On “Marlena” by Julie Buntin

51n+GHTDlNL__SX331_BO1,204,203,200_This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Julie Buntin‘s debut novel, Marlena, examines the nuance and power of young female friendship, the lasting effects of guilt, and the rampant drug abuse present in rural areas of the United States. It’s quite a lot to tackle in less than 300 pages, but Buntin isn’t any other author; every line is crafted to a sharp point that digs deep into the aspects of adolescence that haunt us long into adulthood. I’m not sure that many authors would have been up to the task, but Buntin’s unsentimental prose and pitch-perfect characterization comprise an affecting novel that—as many great books do—encourages rereading.

It’s hard to overstate how influential adolescent friendships can be on an individual’s development, especially a young woman. Countless authors, from Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen, to Elena Ferrante and Margaret Atwood, have explored that nearly unbreakable bond between women who are drawn to each other for reasons that aren’t entirely understood. But it is that particular strength of adolescent attachment that Buntin navigates with astounding acuity.

The narrative shifts back and forth between Cat as a 15-year-old who is becoming increasingly enmeshed in the tantalizing web Marlena weaves, and Cat as an adult, pondering how her brief time with Marlena has changed her life irrevocably. Young Cat has the observer’s intelligence of an avid reader. She looks at the world with a level of maturity beyond her age, and Marlena’s presence makes her even more aware of the dark lining that wraps around beautiful things—like Michigan, like Marlena.

But Cat’s perspicacity isn’t enough to right Marlena’s increasing dependence on prescription pills, and her eventual (inevitable) heroin use. Marlena’s ill-fated tale of addiction, whether intentionally or unintentionally, functions as a microcosm in its depiction of a larger phenomenon. It seems now that nearly everyone knows someone who has made the leap from prescription drugs to heroin. It’s cheaper and makes for a faster high. Pharmaceutical companies—the world’s most powerful kingpins—make a killing (literally) peddling pills to people in the country’s poorest communities.

And yet, Marlena believes she is doing the right thing in avoiding meth—the substance that has sunk its claws into everyone around her. Her father and boyfriend cook it, and it caused her mother to leave. To Marlena, pills are what doctors prescribe to people anyway. No harm in that, right?

As an adult, Cat seizes the moments in hindsight when she could have done something to save Marlena, but she was too enraptured with her, too dependent on the feeling of being part of a whole. Their friendship is the propulsive force that moves her, sharpening her senses to take in a world that can only exist in their rural section of Michigan—a dead end town that somehow contains multitudes.

When Marlena’s little brother Sal calls Cat to tell her he’s in New York and wants to talk about everything that happened in the past, she is forced to take stock of just how much Marlena’s brief presence in her life has changed who she’s become—someone who often drinks to excess, who has a strained relationship with her father and brother, who feels an innate empathy for outsiders and addicts.

In some ways, the “Peter Pan” effect has taken hold of fragments of Cat’s memories of Marlena, which is generally the natural way of things; Cat grows older, Marlena will always be a teenager. Building that dynamic into a narrative successfully without making Marlena seem like a tragic hero is a difficult task, one that Buntin handles brilliantly.

Yes, Marlena possesses a disarming, feral beauty; consciously understated intelligence; and a beautiful singing voice. But Cat also remembers Marlena’s mercurial nature, her occasional condescension, her secretiveness, and her unwashed hair.

Buntin begins the novel with a scene that becomes even more poignant once the reader finishes the book. It’s Marlena speeding dangerously towards the lake in their town, not showing any signs of stopping. Cat is screaming, afraid. But Marlena keeps driving, foot pressed down on the pedal, deep in one of her drug-induced manias. And Cat hates her in that moment.

Even though those negative feelings never last, they become a dark lining on all their happiest moments—the moments Adult Cat looks on with regret for not having done something more for Marlena.

In the end, Buntin has strung together a novel that is equal parts a love story, a tragedy, and an ode to the harsh beauty and danger of Michigan. But Marlena is primarily about guilt; how to deal with it; where to lay blame; how to make peace with the past. I’m not sure the answers are clear-cut, but the questions themselves are enough to jolt the reader into awareness.

On “The Royal We” by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan

22875451This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Like me, I’m sure every asocial hermit with more than a touch of Anglophilia loves nothing more than to sit around on a lazy Saturday morning drinking tea and reading Kate Middleton fan fiction…No? That’s just me? Well, if you do share my proclivities, or just enjoy a breezy beach read, look no further than The Royal We by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan. This dynamic duo has produced the dishiest, compulsively readable romantic novel in recent memory.

