So Much a Part of You, by Polly Dugan

So Much a Part of You, by Polly Dugan
Publisher: Little, Brown & Co.
ISBN: 0316320323
240 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 10th June 2014
Sources: Goodreads

Are you still friends with the people you grew up with? Those whom you were inseparable through elementary school? High school? Is your current life where you planned for it to be when you entered into college? Or graduated? Is it even heading in the direction you originally planned?

Is your life what your ancestors imagined would come from their struggles and success? Are you building a life and family, looking at your own children or grandchildren and hoping for what type of future life they will have?

Despite all we put of ourselves into relationships, could everything turn out terribly different from what we desire?

These are the types of questions explored by Dugan in the short collection of chronological stories. Connected one-to-the-next with shared characters, the collection as a whole spans across a few generations and families to reveal the broad effects of the passage of time and changing circumstances on individuals and relationships.

So Much a Part of You is not a reading experience where you follow a protagonist through an exciting plot and get to live vicariously through the adventures and how much you ‘like’ the character. This is a literary collection, about matters more general, and deeper. The situations in the stories of this collection may include tragedies or condition you’ve never experienced, from physical accidents, to alcoholism, to one-night-stands, or an abortion. The characters may make choices that you have never faced, or think you would never make.

What is relatable, what is emotionally resonant and evokes reflection  is the general effect these situations and choices have on the characters in the stories and that the reader can then apply to their own personal life. For we have all faced rough situations and tragedy. We have all made choices, good and bad.

So too with the characters in So Much a Part of You. None of them end up where they may have expected. In some cases this is unfortunate, and in others it becomes clear that a new and better relationship has opened up in their life, that they would never have foreseen, but which for that particular time and place is exactly what they need, and dearly precious.

With the connected format of the collection, readers are able to see some characters from different perspectives and periods, creating a complexity that would be harder to obtain from a single short story. Dugan’s writing is fluid and conversational, making this a relatively quick read. The overall emotional reflection it could engender will last longer.

Four Stars out of Five

I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program.

Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto

Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto
Publisher: Viking (Penguin UK)
ISBN: 0670923583
224 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication (US): 24th June 2014
Sources: Goodreads & NetGalley

So often, literature focuses solely on conflicts, the inability of people to reconcile with others, themselves, or their environment. Like any story, Em and The Big Hoom, by Jerry Pinto contains conflict, adversity that its characters must face. The appeal of the novel is that despite the darkness it is suffused with humor and joy and is focused on how a family successfully holds together despite their hardship. In Em and The Big Hoom, communication abides even amid the unpredictability of madness.

Told from the perspective of a boy living with his family is small Mumbai flat, Em and The Big Hoom is a series of chapters that are each almost short stories themselves. Em, or Imelda, is the mother who is plagued with mental disease (bipolar disorder) that creates a paradoxical closeness to and distance from her husband (Austine or ‘The Big Hoom’), daughter (Susan), and son (the unnamed point-of-view character).

The son relates the emotional roller-coaster of life with a woman that everyone knows is ‘mad’, but whom they all love and try to support even through the darkest moments of attempted suicide. The son thinks constantly about both of his parents, their past and how they came together, the present, and the uncertain future that shows both promise of hope and the threat of instant disaster. Looking at his parents, the son is also forced to consider what genetic aspects he may have inherited from each: an admirable devotion of sacrifice and love displayed by his kind father, the sweet uncompromising honesty and playfulness of his mother, or her ‘madness’.

Both parents are well written, but Em is fabulously so, a woman who faces the weighty realization of her mental illness with a brutal honesty, yet simultaneously tries to lighten it with humor and memories of past joys. As the point-of-view character, the son is likewise complex, but the sister Susan seems present only to have another child in the story.

The beauty of the novel lies in Pinto’s writing, which mirrors the frank honesty of the characters. Though not flowery or decorated with an advanced vocabulary, Pinto’s writing is poetic. It flows gracefully and naturally with simple, but precise, words that convey deep emotion and thought, making the unnamed son who serves as the narrator familiar and relatable. The novel is highly quotable and many of the son’s thoughts or pondered questions would be excellent fodder for student or book group discussion.

