THE GRACEKEEPERS by Kirsty Logan

Yesterday, my latest review for Strange Horizons was published as part of their ‘Our Queer Planet’ summer special, highlighting international, queer, and fantastic writing. The novel I reviewed: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan from Crown Publishers.

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“…Expanded from a component in Logan’s collection The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales (2014), her debut novel contains a minimal, slow-building plot. But it is full of sensual prose that overlays a core of rich characters, a corporeal yet deeply intellectual feminism, and an overarching theme of transcendence….” Read the entire review on Skiffy & Fanty here.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this novel from the publisher through the Crown Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.

The Wonder of All Things, by Jason Mott

The Wonder of All Things, by Jason Mott
Publisher: Harlequin Mira
ASIN: 1322022763
304 pages, eBook
Expected Publication: 30th September 2014
Source: NetGalley

 Tragedy strikes a small town when a plane accidentally crashes into a crowd of air show spectators. Among the casualties is a boy named Wash who is found amid the wreckage seriously injured, bloody and torn, by his best friend Ava. Distraught and panicked, Ava lays her hands upon Wash and they both witness his wounds miraculously heal. The existence of Ava’s power does not stay secret, but the healing results of using that power do not come without exacting a brutal price upon her. As others flock to the town to seek Ava’s aid, or to perhaps exploit and control her for their own goals, Ava and her single father, along with Wash and the grandmother who raises him must deal with these outside forces as well as new personal discoveries.
When I requested an advanced reading copy of this through NetGalley a part of me worried that the publisher would consider my thoughts on Jason Mott’s last book, The Returned, and refuse me. Though popular and spawning a television show, that novel left me feeling disappointed. The biggest factors in that reaction were its ending, which I found bordering on cartoonish, and the dilution of its focus across too wide a range of stories/points of view. But aspects of The Returned still impressed me and I was more than willing to try another of Mott’s novels (or I wouldn’t have made the request). With The Wonder of All Things Mott avoids both of the above problems as I saw them and writes a touching story with compelling characters that flows sharply in readability and tone.
The thematic set up for The Wonder of All Things is familiar to those who have read Mott – a sudden, unanticipated event that magically alters a normal causal relationship between life and death. The mysterious event (or in this case power) engenders a bit of awe, reverence, hope, and fear simultaneously in people; how they respond and deal with the newfound situation or power becomes the novel’s central focus. Very effectively here, Mott puts the brunt of this focus directly on Ava and Wash and to their guardians. Other characters also react in unique ways to Ava’s power and its implications, but their decisions and actions all filter back to those protagonists, rather than being dispersed through multiple protagonists as in his previous novel.
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Ava’s magical powers to heal are straightforward and Mott takes this simple ‘what if?’ scenario and proceeds to deeply investigate its impact on the young girl and those closest to her. Mott writes his children characters most vividly, endearing them to the reader and investing them in their struggles, in particular to Ava’s desire to help those she cares about around her, but on her own terms.
Overall the adult characters seem less solid, present each as more of a narrative impetus for Ava’s character. The primary exception to this is Ava’s mother, who died prior to the start of the novel and is present through flashbacks of Ava’s childhood and her mother’s early realization of Ava’s healing powers and the price it exacted. Ava’s mother is a fascinating character, strong and loving yet weakened by bouts of serious depression. The parallels that Mott draws between physical and mental health are important and Mott effectively unites the past and present of the novel through the comparisons between Ava’s loving mother and others in really understanding the consequences and power of Ava’s gift/curse.
Those who enjoyed The Return should also appreciate The Wonder of All Things, but those on the fence could find this an enjoyable and worthwhile read.