The Royal We has all the right ingredients to make a great love story that blissfully excludes the heavy handedness of most romcom-esque novels; there’s usually quite a lot of formula and very little depth, but Cocks and Morgan have conjured that most coveted mix of romance, comedy, and blunder to produce summer reading gold.

The story unfolds on the morning of Rebecca “Bex” Porter’s wedding day as looks back on her relationship with Prince Nicholas of Wales. Sectioned off into the significant years of their relationship, Bex starts at the beginning—her year abroad at Oxford where Nick is the first person to greet her, at which time she makes a comment about the royal family having syphilis. (An amazing moment. I laughed like an idiot.)

Of course, she has no idea who he is at that moment, but they soon begin spending more and more and more time together. They bond over trash TV and American junk food and drink their way through all the pubs in Oxford. But he’s a prince. Bex knows it can’t be more than a flirtation. Plus, she’s already hooked up with their mutual friend, and one of Nick’s closest allies, Clive.

Things are tricky, and Nick is already under immense pressure from his domineering father, Prince Richard. He must be present at elite gatherings, emitting just the right amount of charm and wit without seeming too glib. Bex can see Nick has mastered his public façade. But what’s beneath it?

After a whirlwind series of heated moments, the pair decides to become a couple, but only their closest friends know. Keeping their relationship a secret from the public turns out to be difficult, but not as difficult as it becomes when Nick reveals their romance to the royal family, and the pair becomes an “unofficial” item to the press. Bex must be her best at all times, and worse, her twin sister Lacey still continues to make a spectacle out of herself in public for the sake of attention.

As life becomes more difficult for the two at the hands of the press and Nick’s growing list of duties, they must make a decision about the future. Will they really get married, or it back to Iowa for Bex?

Cocks and Morgan build the narrative beautifully. It’s seductive, charming, hilarious at times, and impeccably well written. Even if people think the novel is a cheap rip off of the Will and Kate courtship, it’s still extremely well done. More than that, readers are forced to think about just how much they consume the type of tabloid press that exposes the lives of these individuals for the whole world to see.

On one hand, we often say these high-profile people get what’s coming to them, but Nick was born into his life, and Bex…well…Bex has to decide if she can go along for the ride for the rest of her life—the future Queen of England. Every lighthearted moment the couple shares comes at the cost of intense of public scrutiny when they leave the confines of their sanctuaries. It also doesn’t help that Lacey is running wild and some members of the couple’s friend group seem to be turning against them.

It’s all a matter of empathizing with the people whose lives we consume as entertainment, and the authors explore these fabricated (but very familiar) lives with care, dignity, and the humor that comes along with everyday life.

There were moments in the story where I could see the obvious parallels between the novel and the real British royal family, but it’s always done with a hint of good-natured ribbing. And, more than that, those hints never mask the obvious talent Cocks and Morgan have when it comes to developing plot structure and imbuing each character with carefully crafted personalities that never cease to grow along with the main characters.

I cannot recommend The Royal We highly enough to readers looking for a fun, fast read for the summer. Of course, you have to read it to get ready for the upcoming film adaptation—just pop on some sunglasses and park yourself in a beach chair. And don’t forget the sunscreen! Once you’ve started Cocks and Morgan’s brilliant novel, you won’t want to stop until you’ve turned the last page.

On “Lincoln in the Bardo” by George Saunders

61-1atkJmYL__SX333_BO1,204,203,200_This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

George Saunders is highly regarded as a short story writer, gaining recognition and accolades like the O.Henry Award, PEN/Hemingway Award, and the MacArthur Fellowship. When he announced the publication of his first novel, the literary world held its breath in anticipation, wondering what the acclaimed writer would do with his departure from the short story form. What we got—Lincoln in the Bardo—is one of the strangest, funniest, and most heartbreaking novels in recent memory.

The novel, set in 1862, concerns the death of Abraham Lincoln‘s beloved eleven-year-old son, Willie. A few long hours leads to a fever that won’t break. Everyone knows young Willie isn’t doing well, but Abraham and Mary Todd are obligated to hold one of their lavish parties anyway. Throughout the night, both parents check on Willie, but it’s too late.

Guilt plagues Abraham Lincoln and his wife as they lay him to rest in the historic Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown, Washington, D.C. If only they had forgone the party that night. If only Lincoln wasn’t—at that moment—responsible for the deaths of thousands of soldiers as the Civil War builds to a frenzy. It takes everything in his power to leave Willie behind and keep moving.

