Book chat: ‘We’re All Damaged’ by Matthew Norman

We're All DamagedIt’s been a year since Andy Carter’s safe suburban life collapsed. His marriage explodes when his wife leaves him for a neighbor; his ultra-conservative mother has changed completely in her quest to take her talk-radio show to the next level, casting his father in the background. Andy loses his job, then acts a fool at his best friend — and former brother-in-law’s — wedding.

Skipping town seems wise — until the need to see his dying grandfather brings him back to Nebraska. It’s there that he meets Daisy, a young “friend” of his grandfather’s. Daisy has her own complicated background, but she takes a shine to Andy as she took a shine to his granddad. In the midst of this, the Carter family is targeted after his mother makes outlandish and homophobic remarks . . . just before marriage equality is achieved in the U.S. Some unseemly family information is released in the process, leading to further scrutiny.

Is that a light at the far end of the tunnel . . . or just a train?

Having loved Norman’s debut novel in 2011, I went into We’re All Damaged looking for that same sensational spark. The story started out promisingly, what with Andy getting dumped at an Applebee’s (!) and all. Our narrator was obviously going to be down on his luck, maybe a bit of a ne’er-do-well, but hopefully one with a heart?

Something about We’re All Damaged failed to click with me. It felt extremely current, tackling issues like gay rights, the conservative/liberal media, internet ethics . . . and I could appreciate the intent. But it just felt a bit full to me. Full of too many issues, too many characters, too much chaos for me to really lose myself in the story. If we’d had fewer hot-button topics to address, I might have enjoyed focusing more on Andy’s evolution. As it stood, I never broke past the surface.

Andy’s brokenness was endearing at first, but quickly became frustrating — especially as Daisy enters the scene. Daisy is totally a manic pixie dream girl — one I could never figure out, given we knew next-to-nothing about her (aside from her many tattoos, which are addressed constantly). She seems to be a nymph designed solely to help shove Andy out of his post-divorce funk. And that was boring.

Matthew Norman’s sly, biting humor peeks out occasionally, but isn’t used to best effect. I did like the nod to Curtis Violet, famed author/father in his first book, as well as the hilarious passages about Andy’s dad’s paintball assault on the squirrels smuggling goods from his bird feeders. His obsession and description of that battle felt just a little heartbreakingly human to me.

We needed more of that.

Though We’re All Damaged wasn’t memorable for me, I do look forward to meeting up with Norman — a perceptive, skillful writer — again someday.

3 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher/TLC Book Tours for critical consideration

Book review: ‘The Summer We Fell Apart’ by Robin Antalek

Life in the Haas household was anything but normal. For the four children of Marilyn, an aging actress, and Richard, a once-successful playwright, it’s more about existing than thriving. Oldest daughter Kate is forced to take over the parenting duties of Finn, the oldest son who drinks to excess daily, even as a teen; George, the sensitive gay son who most relates to their distant mother; and Amy, the young artist — and “caboose” of the family — who becomes George’s closest friend and confidante.

Alternating between each of the four children’s viewpoints with a bonus glimpse through Marilyn’s eyes, we examine life before, during and after the death of Richard, a figure who looms large in the story — despite the fact that he never physically appears in the text except through snatches of memories and, later, after passing. The children are the “fruit” of Richard’s failed life; the products of his neglect. Of the four siblings, each aches separately for a childhood they never had and for parents they never understood or trusted; these pains carry them into their turbulent adulthoods, where every sibling must make peace with the past. And maybe, along the way, learn to love — and trust — others. And each other.

Robin Antalek’s The Summer We Fell Apart was, quite simply, stunning. Books with multiple narrators typically leave me feeling detached and disjointed as a reader, unable to get close to any one particular character. But not so here, where we learn the quirks and backstories of each Haas child as we travel through time and space with them. In a story that could easily have become horrifying or worse, I never sunk into depression as I followed the kids from New York to California and back. My heart broke when theirs broke; my face creased when they smiled. So obviously so broken, Amy, George, Finn and Kate desperately needed to find somewhere to belong.