Four Stars out of Five

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

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joël Dicker

The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, by Joël Dicker
Translated by Sam Taylor
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN: 0143126687
656 pages, paperback
Published 27th May 2014
Source: Goodreads

The truth about The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is that its hype remains inexplicable to me. This is novel that has gotten a lot of press and fanfare, with huge sales throughout Europe. However, any potential readers out there that are looking into it, I think it’s important for you to consider what the novel really is compared to what the hype and awards may imply. Dicker’s debut novel is an entertaining, easy read. It is a clever mystery, and genre fans could easily enjoy it as I largely did. I’m not convinced it is anything more though.
Marcus Goldman, a successful, young, first-time novelist turns to his friend and former mentor Harry Quebert when Marcus finds himself trapped in the midst of sophomore writer’s block, an impatient publisher, and a public that is starting to forget his celebrity.
Quebert, who went through similar difficulties continuing to write following the literary accolades of his debut novel, reassures Goldman with advice and vague recollections of Quebert’s inspiration to write. Goldman discovers this past inspiration involves a love affair his mentor had with a young girl decades ago, a girl who mysteriously went missing.
Trying to turn his own life around, Goldman is forced instead to question his entire relationship with Quebert when the body of the young girl, Nola, is found buried beside Quebert’s house with a draft copy of Quebert’s famous novel and Quebert is subsequently arrested for murder.
Goldman leaves New York to return to the town of his old college where Quebert teaches, abandoning his responsibilities and again fleeing his writer’s block out of loyalty to his friend. Goldman’s investigations into Nola’s disappearance and Quebert’s secret relationship with the girl opens a web of small town intrigue and secrets and give Goldman’s publisher’s a desperate idea of what his next book can be: a report on his investigation into the truth of the Harry Quebert affair and Nola’s death.
As a mystery novel, The Truth about the Harry Quebert Affair is strong and entertaining. If a bit long, the read is at least straight-forward, engaging, and rapid. The story is kept complex and unpredictable through the inclusion of a small-town’s-worth of characters, all of whom it turns out are keeping some kind of secrets pertinent to the mystery and are keeping important details from Goldman during his investigations.
Dicker nicely makes his protagonist Goldman a brutally honest narrator, whose point of view is conveyed with a fair amount of self-depreciation. The directness of Goldman contrasts nicely with the ambiguous information parceled out by Quebert and the unreliability of all others Goldman interacts with. The murdered Nola is also a deeply compelling character, and despite the danger and taboo of their relationship, both Quebert and Nola are sympathetic and relatable.
Despite these excellent attributes, Dicker’s novel also comes across as disappointing. It’s feel can be best described as slick and hip, written by a young author who the reader can easily (though not necessarily accurately) associate with the novel’s POV protagonist, Goldman. The success of the novel throughout Europe and the awards it has attracted offer parallels to where Goldman sits at the novel’s start, and the reader can’t help but compare Quebert’s advice to Goldman regarding writing and grabbing ahold of readers to the methods employed by Dicker here. Clearly the parallel is something that Dicker intends.
The great mystery that remains for me – and seemingly others – is just WHY this novel has attracted such rave accolades other than it is was a hip item of the moment in Europe. It’s a decent mystery novel with a good voice. Is it particularly ‘literary’ or merit the ‘literary’ awards it has gotten? I often question whether any work was really the ‘best’ choice for awards, but with this the question rears particularly strong.
I make it a point to never read English translations of French books, being perfectly capable of reading them in French. Somehow I either missed that this was a translation when requesting, or made a rare exception because the synopsis sounded so intriguing. (And it is often more difficult, certainly more expensive, to find copies of anything in the original French here in the US).
After starting this I decided to get the original version, because I thought the language was far too simple, direct, and ‘non-literary’ based on how the book was being marketed for this to be a decent translation. Upon finishing it, composing my thoughts, and seeing other reactions, I see that this isn’t a fault of translation, it is how the language in French is as well.
Again, this would be fine if this were sold as a better-than-average mystery alone. But as anything more, I unfortunately just don’t see it. Ultimately the parallels between Quebert’s advice to Goldman that extend through this long novel finish with the point that books should close while leaving the reader wish the story would not end yet. Honestly, after reading the final chapters of the book as all the many secrets held by all the characters were revealed (indeed it seems like every person in town had some hand direct or indirect in Nola’s condition, murder, or its coverup), I was just wanting it to wrap up and end already.
Depending on your expectations when entering this novel,  you could easily either love it or be really disappointed. Regardless, the hype over this is frankly the real mystery of the Harry Quebert affair. However, the one and two-star pans of the novel don’t really do it justice either. If you just like a good entertaining mystery, this is worth a read, and I really do recommend it.
Three Stars out of Five

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from Penguin Books 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.)