It is only after Willie’s funeral, when everyone has left, that the characters of the Bardo appear. Hans Vollman, Roger Bevins III, and the Reverend Everly Thomas comprise the youngster’s slapdash welcoming crew. In this halfway point between life and death, the people of the cemetery don’t really believe they’re dead; they’re just in their “sick-boxes” waiting to rejoin their loved ones.

As the reader finds out, the people here have refused to let go of the “previous place,” where they can’t quite remember what life was like, but they repeat the stories that leave them longing for what never happened in life. Hans Vollman, for example, married a woman much younger than himself. Rather than force himself on her on their wedding night, he took the time to build a friendship with her, which then blossomed into romantic love.

On the day the couple was to finally consummate their union, he is hit in the head by a beam in his workshop, never knowing the love of his dear wife. It’s only in true Saunders fashion that, in the Bardo, Hans Vollman has a constant, unceasing erection from the failure to satisfy his anticipation. The way he does this is subtle, but when you realize what “member” everyone is talking about, it becomes the funniest thing.

Tragically, Roger Bevins III, slit his wrists in the previous place, but he believes he’s still on his kitchen floor waiting for his family to find him. In life, his “proclivity,” as he calls it, was a love for men. But his lover decides to “live the right way” and ends their relationship leaving him despondent. It is only at the moment when it’s too late that he realizes he wants nothing more than to live. In the Bardo, Bevins has ears and eyes that appear at the slightest sensory input because he’s all too eager to take in everything all at once.

Unfortunately, the Reverend, Vollman, and Bevins know that children cannot stay in the Bardo for long before horrible things start to happen to them. But they cannot convince young Willie to let go.

Saunders’ narrative shifts seamlessly from the surreal to the tragic. Lincoln must grapple the weight of grief, while Willie must come to terms with the fact of his death even though he can’t bear to leave his father behind. The novel’s finest moments show the inner workings of the president’s mind as he weighs the meaning of his sorrow with the overarching theme of death that extends from the Bardo to the battlefields of the war.

What’s incredible about Lincoln in the Bardo is its structure. Many writers have drawn acclaim for their manipulation of conventional form, but Saunders’ work is stunning for the sheer amount of research it must have taken to build the fabric of certain pieces of the narrative. For example, the night of Willie’s death/the Lincoln’s party, Saunders tells the story with excerpts from real primary sources and historical texts along with made up sources and texts. Some of them agree, some do not, but they allow for the reader to see various texts working in concert to form a completely new piece of art.

Even paragraphs in the Bardo scenes are attributed to specific characters, almost as if it were a play. The multiple perspectives from myriad voices are the product of painstaking effort on Saunders’ part.

While it takes a few chapters to get used to Saunders’ style, Lincoln in the Bardo is well worth the effort, and I imagine many people can finish it in one sitting. This compelling story of a father losing his son, fighting with grief and guilt while also shaping the landscape of the United States is unabashedly ambitious and completely unmissable.

On “Gin & Daggers” by Jessica Fletcher and Donald Bain

Image result for gin & daggersOkay, so my foray into the never ending Murder, She Wrote series of novels co-authored by “Jessica Fletcher” and Donald Bain can be attributed to a steady diet of the hit 1980s television show starring Angela Lansbury. It continues to be my mother’s favorite show. Not just because Jessica was such a snappy dresser, and smart as a whip, of course. But also because Lansbury bears uncanny resemblance to my grandmother.

Our mutual television obsession turned into a budding literary obsession on my part. Because I nearly always feel obligated to get myself into as many book series as possible, I immediately picked up Gin & Daggers from the library when I found out there was a such a series based on the show.

It was so worth it. Gin & Daggers is a delight and the perfect way to pass time if you’re a fan of the show. Donald Bain does an admirable job transferring Jessica Fletcher into a character in a novel. For the most part, her dialogue, especially her responses to people. I can here the distinct moral rightness of the Lansbury brogue.

The first novel in the series concerns the murder of Jessica’s good friend and world famous mystery writer, Marjorie Ainsworth. When the suspicion falls on Jessica, she must explore the motives of the cast of characters present at Marjorie’s estate that night to clear her name.

Her quest for the real killer takes her all over London, with plenty of cozy stops at pubs to eat fine meals and drink port. It’s delightful. And it made me homesick to that beautiful city and its prickly people.

The bottom line here is, if you’re a fan of Murder, She Wrote, you’ll love these books. Seen all twelve seasons more than once? Try reading one of twenty-ish (?) novels written by Bain. Time well spent, my friends.