Their parents affected each of them differently, but the profound scars were lasting and obvious. Of all the stories, Finn’s probably caused me the most pain. A young man who battles addiction the entire story, I kept waiting for him to have that great epiphany and begin to heal his life. But as things became worse and worse, I really wondered if he would ever be capable of change. Finn’s chapter is the most graphic, detailing his sexual exploits and need to do anything for a drink. The time he spends with sister Kate was gut-wrenching.

And speaking of Kate — she’s definitely the character I thoroughly believed I would hate but, of course, I couldn’t. And don’t. Who could fault a woman who spends her entire adolescence cleaning up for her sad, bitter and angry teenage siblings — and then is expected to clean up their messes in adulthood, too? As much as I wanted her to become the personal savior of her siblings, how could she? Who could blame her for running away, wanting to carve out her own life and gain some control over her own life? Who could fault her the success she earned?

The Summer We Fell Apart is a carefully crafted tapestry ripe with atmosphere, symbolism and incredible imagery. A family drama in the very best sense of the description, I couldn’t put this book down. It succeeds where, for me, books like Hyatt Bass’s The Embers — a book similar in content, down to the writer father — failed: it made me care, and not just about the “right” people. About everyone. A fantastic debut novel I would highly recommend to lovers of literary fiction and those ready to delve into the hard, blackened core of a one family — and maybe emerge on the other side.

4.75 out of 5!

ISBN: 0451227999 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website

tlc_logo copy

Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours

Book review: ‘When She Flew’ by Jennie Shortridge

Something prompts Officer Jess Villareal to volunteer for a search mission the night she meets Ray and Lindy — something visceral, something she can’t quite explain. Knowing only that a young girl was spotted in the dense woods of Oregon, alone and running from passersby, the Columbia Police Force heads off to find her. And everyone knows they don’t leave the forest until they do.

And the story of Ray and his 13-year-old daughter Lindy is discovered — along with their clean, well-stocked camp in the woods, a place they have lived undetected for years. An Iraq War veteran, Ray lives a quiet life filled with Bible verses and patrolling the perimeter — all an attempt to keep his daughter safe. Unable to work and plagued by memories of his younger brother’s death in the war, Ray does the only thing he knows how: loves his daughter. Honestly, openly and steadfastly.

But is that enough?

Jennie Shortridge’s When She Flew alternates between Lindy’s first-person narrative accounts of life as one of the “forest people,” as the media dubs them, and the third-person look at Jess’s attempts to reconcile the love she feels for her distant daughter, Nina, with the way that love has been outwardly demonstrated to Nina. It’s a novel about family, really — how we’re tethered to them, but how we would return even if we weren’t. It’s a look at life for a war veteran who simply cannot cope with life after returning stateside — and how unable he is to get the care and resources he needs. And it’s Lindy’s story — a tale of a bright, articulate young woman who learns despite the prejudice she faces as one of America’s “homeless.”

Shortridge does a remarkable job of making Ray, a man who could be construed as mentally ill, into a sympathetic character — a man we feel for and with as he struggles to keep his daughter close, the only person left in his life he feels he can protect. We know that Ray’s actions, while unconventional and maybe dangerous, are only done with the best of intentions — to help Lindy. And just when I felt skeptical about him and what he was capable of, I was reminded again that he’s a good person. And a good dad. But that nagging, worrisome feeling in the pit of my stomach never completely went away.

Still, something about the novel’s slow pacing made me take my time with this one . . . perhaps the fact that by the halfway point in the novel, we were still in the same day  we were when it started. Like Jess, overcome with exhaustion, I felt like we were never going to get out of that forest! Where was the daylight? And where was the impetus? Something kept me from turning the pages frantically. The characters were interesting, but the pacing dragged me down.

But overall, I would recommend When She Flew to fans of contemporary fiction who will appreciate a book told from the perspective of a policewoman — definitely a different sort of character. None of the characters in Shortridge’s novel felt like caricatures or stereotypes; they were unique, warm people. The novel introduces Big Themes — like inadequate assistance for our war vets — but doesn’t really expound on them. Does it need to? I’ll let you be the judge.

3.5 out of 5!

ISBN: 0451227980 ♥ Purchase from AmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher