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A Marker To Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

Book Review: A Marker To Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik

A Marker To Measure Drift by Alexander Maksik (Alfred A. Knopf; 240 pages; $24.95).

marker.jpg  Jacqueline, a Liberian refugee, ekes out the barest of existences on an island in the Aegean Sea in Alexander Maksik’s stunningly visceral second novel, A Marker to Measure Drift.  “Only go down the path.  Only find water.  Find food.  Find shelter,” Maksik writes.  These basic necessities occupy Jacqueline’s time and lead us to wonder why a young woman as cultured, gentle, and intelligent as Jacqueline (who was named after Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis) ends up sleeping in a cave.

Maksik’s protagonist is a person who is completely stripped down.  She cares only about surviving her new environment, a place in which she knows not a soul.  Dependent upon the kindness of strangers and the voices of her parents, she lives day to day, sometimes even hour by hour.   “Forward,” her mother urges.  “Forward.”

Her father, a former finance minister for the Liberian government, admonishes his daughter to look at the facts: “You are alone.  You have the clothes you’re wearing.  You have the contents of your pack.  Including twenty euros.  It will soon be night.  It will soon be colder.  You are thirsty.  You will soon be hungry again.”

Once her belly is full, her thirst quenched, and temporary shelter has been found, Jacqueline has nothing but her memory, and that seems “like madness.”  For a while, “the act of eating displaced memory.  It was like a solid thing in a pool of water and the second you removed it, the water returned.”  Jacqueline comes to realize that “to live, one must be able to live with memory because memory was the constant,” even in such “precarious,” uncertain, and dangerous times as she faces.  Maksik breaks it down succinctly but eloquently: “We are our bodies, and we are memory.  That’s it.  That’s spirit.  That’s God.”

A Marker To Measure Drift unfolds in tantalizing parts, requiring patience from the reader.  Maksik offers up Jacqueline’s memories in tiny morsels, much the same way in which Jacqueline finds and consumes her food.  He employs this seemingly coy tactic because the whole horrible truth is too harsh to swallow in one gulp.

From Greece to Liberia, A Marker To Measure Drift follows an extraordinary young woman who has witnessed unspeakable atrocities.  At times, one cannot help but wonder if Jacqueline, “between madness and memory,” alone and bereft, has gone insane.  One thing is certain: Jacqueline struggles against erasure; through self-negation, she has erased herself from her violent past.  There comes a time when she can no longer expunge herself from her own history, when she must stop running from it.

Her father, ever pragmatic, scolds her, “You must always tell yourself the truth.” In the end, Jacqueline tells her new friend, Alexander Maksik by Beowulf SheehanKatarina, a waitress, the reason she fled her home country.  “Is telling” the truth “an act of violence, she wonders.  Will the truth “destroy the girl”?  In this instance, words are a balm for Jacqueline as she re-inserts herself into her own narrative.

In spare and lyrical prose, Maksik presents a tale as unrelenting as the sweltering sun on the hottest day of the year.  Jacqueline undergoes a sweeping physical and spiritual journey, one which leaves an indelible mark on her and on anyone who reads A Marker To Measure Drift.

Maksik draws effective parallels between the ruins of a Greek island destroyed by volcanic ash thousands of years ago and the country of Liberia, irrevocably changed by the torture and genocide that characterized the brutal dictatorship of President Charles Taylor (1997-2003). Fans of Chris Cleave’s 2009 stunner Little Bee will surely appreciate Maksik’s equally striking and impressive narrative.  When I finished A Marker To Measure Drift, I hurled the book across the room to get it as far from me as possible.  And then I wept.  I predict all who read this will have a similar reaction—such is the power of Maksik’s story.  


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Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel

Sea Creatures by Susanna Daniel (Harper Collins; 320 pages; $25.99).


sea creaturesWhen Georgia returns to her hometown of Miami, her toddler son and husband in tow, she is hoping for a fresh start. They have left Illinois trailing scandal and disappointment in their wake: Graham’s sleep disorder has cost him his tenure at Northwestern; Georgia’s college advising business has gone belly up; and three-year old Frankie is no longer speaking. Miami feels emptier without Georgia’s mother, who died five years earlier, but her father and stepmother offer a warm welcome-as well as a slip for the dilapidated houseboat Georgia and Graham have chosen to call home. And a position studying extreme weather patterns at a prestigious marine research facility offers Graham a professional second chance.

When Georgia takes a job as an errand runner for an artist who lives alone in the middle of Biscayne Bay, she’s surprised to find her life changes dramatically. Time spent with the intense hermit at his isolated home might help Frankie gain the courage to speak, it seems. And it might help Georgia reconcile the woman she was with the woman she has become.

