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review 2018-06-11 23:01
A Handbook For Beautiful People
A Handbook for Beautiful People - Jennifer Spruit

Marla is a 22 year-old waitress/ medical assistant who has had a difficult life. Born to a addicted mother, Marla has partial Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and her younger brother, Gavin is deaf. Marla bounced around in foster homes and worked as a prostitute until she found a friend in fellow outcast, Dani. Now, Marla and Dani look after each other. Marla is finally beginning to feel like an adult while holding down her two jobs and entering into a relationship with Liam. However, Marla soon finds herself pregnant and looking through the options of abortion, adoption and motherhood. Marla invites Gavin to visit when she is pregnant and getting ready for the arrival of the baby. With Gavin's arrival, she learns that his life has not been easy for him either. Gavin and Dani also enter into a relationship further complicating the balance. Despite everything Marla is doing to keep her head above water, the world has other plans and everything takes a turn for the worse all at once.


A Handbook for Beautiful People provides a raw look into the lives of very real and heartfelt characters. I was very interested in reading a book from the perspective of someone with fetal alcohol syndrome. Marla is an astonishing and well written character. At every turn, Marla's surprised me with her faults, accomplishments, missteps and decisions she was able to make. Though it seemed as if her life were a series of mistakes and drama, Marla was able to shine through. More than once, it seemed as if Gavin might steal the show. Gavin is strong and supportive, but is still working on who he is while being hearing impaired. Gavin's journey was amazing in itself, I think there could be a whole separate story there. My only complaint was that the writing style quickly changed points of view, and it would sometime take me a few sentences to make sense of everything again. The supporting characters around Marla and the events in her life create one big beautiful mess. With twists, turns, breaks, floods, a baby and a decision, Marla's journey is unique and satisfying.


This book was received for free in return for an honest review.
 

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review 2018-06-07 16:32
Another Country, by James Baldwin
Another Country - James Baldwin

"So what can we really do for each other except--just love each other and be each other's witness?"

 

When I finished Another Country, it brought tears to my eyes. There's so much suffering exquisitely depicted alongside glimmers of love and beauty, such whole, flawed characters. Like the recently read The Fire Next Time, a nonfiction work by Baldwin, it might have been written today. Again, this is both a compliment to Baldwin's art and his powers of observation but also a lament that so little has changed, particularly regarding race but also gender and sexuality.

 

Nothing is easy about this book except its gorgeous, lucid prose. It's not afraid of the dark things in people, the mistakes we make, and what holds us back. I felt deeply for these characters, but the book doesn't give in to despair, which, at the end, is what made me cry in relief.

 

I was surprised to be reminded of Virginia Woolf as I read. There are passages where a character's inability to express "it" or oneself or story are noted. There's a suicide. There's also something about the way both Baldwin and Woolf capture fine states of emotion or the way our feelings and attitude can change so quickly, from seemingly small things. And, when we learn Cass's real name is Clarissa (her husband is Richard), I knew I wasn't crazy to make these connections!

 

The book is a landmark queer text, and Baldwin clearly knows how to write sex, the act itself--between men and women and between two men--and desire. Its queerness affected its reception at the time; I'm sure many would prefer Baldwin stick exclusively to race and racism. The quote above is spoken by Vivaldo to Eric, and it is a beautiful and simple idea even as the story proves it may be impossible to live by.

 

However, Baldwin does privilege love between men and the homosocial above all. Nearly all the central male characters are queer or explore their sexuality with one another; at the very least, platonic love between them is a source of comfort and hope. This is not the case with the women. Women's sexuality and power emasculate or cannot be known. There appears to be no escape or solution for women and their pain and oppression, whether white or black. If there is one flaw or problematic issue in this book, in my mind it's that. The love and act of witnessing in the quote seem to be for men only.

 

 

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review 2018-05-17 22:18
All the Way to Italy
All the Way to Italy - Flavia Brunetti

Little has grown up in San Francisco, but is a native of Italy. For a good portion of her childhood she was raised by her Aunt Sira in the States. Little and Sira packed up and left Italty after an incident happened concerning her mother and father that caused Little's mother to leave them. Now, Little's father has died and Sira has asked Little to come back to Italy. Little reluctantly returns to her home knowing that she must help sift through her father's things. Little's return also brings back partial memories, things she can't piece together from her time with her mother and father-a symbol, an argument. Little tries to piece together what secret her father was hiding and what made her mother leave; however, the one person who could tell her is no longer alive and Sira is keeping her mouth shut. Little embarks on a trip around Italy trying to figure out the secrets her family has kept, but may unlock more within herself.

