Book chat: ‘The Ramblers’ by Aidan Donnelley Rowley

The RamblersAs readers, we’re all looking for that magic.

The spark. The recognition. The connection. Whatever the special ingredient is that pulls us close, that makes it impossible to let go of a story and its characters . . . well, Aidan Donnelley Rowley’s The Ramblers has it.

I’ve been an ardent fan of Rowley’s since Life After Yes, her 2010 debut, and followed the progress of The Ramblers through the author’s Instagram feed. When I learned her sophomore novel was ready to be released in the wild? Er, I might have shrieked a bit. And then it arrived, I petted it, and we got down to business.

Set over the course of one autumn week in New York City, The Ramblers tells the stories of Clio Marsh and Smith Anderson — longtime best friends both set adrift by lovers, family and circumstances, clinging to each other through life’s changes before finally realizing they’re ready to inch into whatever comes next.

Smith and Clio are flawed. They’re struggling. Leaving her roots with a mentally ill mother and distant father, Clio is now a successful ornithologist who also leads bird walks through Central Park in New York City. Smith is Clio’s college cohort, a life organizer — a fixer — who grew up in a blue-blood family . . . but her advantages come with many costs.

Clio is in love with Henry, a hotelier who desperately wants her to move forward — and in — with him; Smith is still smarting from the cataclysmic break-up of her engagement to a doctor her father didn’t deem “suitable.” Clio believes it’s time to confront her grief at her mother’s recent death, but it’s actually her life — their shared lives, disrupted and distorted — that she’s mourning. And Smith has to learn how to snap the gilded strings her parents wrapped around her wrists . . . just in time to attend her younger sister’s wedding.

Here’s the thing about Rowley: her writing is gorgeous, lyrical, intentional. Each word is carefully selected; nothing is left to chance. This could come across as stilted, even condescending — but it doesn’t. The result is a novel of fully-formed characters that endear and irritate. They make an impression.

Described in the publisher copy as a “love letter to New York City,” the setting certainly has a starring role in this story. I knew nothing about the Ramble before diving in, but found myself picturing it beautifully as we moved along. I actually didn’t do any research until after I’d finished; I wanted to save my own mental pictures. They were pretty accurate, it turns out: the Ramble is a 36-acre “‘wild garden'” within Central Park where more than 40 species of birds perch year-round.

Clio’s occupation — and preoccupation — with birds was unique, interesting and never overdone. It’s her choice to lead birdwatching groups through the Ramble that brings her to Henry, crying quietly on a bench — a man who is also a little broken, a little scuffed . . . and the perfect match for her.

This is a love story, but it is not a love story. Though it could get steamy, even sexy, this is really a modern story of two women choosing to unshackle themselves from the past — and prior selves. There is growth, and when you finish? You feel like you’ve really gone somewhere. You’ve arrived.

Recently-separated Tate’s storyline was, in my opinion, the least interesting of the three — but that doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy getting to know him and how his life would come to intersect, however briefly, with Smith’s.

Fans of thoughtful fiction, lush New York settings and lyrical writing will find much to adore in The Ramblers. There is much more I could discuss, but it’s a novel best enjoyed on its own merits. And after adoring Rowley’s first work so much? Well, it was more than worth the wait.

4.5 out of 5

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

Book chat: ‘The Book of Unknown Americans’ by Cristina Henriquez

Book of Unknown AmericansIntense. Riveting. Heartbreaking.

Cristina Henriquez’s The Book of Unknown Americans had me feeling nearly every emotion under the sun — especially as this tale of devotion and hope unraveled and left me with an ache in my stomach, a painful desire to undo what was done. To go back in time, helping to repair it — bit by bit, blow by blow.

Following the lives of several immigrant families, Henriquez’s tale focuses on the Toros and Riveras who rent apartments from the same Delaware complex. Mayor Toro falls in love with Maribel, a fellow teen, nearly at first glance — but can tell the Riveras harbor secrets. Everyone who comes to America is searching for something, reaching for something, but for this family? It’s something more. It’s a running-away, too.