But when Graham leaves to work on a ship in Hurricane Alley and the truth behind Frankie’s mutism is uncovered, the family’s challenges return, more complicated than before. Late that summer, as a hurricane bears down on South Florida, Georgia must face the fact that her choices have put her only child in grave danger.

My Thoughts

Graham, Georgia, and their son Frankie moved to South Florida to escape their many troubles in Susanna Daniel’s new novel Sea Creatures, but their problems had a way of tagging along.  Georgia, Daniel’s main character and sole narrator, was a protagonist I not only liked but with whom I sympathized and empathized.  I put myself in her place and understood the great weight she carried on her thin shoulders.  I absolutely hated Graham, Georgia’s husband, who suffered from parasomnia, a condition in which he experienced erratic sleep patterns.  He sometimes sleepwalked.  “Sleep was the yardstick by which all other fears were measured, and everything else dwarfed.  It’s the stuff of horror films, sleep terror, but the sleep goblins of film are imaginary.  Graham’s problems were real, and all the more alarming for their unpredictability.”


Despite having parasomnia, Graham scoffed at his son Frankie’s selective mutism.  This, I must confess, was the ultimate of his transgressions for me.  Graham seemed to want Frankie to be “normal,” when Graham himself had medical problems.

Daniel expertly underscored how parenthood can change a marriage.  Georgia just could not understand her husband’s mindset, “Sometimes I thought that in becoming a parent, I’d morphed into an entirely different person, while he’d remained exactly the same person he’d always been.”  As Daniel’s tale progressed, husband and wife only withdrew farther and farther away from each other.

Georgia and Frankie, though, grew even closer.  Frankie stole my heart time and again in this novel.  “Just as he’d started to speak words, he’d stopped…[The doctors] quizzed me about my marriage and about Graham and his parasomnia, which led me to understand that children in difficult homes sometimes go mute….”  Frankie finally found his voice thanks to Charlie the hermit.

I loved the transformation in which Charlie’s character underwent.  Like Frankie, he discovered a part of himself that had been closed off for years.  Sea Creatures came to dazzling and vivid life whenever Georgia and Frankie visited Charlie in Stiltsville.  Those passages just hummed with energy.

683af41910938771f187ff55921f44d6I could not help but hope that Georgia and Charlie would develop a lasting romance.  Of course, I also hoped she would give Graham the boot.   Everything comes to a shuddering climax as Hurricane Andrew approaches South Florida, lending a threatening, uncertain atmosphere to the story: “The course of a life will shift—really shift—many times over the years.  But rarely will there be a shift that you can feel gathering in the distance like a storm, rarely will you notice the pressure drop before the skies open.”  Indeed, the hurricane heralded a new chapter for Daniel’s characters.  For them, everything changed.  Just as residents of South Florida cleaned up after the storm, the people in Daniel’s novel must pick up the pieces of their tattered and torn lives.

Thus, Daniel adeptly weaved together various conflicts throughout her narrative, cleverly moving from man against man to man against himself to man against nature.  The plot of Sea Creatures expertly revolved around these struggles.

All in all, Daniel’s second book was an absorbing, lyrical journey.  Sea Creatures left me spellbound, sleepless, speechless, and completely oblivious to the rest of the world.

He said, “Some people go to sea, and they drown.”


Filed under beach books, book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, fiction, literary fiction, Southern fiction, Summer Reading, women's fiction, women's lit

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

Book Review: We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler (Putnam; 320 pages; $26.95).

We are allKaren Joy Fowler begins her eighth work of fiction smack-dab in the middle of the story.  “In 1996,” she writes, “ten years had passed since I’d last seen my brother, seventeen since my sister disappeared.” How odd it is for one woman to have two siblings missing, I thought.  Just like that, Fowler had my undivided attention.  Immediately, Fowler immerses you in her story; instinctively, you know We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves will be unique and different.  You will not be disappointed.  For Rose, Fowler’s narrator, this tale is cathartic and necessary.  For us, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is emotional, riveting, and very unexpected.

We travel from the middle back to the beginning.  A mother keeps two baby books for her two baby daughters to record their first milestones.  Rose learns to walk at ten months of age, while Fern can “make it all the way downstairs by herself, swinging on the railings.”  Fern’s rapid development pushes Rose to progress faster.  When she is ten months of age, Rose weighs fourteen pounds and seven ounces and already has “four teeth, two on the top, two on the bottom.”  Fern meanwhile weighs ten pounds and two ounces.  The first word Rose utters is “bye-bye,” which she signs at eleven months of age and says at thirteen months.  At ten months, Fern signs “cup” for the very first time.

