Her, by Harriet Lane

Her, by Harriet Lane
Publisher: Little, Brown & Company
ISBN: 031636987X
272 pages, hardcover
Expected Publication: 6th January 2015
Source: Goodreads’ First-reads

Alternating each chapter between the points of view of two women, Harriet Lane’s Her is a  subtle, slow-building thriller that exudes a sense of foreboding and imminent disaster. When crises does actually drift into the plot it is easy to gloss over amid the now familiar unease of the women’s narratives.
Nina is a fairly successful painter who radiates a refined elegance and control. With an older husband and aloof teenaged daughter, she seems often left alone with her own thoughts and memories. As Her opens, Nina spots Emma, a woman from Nina’s past who for reasons unknown to the reader induces a rush of nervous and fearful excitement in Nina. Increasingly obsessed with Emma, Nina manipulates events to insert herself into Emma’s life. As a young, overwhelmed mother impressed with Nina’s status and grace, Emma appreciates Nina’s presence and seeming friendship.
The stalking and twisted maneuvers of Nina to gain the companionship and trust of Emma (who apparently doesn’t recognize Nina from her past as Nina does Emma) makes Her‘s slow crawl forward in plot deliciously unsettling. Only upon the novel’s close is the past relationship between the two women made clear, and all questions in the reader’s mind are addressed.
With a longer work, the alternating and at times overlapping points of view of events from chapter to chapter could grow tedious, but Her is kept short, simple, and sweet. The personalities of each woman are made clear throughout, and only key events are kept from the reader to maintain a sense of mystery and intrigue in the story, and to retain that uncertainty of just what will go wrong.
Her is thus a sort of psychological thriller, focusing on the twisted mind of Nina and the relative ignorance and inherent trustfulness of Emma. While it doesn’t contain much in the way of action, the pace of the novel stays quick – even with replaying scenes from Nina’s view and then Emma’s, the novel does not linger on unimportant matters but proceeds directly to the next important event in time of the two women’s’ relationship. It is a quick, easy read (as long as you pay attention to the nuances of emotion) – and Lane uses moments of levity or irony break the creepy tension or play with the reader’s expectation that now is when something bad is going to happen.
Readers that want lots of action, twists, and rapid payoff will probably be frustrated by this novel, but those that appreciate a quiet little understated horror, Her is masterful.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from Little, Brown & Company via Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

Great Short Stories by Contemporary Native American Writers, Edited by Bob Blaisdell

Great Short Stories by Contemporary Native American Writers
Edited by Bob Blaisdell
Publisher: Dover Publications
ISBN: 0486490955
144 pages, paperback
Published 18th June 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
“A Red Girl’s Reasoning”, by Pauline Johnson (1893)
“The Soft-Hearted Sioux”, by Zitkala-Sa (1901)
“The Singing Bird”, by John M. Oskison (1925)
“Train Time”, by D’Arcy McNickle (1936)
“The Man to Send Rain Clouds”, by Leslie Marmon Silko (1969)
“Turtle Meat”, by Joseph Bruchac III (1983)
“Only Approved Indians Can Play Made in USA”, by Jack D. Forbes (1983)
“Snatched Away”, by Mary TallMountain (1988)
“Crow’s Sun”, by Duane Niatum (1991)
“Borders”, by Thomas King (1993)
“The Dog Pit”, by Eli Funaro (1994)
“Beading Lesson”, by Beth H. Piatote (2004)
“War Dances”, by Sherman Alexie (2009)

 Coming across this superb collection I had only ever heard of Leslie Marmon Silko (for her well-known novel Ceremony) and Sherman Alexie (who is the only one here I’ve previously read. I am a fan of Alexie’s work, not because he is a Native American or because that is what he writes about, but simply because of his relevance, strong voice, and enjoyable stories. Yet, when ‘contemporary Native American writer’ comes to mind, it is him I think of. He, and his work, become defined in my mind as some kind of representative context.

When I saw this title available on NetGalley I immediately considered it a possibility to discover other Native American writers with viewpoints and voices distinct from Alexie’s. His “War Dances”, included here, I had previously read and enjoyed, and reading it again in the context of these companion stories was particularly enlightening.

The first stories included stretch the definition of ‘contemporary’ in terms of their date of composition. Reading them, however, shows that the themes addressed therein have remained relevant today. From the start the stories in this collection address the question of cultural and personal identity. “A Red Girl’s Reasoning” for instance addresses the difficulties inherent in cross-cultural marriage, a mixture here of physical race and of tradition, including those religious. Pauline Johnson’s poignant tale of a determined, proud woman is a fantastic start for the collection, showing that the issues raised through these stories regarding identity and societal classifications is not only inherent to Native Americans, but to those of other minority status or those trying to exist in mixed, sometimes clashing cultures. The thread of these issues continues throughout the stories (and time) here, bookended with Alexie’s “War Dances” where confusion over identity and shared characteristics between different minority groups is given voice in difficulty distinguishing Native American from Hispanic.