As the Toros attempt to help acclimate Alma, Arturo and Maribel, tense relations with neighbors strain further. Mayor wants nothing more than to swoop in and protect Maribel, erasing all the pain etched on her face, but some forces are beyond their control.

It’s been a while since I sank into some good literary fiction. Honestly, with the chaos of the last year or so, I’ve favored neutral works or memoirs that may not demand as much from me as a reader. But it’s not fair to categorize The Book of Unknown Americans as a “tough read” — because in Henriquez’s hands, the tale digests so easily.

It’s impossible not to feel for Alma and Arturo, Maribel’s parents; as they flee their old life in Mexico, wanting to help and protect their injured daughter, they must abandon everything they know that is safe and familiar. The early moments the Riveras share at their dingy, anonymous apartment were heartbreaking. It’s impossible for me to imagine what it must be like, leaving behind a home filled with everything you love, everything you’ve built. And to come to a new country and community that may be hostile toward you — called an “outsider,” a foreigner, or worse — is gut-wrenching.

But Alma and Arturo are tenacious. They care. They try. Desperately wanting Maribel’s condition to improve, they tolerate the time she spends with Mayor and encourage her to form new relationships. Mayor was an interesting character in that he shares some of the Riveras’ experiences, but his own life in America is different. I didn’t bond with him the way I did with the Riveras, but I certainly felt with and for him throughout the novel.

Peppered between the unfolding saga of the two families are the stories of many more men and women, also immigrants who have arrived in the United States for one reason or another — and their personal narrations, sometimes only a few pages long, break up the ongoing narrative. I loved these glimpses into the lives of neighbors, coworkers and new friends. I recognized how responsible they felt for each other — even though they may have all arrived in the country as strangers. They’re Americans now.

This isn’t a love story, but it is a love story. From the blush of early love between Mayor and Maribel to the many sacrifices parents make for their children, the novel is a testimony to devotion and wanting more.

Though the subject matter is often difficult, the pay-off is so great. Henriquez spins a powerful tale filled with memorable characters, heartbreaking narratives and incredible depth. By the time I finished The Book of Unknown Americans, I felt nearly breathless; it was so intense, so moving, that I felt I’d barely come up for air. Highly recommend.

4.5 out of 5

Pub: June 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Advance copy provided by publisher for review consideration

Book review: ‘The Vacationers’ by Emma Straub

The VacationersA summer getaway to a friend’s swanky pad in lush, fragrant Spain seems like a perfect opportunity for the Posts to reconnect. The family unveils secrets and struggles to move past old hurts to emerge a stronger group after two weeks in the Spanish sun.

Franny and Jim are ostensibly there to celebrate their 35th wedding anniversary, but they seem as distant and disconnected as a couple can be. Their children — Sylvia, a spirited young woman, and Bobby, her struggling brother — are there largely under duress, especially as Bobby drags his older girlfriend Carmen along for the ride.

Emma Straub’s The Vacationers is one long, drawn-out drama between dueling spouses and their grown or nearly-grown children. Its praises have been sung by countless media outlets as being the perfect addition to your beach bag, and the Washington Post basically wanted to make out with it. I read that review twice wondering if I’d gone temporarily insane or read an entirely different book, and . . . nope. Same book.

Just a vastly different reaction.

Though smart, irreverent and well-written, I found The Vacationers exceptionally tedious. Depressing. Sad. Basically, it was a bummer — and nothing like I anticipated. Certainly not like my beloved Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, Straub’s 2012 work, which was sweeping and atmospheric and lovely.

This was boring. Just: dull.

For me, the book failed mostly due to its unlikeable characters. Franny is a tyrant, wanting to control her world and family and vacation to the point of lunacy. I mean, I got it; I understood why she’d desperately want to feel some sense of power in light of everything happening within her marriage. It made perfect sense. But it certainly wasn’t fun to read about.

Of everyone, I felt the most for Jim — a man haunted and crucified by one incredibly bad decision. I mean, the guy screwed up big time; that’s undeniable. And the coldness between he and Franny seemed realistic and heartbreaking. I felt for both sides, absolutely, but Jim’s suffering was unbearable to watch — rubbernecking at the scene of a tragic accident. I couldn’t wait to get past it.