A simple plot saturated with the dark undertones of mental illness, Em and The Big Hoom joyfully depicts a realistic optimism and hope that will be inspiring and enriching for readers of all kind.

Five Stars out of Five

I received a free copy of this from the publisher both electronically via NetGalley and through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program.

(In a rare case of timing I was granted NetGalley access and then won a physical copy moments after getting that notice, before I was able to withdraw from the Goodreads giveaway contest. The physical copy will go to a friend and reviewer I hope will enjoy it as much as I have.)

Suffer the Children, by Craig DiLouie

Suffer the Children, by Craig DiLouie
Publisher: Permuted Press
ASIN: B00DX0F4L4
352 pages, Kindle Edition
Published May 2014
Source: NetGalley

In “Suffer the Children”, DiLouie successfully provides readers with a horrific scenario, the start of civilization’s collapse when all the children in the world drop dead. Then he ups the ante by making the situation get even worse. He does this with writing, with language that is chillingly conveyed without hesitance or sugar-coating. The result is a terrifying ride through a parent’s worst fears realized (creepy and personally moving even for someone without children) and the rapid decay of individuals into monsters, embodying genetic selfishness at its most extreme.

The novel, in this way, is exceptionally powerful horror, built upon a basic human fear tied to our reproduction and sense of family, told at a great pace and keeping fans of the genre entertained. However, a significant criticism lies in the fact that this horrific scenario playing out in the novel seems utterly fabricated. DiLouie spends small sections later in the novel to try and give a rational explanation behind the events. More developed (and modern) than a similar type of attempt in a similar kind of story, “I Am Legend” by Richard Matheson, DiLouie makes a similar error of trying to give definition to a horrific event of fantasy (a negative ‘miracle’). The explanation has a reasonable basis, but still fails to explain the facts of the plot, not least of which is the simultaneous death of children en masse within time zones, traveling a morbid constant wave around the globe.

The plot thus feels very artificial, set up precisely by an author to maximize the horror and the worst of humanity that ends up being brought to surface. Similarly, DiLouie employs characters that end up feeling increasingly like puppets. On the one hand this is because the adults become puppets of sorts within the actual plot. But also they begin to act with extreme personalities and defects that simply seemed designed by the author.

If the reader is able to maintain enough suspension of disbelief to ignore or look past the ample set up and card tricks being employed in plot and character within the novel, they will probably love this. If these kinds of details and authorial maneuvers negate or take away from positive aspects of the novel, the reader will be disappointed. There is exceptional horror and deep rooted human fear here, writing that will pull at the heart-strings of emotions. But this can only be enjoyed if you can look past the fabrications that are so clearly in play to produce the effect.

Three Stars out of Five

No Country, by Kalyan Ray

No Country, by Kaylan Ray
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ASIN: B00GEECHIO
544 pages, Kindle Edition
Publication Date: 17th June 2014
Source: NetGalley

I quickly became enraptured by “No Country” and continued to enjoy its lush backdrops and interwoven stories of humanity until the bittersweet ends. The novel is aptly named because at its center the novel is about the human condition of being born, growing up, living, and dying, in various nation states of this Earth that are each indistinguishable in their basic challenges and joys.

Starting in Ireland, the novel follows two young friends that are forced to leave their village and country due to different social and political circumstances, ending up on opposite sides of the world. They struggle to make their journeys, whether alone, or with dear friends. Once at their ‘destination’, immigrants in a new home, they find new challenges including the basic challenge of belonging, but not belonging, as a foreigner in a new homeland. The two Irish founders live in their new homes and give birth to new lines that go through their own struggles as the waves of history carry them to their own procreation and death. As time passes, more and more of the stories of their ancestors, and their traditions, begin to vanish into an amalgam of something new, but always full of hope and desire and dreams. And sometimes ugly tragedy.

