Here are my October 2017 Book Of The Month reviews up on the same day I’m making my February 2018 selections – right on schedule! Well actually I’m slightly behind schedule but my November 2017 reviews will be up next week and I’m sure after that I’ll be caught up in no time! Right? Right! I like the enthusiasm.
Two of the books I picked for October 2017 turned out to be extremely popular – in fact one of them, Sing Unburied Sing, became the National Book Award winner for 2017. Can’t really beat that. Weirdly enough though I could only give each of them a ‘satisfactory’ 3-star review and ended up liking the much less well-known true crime memoir I also picked more. What can I say,? Reading is weird.
Book Of The Month is a subscription service that sends you one hardcover book per month out of five selections for a low monthly subscription fee. You can add 2 more titles to your monthly delivery for $9.99 each, and the price overall is very cheap for full-size hardcovers.
Book Of The Month is not paying me to promote their service. I just love it so much that I’ve turned my monthly deliveries into a feature on my blog 🙂 I do encourage you to try it though, because if you like hardcovers it’s a great deal. You can use my referral link to sign up if you’re interested in trying it. You’ll get your first three months for just $9.99 each plus a cute tote. And I’ll get a free book when you join. Win, win!
Sing, Unburied, Sing
by Jesmyn Ward
Publication Date: September 5th 2017
Published By: Scribner
Length In Hardcover: 285 pages
Goodreads Rating: 4.15
Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary.
An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power – and limitations – of family bonds. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first century America. It is a majestic new work from an extraordinary and singular author.
Important themes. The topics confronted by Sing Unburied Sing are heavy and significant, including racial discrimination, violence and segregation, drug abuse, the perpetuation of economic inequality and the ways in which society fails to support the family. I can see why this novel would be selected as a National Book Award winner, because it touches on so much that is at issue with American life today when it comes to racial bias and inequality – realities that are finally finding more space and popularity in literature today, however belatedly so. I don’t want to take away from the importance of these themes despite my ultimate feeling that the novel did not live up to my expectations based on the accolades it has received thus far.
Beautiful writing. It’s always strange to realize that you didn’t really love a book that was nonetheless beautifully written. Jesmyn Ward has a gift for storytelling and I found many of the passages – especially the ones in which she described natural settings or interactions between Jojo and Pop or between Jojo and Leonie particularly poignant. I liked how she tied the ordinary to the overarching themes of her novel, connecting commonplace things like domestic routines or small gestures made by her characters to the greater narrative she builds about humanity as a whole. I think there’s a difference, however, between writing that is aesthetically pleasing and writing that truly breaks new ground in terms of the parallels it draws or the ways in which it addresses universal themes.
Lack of subtlety. I think this was really my main issue with the novel. In truly great writing, in addition to beauty, there’s a depth and intricacy to the way in which an author portrays his or her themes. These themes are hidden between the characters’ thoughts and actions, within the settings and underneath the plot itself, rather than out in the open, waving their hands around to be noticed. I felt that Ward’s writing lacked this complexity – her themes are as obvious as obvious can be, slapping you in the face with their presence and all but spelled out in actual text. There’s a lack of artistry in this that I just couldn’t get past. I suppose it could have been a specific choice on the part of the author, but it’s so much harder to interweave themes less plainly into a story that I couldn’t help but lower my opinion of Ward’s novel as a result.
Magical realism felt thrown in. Without revealing too much, I had no idea there were ghosts in this novel or any magical realism for that matter. I have no issue with magical realism per se, but it has to be well-executed. In Sing Unburied Sing the magical realism seems thrown in to make up for other shortcomings, filling missing gaps in complexity for some of the characters or fallow portions of plot. There’s also little to no follow-through to some of the plotlines that get introduced with regards to the characters’ purported magical abilities. Little is explained and almost nothing is resolved by the end of the book. Unfortunately the peppered ghosts and magical rituals felt gimmicky, gratuitous and superfluous. I found myself wishing they had been substituted by greater depth in the real life, actual human connections between present and past, good and evil and right and wrong that the author was attempting to draw.
