Three Souls by Janie Chang

Three-SoulsWhat made me pick up Three Souls? I think subconsciously I’ve been seeking out historical fiction all year, but more than that even, I wanted something Chinese and feminist with a deftly paced plot. I got that and much, much more in Janie Chang’s novel set against the backdrop of the beginnings of World War II and the Chinese civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists.

Leiyin is a young mother who awakens to find herself at her own funeral. She remembers nothing of her life. Her three souls surround her as she realizes something is barring her entrance into the Afterlife and eventual reincarnation. As her lost memories play out before her, Leiyin must watch and process all the missteps and egregious mistakes she’s made in her short 24 years in order to understand how to make amends for her discretions.

I think Three Souls is a novel best read cold. No need to know any real plot points about who Leiyin is or was. No need to start guessing her transgressions before even opening the book. Can you imagine being stuck in some sort of limbo having to watch your life literally pass before your eyes? All the embarrassments and bad decisions? The moments where you realize how awful of a person you’ve been at times? To feel buried under the weight of a debt or a horrific fuck up that you might never be able to mend?

That, for me, was the most compelling aspect of Three Souls. Janie Chang has created such a masterfully drawn, full-bodied female character filled with darkness and joy and despair and folly and good intentions. Leiyin won me over almost immediately as a person who transcends the page – who walks and talks and breathes. Watching her watch herself stumble and fall and learn and grow and falter and wobble was heartbreaking and inspiring and infuriating. She stayed with me even when I wasn’t reading the novel and will, no doubt, be with me long after. She’s the perfect example of an often unlikeable character who grabs hold of a reader and won’t let go despite her flaws.

I just kept reading and reading and telling myself, “Good God, this book is so good.” Which, I guess, surprised me in the best of ways. It’s at once page-turning and cerebral. The ending came as a complete surprise, and I wouldn’t have changed a single thing. Janie Chang is now firmly situated on my authors to watch list and I hope you’ll give her a chance, too!

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Thanks so much to the publisher and TLC Book Tours for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. Check out the other tour stops here!

About the Author:

Janie-ChangBorn in Taiwan, Janie Chang spent part of her childhood in the Philippines, Iran, and Thailand. She holds a degree in computer science and is a graduate of the Writer’s Studio Program at Simon Fraser University. Three Souls is her first novel.

The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

The-Perfume-Collector-PBThe Perfume Collector is a book that often falls under the nebulous and debated genre known argumentatively as women’s fiction. To be honest, books with this dubious label I often avoid just because there’s a sameness to them that irks me. But several readers I really respect have read this and loved it, so when it was offered for review I decided to give it a shot.

The narrative follows two main characters. Grace Monroe is a married British woman in her late twenties who discovers her husband has been cheating while also learning a mysterious woman has died and left her an enormous inheritance. She takes off to Paris to uncover the woman’s identity and keys to her own past. Interwoven throughout, we follow Eva d’Orsey, an orphaned French teenager working in a high class hotel in New York City in the 1920s. Along the way we meet scoundrels, perfumists, and visit the hallowed halls of 1930s Monte Carlo.

Tessaro’s novel is easily read and quickly finished. The armchair travel might be worth the read whether or not you enjoy these kinds of novels. I loved visiting the fancy hotels of New York, Paris, and Monte Carlo along with the characters. I preferred Eva’s story to Grace’s, but both narratives held my attention and kept me turning the pages. I’d suggest this as a great summer read while lounging poolside. Tessaro really knows how to put her readers in a certain time and place.

On the flipside, I can’t say the novel will stay with me or be something that I remember this time next year. The plot, while enjoyable enough, was also burdened with a predictability that plagues similar stories. I wish something in the book’s conclusion had surprised me. I also wish the book had had a better editor. It’s been a long time since I read a book with so many typos and grammatical mistakes. Boo.

Have you read The Perfume Collector? What do you think about novels with the same predictable plot twists? Do they annoy you or do other aspects of the novel, like the armchair travel, make up for these limitations?

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Thanks so much to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for a copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review. Check out the other tour stops here!!

About the Author:

Kathleen-TessaroKathleen Tessaro is the author of EleganceInnocenceThe Flirt, and The Debutante. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her husband and son.

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Perfect by Rachel Joyce

unnamedThe Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was beloved by many in the book world. I own a copy, but have yet to read the thing. To make up for that failure, I jumped at the chance to review Perfect.

Joyce’s sophomore effort follows Byron, an 11-year-old boy growing up outside of London in 1972. One morning, his mother, Diana, is taking he and his sister to school when a terrible accident happens. The events that unfold that day change the trajectory of Byron and Diana’s future dramatically.

