A House of Mirrors: On Jane Delury’s ‘The Balcony’

balconyThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Jane Delury‘s debut collection of short stories is a heady, atmospheric exploration of the comings and goings of a manor house in the French countryside. Set in the fictional town of Benneville, The Balcony weaves together the lives of those connected to the fabled Lèger mansion and its spectral grounds. Delury’s stories are not ghost stories, but they concern the lives of ghosts. From the Belle Époque to the present day, those who have touched the house remain tied to it in often inexplicable ways.

Each of the stories in this collection moves back and forth through time, but are placed in such a way that the reader discovers new information as they read; threads fall into place connecting people and places from one tale to the next. Some of the events that take place in Benneville and the mansion connect to larger tragedies–World War II and the Holocaust, the stigma of unwed motherhood, a sunken oil tanker in the Bay of Biscay.

But Delury’s finest exhibitions of craft exist in her depiction of the small tragedies within that broad scope: The lady of the house, once renowned for her sensuality and beauty, jumps from her balcony, making one last show for the young worker who is enamored with her; the sidelong glances that almost lead to affairs; the playing ground of young lovers.

Delury makes an admirable attempt to string the details of each story into a sustainable whole, and while many of The Balcony’s moments are beautifully done, the finished product doesn’t live up to the book’s ambitions.

The most important elements of the short story rely on what isn’t said — not so much a painting as a piece of wood whittled down to its most essential parts. Thematically, the book is cohesive: often dark in tone, its characters usually out of place or maladjusted in some way. Everyone has one foot firmly stuck in Benneville, and I think this conceit is what puts me off as a reader. I kicked this year off by reading Maryse Meijer‘s Heartbreaker, and it ultimately spoiled me on the short story front. Each story in that collection was fundamentally different from the next, but the sweeping darkness and yearning of the work as a whole made it completely unforgettable.

Delury relies much too heavily on the manor house and Benneville as connective tissue. There are hints of the fantastic, as in “Eclipse” when the story of a character’s suicide ends with her husband wandering the manor’s grounds during a solar eclipse. But the imagery that accompanies it does little to suit the potential richness of such a plot device, a recurring pitfall. She writes,

He called out again for his wife, louder this time, and continued through the courtyard, past the topiary, toward the rose garden. Something sharp grazed his heel. He cursed but didn’t stop. Behind the pergola, a wall of bushes grew at his side, barbed and shapeless, as if they had never been trimmed.

That is how “Eclipse” ends. This type of heavy-handed metaphor appears fairly frequently, but Delury sprinkles enough pretty lines throughout the book that the reader can sometimes forget that the prose too often plods along. The stories would have come across better had the writing been sharper across the board, but I suspect this is a matter of personal preference. I, for one, need good sentences to go along with my broody characters and French manor houses.

A collection of short stories that has the type of conceit that The Balcony does should delve more deeply into the unknown, touching on more than the varying shapes of tragedy. Delury hints at the unknown, occasionally building the sinister into the details of the house and its grounds, but it isn’t enough to mark the book as a worthwhile achievement. Quite simply, I wanted more.

All in all, reading The Balcony was an okay experience. I don’t believe it accomplishes what it sets out to do, but it is generally entertaining and quick to read. It will also help you brush up on your elementary school French, which could be a win for those of us who actually speak a lick of it. A.k.a., not me.

 

On “The Young Elites” by Marie Lu

Image result for the young elitesA friend recommended The Young Elites to me at least a year ago, and I just got around to reading it the other day. I wish I hadn’t waited so long. It’s one of the strongest YA series I’ve read in a long time–up there with the work of Sarah J. Maas and Maureen Johnson, partially because of her fantastic world-building, but mostly because of the strength of her writing.

The snappy clip of Lu’s plotting, much like Maas’ and Johnson’s, keeps the reader hooked from the beginning. There isn’t a moment when I thought a section was boring, or misplaced in the greater scheme of the narrative, which attests to the author’s crucial choices about how to present this unusual story.

The Young Elites–the first novel in Lu’s Young Elites trilogy–introduces the readers to a world that resembles Italy in the 1400s at a time when a generation of “malfetto” children is reaching maturity. Some years prior to the events of the novel, a blood fever tore through the world, leaving many dead; the few who survived were left with permanent markings.