No, these babies are not twins.  Rose is a human child.  Fern is a chimpanzee.  I bet that got your attention.  Fowler leaves breadcrumbs throughout the narrative to clue in careful readers to Fern’s true nature.

Rose’s parents are scientists, and her mother and father involve both Rose and Fern in a scientific experiment, the ramifications of which will affect Rose and their son, Lowell, for decades.  I was appalled at the actions of both parents and never connected with either character.  How horrible to put your own family through a scientific study.

The kicker is that Rose cannot remember what happened to Fern.  One day, Rose woke up and her sister was gone; no one wanted to talk about her disappearance.  Rose’s memory is like a “tule fog,” unlike other fogs because it is “fixed and substantial.”  Rose is short for Rosemary, but the name is not for remembrance in this case.  Fowler effectively illustrates the unreliability of memory, especially in early childhood development.

However, Rose never really rids herself of Fern.  Her lost sister is like an amputated limb one senses but is gone forever.  Rose still

Photo by Beth Gwinn

Photo by Beth Gwinn

retains some of Fern’s animalistic nature: “I often felt wild back then….”  She also admires those traits in others, as Fowler hilariously portrays when Rose meets Harlow while attending college.  In the school cafeteria one day, Harlow’s boyfriend tells her he wants space.  Harlow responds by throwing things and violently carrying on, reminding a delighted Rose of Fern. Fowler uses animalism as a recurring motif in her novel to great effect.

Well-researched from experiments on chimps and apes to the early space program to pop culture references to fascinating information on memory, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves focuses on ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.  Fowler morphs one woman’s childhood into the stuff of science and makes for compelling reading.

What ultimately happens to Fern is beyond words.  When I reached the end, I cried, and I cried, and I cried, and I was completely and utterly beside myself.  Fowler’s emotional, pitch-perfect tale is perfect for fans of Sara Gruen’s Ape House and Lucy by Laurence Gonzales, but We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is even better.  A well-orchestrated plot, an immersive setting, and unforgettable characters propel Fowler’s novel into a class all its own, making it one of the year’s best fictional works.


Filed under book review, books, contemporary fiction, fiction, literary fiction, Summer Reading

The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill

Book Review: The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill

The Violet Hour by Katherine Hill (Scribner; 368 pages; $26).

the-violet-hour.jpgKatherine Hill begins her intimate and utterly beguiling first novel, The Violet Hour, on a boat.  This leisure cruise ultimately charts the course of Hill’s novel.  What we assume will be a  fun excursion on the San Francisco Bay for Abe and Cassandra Green and their daughter, Elizabeth, leads to the end of a marriage.  Hill then progresses the narrative forward from 1997 to 2005, an eight-year progression into the future that seems strange at first but then becomes clear.  It is just the distance Hill’s distinctive and multi-faceted narrators need to illuminate both the union and the fracturing of a family.

Cassandra has not laid eyes on Abe in almost eight years when she, Elizabeth, and her siblings gather for the birthday of Cassandra’s father.  When a tragic accident befalls Cassandra’s father and takes his life, his loved ones are left reeling.

Hill has a rationale for killing a character on his birthday when he is surrounded by his family.  Cassandra’s father had run a funeral parlor in the basement of their home.  For this family perhaps more so than for others, death is truly a part of life.  Especially in late August of 2005.

Hill’s superbly crafted characters are especially attuned to the suffering that a storm called Katrina has inflicted upon the Gulf Coast.  Hurricane Katrina left an indelible mark on both the region it hit and on our nation as a whole.  As a person who went through Katrina’s destruction and aftermath, I do not see how a writer could set any kind of tale in late August and early September 2005 and not feature Katrina.  It would be irresponsible otherwise.  Hill draws a compelling and convincing parallel between Hurricane Katrina and the death of Cassandra’s father, nicely juxtaposing the two calamities.  As a family is changed forever, a country is irrevocably altered.  Thus, Hill effectually intertwines a family and a country both in the midst of loss.

Katrina’s flood waters provide Hill with the opportunity to bring her story full circle.  Abe had relished the time he spent on hillthe San Francisco Bay in his boat.  Sure, the water might have been choppy at times, but the experience renewed him.  Water nourishes us; we need it to survive.  The essential liquid cleanses, soothes, and provides respite, but it also has a dark side. In Katrina, the water thunders, roils, gathers momentum and wreaks havoc on a city.  Tiny vessels ferry residents to safety.  As in the beginning of the story, Hill returns to boats.  This time the boats are rescuing hurricane survivors and charting the course of others’ lives.