Oh, there are some tender moments — and Straub is certainly a talented writer. She’s insightful, polished, intuitive; her novels are deceptively easy to read. You’ll sit down for a tiny rest thinking you’ll read just one chapter, and suddenly it’s dark and your spouse is begging you to turn out the light. I never considered abandoning this one, even as I began to roll my eyes. I still cared . . . just not enough.

For as much as I failed to connect with The Vacationers, I appreciated Straub’s way with words and would pick up a future novel. But I didn’t feel guilty about tucking this one into a hotel drawer during my California vacation in May. Hopefully a traveler passing through Three Rivers will have better luck with it than I did . . .

2 out of 5!

ISBN: 1594488452 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor website
Review copy provided by publisher

Book review: ‘Black Lake’ by Johanna Lane

Black LakeNestled in the Irish mountains on a lake so dark the locals call it “black,” the impressive and imposing estate of Dulough sits perched on a hillside. It’s home to John, the stressed but determined patriarch, as well as his wife, two children and members of staff. The daughter of a middle-class Dublin family, Marianne isn’t accustomed to a life of leisure — and can only busy herself with gardening and tutoring Kate and Philip. There isn’t much else to do.

Descended from a long line of wealthy but untitled Irish families, John can hardly bear to reveal the troubled state of the Campbells’ finances — but when he does, a solution must be found. Opening Dulough to tourists seems to be the only way to keep the estate in their possession while trying to release the grip of impending poverty, but the family’s move to a small cottage nearby ends up costing them more than they anticipated.

Johanna Lane’s Black Lake is moody, atmospheric, compelling and strange. At just over 200 pages, it’s a slim novel that still packs a wallop — mostly because of Lane’s interesting storytelling. We know right away a tragedy has befallen the family, and it’s easy to determine what’s transpired. It’s another 100 pages until the truth is finally revealed, however, and when it is? It’s almost like an afterthought. Stated as fact.

That actually worked for me. Really well.

The core of this story is a foursome struggling to find their place in the world — a “room of their own,” if you will. Before we’re given an actual timeline and history of the estate, I believed Black Lake took place in the early twentieth century. Once I realized John and Marianne’s birth dates and college years would put them closer to modern day, I was actually . . . shocked. There’s just something so stately and Downton Abbey about living in an imposing mansion; I couldn’t wrap my mind around the fact that this place could exist in the here and now.

But it could. I felt John’s sense of stewardship over the property acutely; it was obvious that history and tradition mean a great deal to him, and to let Dulough be sold would represent a failure. Through diary entries and the revisionist history John himself pens, we’re introduced to some of Dulough’s past owners and visitors. The epigraph puts it perfectly, in fact:

“. . . I regarded men as something much less than the buildings they made and inhabited, as mere lodgers and shorterm sub-lessees of small importance in the long, fruitful life of their homes.”

— Charles Ryder, Brideshead Revisited

The story is short, and not much “happens.” I assumed the book would revolve around a single incident, and . . . well, it both did and did not. Marianne and John are complex characters, but we’re not privy to most of their thoughts. The narration shifts several times throughout the story, from husband to son back to husband and, finally, to wife. I enjoyed getting Marianne’s perspective the most, especially because she was the most unmoored.

Though I never fell in love with these characters, exactly, I did feel as though I came to truly understand them. The Campbells are captains of a crumbling ship, and the atmosphere Lane creates is thick and palpable. It wasn’t hard to imagine myself standing on a cliff, bracing sea air whipping my hair from my face; I could easily run my fingers across the shoddy cottages or sturdy furniture moved from Dulough, or see the green-capped mountains in the distance.

Black Lake is well-written, interesting, unusual. Not like anything I’ve read recently, and definitely one that gave me pause. Fans of literary fiction, character studies and family dynamics will be intrigued by this one. Though rather sad, it’s a powerful book that would hardly qualify as a beach read . . . but is likely to be one on the lips of readers this summer.

4 out of 5!

Pub: May 20, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor on Twitter
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Clever Girl’ by Tessa Hadley

Clever GirlSometimes a character reveals her layers slowly, showing the tiniest glimpse of soul spread thin over many pages. A novel builds and builds, progressing to an explosive end, and we hurry toward it — unable to pause before we know the illustrious End.

Tessa Hadley’s Clever Girl fits the first description, certainly, but this is the sort of novel — definitely literary fiction — that enfolds you gradually. There is no dynamic pay-off, no shocking reveal or plot twist. It’s quiet, enveloping, sharply-focused and beautifully written. As with The London Train, Hadley draws us deeply into the lives of her characters — and though we may not love these people or feel endeared to them, exactly, they are alive and memorable and real to us.

Stella was real to me.

From the beginning of Clever Girl to its satisfying end, we span half a century of our narrator’s life. Stella morphs from a young girl preparing to share her single mother with a new husband to an impetuous, lonely teen mother and, later, a middle-aged woman wondering where everything got so twisty. The story opens in 1960s England and progresses almost to present-day — a transition that could have felt clunky and odd in the hands of a less skilled author, but believe me: Hadley is more than up for the task.

What kept me so captivated by Stella, her sons and the strange layers of their lives was absolutely Hadley’s writing. Gripping, detailed and so focused that sometimes it took my breath away, this is not the sort of story you tear through at breakneck speed — or skim halfheartedly with “Survivor” on in the background. To look away from the text for even a moment is to miss some gorgeous, transient moment; and as Stella’s story is revealed slowly in careful insertions throughout the text, it has a very blink-and-you’ll-miss-it feel. I loved that.

An older, wiser, more chastened Stella is obviously recalling the details of her youth — and we know things about the fate of characters long before the action is revealed. In that way, Stella functions as our omniscient narrator; even in the brilliant moments, we know darkness is coming. That effect left me both curious and unsettled, and I often hurried through passages so I could finally uncover the fate of these poor people.

And poor they were. Not financially, maybe, but definitely in spirit. Valentine, Stella’s irreverent boyfriend, is a fascinating character; I didn’t guess his secret for a while, but then it was impossible to ignore. He was the typical “bad boy” arriving to both fascinate and horrify Stella and Madeleine, her best friend, and you couldn’t help but wonder what was hiding beneath that sheath of dark and dirty hair. All in good time.

While I didn’t love Stella, I respected her — and everything she’d gone through. She makes some questionable choices, yes, but it wasn’t hard to separate those calls from the overarching hippie-commune-love-fest of the 1960s and ’70s. In time, she grows into a respectable person and mother — even if she seems to need rescuing from various men to finally pull herself together.

If you love literary fiction and character studies, Clever Girl is a fantastic novel that provokes questions of love and purpose through life’s dips and turns. But if you’re a reader who leans more heavily into action-packed plots or prefer a faster pace, I could see Hadley’s novel leaving you a bit cold. For me? Well, I loved it, just as I loved The London Train.

Hadley is a truly gifted author. Honestly, I’m in awe of her skill — and will look forward to reading more of her work.

4 out of 5!

Pub: March 4, 2014 • GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘The Carolyne Letters’ by Abigail Calkin

The Carolyne LettersIn 1960s Edinburgh, university student Amelia has fallen in love with a complicated, moody and enormously confusing young man. Despite her best efforts to convince him otherwise, Geoff just doesn’t seem to love Amelia the way she loves him . . . and she may have been comfortable allowing him to go gently into that good night if not for one sudden, undeniable fact: she’s pregnant.

Without support and far from home, Amelia knows each of the decisions she faces isn’t without complications and pain. In three distinct sections, we glimpse Amelia’s life as she makes one of three decisions: to keep the baby; to have an abortion; to give the baby up for adoption. And no matter which route she takes, she knows her life will never be the same.

Abigail B. Calkin’s The Carolyne Letters looked to be an intriguing story of a young woman facing an unexpected pregnancy — a situation made all the more difficult in 1964. I went into the novel hoping to be moved and enthralled . . . and certainly bonded to Amelia. But I was disappointed.