The most impressive element of Ray’s novel is its language and tone. Written in the first person throughout (obviously from various viewpoints), the voice changes from section to section based on the characters, as one would like. The early portions of rural Ireland are filled with a vocabulary and syntax that evokes the setting truly. Portions in India or the New World are suitably distinct and true themselves. Whether shifting in space, or in time, the writing shifts as well. I almost didn’t even notice this fact as I read the novel, as the story swept from place and time. But the biggest shifts at the end of the novel really made it clear as the reader is introduced to characters that are far from the heart and mind of the ancestors we’d been getting to know, reminding us that for all we may strive to make this world a greater place for our offspring, we have no control over what offspring will end up inheriting our legacies, nor of what future history can shatter all we build and value.

Rather than being depressing as I may make it all sound, the novel still manages to resonate with measures of love and hope, and beyond anything, the sense that all we humans that are on this planet are a bunch of intermingled mongrels, with shared backgrounds and ancestors. It is a reminder that though we may have our nationalities, we are each of us born of immigrants who in turn came from other immigrants, unfamiliar to our current land, stuck in their ‘ethnic ways’, destitution and dreams not unlike the newest batches of immigrants we see around us today. A beautiful novel.

Five Stars out of Five

The Forever Watch, by David B. Ramirez

The Forever Watch, by David B. Ramirez
Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
ASIN: B00FUWP288
336 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

“The Forever Watch” is an exceptional science fiction novel, a complex and perfectly crafted vision of the ‘generation ship’ interstellar travel archetype story. Ramirez’s writing is crisp and fluid. Dialogue and thoughts ring true, information is given to the reader unobtrusively; the pacing is spot on, mixing slower descriptive passages with minimalistic action, slowing time down to extend important moments while sweeping across a month in a few pages with equal grace.

Most strikingly, this novel is not predictable, yet by the end makes perfect logical and emotional sense, leaving you to ponder the power and dangers of freedom and truth, of sacrifice and devotion. It is neither predictable in plot nor genre style (or tone). The earlier parts of the book felt strongly like a crime or mystery novel, just in a science fiction setting. But then about halfway through a shift occurs and the narrative steps out from a close focus on the main characters alone in their secretive investigations and sweeps out in scope and feel to become something far larger and unique. At first this sort of disappointed me, because I was getting used to the familiarity of common ‘mystery story’ styles and themes, and that comfort was then shattered and my eyes, in perfect parallel to those of the characters, suddenly became open to much more.

The breadth of science covered in “The Forever Watch” is also quite broad, including elements of biology/genetics, computer science, psychology, and engineering. Within the realms of this finely crafted universe even elements such as mind-reading and psychokinesis come across as closer to science than to fantasy. While not as detailed-laden as a hard sci-fi book may take things, these various pieces are ‘explained’ well, to a suitable depth for the tone of the story as a whole.

Often novels I enjoy reading as much as this give me a certain disappointment at how they manage to tie everything together at the end, and for a moment I thought this would be similar. However, the novel ended in fantastic fashion, leaving just satisfaction. I hope this is a start to a really prosperous career for Ramirez.

Five Stars out of Five

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry,
by Gabrielle Zevin
Publisher: Algonquin Books
ASIN: B00GU2RLMC
272 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

Typically I do not enjoy warm-hearted, feel-good stories, but there are always exceptions that avoid becoming saccharine and remain sincere. “The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry” is a novel that I rapidly fell in love with. The writing is not fancy, though filled with literary allusions, most basically in its structure with chapters named after key famous short stories. Between this construction and the overall plot, the novel is simply full of passion for all things bibliophilic.

A key strength of the novel is in its eponymous protagonist, a persnickety bookseller who doesn’t get along well with most people and is in the midst of alcohol-infused mourning over the death of his wife. The growth of Fikry from this state to the ultimate person he becomes, mediated through the unexpected appearance of a baby girl in his life, is a pleasure to read, reminding one what can be good and beautiful about people and the power that literature can have over lives. While reading this (and several other things) I found myself most eager to return to these pages and these characters who even evoked several laughs and smirks as I got to know their quirks.

I’m not at all surprised that Zevin has written children’s books, because this novel in a sense IS a children’s book: a simple story filled with joy and heart and wonder at life, a life filled with books, a life well-lived.

Five Stars out of Five