Deftly plotted, richly characterized, and brilliantly placed, The Violet Hour is a perfect novel for fans of Ghana Must Go.   Hill knocked me over with her very personal portrayal of a family’s past and present.  She knows how to keep readers turning pages.  I am particularly  pleased she highlights Katrina so prominently in the book.  Without the historic and devastating storm, this story would definitely lose some of its impact


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The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

Book Review: The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn

The Resurrectionist by Matthew Guinn (W.W. Norton & Company; 304 pages; $25.95).

resurrectionist.jpgImpeccably researched and minutely detailed, Matthew Guinn’s first novel The Resurrectionist is mined from the dark and almost-forgotten pages of buried history—literally.  During renovations of one of the oldest buildings on the campus of the Medical College of Georgia in 1989, human remains were found in the structure’s cellar.  Archaeologist Robert Blakely carefully studied the bones and published his findings in a 1997 book entitled Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training.  Blakely discovered that the remains were procured for the purposes of dissection and training for the college’s medical students.  This was nothing new.  A dearth of cadavers existed in the nineteenth century, and both American and Canadian institutions commonly hired people to bring in corpses.  But there is a strange twist to this true story.  The Medical College of Georgia bought a slave named Grandison Harris just before the Civil War to be their body snatcher, or “resurrectionist” in the jargon of that era.  For decades, Harris dug up bodies in Augusta’s African American cemetery.  This was not a job he enjoyed, but rather one he endured because he was enslaved.  Guinn loosely bases The Resurrectionist on this disconcerting aspect of our history, and it’s both effective and chilling.

Guinn begins his tale in 1995 when disgraced doctor Jacob Thacker suffers through probation for abusing Xanax.  He has been exiled to public relations at the South Carolina Medical College when workers uncover the bones of African American slaves on campus.  Jacob is determined to find out about the college’s shadowy past, even if his dogged pursuit could jeopardize his career.

Jacob is really only a small part of Guinn’s story.  In my mind, he is a much lesser character compared to the true star of The Resurrectionist: Nemo Johnston, a rich, finely-drawn, and highly nuanced personality.

Seven doctors at the South Carolina Medical College hold legal title to him.  They are his owners; he is their slave.  One of the school’s founders, Dr. Frederick Augustus Johnston, purchased Nemo because of his impressive skills with a knife.  Nemo’s main duties, though, are to provide corpses of recently-deceased African American slaves to students.

Imagine for a moment what this existence is like for Nemo.  When Dr. Johnston bought him, Nemo took on his owner’s last name, an ordinary occurrence of the period.  More significant is the fact that Nemo changed his first name.  Previously it was Cudjo, a common African name for children born on Monday.  Cudjo said good-bye to his original name to become Nemo, which interestingly means “no man.” No man could do what he is doing and live with himself.  His responsibility weighs heavily on Nemo as he internalizes the horrors of who and what he has become—a man who robs the graves of his own kind for scientific study.  This was yet another way that slaves were degraded and demoralized.  Their bodies and their spirits were broken in life only to have their bodies mutilated after death.  To put yourself in Nemo’s place is sobering and uncomfortable.

“In Africa,” Nemo knows, “he could have expected an instant death for desecrating a grave and disturbing the spirits, and after that death, an eternity of torment from the ancestors and their demons.” Guinn offers us another stunningly terrifying awareness: Nemo has no voice.  Nemo knows that a slave is “either a creature of adaptation or just another dead body.”  He has adapted simply out of necessity.

In one of Guinn’s most incredibly powerful scenes, a student is shocked to learn the corpse he is studying is that of his mother.  Instead of producing the body of a slave, Nemo had dug up the body of a recently-deceased white woman.  Not surprisingly, there is a hue and cry.  The doctors have forgotten the slaves are human; they are all oblivious to the fact these people were once wives, mothers, daughters, husbands, fathers, and sons.  Guinn turns the lens to a striking effect.

No matter what Nemo does, no matter how he sees himself as inhuman, his actions do not truly reflect on him.  Instead, his

Matthew Guinn

Matthew Guinn lives in Jackson, MS

activities tell more about his slave owners and the school’s doctors than they do about him.  Here, Guinn illustrates Aimée Cesaire’s boomerang effect of colonialism: slavery dehumanizes civilized men.  Since racial slavery is based on and justified by contempt of the enslaved, anyone who engages in such an act is changed by it.  Slaveholders often viewed their slaves as animals and treated them as such, but such an attitude also turned slave owners into animals themselves.