Some of these “malfettos”–as they are derisively called–have developed special powers, and a special legion controlled by the throne, known as the Inquisition Axis, is determined to root them out of society through the passage of harsh laws and, increasingly, through state-sanctioned murder.

The story focuses on sixteen-year-old Adelina Amouteru who flees home after accidentally murdering her father with her powers. She is spared from capital punishment at the hands of the Inquisition Axis by a group of vigilante malfettos known as the Young Elites.

As she slowly joins their ranks, she learns that their ultimate goal is to overthrow the king and queen in order to finally undo the unjust system oppressing people like them. Adelina believes in their mission, but it becomes clear that there is something dark wedged deep into her soul.

Through deft characterization, Lu develops a compelling anti-hero–a protagonist who is, essentially, a villain–but who blurs the lines between good and evil in the most fascinating ways. She is joined by a series of similarly scarred Young Elites who are driven towards the same goals, but some of whom distrust Adelina.

When I reached the end of the first book, I found myself so immersed in the Young Elite world and Adelina’s fall from grace–that I know Lu had created a truly compelling piece of fiction.

On Chiara Barzini’s “Things That Happened Before the Earthquake”

51ujUY47TCL__SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I finished this book several months ago, but never got around to doing a write-up about it. It took a few weeks for me to get through it; I found that I was conflicted about a few components of the novel, and wasn’t able to construct a clear argument regarding those elements.

The novel concerns the experiences of an Italian teenager named Eugenia who is forced to leave Rome for Los Angeles by her hippy-ish, champagne-socialist parents. The Rodney King riots have just rocked the city, and sections of the city are still smoking from the damage when Eugenia’s family arrives.

She gradually learns how to navigate an American high school…well…the LA version of an American high school, where gang affiliations are rampant, and the ability to sample sex and drugs is open to most. A stranger to these things at first, Eugenia lets herself sink into the experimentation and immediacy of her surroundings. She befriends a young Persian gang member who is endearing and kind in their private moments, but won’t be seen with her in public.

Her sexual experimentation enrages her parents who, despite their seemingly liberal ways, deem her a whore. When she meets Deva–a beautiful, illusive girl–Eugenia ventures into Topanga Canyon where California morphs into another one of its ever-changing personalities. What becomes a one-sided romance (on Eugenia’s end), becomes complicated by the strange, likely incestuous relationship between Deva and her overbearing father.

Eugenia’s story hinges on the sharp-edged wilderness of Los Angeles in the early 90s–from Hollywood kitsch and gang violence, to the harshness of the surrounding landscape and the disasters that surround it–leading to the novel’s eponymous climax.

Though the book adheres to some of the main YA tropes, there are several aspects of the book that jumped out at me.

Honestly, I’m still not sure I can elucidate these things clearly now since it’s been so long, but I’ll just make a few points about it:

  1. Chiara Barzini needs to write more fiction for young adults. More fiction period. Her style is lyrical by nature, capturing the essence of Eugenia’s experiences in long waves rather than the short bursts of observation that I’ve come to associate with young adult fiction.
  2. There is a section in the middle of the book that follows Chiara and her brother back to a remote island off the Italian coast where the narrative shifts rapidly into a primitive environment that lacks most modern amenities. Without getting into too much detail–that section was a surprising and incendiary exploration of violence and jealousy.
  3. As characters, Eugenia’s parents are extremely well written considering the fact they don’t get much page time, but their personal politics seriously irked me. Besides reacting poorly to Eugenia’s sexuality, other aspects of their behavior reveal them to be slightly narcissistic and almost entirely hypocritical about their alleged belief system. And I cannot stand the way they call everyone fascists…but I think that’s a particularly Italian reproach…

These are the things that stood out to me, and I know I’m neglecting a lot. The book has a lot to unpack. All in all, it’s a gripping coming-of-age story that I would recommend for older teenagers.

5/5

On “The Last Black Unicorn” by Tiffany Haddish

34974310__UY2113_SS2113_Anyone who’s seen the 2017 smash hit Girls Trip starring Regina Hall, Queen Latifah, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Tiffany Haddish will know that it catapulted the latter comedian into stratospheric success. Her high-energy performance is unceasingly funny, and most viewers will say, with confidence, that she makes the movie.