On Caite Dolan-Leach’s “Dead Letters”

Image result for dead letters bookThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

You know that famous first line of Leo Tolstoy‘s Anna Karenina? He wrote: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” First time novelist, Caite Dolan-Leach must have kept this is mind when she forged the Antipova family into being in Dead Letters; I can’t remember the last time I encountered such a twisted group of people.

The novel begins with Ava Antipova returning from Paris after she’s learned that her estranged twin sister, Zelda, died in a fire. We learn that Ava has refused to speak to Zelda for two years because she found her and Ava’s “boyfriend” Wyatt together, but she knows that deep down she was looking for any way to get away from her family’s failing vineyard and their mother’s increasingly erratic behavior.

But Ava was always the good girl, earning straight A’s and going to Cornell to study viticulture and oenology. After her father, Marlon, abandoned the family, she knew it would be her duty to run the family’s vineyard. Finding Zelda and Wyatt together was just her excused to high-tail it across the Atlantic where she could entirely switch gears.

Not for a second does Ava believe Zelda is really dead. After two years of silence on Ava’s end, Zelda has done something drastic and dramatic. Pretending to die in a fire? That’s exactly something Zelda would do. Or so Ava thinks.

When she returns to her family’s vineyard in the Seven Lakes region of New York, she begins receiving emails and text messages from Zelda, taking her on a treasure hunt of sorts, from A-Z. Ava and Zelda were meant to be the end all, be all. The Alpha and the Omega. Until Ava left everything behind. Now Zelda is showing her exactly what she let happen when she left. Ava has to figure out each clue before she can reach Zelda, and who knows what she’ll find when she reaches her.

Dolan-Leach does a fantastic job of using this hunt for Zelda as a way to introduce information slowly throughout the novel about the Antipova family and their extremely fucked up history. At some point in the novel after Ava is forced to interact with her (and Zelda’s) old flame, Wyatt, she admits straight-up that she and her twin have been functioning alcoholics since they were teenagers, and her parents are far worse.

The Antipova matriarch, Nadine, is a nasty piece of work that the reader will spend just about the entire novel hating. Granted, there are moments where you feel genuinely bad for her because she is, after all, and alcohol with increasingly severe dementia, but those moments are few and in-between. For this most part, she confuses Ava with Zelda and won’t cooperate unless she’s given alcohol as a pacifier. But in her lucid moments, she reveals little small pieces of information that change the tide of the story and Ava’s search.

The author made each member of the Antipova family equally reprehensible. All of them do things will make the reader clench his or her teeth or cringe in horror. I mean—drugs, sex, alcohol, debt, dark family secrets—it’s all present and accounted for, though this novel really can’t be pegged as a mystery or suspense novel in the traditional sense. It’s more of a family saga that involved putting the pieces of past and present together to make a clear picture.

What I loved most about Dead Letters was Dolan-Leach’s obvious love of language. She makes letters (A-Z) an integral part of the narrative. For example, Ava goes to Paris to study Oulipo writers and the work of Edgar Allan Poe. These writers have utilized constraints in their writing, believing the hindrance would produce more creative work. Ava’s fascination with this becomes a springboard for Zelda’s clues; places, people, and things are hidden within Zelda’s verbose emails.

Dead Letters is a dark exploration of family malfunction, alcoholism, mental illness, and the ties that bind siblings together in their most painful moments. Though it might not be the mystery it touts itself to be, Caite Dolan-Leach’s masterful work is worth the read. Who doesn’t love an unhappy family?

On Jami Attenberg’s “All Grown Up”

all grown upThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Jami Attenberg‘s All Grown Up was not one of my Book of the Month Club selections. Something about the cover made it seem silly and frivolous, like a new Sex and the City installment. I think maybe, the cover is one of the worst things about books; it either deters people from reading it or puts the reader in the position of being extremely confused once they actually read the book.

This story is not, in fact, a re-hashed narrative from the likes of Carrie Bradshaw; rather it’s a 40-year-old woman’s reflection of her life in a series of vignettes that focus on different points of her life. Andrea Bern, an art school dropout, has spent her years filling the space that art left behind. She’s a more than occasional drug user and steady drinker—a free lover who doesn’t have much luck. And she will not apologize for her choice to be single and childless.