The voices and points of view vary throughout the collection – and even include the question of Native American identity through the eyes of a white narrator in McNickle’s “Train Time”. Forbes story stuck out to me as the most similar to Alexie’s voice with a mixture of depressing honesty and joyous laughter at the absurd. I’m reminded that I really need to read more of Silko’s work (Ceremony is also discussed in detail in a fascinating work on Race in Science Fiction that I’ve just read). And several of the authors here I’ll have to look up to try to find more from them if possible, particularly Piatote and Bruchac, whose stories stuck in my mind with their quiet power.

That idea of ‘quiet power’ is present throughout the collection, there is a rage and frustration building beneath the characters in the stories as they struggle to define their identity and place, to keep a part of themselves in a world that holds them either in disdain or disregard. “Borders”, describing the attempts of an elderly Native American woman to cross between the United States and Canada while still holding onto self-declaration as a citizen of a tribe and people rather than either of these modern nations, takes this issue and makes it literal.

In one aspect the collection was a surprise to me. I started it thinking that it would contain stories about Native American culture, that I would learn more about particular tribes and their traditions. Instead, the stories here are about Native American culture in existence within the European – in relation to something else, rather than the identity they have unto their own. I imagine that such are the struggles of being Native American and what is going to be present in any honest contemporary Native American writer’s work. I can never fully understand being Native American because that’s just not what I am. But I find it a horrible and lamentable reality that perhaps even Native Americans can’t really achieve it, for does that identity even still exist? It makes me feel a bit rage-filled, and perhaps that is the point and an indication of how effective and truly great these short stories are.

GREAT SHORT STORIES BY CONTEMPORARY NATIVE AMERICAN WRITERS is an outstanding collection, and at such an affordable price as this thrift edition offers, it is something that anyone interested in short fiction or in aspects of cultural identity should pick up.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic reading copy of this from Dover Publications via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra
Publisher: Hogarth Books
ASIN: B00A5MS0Z0
402 pages, ebook
Published 1st January 2013
Sources: Blogging for Books & Edelweiss

 Somehow, this notably well-reviewed novel slipped under my radar even past its release. Only upon perusing the Blogging for Books offerings did I discover it, and I am glad I chose to give it a try. If you haven’t heard about A Constellation of Vital Phenomena yet, or if it has been sitting on your to-read or consideration list, I’d recommend getting a copy ASAP. Then clear some nights for engrossed reading.
For those not familiar with the plot of Anthony Marra’s award-winning novel, it is set in the war-ravaged region of Chechnya and traces the intersecting experiences of a small cast of characters as they struggle for life, a combination of survival and purpose.
When Russian soldiers come for her father, eight-year-old Havaa flees into the surrounding Chechen woods, where her father’s friend Akhmed rescues her and takes her to hide at the nearly deserted hospital. There, the sole doctor left in this war-torn wasteland is Sonja, a European-trained physician who has returned through a sense of responsibility both to home and to a sister that has gone missing. Reluctantly, Sonja agrees to help care for Havaa, and – in testament to dire conditions – accepts the inept medical help of Akhmed, who has failed out of medical school and yearns more for artistic expressions.
Thrown together in awful circumstances, these characters share a stubborn commitment to hope for individuals and a future that fights against the despair surrounding them. With recollections of the past years of the Chechen conflict, and the constant threat that present friends may turn on them for personal gain with the Russians, these characters discover their lives intertwined, past, present and future.
The novel’s title comes from a definition for life given by a medical text/dictionary in the novel. The term is remarkably difficult to biologically define in one sentence. Typically, biologists will talk of characteristics of life, rather than settling on a strict definition. But the one here given title is particularly resonant in capturing the essential sum of those characteristics of life. They form an interlocking constellation of phenomena, individual traits that put together form a picture unique and new with a story. Similarly like stars each of the characters in Marra’s novel interact together to form a constellation in this historical space of humanity.
Metaphorically one could speak of a certain balance between the stars in forming a constellation. Similarly, Marra’s novel succeeds so well because of the careful balance he is able to strike in its construction. The shifts in time from chapter to chapter (or even within chapters) is managed without any sense of rupture or confusion. Each of the characters is an interesting balance of strengths and weaknesses and even the villains are shown with traits of sympathy and compassion.
(The novel does appropriately stay focused on the Chechens. The Russians in the novels are an outside force of the plot and setting more so than characters, and the villains, heroes, or mixtures in the story are each Chechen here.)
The emotional weight of A Constellation of Vital Phenomena could quickly take it into a story that feels utterly bleak. Marra nicely finds balance here as well, with the character’s vital hopes and perseverance working to counter the negative, and the young Havaa in particular offers a bright ray of humor and compassion that symbolizes a certain hope for the lives of a future generation.
The events of the novel’s ‘present-day’ plot consist of a mere five days, but A Constellation of Vital Phenomena takes these points to form a picture over decades of conflict, personal and spiritual. The novel will pass similarly fast while reading, but its power and humanity will echo with the reader far longer.
Five Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the Crown Publishing Group via their Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.