A novel that addresses important themes of racial discrimination and social inequality and that has received significant accolades, but which I unfortunately found lacking in depth of writing.
After The Eclipse
by Sarah Perry
Publication Date: September 26th 2017
Published By: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length In Hardcover: 368 pages
Goodreads Rating: 4.13
When Sarah Perry was twelve, she saw a partial eclipse of the sun, an event she took as a sign of good fortune for her and her mother, Crystal. But that brief moment of darkness ultimately foreshadowed a much larger one: two days later, Crystal was murdered in their home in rural Maine, just a few feet from Sarah’s bedroom. The killer escaped unseen; it would take the police twelve years to find him, time in which Sarah grew into adulthood, struggling with abandonment, police interrogations, and the effort of rebuilding her life when so much had been lost.
Told in searing prose, After the Eclipse is a luminous memoir of uncomfortable truth and terrible beauty, an exquisite memorial for a mother stolen from her daughter, and a blazingly successful attempt to cast light on her life once more.
Incredible beginning.The first few chapters of this memoir gripped me immediately and were unforgettable. The author decided to start her story from the night in which her mother was murdered, seen from her first-hand twelve year old perspective. These harrowing chapters are interspersed with others that are dedicated to the aftermath of the murder, in the weeks directly following the event, during which Sarah had to cope with the sights, sounds and fears she had experienced during that night. Her story is absolutely heartbreaking and the reader is immediately drawn into the raw center of it right from the start.
Unusual structure. It was actually this disjointed structure of the memoir that made it such an interesting read. The author alternates between chapters detailing her mother’s life preceding her murder, to chapters following Sarah’s own life for decades after her mother’s murder. Moving back and forth between events preceding and following the murder could have been confusing, but actually ends up being primarily revealing. The author weaves aspects of her mother’s upbringing like her relationships with her siblings into observations on those same siblings’ reaction to her mother’s death and to the decisions that are then made by the family about Sarah’s custody and future. We connect the experiences of Sarah’s mother as a neglected child to Sarah’s reality as a kid, traumatized and scared after losing her mother, and to Sarah as an adult, coping with crippling anxiety and insecurity.
Original writing. I loved the author’s writing style. This is the kind of memoir that holds up to having passages read out loud, because every sentence is beautifully written. As much as Sarah’s story is disturbing and extremely sad, her writing really takes the retelling to another level. Perry makes thought-provoking and beautifully drawn connections between the emotions and realities she has to face after her mother’s murder. Even when she’s trying to touch on something very deep and complex like the different dimensions of her feelings of loss, Perry does so in a way that despite being lyrical and poignant, never strays into cheesy or melodramatic territory. That’s a very hard line to hold when you’re writing about something as moving as your own mother’s murder.
The end fell apart a bit. I had pure love for the first 3/4ths of the book, but could have done nearly completely without the final 4th. Aside from some necessary closure on the outcome of investigations on her mother’s murder, I felt that in the final portion of the memoir Perry tried unsuccessfully to connect her mother’s demise to wider issues of domestic violence toward women. Unfortunately, the way in which Perry tries to make these valid connections is hesitant and falls far short of being successful or impactful. The final several chapters of the book also feel a bit meandering and drawn out. I think the memoir would have been stronger if condensed closer to 300 pages.
A moving hybrid between true crime and memoir that will appeal to fans of the true crime genre but, because of its ability to read like a novel, could also be a good bridge into nonfiction for newcomers.
The Heart’s Invisible Furies
by John Boyne
Publication Date: February 9th 2017
Published By: Doubleday
Length In Hardcover: 582 pages
Goodreads Rating: 4.45
Cyril Avery is not a real Avery or at least that’s what his adoptive parents tell him. And he never will be. But if he isn’t a real Avery, then who is he?