I found out about her memoir, The Last Black Unicorn, when Trevor Noah interviewed her on the Daily Show. It’s a relatively quick read comprised of vignettes that chronicle aspects of Haddish’s youth and her connection with comedy. Obviously, her account of various mishaps in her past are extremely funny, but are often equally painful. I would have loved to see more detail in some of her earlier memories, which would have served to flesh out the stories a bit more. Instead, most of them rely heavily on the distinct cadence of her voice. It does not always translate well to the page, and several passages jumped from one idea to the next with little to no transition.

Stylistic failings aside, the book is worth reading for no other reason than the reader’s exposure to Haddish’s indefatigable spirit. Despite the atrocities of her younger years, The Last Black Unicorn radiates positivity and vibrancy, and Haddish is consistently smart, observant, and hysterical.

I’ve heard the audio book is the best way to experience the book because hearing her tell the stories jives perfectly with her stand-up chops.

All in all it was a solid choice for my lazy weekend at home (which is every weekend…who am I kidding?)… 3/5 stars.

On Maureen Johnson’s “Truly Devious”

29589074This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Maureen Johnsonthe official “Queen of Teen,” is back and better than ever with her latest novel, Truly Devious. In what might be her finest book to date, this mystery combines the best components of YA fiction — an elite boarding school, murder, a beautifully relatable protagonist, and young love — to create a compulsively readable page-turner. Sometimes I exaggerate about good books, but believe me when I say you will not be able to put this one down until you’ve reached the end.

Johnson first showed off her mystery/crime-fighting chops in the Shades of London series, which begins with a return of Jack the Ripper in present-day London and follows a group of young people who are able to see ghosts. Each installment is brilliantly plotted and exhibits Johnson’s keen eye for detail as well as her ability to construct three dimensional characters. Her ability to shed light on the nuances of adolescence was always present in her work, but so many things about Truly Devious combine these elements and take Johnson’s storytelling to a whole new level.

In the beginning of the novel, Stephanie “Stevie” Bell has gained admittance to Ellingham Academy — a school built by a 1930s industrialist named Albert Ellingham who wanted to share his philosophy of education as a game with the rest of the world. Fifty students of all backgrounds are admitted each year tuition free to explore their niche interests with access to the school’s bottomless resources. There are inventors, artists, musicians, and gamers, but Stevie is different. Her obsession with the Ellingham affair and careful study of criminology is what got her into the school.

Stevie’s goal at Ellingham Academy is simple: solve the murder/kidnapping of Iris and Alice Ellingham, Albert’s wife and daughter, and student Dottie Epstein.

Like the Shades series weaves in and out of the streets of London, Truly Devious relies heavily on the landscape of Ellingham Academy. Situated on a mountain just outside of Burlington, Vermont, the school is isolated from society in an idyll that is perfect for the students’ pursuits. But a shroud of eeriness looms over the campus, which houses countless mysteries from the past, ones that Stevie is eager to examine.

Things take an unexpected turn, though, when Hayes — a handsome young actor who has recently found fame with his YouTube series — is found dead in an underground tunnel where key events of the Ellingham affair unfolded decades earlier in April 1936. The school community is rocked with shock and grief. Stevie sees Hayes’ body when it’s discovered by campus security, and she must finally reconcile the theories of studying crime with the reality of an untimely death.

What the police determine to be an accident soon appears like something slightly more sinister to Stevie. The circumstances surrounding Hayes’ death don’t quite add up, and she’s determined to figure out what, or who, was involved.

Investing herself in the Ellingham affair and Hayes’ death isolates Stevie from those around her. Johnson’s characterization of Stevie’s isolation and anxiety is masterful in its presentation. From the beginning, Stevie feels alien in her own family because her parents are devotees of a fictional senator who mirrors the racist and misogynistic idealogy of someone like Roy Moore. Instead of building the typical kind of familial tension into the storyline that we find in most YA novels, Johnson subtly creates a dynamic between Stevie and her parents that I found extremely moving.