The narrative switches between the past – Byron and 1972 – and the present. Present day is told through the eyes of Jim, a 55-year-old gentleman who works in a cafe and has been in and out of mental institutions most of his life. Byron’s past and Jim’s present are connected, but just how leaves the reader turning the pages. This book is a well-crafted, strange little tale of what time means and how it can affect the most mundane parts of life.

I loved every single page until the final fourth of the novel. Joyce’s writing feels effortless. Her ability to turn a clever phrase is admirable and her talent at cutting through the ordinary with sharp, precise imagery is nearly unmatched. She’s the kind of writer I’d like to be if I were a writer. She’s a reader’s writer. Her characters are so well drawn – Diana, in particular, as the woman trapped in a cold, heartless marriage who loves her kids, but can barely breathe through the weight of all the things she never says.

After loving so much of Perfect, I was crushed at how unsatisfied and rushed the ending felt. Not that the ending wasn’t nice and thought-provoking in its way. But it just felt like the ending to a different story, something tacked on just to have the thing done already. The journey is definitely better than the destination which is sad because I’d have loved this story to live up to its ambitious title.

Despite the sourpuss ending, I highly recommend Joyce’s novels – both of them – even if I’ve haven’t read about Mr. Fry and his pilgrimage yet. While the conclusion might not have been perfect, Joyce at least gave me some great writing to start off the new year!

(CLOSED) P.S. I get to give away one free copy courtesy of the publisher to a US resident!! To enter just fill out this form. Winner will be selected and announced on Monday January 13, 2014! Good luck!

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Thanks to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for a copy of the book in return for my honest review. Check out the other tour stops here!!

About the Author:

Joyce-Author-PhotoRachel Joyce is the author of the international bestseller The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. She is also the award-winning writer of more than twenty plays for BBC Radio 4. She started writing after a twenty-year acting career, in which she performed leading roles for the Royal Shakespeare Company and won multiple awards. Rachel Joyce lives with her family on a Gloucestershire farm.

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Someone Else’s Love Story by Joshilyn Jackson

unnamedMs. Jackson is a local author and one I have not previously read. I really was super stoked to join this tour and honestly could not wait to start reading this. But then the end of my reading world happened and I haven’t finished a single book this month. Including this one. So now I begin my groveling and hoping that y’all will still love me. I do fully intend to read this, but it might not happen until January when I host my Southern Literature Month. I can only hope I’ve found my reading mojo again by that time.

That being said, Jackson’s newest novel is getting so much love! The reviews have really been superb. I’ll link a couple here:

S. Krishna’s Books

Write Meg!

What I’ve been gathering is that Someone Else’s Love Story really reads differently than the cliched, overdone romance plot. The novel also apparently has quite the emotional punch. I follow Joshilyn Jackson on Twitter and love her! Read a recent interview she did for Powell’s here.

Also, if you live in the Atlanta area she’ll be spending Small Business Saturday selling books and greeting customers over at Eagle Eye Bookshop in Decatur. I’ll most definitely be stopping by.

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Thanks to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review (which will definitely happen soonish!). Stop by TLC’s site for all of the tour stops.

About the Author:

Joshilyn-JacksonJoshilyn Jackson is the New York Times bestselling author of six novels, including gods in Alabama and A Grown-Up Kind of Pretty. Her books have been translated into a dozen languages. A former actor, Jackson is also an award-winning audiobook narrator. She lives in Decatur, Georgia, with her husband and their two children.

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House of Earth by Woody Guthrie

IMG_20131022_094619Woody Guthrie is a man most Americans know through his song, “This Land is Your Land”. Basically, American children sing that song approximately 1 million times before they leave elementary school. Guthrie penned many, many more folksy, Americanah ballads during his lifetime, but not many know that he also wrote a novel (novella, really) that he hoped would be made into a film. Alas, that didn’t happen and the manuscript was never published – until now! Thanks to Douglas Brinkley and Johnny Depp (yes, that Johnny Depp) Guthrie’s 1947 novel set during the dust bowl era has finally seen the light of day.

Tike and Ella May Hamlin are newly married. During the course of the novel, we follow tan early year of their marriage through poverty and the birth of their first child. That’s pretty much the gist of everything that happens.

Quite literally, the novel follows the fertility cycle and is written in four movements. I call them movements since Guthrie was all musical. The first movement is a very long sex scene. Let me emphasize the very long. Like 30-50 pages of sex. The last movement is a really long birth scene in which Tike fantasizes about sex with the midwife. My point being – there is a lot of sex.

