Reviews

Preview: ‘Our Homesick Songs’

Does anyone remember Emma Hooper’s Etta and Otto and Russell and James? Oh, I loved it. I was so thrilled to see her new novel – out mid-August – that I moved it clear to the top of my stack.

Our Homesick Songs reminded me of The Rathbones and also a little bit of The Light Between Oceans. It’s set in a small fishing village called Big Running that once was flooded with fish but has now run dry. The fish shortage has sent all of the town’s inhabitants away to find work; the town has slowly dwindled down to only 6 occupied houses among the dozens of deserted ones. In one home lives the Connor family – Martha and Aidan and their children Cora and Finn. In alternating chapters we get the story of Martha and Aidan’s courtship and the story of their present.

The Connors are all cheats; it’s widely known throughout the village and even to young Aidan himself. He vows never to fall in love. Sequestering himself out at sea, he sings to the fish all night long. His voice travels far over the water, to the other shore, where young Martha Murphy finds it and believes it to be the voice of a mermaid. She listens night after night and when she finally meets him, she knows he is the one just as she knows that all Connors are cheats. Fast-forward 20 years, the members of the Connor family are each struggling in their own ways to come to terms with the dissolution of their town, their family, their lives.

What I love about Emma Hooper are the little details that make her stories magic – Cora, sneaking into abandoned houses and redecorating them according to different nationalities (an Italian house, a Mexican house, etc.); Finn, trying his best to lure the fish back according to any old folklore he comes across; Martha with her finely knotted fishing nets. This is a slow novel, but a beautiful one.


Our Homesick Songs by Emma Hooper (Simon & Schuster | 9781501124488 | August 14, 2018)

Review: ‘House of Broken Angels’

Have you ever thought about what you would think about if you knew you were dying? If you knew you were dying soon? If you are curious as to what it would be like, just read The House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea.

Big Angel is the patriarch of a large, loud, opinionated Mexican (Mexican-AMERICAN thanks to Big Angel) family. And he’s dying. Soon. So he does what the patriarch of any big family would do – he decides to throw himself the biggest birthday bash ever seen. He invites all of his crazy relatives – his siblings, estranged children, everybody’s sister and child, grandchild and niece.

As with any family, Big Angel’s has its share of drama. There are feuds, brawls, tears, and laughs, tons of family stories to be told.  I loved that part. But what I loved most was Big Angel himself; reflecting on his life and coming to terms with his imminent departure from the world he has known and loved. There was something so real, so honest, in his fears and sorrows. I loved the way he talked about his memory, especially the memories of meeting his wife as a young man, of falling in love and then staying in a marriage, more or less in love. It’s the perfect novel for anyone who loves a large cast of colorful characters, a great family saga, or stories about crossing borders and building new lives.

Big Angel is definitely not perfect, but he felt very, very real.


House of Broken Angels by Luis Alberto Urrea (Little Brown & Company | 9780316154888 | March 6, 2018)

Review: ‘The Italian Teacher’

Is it possible to really enjoy a book even though the main character is pretty much all-around unattractive? In looks, demeanor, attitude, thought? I think it must be, because I really enjoyed The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, even though Pinch, our “hero,” is pretty pathetic.

The son of Bear Bavinsky, a famous and philandering painter, Pinch lives his life struggling to earn his father’s approval. He questions every move, every decision, and every conversation – hoping that it is the “right” one. He ends up teaching Italian at a small, unremarkable college in London, having long ago cast aside his desire to paint. When Pinch finds himself suddenly in Bear’s confidence and good graces, he makes some interesting and life-changing decisions that propel the second half of the story.

Bear is definitely the most dynamic character in the novel – loud, interesting, creatively unique. He’s almost too much of a character, probably best seen through the eyes of his admittedly less interesting son. A lot of the story has to do with Bear’s artistic persona, the quirks to his genius and also his obsession with self-preservation and perfection. I was completely interested the whole way through but found Pinch pretty pathetic.


The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman (Viking | 9780735222694 | February 20, 2018)

Review: ‘Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow’

I know everyone compares everything to Harry Potter, but this really does have the same sort of readability and charm. It’s the story of Morrigan Crow, born a cursed child and hated in her hometown (her father is mayor). Morrigan gets blamed for everything, from bad weather to upset stomachs to lost pets. Good thing that cursed children are all killed the night before their 11th birthday, and for Morrigan Crow, that is tomorrow.

Just before Morrigan is to die, a mysterious stranger whisks her away to Nevermoor, a realm she didn’t know existed, where she finds herself being groomed to compete for a spot in the illustrious Wundrous Society, a school for the gifted. The magically gifted, that is. Morrigan has to compete in a series of trials to earn her place among the future leaders of the country. The only problem is, she has no magic talent to speak of.

Living in an enchanted, clever and ever-changing hotel overseen by a large talking cat, Morrigan comes to love her life in this new world. But as with all good Harry-Potter-esque novels, there is something sinister afoot. And if she doesn’t pass her trials and make it into the Wundrous Society, she’ll be thrown back to her hometown to face certain death. I can’t wait for the second installment, due out in October 2018.


Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow by Jessica Townsend (Little Brown Books for Young Readers | 9780316508889 | October 31, 2017)

Review: ‘The Immortalists’

Though fate propels the plot of Chloe Benjamin’s new novel, The Immortalists, the book brims with magic and life. Its premise is simple: on a muggy summer day in New York’s Lower East Side, four siblings pay a visit to a fortune teller who reveals to each of them the exact date of their death. While the siblings do not share the death date revelation with each other, they nonetheless go on to live very different lives across the next five decades influenced, often driven by, this information. The book begs the question: how would you live if you knew how long you had? Would you want to know?

Benjamin sets only the very beginning of the novel in New York City; you certainly wouldn’t call The Immortalists a New York novel, though the Gold family’s progenitors, Gertie and Saul, are Eastern European Jewish immigrants who have settled there. The narrative structure of the book divides the story into four chronological, sequential sections each following a decade of one of the siblings’ lives. The first part, titled “You’d Dance, Kid,” follows Simon, the youngest sibling, as he moves to San Francisco and becomes a pillar dancer at a club named Purp and then studies in a ballet corps, amidst the burgeoning AIDS crisis. Indeed, the title of his section offers one answer to the novel’s abiding question of how you might live if you knew exactly how limited your time on Earth would be. Simon’s ballet teacher offers this instruction, a passage that captures the novel’s ultimate conundrum: “‘From control,’ he says, ‘comes freedom. From restraint comes flexibility. From the trunk … come the branches.’” This section, fittingly, reads with zestful energy and the pages turn effortlessly.

“Proteus,” the novel’s second act, follows Simon’s next oldest sibling, Klara, who is a student of transformation and a sometime pickpocket, as she pursues a career as a magician, beginning in San Francisco and ending in Las Vegas with her partner, Raj. Klara, deeply affected by Simon’s experience, holds herself mostly apart from her other siblings. She wonders if her influence caused Simon’s troubles, or if, as Simon assures her, it contributed to his fulsome life. Above all, though, she seeks an answer to the finality of death. Introducing Klara to her theater audience before a magic show, Raj remarks, “Life isn’t just about defying death… It’s also about defying yourself, about insisting on transformation. As long as you can transform, my friends, you cannot die. What does Clark Kent have in common with the chameleon? Right when they’re on the brink of destruction, they change. Where have they gone? Nowhere we can see. The chameleon has become a branch, Clark Kent has become Superman.” Alas, Klara is also unstable. She periodically hears mysterious knocking sounds that she suspects are communications from beyond the grave. She drinks excessively. She needs proof, and this leads to her undoing.

The final two sections follow the eldest Gold siblings, Daniel and Varya, both of whom have dedicated their lives to science. Daniel becomes a military doctor whose job certifying young men for armed service leads to ethical complications for him. Varya heads a primate research project in California whose aim is to study and promote human longevity. Daniel’s section, “The Inquisition,” ties together earlier plot elements and characters and propels the plot forward; however, it also requires the reader to suspend disbelief to a point where the story feels less organic and more contrived. Since Daniel originally had the idea to visit the fortune teller as a child, perhaps more than any other sibling, he bears the greatest burden of guilt. In that context, his confrontation with the Roma fortune teller makes sense. In the moment of crisis, Benjamin tells us, “Simon and Klara were pulled magnetically, unconsciously; Daniel is in full possession of his faculties. Still, the two narratives float like an optical illusion — a vase or two faces? — each as convincing as the other, one perspective sliding out of prominence as soon as he relaxes his hold on it.” A similar dual perception of reality floats throughout the novel as a whole tugging readers from one interpretation to another.

The ultimate section focuses on Varya, the eldest and oldest surviving sibling, and the staid career she’s built working with primates, and one sad specimen in particular, a monkey named Frida, who seems a bit like Varya’s emotional doppelgänger. Varya suffers from a lifetime of repercussions stemming from the childhood fortune teller visit, though her every effort and fiber seems designed to contradict this knowledge. For example, Daniel’s experience leads her to speculate that “his death did not point to the failure of the body. It pointed to the power of the human mind, an entirely different adversary — to the fact that thoughts have wings.” She is determined to conquer death and fate with science and mindfulness, but at what cost? A visitor to her lab sets into motion a revelation that re-orients her entire carefully constructed existence. The novel finally pays off, as Benjamin allows Varya to develop and change and grow, something largely denied the other siblings in their shorter life manifestations. This fits because Varya is graced with the longest predicted life span, an enviable 88 years.

Chloe Benjamin does not, finally, rule on the perplexing questions she raises about fate and self-determination, deed and thought, quality of life versus inevitability of death. Instead, she conjures a tantalizing brew of how these elements work together over the course of different lives and different decades. With its focus on the deep push and pull of sibling dynamics and family legacy, its light overlay of Jewish philosophy and Romani mysticism, its examination of scientific inquiry, and its ultimate focus on what essentially gives life meaning, The Immortalists will surely satisfy a broad swath of book groups and readers whose taste runs toward the plot driven but cerebral story. By turns entertaining and affecting, the pages turn effortlessly, and the whole blossoms into something greater than the sum of its parts.


The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (G.P. Putnam’s Sons | 9780735213180 | January 9, 2018)