The Steady Running of the Hour, by Justin Go

The Steady Running of the Hour,
by Justin Go
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 1476704589
480 pages, hardcover
Published 15th April 2014
Source: Goodreads

Recently graduated from college, American Tristan Campbell is in a directionless limbo when he receives a formal letter from a firm of British solicitors asking him to contact them about an important matter. The solicitors explain to Campbell that he may be heir to a sizable estate left by a former mountaineer and World War I officer named Ashley Walsingham.

Since Ashley’s death during an attempt to ascend Mt Everest, the firm has managed his estate, which was never claimed by the woman to whom Ashely left it, his former lover Imogen Soames-Andersson. The solicitors have established Tristan as the last living blood relative of the Soames-Anderssons, but whether Imogen is a direct ancestor is uncertain, a secret hidden in the shadows of a doomed, illicit affair between Imogen and Ashley.

Tristan finds himself drawn into a personal research quest that spans across Europe from Britain through France into Germany and Scandinavian lands to discover whether his grandmother was really the bastard child of Ashley and Imogen rather than the legitimate daughter of Imogen’s sister as had been officially recorded in time.

Justin Go writes Tristan’s genealogical quest  with contrapuntal chapters that reveal the events in the lives of Ashley and Imogen from their meeting until Imogen’s disappearance. With this plot and structure the novel suggests categorization as part mystery, romance, and historical novel.  Though containing these elements, The Steady Running of the Hour never actually fulfills the promise of any of these genres, leaving its purpose more in the field of general literary fiction. While Go’s debut novel shows a great deal of promise and an artistic mastery of the cadence of writing, I didn’t see it as a success.

The difficulty for the novel comes from its size and scope. The Steady Running of the Hour is really material enough for two novels, Tristan’s modern-day search for ‘treasure’ and the historical romance of Ashely & Imogen set against the backdrop of The Great War. Go uses these two separate stories to draw parallels between them and cover one all-encompassing theme of the effect that history and events have on personal relationships. Personal both in the decisions of individuals and the connections between people, connections that are fighting to be maintained against forces that try to rend them asunder.

The surface of the novel’s plot is that Tristan is searching for his claim to the inheritance. A ticking clock is even provided in that Tristan has limited time to uncover evidence for his claim before the stipulations of the will force the solicitors to divide the estate between charities. Yet the ‘treasure hunt’ for Tristan isn’t about obtaining wealth, but more a discovery of self, of identity and of past. His growing obsession with this hunt begins to interfere with the opportunities that appear in Tristan’s life, most notably a relationship (perhaps platonic, perhaps more) with a young French woman he meets.

The situation of Tristan ends up paralleling the star-crossed lover situation faced by Imogen and Ashley. Ultimately it is not Imogen’s family or the scandal of illicit relations that separate the lovers, but Ashley’s conflicting desires to live on the edge, whether as an Alpinist or as officer in the War, his pursuit of a life different from alternatives available with Imogen.

Ultimately, it becomes hard to manage this grand comparison across time and setting while still leaving the reader satisfied. Go does please the reader with the style of his writing. From the opening of the book I loved how the text flowed, and the careful poetic choice of words and sentence structure makes the grandiose novel enjoyable to read. The emotional strengths of this writing are most clear in the passages describing Ashley’s experiences during World War I. These horrors are handled so very well.

Unfortunately, The Steady Running of the Hour is not just a historical novel about World War I , or of a doomed Mt. Everest expedition (a subject that Go clearly researched deeply). It also tries to connect to the present life of Tristan, and his inclusion as protagonist demands some sort of reason or purpose to drive him – hence the quest plot and an additional ‘romance’.

Yet, the novel doesn’t really feature a romance angle as much as an unfulfilled romance. Ashley & Imogen’s relationship is brief and actually never particularly believable. Go seems more concerned with their individual personalities and the aftermath of their liaisons than their actual connection. Likewise, Tristan and the young French girl demonstrate an attraction (somewhat inexplicably) that is just as unfulfilled – leaving the novel to climax around the issue of whether Tristan will choose a life devoted to his quest as Ashley did, or if he will choose ‘the girl’.