Many teenagers and young adults disagree with their parents over politics and ideology. In Stevie’s case, she doesn’t understand her parents, and they don’t understand her, but they love each other deeply. The way her mom makes sure Stevie has her anxiety medication, and the way Stevie looks out for a cheap place to eat when her parents come to see her because she knows they don’t have much money shows a mutual simplicity of affection at the heart of a complicated relationship.

Stevie is also uncertain about whether she even belongs at Ellingham considering the nature of her interests, isolating her further.

To that end, Johnson builds a lot of heavy hitting material into the historical chapters of the novel. Albert Ellingham, the great benefactor, is clearly modeled after late 19th century, early 20th century titans of industry like Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller. His magnificent wealth is legendary, funding his many enterprises, but it is also the source of his greatest loss.

When his wife and daughter are kidnapped, ransom is demanded on three occasions, all of increasing amounts, which prompts his secretary to comment that the kidnappers will always want more. Excess and decadence are hallmarks of the Ellingham lifestyle. Johnson brilliantly underscores the Gatsby-esque nature of the household and the family’s privilege with the inclusion of anarchists as dark clouds over the Ellingham dream world.

There are so many layers to this book, combining all the great elements of a YA novel and a good mystery. I gushed with anticipation as I pieced together the tiny details that Johnson sprinkled throughout the plot like breadcrumbs.

Unfortunately, I’m going to assume book two of the series won’t be released until 2019 or 2020, and I might go crazy if I think about all the possibilities that could unfold. It felt like a loss having to turn the last page of this intoxicating story, and I can promise you that whatever comes next will be even more wild.

On “Still Me” by Jojo Moyes

9780399562471This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

At least once a month for the past couple years, I’ve entered Goodreads giveaways to no avail. I expected nothing different when I requested an advanced copy of Jojo Moyes‘ final installment in the Me Before You trilogy, Still Me.

I was sad to hear that Louisa Clark’s story would be coming to an end, but nonetheless eager to see how her story would unfold in New York City. As luck would have it, I finally won. It doesn’t escape me that this will probably be the last thing in my life that I win (unluckiest girl in the world, at your service!)…but I’m happy my one-time good fortune brought me this book.

This is an ARC review of Jojo Moyes’ Still Me, which releases January 30, 2018.

*Special thanks to Penguin for allowing us to read and review ahead of publication.

In Still Me, we find Louisa beginning her new job in New York after a whirlwind two years back in England. She met and fell in love with Will Trainor, who ultimately decided to take his own life in Me Before You, and she learns to pick up the pieces of her life in After You — finding solace and companionship with Will’s daughter, Lily, and Ambulance Sam, a new romantic interest.

Just as Lou is getting comfortable with her life, she gets a job offer from her friend, Nathan, who helped with Will’s physical therapy. Leaving behind her newfound love and friendships, Louisa has become a companion once again. This time to the second Mrs. Gopnik — the much younger Polish wife of one of New York City’s richest men. Not only must she adjust to a new country, Lou must also adapt her worldview to include the unparalleled wealth of old New York money.

But it turns out New York City is exactly Lou’s kind of place. The sights, sounds, and endless diversity of the bustling streets around her swiftly become home, changing her in ways she does not realize. Her service to Mrs. Gopnik is not quite as simple, however. Even though Agnes is a vivacious, outspoken, and funny woman, she is deeply unhappy in the elite world she has married into. The first Mrs. Gopnik’s cronies are loyal until death and refuse to acknowledge Agnes as a suitable or worthy counterpart. Despite her best efforts, social events are always a trial, and Lou becomes obligated to attend in the guise of friendship.

It becomes clear that Mrs. Gopnik might be hiding something. But despite the warning she receives from Nathan and the Gopnik’s housekeeper, Ilaria, Lou believes she and Agnes are friends. In a whirlwind twist of events, this turns out to be her greatest mistake.

In the meantime, Lou must attempt to maintain a long-distance relationship with Sam as it becomes progressively more difficult to keep their still new love alive. Jealousy and mistrust mar the rare occasions that they can see and speak to each other. And to top it all off, Lou’s life is turned awry when she meets a man who looks exactly like Will Trainor–a well-off corporate striver whose ambition lets nothing get in his way.