The key to this novel’s success hinges on us feeling — really feeling — for Amelia, our unlikely mother-to-be. The tension is derived from questioning her motives, her future: will she or won’t she? Told in a dated diary-like format with passages both short and long, we experience heartache and obsession with Amelia for the first 70 pages or so. Geoff loves her, he loves her not . . . and the whole book reads like the first-love manifestos we have all probably penned ourselves at some point.  That would have been okay — a little repetitive and annoying, really, but fine — if we’d eventually moved beyond it. We just never did.

As a whole, I didn’t take a shine to the writing style or characters. Amelia seems melodramatic, serious, almost manic in her musings about life and love. Like anyone facing a life-altering decision, she vacillates between all three choices for this child — adoption, birth, abortion — and has little assistance from friends or Geoff-on-a-pedestal during the process. We never got a feel for the object of her affection, mostly because Geoff is a self-important, condescending clown. I wanted to like Amelia, and wanted to feel for her, but it was hard to relate to someone so in love with an epic tool. Seriously, the dude is no good.

I appreciated the unique nature of this book and did get more invested in Amelia’s fate as we moved through the story, but it never quite worked for me. I read idly and was mostly disinterested, honestly, but I did finish. Because such an emotional issue is at its core, I expected The Carolyne Letters to wrap its little paperback fingers around my heart and hold on — but I appreciated the overarching themes more than the story itself. It was literary, sure, but just had little soul.

3 out of 5!

Pub: Sept. 24, 2013 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for my honest review

Book review: ‘Last Night at the Lobster’ by Stewart O’Nan

Last Night at the LobsterSometimes a book speaks to me for no reason that is obvious at the start. Wandering around my local Books-a-Million earlier this year, Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster — a veritable slip of a novel — begged to be taken home.

I can’t resist the siren call of a book.

Plunging into O’Nan’s short work, we meet the cast of a doomed Red Lobster in Connecticut one snowy night just days before Christmas: Manny DeLeon, the humble manager who can’t forget the love affair he shared with a server before life collapsed and imploded; Jacquie, the object of his devotion; and a variety of cooks, servers and wayward staff who arrive to collect their final paycheck after service as the Lobster closes for good.

It’s a freezing-cold and dangerous night, the sidewalks covered in ice with more on the way. As the customers dwindle, Manny wrestles with letting everyone go home early — they’re shutting down tonight, anyway — and wanting to hold fast to the waning hours he’ll share with his assorted crew before they part forever. Some of this may have something to do with Jacquie, yes, because Manny and others will soon report to a new restaurant . . . but she won’t join them. But it’s more than that, too.

The beauty of O’Nan’s prose and this delicate work is the together-in-the-trenches mentality it evokes. Though I’ve never worked at a restaurant, I worked for years in retail and can easily recall those fighting-the-fight-together feelings of workers versus the rabid hordes of customers that erupted at the holidays. It might seem silly from the outside, but anyone who has stood at a register for eight hours with an endless line of impatient customers will view their colleagues as brothers-in-arms. I could easily see my former coworkers in Roz, Nicolette and Fredo, but no customer service background is necessary to feel dropped into the tundra O’Nan creates — both literal and metaphorical.

This was my first experience with O’Nan, heralded as “the bard of the working class,” but I don’t think it will be my last. Though I couldn’t call this story uplifting, there was something beautifully fractured and tragic about it. As Manny wonders what will become of the Lobster’s outdated decor and the building he meticulously cleaned for all these years, I felt the ache of time marching forward and eventually altering everything we know.

It has nothing to do with the apocalypse, of course, but Last Night At the Lobster still had that “end of the world as we know it” feel — which worked incredibly well. Every sensation, issue and interaction was for the last time, which added extra weight. Manny himself is a sensitive soul, still grieving the loss of a beloved family member and dealing with an unexpected pregnancy, and he embodies the realization that we don’t know anyone else’s story until they share it with us themselves.

At 160 pages, this is a book that can easily be devoured on a Sunday afternoon — and was one I didn’t want to set down. Though the overall mood can only be described as reflective and melancholy, it didn’t bring me down — and I’m now hungry for more of O’Nan’s prose. Anyone read The Odds? It’s next on my wishlist.

4 out of 5!

Pub: 2008 ♥ GoodreadsLibraryThingAmazonAuthor Website
Personal copy purchased by Meg