Guthrie’s writing has been compared to both Steinbeck and Lawrence. His natural ability to create a scene, to put the reader in a certain place and time, and to bring the dusty, dry farmland to life does bring an apt comparison to Steinbeck. The Lawrence bit comes into play with Guthrie’s very graphic and detailed erotic scenes. House of Earth would most likely have been seen as pornography in the 1940s.

As a portrait of life, of poverty, of the American dream and the inability to obtain such a thing, House of Earth actually works quite well. As an enjoyable curl up and read novel, not so much. It’s short, but choppy. The prose is both lyrical, flowery, and stark all at the same time. The fertility themes are a bit too on the nose and the sex lacks a certain subtlety I prefer in ‘literary fiction’. What Guthrie needed was a few re-writes to find ultimate success. So I can’t honestly recommend this book to anyone other than hardcore Guthrie enthusiasts.

His fiction aside, Guthrie’s life was fascinating and if you ever have the opportunity to read a biography it would be well worth your time.

Rating: starstarrating_star_half-1cx8y5d

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Thanks so much to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for a copy of the book in exchange for my unbiased review. You can check out other tour stops right here!

About the Author:

Woody GuthrieWoodrow Wilson “Woody” Guthrie (1912-1967) was an American folk balladeer whose best-known song is “This Land Is Your Land.” His musical legacy includes more than three thousand songs, covering an exhaustive repertoire of historical, political, cultural, topical, spiritual, narrative, and children’s themes.

 

 

 

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The Round House by Louise Erdrich

IMG_20131007_110735I haven’t actually finished The Round House as I write this sentence. I’m a little under 50 pages from the finale, but can’t imagine my thoughts changing whatsoever. If they do, I’ll come back and amend these statements, but I’m pretty certain this post will stand.

Louise Erdrich’s National Book Award winner mixes family tragedy with Native American politics. In 1988, Joe is just a normal thirteen-year-old boy obsessed with Star Trek living on the rez in North Dakota. But then his mother is attacked – brutally – and crawls inside herself to hide from the pain. Joe sets out determined to uncover the identity of his mother’s attacker and finds himself in dangerous situations and underneath the scope of dubious political lines.

Nothing I’m about to say should really mean anything to anyone. I mean, what do I actually know about things? But if I’m being brutally honest, The Round House didn’t do much for me. I didn’t hate the time I spent reading the book, but I could barely force myself to pick it up once I had tossed it aside.

The writing just rubbed me as rather dull and tangential. The ‘suspense’ aspects were muted and often felt lazy. The pacing was all over the place – slow exposition, random Native American myth and legend, coming of age teenage stuff, and legal thriller with a healthy dose of Catholicism on the side. Too much that did too little for me. Overall, I just didn’t care.

Readers adore this book and Erdrich’s writing in general. I’ve read tons of reviews glowing over her lyrical language, gripping stories, and amazing knowledge inside the Native American culture. So there’s no need to take my word. I would never have granted The Round House the NBA, but someone else did who has far more credibility than myself.

Many reviewers even likened this story to To Kill A Mockingbird which I haven’t read in a long time, but now I’m almost desperate to compare the two myself. There were moments within Erdrich’s story that were great – a scene with a priest around 100 pages in stands out. I also found several peripheral characters compelling, but none in the main circle. Just not my bag, but it could be yours. I think this might be a situation of it’s me, not you.

P.S. I just listened to the Book Riot podcast where they raved about this book. WHAT IS WRONG WITH ME? I’ll definitely be giving Erdrich a second chance. Any suggestions?

RATING: starstarrating_star_half-1cx8y5d

 

*HOLY HELL! That ending was insane.

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Thanks to TLC book tours and Harper for a copy of this book in return for my honest review. You can catch the full tour here and many, many second opinions.

About the Author:

Louise ErdrichLouise Erdrich is the author of fourteen novels, volumes of poetry, children’s books, and a memoir of early motherhood. She lives in Minnesota and is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore.

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Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel

Sea CreaturesSorry if this post seems rather scatterbrained. I have two excuses. First, I just got finished working a 12 hour day and my brain is fried. Second, I loved this book something fierce.

Sea Creatures is a character driven novel that follows thirty-something Georgia, her husband Graham, and son Frankie, as they move back to her hometown of MIami, Florida. All of the things have gone wrong in their life. They’re both out of jobs and their son has turned mute for seemingly no reason. Miami promises a fresh start even if they are living on a dilapidated houseboat. The year is 1992 and Hurricane Andrew is brewing in the Atlantic ominously foreshadowing even more terribly dramatic and sad traumas this small family will have to face.

