself isn’t going to fix that and there are much more productive uses of my time.
Everything appealed to me about the novel from the title to the cover—a portrait of a sullen Victorian woman—to the description to this sentence in the opening paragraph: “I’d get two large coffees with cream and six sugars each, chug the first one in the elevator on the way back up to my apartment, then sip the second one slowly while I watched movies and ate animal crackers and took trazodone and Ambien and Nembutal until I feel asleep again.”
The Parking Lot Attendant by Nafkote Tamirat
— unusual novel about a female teenager and the Ethiopian community in Boston. she lives with her father. her mother took off. she becomes friendly with a substitute father father, Ayale, who works as a parking lot attendant. She becomes a runner for him, regularly delivering packages to several members of the community. She doesn’t know what she’s delivering and doesn’t ask until there’s some trouble.
I appreciated the beautiful writing and sharp, dark humor and mystery element.
Who is Vera Kelly? By Rosalie Knecht
–a fantastic spy novel with a charming central character
–Amy Steele, January 9, 2019
Tightrope by Simon Mawer. Other Press| November 2015| 512 pages | $15.95| ISBN: 978-1-59051-723-9
In Tightrope, author Simon Mawer focuses once again on Marian Sutro, the central figure in 2011’s Trapeze which details Marian’s experiences during WWII. It’s a novel I recall fondly—a magnificent story that tracks Marian’s training and challenges working in espionage during the war.
Bilingual [French mother and English father] and well-educated Marian Sutro worked in Special Operations for Britain in WWII. After her release she returns to her parents’ home in Great Britain and begins to forge a post-war existence for herself. As many returning from a war, she finds herself distant from her family and unsure about her place in the world. She wants independence but isn’t sure about her identity at times. Is she a war hero—she has the awards to prove it—or is she just another woman chasing contentment? She finds work for a peace-keeping organization.
While I adored Trapeze it came out three years ago and I don’t remember minute details so I’m not sure how this can qualify. Is it a sequel? The novel stands alone so I’m not sure I’d call it that. However, it’s the second novel about the same character so by definition, it’s a sequel. When I tweeted about this I got a response from the author himself so it should be considered sequel. I got slightly confused by the narrator at times, a man who knew Marian when she was a teenager. He’d always had a crush on her. I’m not sure why the novel needed this narrator. At one point I forgot who he was and had to turn back to the novel’s beginning for a reminder. But then I decided I’d not let it bother me and just appreciate Marian Sutro and this novel. Mawer writes exquisitely and Tightrope draws you in to Marian’s life, the consequences of her actions during WWII and how she copes in the present.
Why is Marian Sutro a superb literary character worth revisiting? Mawer writes: “Try to see yourself as this lot see you. A stunning woman, dressed like a film star, who has done things no one here would dream of. Parachuted into occupied territory, lived a secret life, been captured and I don’t know, tortured probably.” She’s an independent spirit. She’s a feminist. She has lavish style and intensity. You want to be her or be friends with her. She exudes a magnetic charm and fierceness. Her military experience forces her into a gray zone. Whose side is she on? She was a spy and POW in WWII. She has sex with whomever she wants. She married a man who intensely pursued her, not particularly for love but perhaps for companionship. It doesn’t keep her from affairs with other men during her travels. On the cover, Marian looks like she’s in a Tamara de Lempicka painting. She’d be an ideal subject for the bold artist.
Mawer includes cold war fears, atomic bombs, a gay scientist (Marian’s brother) as well as Marian’s love affair with a Russian Jew. On this relationship, Mawer writes: “In Absolon’s presence she no longer thought of Benoit, or Clement, or Veronique or Alan. They all seemed irrelevant. And she no longer contemplated death and betrayal but speculated instead on the possibility of staying with this man, Absolon, for the rest of her life, in Canada maybe, under an assumed name. Absurd, of course, but she had these thoughts.” Marian’s brother is one of the scientists working on weapons and, more importantly, bombs. He’s gay during a particularly dangerous time to be gay in England. Marian scoffs at his choice of lover: “Her brother queer, the lover of some skinny, common youth.”
Plenty of elements keep you intrigued. It’s not the confusing John Le Carre-type espionage plot which I could never follow. This novel remains character-driven with lovely descriptive passages and a riveting narrative.
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Other Press.
Both these psychological thrillers drew me in and kept me reading to find out what would happen to the women involved.
The Pocket Wife By Susan Crawford.
William Morrow| March 2015|320 pages |$25.99| ISBN: 978-0-062362858
A woman’s mental illness grows increasingly worse as she suspects her husband cheated on her and that she may have killed her neighborhood friend Celia and erased it from her memory. Dana Catrell married a safe, quiet man—Peter– whom she thought would balance her and enable her bipolar disorder to remain mostly dormant. “For a while she took the medicine that made the world around her such a faded, unbright place to be, let it hold her in its sagging, dimpled arms until with a sigh she shuffled into the rest of her life, eventually trading the drug for a tall blue-eyed husband and a world more numbing than lithium could ever be.”
When Celia winds up dead, the day after the two women argued, Dana spirals out of control and her thoughts race. She’s not sure whether to implicate herself or her husband in the suspicious death. Crawford writes commendably about mental illness. It’s realistic. “This time Dana feels anger surging through her—anger for the lost, baffled way she’s lived her life, for the father who deserted her, for her enigmatic, cheating husband; for the cruel, disabling illness wrestling with her mind.” A great psychological thriller to read over a weekend.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from William Morrow.
Where They Found Her By Kimberly McCreight.
Harper| April 2015|336 pages |$26.99| ISBN: 978-0-062225467
A baby is found in the woods near a prestigious university campus. Whose baby is it? How did it die? Who abandoned it? Using multiple female perspectives author Kimberly McCreight weaves a page-turning psychological thriller as complex as her first novel Reconstructing Amelia. Molly a freelance journalist who recently lost her own child gets assigned the story. “Despite my initial vertigo, I was no longer conflicted about staying on the story. I wanted to, needed to write about it, and with an intensity that even I had to acknowledge was somewhat disconcerting.” Sandy struggles to survive—she’s attempting to pass her GED– as her wayward mom spends nights out and skirts bill collectors. Then there’s rigid and regulated Barbara, married to the Chief of Police and concerned for her youngest child’s outbursts in school. McCreight creates complicated characters, develops each character and utilizes their innate differences to effectively advance the story. Many twists will keep readers captivated to the end.
–review by Amy Steele
FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.