Born out of wedlock to a teenage girl cast out from her rural Irish community and adopted by a well-to-do if eccentric Dublin couple via the intervention of a hunchbacked Redemptorist nun, Cyril is adrift in the world, anchored only tenuously by his heartfelt friendship with the infinitely more glamourous and dangerous Julian Woodbead.
At the mercy of fortune and coincidence, he will spend a lifetime coming to know himself and where he came from – and over his three score years and ten, will struggle to discover an identity, a home, a country and much more.
Gorgeous elaborate writing. So clearly John Boyne can write. This was my first novel of his that I’ve read and I think based on the writing I’m willing to give some of his very popular prior work a chance. There are some beautiful sentences in Boyne’s prose, and he goes for the elaborate writing style that I prefer. Once the plot of the book picked up there was much more dialogue (a lot of which I could have done without), but the descriptive passages I did love. There was also an appropriate level of wry humor in some parts of the novel. I thought I’d share a favorite quote that made me chuckle as an example:
” ‘What were we talking about?’ She asked eventually, her train of thought having not only derailed but jumped the tracks entirely, driven over a cliff and crashed one hundred feet into a ravine below, killing everyone on board.”
Characters had potential. At the beginning of the novel I really thought this book would end up being a favorite. I was immediately captivated by the character of Catherine – her unfortunate situation, her strength and her drive to turn her life around. I also found Cyril’s character in his childhood and teens rather endearing and interesting, though I do think he morphed into a much less likable, controlling and petty version of himself by adulthood. I cared about where their stories were going and also found many of the secondary characters – like the young men that live with Catherine in Dublin and Cyril’s adoptive parents – successfully developed and interesting for their own sake. The germ of the novel represented by the essence of these characters as they are initially portrayed by Boyne is one that I would have liked to follow to a more satisfying conclusion.
Poorly developed central theme. Clearly the attempt here was to write a story that would explore the treatment and discrimination of a homosexual man across different decades, cultures and locations. Certainly not just an important and relevant topic, but one with significant potential for breaking new literary ground. I think that just like in Sing Unburied Sing, however, the author’s intent and his execution lacked subtlety and was not artfully completed. The result is the life story of a severely emotionally limited man stuffed with every imaginable cliche about the homosexual experience spread evenly and liberally throughout the plot. I just don’t want to see the cogs and wheels of an author’s process, and I think a better version of this story would have provided a more nuanced and less stereotyped account of such an important topic.
The repetitiveness. If I have to hear one more time that Cyril is “not a real Avery” I will immolate myself in a blaze of glory. I seriously was rolling my eyes so hard at every repetition of this apparently extremely significant element of the book by the halfway mark, when the aggressive litany of revisited versions of the same phrases and ideas rapidly became annoying. Another concept (of the many things) that the author decided to revisit time and time again? The fact that Cyril’s adoptive mother Maude did not want to be considered a popular author. Okay we get it! She’s been out of the plot for a while now. Maybe we could let it drop? No! Just in case you forgot, here it is again for the fifteenth time! As you can tell I have strong feelings about this. I have to confess that I ended up skimming the last few chapters of the book out of desperation, but not to worry – nothing really happens in them so I didn’t risk missing anything.
I gave 3 stars to this book because of its promise and because the first half honestly was kind of good. The second half could generously be given a 2 without a second thought.
Have you read Sing Unburied Sing, After The Eclipse or The Heart’s Invisible Furies? What did you think of them? Do you agree with my ratings? Let me know in the comments.
If you want to read my previous reviews for my Book Of The Month deliveries here are links to my September 2017, August 2017, July 2017, June 2017, May 2017, April 2017, March 2017, February 2017, January 2017, December 2016, November 2016, October 2016 and September 2016 posts.
Here’s an image from my Instagram of my October 2017 Book Of The Month picks.
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