I know – world’s worst synopsis ever. Reread first paragraph and forgive me. But honestly, you don’t need to know much more than Susanna is one of my new favoritest authors ever. I can’t believe I haven’t read her first novel, Stiltsville, yet. I could go on and on about how wonderful and well-developed her characters are, how her writing will squeeze your heart until you feel sure you’re going to die, and how alive and vibrant Miami shines guided by Daniel’s talent.

I was sucked in from the first page and didn’t let go until the last word. Sitting here writing this review, my heart continues to break for these characters. Daniel’s writing feels almost like coming home amid one of the worst familial disasters ever. All the sadface aside, you’ll also see an intricate and layered parental story that’s sure to genuinely impress any reader with or without children. She’s not painting the prettiest of pictures but she’s definitely highlighting some harsh truths that ultimately make the reader feel better for being human.

Her turns of phrase and sentence putting together mojo are SUPERB.

All of that gushing and I haven’t even mentioned my two favorite bits: Charlie the hermit and Stiltsville. Both are perfect and need no further commentary.

I would have given this book the coveted 5 star rating, but something about the ending just felt a little bit too destructive all at once. I get that the hurricane is also a metaphor for shit hitting the fan, but I think that Daniel could have worked the ‘less is more strategy’ just a smidge more and BOOM - 5 stars. Still a damn good read. Can’t wait for my book buying ban to end so I can go and purchase my very own finished copy!!

RATING: starstarstarstarrating_star_half-1cx8y5d

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Big hugs and sloppy kisses to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for having me on tour and providing me the advanced copy in exchange for my honest review. Go check out the other tour stops here!

About the Author:

Susanna DanielSusanna Daniel was born and raised in Miami, Florida.  Her first novel, Stiltsville, was awarded the PEN/Bingham Prize for outstanding debut fiction.  She currently lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and two sons.

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The Butterfly Sister by Amy Gail Hansen

The Butterfly SisterThis little literary mystery peaked my interest at the mention of Virginia Woolf.

Our narrator, Ruby, has recently attempted suicide and dropped out of college. A few months into writing obits, a suitcase arrives at her front door that she once borrowed from an old dorm mate, Beth, who has gone missing. In the suitcase, Ruby finds a beat up copy of Virginia Wolf’s A Room of One’s Own with a clue nestled inside that leads her on a mission to find out what happened to Beth. Shenanigans ensue. Plus, literary ghosts.

If you’re heading to the beach anytime soon, this is the perfect read for a sun soaked vacation. Even more so if you are a book nerd or former English major such as Ruby. Her senior thesis centers around female authors who have famously and gruesomely ended their own lives which adds an extra layer of funness (a word that should exist) to the psychological thriller within Hansen’s pages. And if you’re not reading too hard, you’ll have a great time.

The Butterfly Sister reads quickly and entertains in a commercial fiction sort of way. The writing is passable if slightly lacking a seasoned quality. Little things bugged me like continuously calling New Orleans the Crescent City. Sometimes sentences didn’t flow very well which I noticed but perhaps others would just fly right past. I also think the first half is much stronger than the conclusion which bordered on convoluted, clunky, and predictable. However, there were enough surprises along the way to adequately hold my interest. I think the biggest flaw might be how utterly forgettable the plot will inevitably be – I’ve already forgotten most of the details. So pick this one up before the long, lazy summer days come to close and you shouldn’t be too disappointed.

Have you read any other beachy gems this summer? Do you like a bit of mystery while you’re sitting pool side?

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Thanks to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for a copy of The Butterfly Sister in exchange for my honest review. Check out the other tour stops!

About the Author:

downloadA former English teacher, Amy Gail Hansen is a freelance writer and journalist living in suburban Chicago. This is her first novel.

 

 

 

 

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The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan + Giveaway (Closed)

The-Panopticon-JacketSo, I’ve read a lot of books that have left me speechless this year. That’s both good and bad, I suppose. Mainly, I’m still surprised at how shocked a book can leave me. The Panopticon left me utterly stunned, uncomfortable, and smiling. An odd mixture, for sure.

Anais is 15, covered in blood, and on her way to The Panopitcon. That’s a prison-like place (home for wayward children) that allows no privacy. You can be seen from anywhere at all times. Anais is suspected of having more than a little to do with a cop in a coma. She’s had a tough life – born in a psychiatric hospital, no family that she knows of, 30+ foster homes in 15 years, drugs, sex, and just general delinquency. This is her story.

Jenni Fagan has written an explosive debut novel. And she’s been racking up the literary awards ever since the book’s release in her native United Kingdom – she’s Scottish. I’d describe my reading experience as akin to lying on a bed of nails. For some it will be nothing but uncomfortable pain, but for others, there’s an opportunity to profoundly change your understanding of the social work system, kids lost in the system, or even your own life.