A journey of self-discovery and family secrets, All The Way to Italy is a fascinating adventure. With poetic writing, some of the first lines drew me in: "She wanted to tap the man's shoulder and ask him if a place can ever shake off the people who had belonged to it, or if those tendrils would feed her nostalgia forever..." I was also immediately curious about Little; we never find out her real name and her situation is unique. Sira was an immediate favorite with her sage advice and marvelous attitude. Through Sira, there are glimpses of what Little's father was like along with amazing stories of the siblings during WWII. However, Sira is reluctant to give up her brother's secret, setting Little on a trip around Italy. With Little's adventures, we get a very intimate view of some wonderful places around the country that are usually left out of the travel guides. I loved Little's description of Rome as " a city that had adapted to modern times without losing its antiquity." Through Little's trip, Little does not figure out anything about her family, although she does discover more about herself and what she would like to do in life. I do wish the story line with Little's mother, Delila was fleshed out a little more as well as some of the historical sections. There are a few hops back through time to when Sira and Little's father were children during World War II and it seems like there was a lot of potential to build the context of the mystery with Little's father. Overall, a heartwarming and beautiful story of finding your way. 


This book was received for free in return for an honest review.

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review 2018-05-11 17:04
After Birth, by Elisa Albert
After Birth - Elisa Albert

As we approach Mother's Day in the U.S., pop culture has lately been reassuring me that my decision to never have children is a good one.

 

Most recently, I went to see the movie Tully, in which a woman who's just had her third child struggles to sleep and care for herself until finally she relents and accepts her brother's gift of a night nanny. Life for her improves markedly, perhaps magically (for a reason).

 

Inspired by Tully, I consciously chose to read After Birth. Might as well ride this wave of mother-related trauma, I thought. The novel follows Ari, a first time mother, over the course of three months, her son just turning one. It flashes back to when she was pregnant, endured what she feels was a needless C-section, and when what is likely to be post-partum depression ensues.

 

In its bitterness, its sometimes funny rants and ambivalence about Jewish identity, After Birth felt of a piece with Albert's first novel, The Book of Dahlia, which I read last year. I admired that book for its stubbornly unforgiving protagonist, dying of brain cancer. Similarly, Ari's often caustic, volatile voice, her resentment at modern birth practices and various mothering cliques, as well as the unnecessary isolation of motherhood, was often refreshing to read. Sometimes, however, it became a bit much for me.

 

Ari wrestles with her past, doomed relationships with other women, including her mean mother, who died of cancer when she was young, former friends, roommates, lovers. In the present, she befriends and helps a new mom who was in a seminal feminist band. This relationship enables Ari to "grow up," to perhaps become less judgmental or bitter about the women in her life, and those who may become a part of her life.

 

Like everything else, motherhood in the U.S. has become commodified, both as an inextricable part of the health care industry and as a way to sell "stuff" that mothers have done without for ages. The most valuable, engaging aspect of After Birth is the insistence that, however individual birth plans and approaches to mothering may be, women are not meant to raise children on their own (whether there's a man or not); we're meant to help each other.

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review 2018-04-30 14:49
The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl
The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl - Stacy McAnulty

Middle School is hard enough, but it is going to be an even more difficult year for 12 year old Lucy Callahan. Four years ago Lucy was struck by lightning while playing outside. Lucy's heart stopped for a few minutes, but more importantly, it changed the way her brain worked. When Lucy recovered, she had developed Acquired Savant Syndrome for math. Lucy became a whiz with number, doing complex calculations in her head, she could also see math, numbers have a color and a shape. With her acquired savant syndrome also came a few quirks, Lucy now has a germ phobia and has to toe tap three time and do a stand-up, sit-down routine three times before taking a seat or the numbers of Pi will invade her head. With her new skills and quirks, Lucy's Nana pulls her out of traditional school and helps Lucy earn her GED at 12 years old. Now, when Lucy should be looking at colleges, her Nana and Uncle Paul decide that Lucy could use some real world skills and enroll her in Middle School where Lucy is tasked to make one real friend, join one activity and read one book that is not a textbook. 

A surprising, fun and unique middle grade story that quickly captured my heart. Even though Lucy is a math genius, her challenges make her relatable to anyone who has ever had to navigate middle school. The writing flows effortlessly and accurately describes a middle school experience. I was also impressed with how well the processes of Lucy's quirks and math logic were described. They did not seem like a handicap, just part of Lucy's life. Lucy's classmates and soon to be friends, Windy and Levi help round out Lucy's middle school experience. With these two very different friends, Lucy is pushed to grow, learn and relate to people in unique ways. When the trio of friends has to take on a service project, Lucy is pushed even farther. I did love that Lucy was able to combine her love of math, Levi's love of photography and Windy's love of pet philanthropy into one project to help a pet shelter. Overall, a distinct and easy to devour book featuring a diverse cast and a great message that middle grade readers to adults will enjoy.

This book was received for free in return for an honest review.

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