The conclusion of the novel seems to have left many readers dissatisfied at aspects being unresolved clearly, most notably the truth of whether Tristan is a direct blood relation of Imogen and Ashley’s relationship. But this quest was never the major point of the novel, just the excuse for character motivation, a MacGuffin of impetus and a way to divulge the history to the reader incrementally.

The problem is that this unresolved motivational plot makes the novel feel rather fabricated. That sense of fabrication can also be seen symbolized in the solicitors’ behavior. They seem over-eager to push Tristan towards his search, yet keep secrets from him and stay rather aloof, giving you the sense that they aren’t being completely forthcoming with the terms of the estate, that they are fabricating this all to get Tristan to do something for them that they otherwise could not. That this is all a scam and Tristan is being duped. Just like the novel shows signs of authorial fabrication to try to achieve its goals.

And the reader can easily thus end up feeling duped. I think many readers have entered this novel full of false expectations of what kind of story and what kind of resolution (or lack thereof) they are going to get from the different elements of this sweeping literary novel. While some readers could easily bear guilt for this, it is also a result of an ambitious work that can lead the reader astray, that has difficulty in keeping control between its central literary goal and the elements of plot and character used to create it. Fans of rich literary fiction could still find this a notable, pleasing read, or those with interest in WWI. Casual readers desiring complete resolution should probably avoid it and wait for a more suitable showcase of Justin Go’s writing talents.

Two and a Half Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the Simon & Schuster through the Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.

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.)

The Hour of the Innocents, by Robert Paston

The Hour of the Innocents
by Robert Paston
Publisher: Forge Books
ISBN: 0765326817
320 pages, hardcover
Published: 20th May 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

I ignorantly assumed that the Tor and Forge imprints of Macmillan were both for science fiction and fantasy, exclusively. The Hour of the Innocents then came as a surprise as I made my way into the novel and realized this wasn’t the case. Yet, this unmet expectation may have actually enhanced my enjoyment and appreciation of the novel because that was the only real unexpected element in this reading experience. This fictional story of a late 1960’s rock band is grounded in a historical reality, the characters are familiar types, and the plot proceeds fairly predictably. However, for all its familiarity, Paston writes the novel with a passionate authenticity and clear voice, making it a piece of nostalgic entertainment with bittersweet fondness for an era of extreme power both high and low.

The story is related from the point of view of Will, the newest member of a rural Pennsylvania rock band. A devoted musician, practicing his guitar with every chance he has, Will is cursed with a fine appreciation of music and its power, but little ability at playing. His personality and talent at songwriting are noticed by Mattie, however, a phenomenally talented guitar player who has just returned home from the traumatic experiences of Vietnam. More intelligent, mature, and talented than any of the other band members, Mattie’s only ambition, only need, is seemingly to play and experience the emotional healing, or coping, that can provide. Yet, the reader slowly discovers Mattie has other strong emotional ties and responsibilities to family, friends, and military relations that fight against all music accomplishes in his life.

Just as Mattie battles even upon his return from Vietnam between a simple life of music and the burdens of his past and his relations, so too does Will battle between balancing the wild, open rock-and-roll culture of the time with desires for the band to make it professionally. Key to this is Frankie, the flamboyant lead singer of the band, who draws crowds, and girls, but creates problems with his irresponsibility and disregard for his wife, who has a past with Mattie, and an attraction for Will.

Rounded out with the band’s drummer, the member we see and hear much less from, and who like all band drummers (we are told) handle the finances, The Innocents are born. Each is an archetype of rock music – the wild frontman who sings, the strong, silent-type guitar player with exceptional musical talent, the level-headed keeps-to-himself drummer, and the songwriter, full of self-doubt. They all share in a common hope, a dream of making it, success that will give them the freedom to just write and play music that can soothe their souls, and touch others. The Hour of the Innocents is about the birth of this all, and the rough road of imperfect personalities and troubled actions that lie in the path to realization of that dream.

What ends up occurring in the novel is therefore no big surprise given the set up. What makes it work is precisely how true to life, how familiar, Paston writes it. You can tell that Paston is just as passionate about the music and this time as his characters.Though brief, the chapters dealing with Vietnam directly or its aftermath, are vivid and moving, and are examples of the more unique moments in the novel, the verses to the more familiar band-member-interaction refrains of the composition.

The Hour of the Innocents will be of interest to anyone with an appreciation for rock music and its history, and to those who would appreciate the backdrop of the era as setting for literary exploration of character interaction, as long as the character familiarity and plot predictability can be overlooked for enjoyment of the journey.

Four Stars out of Five