Each chapter concerns a person or moment in Andrea’s life that is crucial to her development as a character. For example, the birth of her niece, Sigrid, brings much more sorrow than joy; the child has a degenerative heart defect, which she will die from by the age of five. Self-immolating for years, Andrea can’t quite reach out to the child the way an aunt should, and, when her brother and his wife move to New Hampshire to care for Sigrid, Andrea rarely ever visits. She can’t handle the strain of the baby’s imminent death.

In another instance, one of Andrea’s closest friends gives birth to a son, and she truly believes that they will no longer be friends. Her analysis of the situation—at once comical and anxiety-laden—reveals her fundamental belief that those who have children and those who do not lose their ability to communicate with each other. Andrea does a lot of this throughout the book—she examines, analyzes.

Attenberg does an efficient job of introducing the reader to Andrea’s quirks and insecurities, but the novel’s best moments come after the book’s halfway point. As Andrea reveals more about her past and gives the reader a better sense of how her life comes to be what it is, she furnishes sharp, heartbreaking insights into the darkest parts of her past.

Andrea presents the facts of her life without sentiment. Attenberg wisely gives her a healthy dose of reliable narration, which allows the reader to see her as she is: no filter. The novel’s most stunning and hard hitting moments come in the final two chapters when Andrea’s drug-addicted father imbues her with the wisdom of artists, the heart of which, the reader will realize, she has internalized her entire life; the artist’s endless search for happiness and fulfillment will never come. Only through the art itself will the artist find something like contentment. And the novel’s final moments concern the death of young Sigrid—the real darkness underlying the entire novel.

In that moment, Andrea is left only with her hopes for what will happen. To herself and her family. The uncertainty with which Attenberg leaves the reader is the greatest farewell.

On “The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir” by Jennifer Ryan

chilbury
courtesy of amazon.com

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

So many words come to mind when I think of Jennifer Ryan‘s debut novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir: cozy, delightful, warm, heartbreaking, empowering—a refreshing addition to the canon of World War II literature. Those destructive years are parsed out in countless novels, biographies, memoirs, and non-fiction accounts of the war, but very rarely does a book approach it quite the way Ryan’s novel does.

Through journal entries and letters from nearly a dozen residents of Chilbury, Ryan pieces together a beautiful mosaic of a small, English village coping with the start of a war they do not yet know the scope of. Each perspective gives a glimpse of the town’s changing culture as most of the men are called to combat and the entitlement of the area’s landed gentry becomes less and less powerful in the wake of the war’s increasing carnage.

The novel’s major players include Mrs. Tilling, a middle-aged nurse whose son has just been sent to the front, Venetia Winthrop, a coquettish eighteen-year-old intent on wooing a handsome artist, Kitty Winthrop, Venetia’s thirteen-year-old sister who aspires to become a famous singer, and Edwina Paltry, a midwife of dubious moral character. Their stories weave together to build the fabric of a story that encapsulates the rapidly changing landscape of rural England.

In the novel’s beginning, no one believed the war is going to last more than a few months–no one believes this war will reach the hellish proportions of the “Great War” just a couple decades earlier. They soon see, however, that the Germans are determined to swallow up as much of Europe as they can, and the coast near Chilbury becomes a particularly dangerous area, susceptible to an air raid at any moment.

Ryan chooses to keep The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir on the lighter side of World War II fiction. Chilbury’s women must take over the jobs and tasks that the men in their town have left behind, but their parish vicar still wants to bring an end to the church choir, believing that it couldn’t possibly go on without male vocalists. But a newcomer by the name of Prim–a professor of music at Litchfield University–won’t have any of it. She rallies the town’s women together, and they form The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.

As the choir grows in confidence, so do each of its performers, especially Mrs. Tilling, who, up until then, has been trapped by her own fear and the need to help others more than herself. Though her caring nature continues to grow throughout the novel, she also becomes assertive; she refuses to let people take advantage of her and does what she can to protect the innocent people around her who are trapped by the whims of men who hate women.

Ultimately, that is Ryan’s overarching theme–the strength of women in the face of certain destruction. She weaves issues of class, wealth, reproductive rights, and homosexuality into the fabric of this theme, but it is first and foremost a novel meant to celebrate the contributions of women who do everything they can to help the people around them during times of great crisis.

I highly recommend that anyone interested in the early years of the war read this book because it has the advantage of bringing together some of the time period’s most compelling developments. It is also hopeful, which cannot be said for many things these days. I was saddened when I finished the book because I wanted badly to hold onto the book’s narrative of personal growth, which is told with a warmth that is hard to create without veering into the maudlin.

The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir is lovely, witty, and moving, but most importantly, it’s absolutely unputdownable.