Fagan’s writing is mostly dialogue. Scottish dialogue, so it takes a bit of warming up to for the non-Scottish reader. The kids in this story are brash, blunt, and their language, lives, and loves are extremely colorful. Violently colorful. Drugs are used frequently and sex is a fact of life no matter the age. In fact, I’m not certain Anais was ever completely sober for longer than a few pages. A good portion of the novel reads like an acid trip, literally. And there’s a rape scene that will level you. Not for the feint of heart, not even close. I took a shower immediately after finishing.

Beyond the gruesome, what really shines through is how amazing these kids are – Anais especially – who have had the most fucked up lives ever. They are smart, funny, loving, and lost in a system they will probably never escape. It’s absolutely enraging. Reading The Panopticon will make you think twice about the next juvenile offender you instantly write off during the 6 o’clock news. A very powerful book, if you let it be.

The only complaint I really had was the end. And I loved the end which makes my complaint seem ridiculous. But when I stepped back and thought about how Anais’s story wrapped up, it felt a bit odd and out of place. A bit too easy and too happy. I wonder, though, how much of that conclusion can actually be trusted when told by a very wasted, generally unreliable narrator? A book well-worthy of an in depth discussion.

If you’d like to experience The Panopticon for yourself, just fill out this form to win your very own copy! Giveaway winner will be announced on August 13th. US residents only, unfortunately. Good luck! Update: Congrats to The Book Wheel on winning!

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Thanks to TLC Book Tours and the publisher (Hogarth) for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. Visit the other tour stops here!

About the Author:

Jenni-Fagan-Credit-Urszula-SoltysJENNI FAGAN was born in Livingston, Scotland. She graduated from Greenwich University and won a scholarship to the Royal Holloway MFA. A published poet, she has won awards from Arts Council England, Dewar Arts and Scottish Screen among others. She has twice been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and was shortlisted for the Dundee International Book Prize.  She is currently the new Writer in Residence at Edinburgh University. The Panopticon is her first novel.

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The Exiles by Allison Lynn + A Giveaway! (Closed)

THE-EXILES-Final-Cover-Hi-Res-199x300The Exiles intrigued me initially due to the modern day Fitzgerald comparisons. Since most of these comparisons never live up to their promise, I mostly had low expectations when I began Lynn’s newest novel. It felt like I was daring the book to impress me.

The story centers around a thirty-something couple, Nate and Emily, who have been priced out of Manhattan. As a mediocre investment banker, Nate can no longer afford the lavish lifestyle of his more successful friends. With a new mouth to feed, Emily and Nate pack their bags and move their small family to Newport, Rhode Island where a new job awaits and the promise of normalcy beckons. When they arrive in Newport, their jeep and immediately essential possessions are stolen. Over the next three days, they shack up in a hotel they can’t afford and are forced to face the secrets and denials they’ve been keeping from each other and themselves. Also, art theft!

Allison Lynn’s novel quietly sneaked up on me. At first, the story feels fairly humdrum with extremely unlikable characters. But slowly, the secrets Nate and Emily have been keeping start to unfold and the pages begin turning at a tremendous pace. The two never become likable, but they do become completely engaging and compelling. Their web of lies and denials is absolutely astounding at times, but also gritty and realistic.

The Exiles is essentially about two people running from themselves and from each other who collide dramatically over one long weekend. The book progresses through such topics as hereditary disease, art thievery, parenthood, and deception. It’s a world where you’re asked to sympathize with a family that makes $150K+ a year, but due to their environment feel ‘poor’. Allison Lynn has done a superb job of making a mundane story thrive with energy and flow with seamless writing.

Honestly, I can’t believe this book hasn’t gotten more attention. It’s better than a lot of popular novels I’ve read recently and a title I recommended to my bookclub on Sunday. Do yourself a favor and give it a read. To help you out on that front, you can enter to win your very own copy by filling out this form!! Only US/Canada addresses eligible. No P.O. Boxes. Winner will be drawn next Tuesday, July 30. Good luck! (closed – winner selected)

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Thanks so much to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for providing a copy of The Exiles in exchange for my honest review. You can check out other stops on the tour here.

About the Author:

Lynn-cKelley-Jordan-Photography-high-res-220x300Allison Lynn is the author of the novel Now You See It, which won awards from both the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Society and the Bronx Council on the Arts. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times Book Review, People,  and elsewhere. She teaches at Butler University in Indianapolis, where she lives with her husband, the writer Michael Dahlie, and their son.

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