Moyes’ effortless storytelling ability does not falter in the final portion of Lou’s story. She perfectly bends the arch of her “coming-of-age” into its natural conclusion without forcing any inorganic plotlines. I had almost forgotten how much I admired Lou’s tenacity and optimism from the previous novels, but Moyes brings her best qualities back into focus from page one.

Despite some flaws in the galley proof and minor plot discrepancies, Still Me is a fantastic conclusion to Louisa Clark’s story that will have you laughing and crying almost at once as we finally see her come into her own.

On “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine” by Gail Honeyman

51JStdvqDJL__SY344_BO1,204,203,200_This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

During the latter half of 2017, Gail Honeyman‘s Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine gained a lot of attention both in literary circles and mainstream media. Even my boss recommended that I read it. It’s commonplace for new writers to produce fresh, buzz-worthy novels, but I wondered, after reading the book’s description, how it came to resonate so deeply with people. Surely the story of a 30-year-old socially awkward office worker sounds like a Bridget Jones spin-off—something that would read like a light comedy of errors…

Alas, Honeyman offers us something altogether different in her debut. Yes, Ms. Eleanor Oliphant is a painfully well-mannered outcast in the accounts payable department of an ad design agency. She follows the same routine every day—lunchtime crossword puzzles and carefully chosen sandwiches. Same bus route, same outfits, same radio programs.

Eleanor is such a firm narrator that we barely even notice the strangeness of the facts she gives us about her life, like the fact that she’s near fluent in Latin and won prizes for her studies in classics; or that she has burn scars on her face; or that her weekends always kick off with a pizza from her beloved Tesco’s and vodka. Quite a lot of it. Enough to blur the edges of nightmares that haunt her in ways that become clearer as the novel progresses. Enough so that she can handle her weekly conversations with “Mummy,” an emotionally abusive narcissist who did something horrific in Eleanor’s past, though Eleanor protested to know what happened.

Eleanor sticks to her routines without fail until she falls helplessly in love with a musician she sees one night out in Glasgow. She knows nothing about him but firmly believes they are meant to be together and will fall in love once they meet. In preparation for such a meeting, Eleanor embarks on a personal project, deciding to make some (mostly cosmetic) changes, including a cringe-worthy encounter during an appointment to wax her undercarriage…

Slowly but surely, other things in her life begin to change as well. In the nascent days of her newfound love, Eleanor meets Raymond—one of the IT guys in her office. Nearly everything about him repels her; he’s slightly overweight, smokes often, and wears nothing but t-shirts, jeans, and sneakers. But what probably would have been a one-time encounter blossoms into an odd friendship after they assist an elderly man named Sammy who stumbles on the street.

Now, the loneliness of Eleanor’s life shifts into days that are sometimes filled with places to go and people to see. Through her conversations with Raymond, Eleanor confirms what the reader has suspected since the beginning—that she has experienced unimaginable abuse at the hands of her mother and her one and only boyfriend, and that the only real social interaction she’s had in her twenties is with social workers and an employee at her local market.

Having a few friends seems to benefit Eleanor, but the darkness of her past lies just beneath the surface of her simply crafted life. The novel—separated into Good Days and Bad Days—takes a sharp turn about halfway through. One moment we are with Eleanor as she’s about to attend one of the rock star’s gigs, the next we find her naked on her kitchen floor with self-induced alcohol poisoning and a display of tools with which she can kill herself.

Such is the range of Honeyman’s staggering book. Readers are endeared to Eleanor’s strange ways from the beginning, maybe even recognizing some of our own tendencies in her. She is awkward—often painfully so—even though she thinks she’s being proper. But she is charming in her way: a lover of animals, books, Tesco’s, and mismatched furniture. We see her transition from a broken person to a recovering one—surrounded by unexpected friendships and caregivers.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine is a stunning, heartbreaking story of healing that is often darkly funny and full of sharp observations. Honeyman moves her narrative at a steady, digestible pace without missing moments that infuse the text with transcendent bits of introspection in the mind of Eleanor—so much that one cannot help but reread certain passages and covet the new talent springing forth from these pages.