In the end, Nemo reclaims his agency and seizes his place, his self-respect, and even his humanity.  And Jacob must decide what is important to him, especially when he learns of a connection to those bones in the basement.

This Southern Gothic tale fascinated, startled, and unsettled me.  By shedding light on real-life body snatcher Grandison Harris, Guinn is himself a resurrection man.

“But one folkway he could not discard. Always he brought along some piece of crockery to leave on the grave, following the ancient ritual of leaving a container nearby to catch the spirit of the departed if it was loosed.”

Did you know? Whites adopted many of these African burial practices from African American slaves.

Another fact–Africans believed that when you killed a snake, it didn’t actually die until the sun went down.  My grandmother used to always say this after she killed a snake.   Slaves brought their cultural traditions from Africa to America and passed them to whites, making it part of our shared heritage.



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The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

Book Review: The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell

The Other Typist by Suzanne Rindell (Amy Einhorn Books/Putnam; 368 pages; $25.95).

other typist“They said the typewriter would unsex us,” Suzanne Rindell writes in her dark and arresting debut The Other Typist.  A typewriter “is a stern thing, full of gravity, its boxy angles coming straight to the point, with no trace of curvaceous tomfoolery or feminine whimsy,” completely masculine. Although there is nothing feminine about a typewriter, the device has typically been used by women.

The typist in danger of being unsexed is Rose Baker, Rindell’s main character who is accused of a crime she claims not to have committed and deemed mad.  Her narrative consists of a journal she is keeping for her doctor, slowly clueing us in on the reason for her institutionalization.

A typewriter excuses nothing.  With the “sheer violence of its iron arms,” it strikes “at the page with unforgiving force.”  Women tend to be more forgiving than men, but “forgiving is not the typewriter’s duty,” yet another example of its innate maleness.

In the 1920s, the setting for Rindell’s tale, women were not supposed to be violent criminals.  Men committed crimes; women, with their “delicate” sensibilities, cared for their husbands, bore and nurtured their children, and maintained the home.  But Rose is not the typical 1920s woman.

There is one crucial element about Rose that you need to know: she is an unreliable narrator.  Come on, no human can possibly type 300 words per minute.  You cannot trust anything she says, making her a thrilling and unforgettable character.  Rose, a consummate liar, will surely remind readers of Amy from Gillian Flynn’s blockbuster bestseller Gone Girl.  Rindell’s narrator also shares many of the same qualities as Grace from Charlotte Rogan’s absorbing novel The Lifeboat.  Like Amy and Grace, Rose is an unknown, unknowable, and enigmatic character; you learn to expect the unexpected from her rather early on in Rindell’s novel.

The anticipation builds as Rose grows increasingly obsessed with Odalie, her fellow typist at a police precinct in New York City’s Lower East Side.  For Rose, Odalie is “sweet nectar” she cannot help but succumb to.  She is drawn to Odalie, like an “insect drawn to his peril.”  Rose’s fixation on Odalie reminded me of Patricia Highsmith’s cunning novel The Talented Mr. Ripley.

“A lying criminal always trips himself up (or herself, I suppose, rare though that alternate scenario may be) either giving too many details or else revealing the wrong ones,” Rindell writes.  In this way, the author slowly and shrewdly reveals the truth, and it is both surprising and extraordinary.

In Rindell’s expert hands, the budding science of criminology and history merge to create an atmosphere reminiscent of the period.

Suzanne Rindell

Suzanne Rindell

New York City in the 1920s comes to vivid life as Rindell recreates the jazz-age period of flappers and Prohibition and throws in decadent parties (think The Great Gatsby), moonshine, and speakeasies.  The experience is a grand and heady one that always keeps you engaged and guessing.

You are powerless to fight the pull of The Other Typist.  It is just impossible.  The Other Typist ensnared me from the first page and never let me take a breath until I closed the book.  Rindell may be a rookie, but she possesses an inherent knowledge of storytelling.  Easily my favorite mystery novel of the year, The Other Typist held me in its suspenseful grip, and I was content to abide in its clutches.  This novel is so shocking you’ll have to force yourself to close your mouth when you read the last page.

The Other Typist is a book and not a steak, but it’s juicy and appealing.  One taste and you are want more and more and more.  Rindell successfully creates two remarkable women who seize our attention, stun us, and make us fans for life.

Keira Knightley to star in and take a producer’s role on the jazz-age period piece, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

It is unknown which of the two main characters she will play.

Keira Knightley

Who do you see Knightley as: Rose or Odalie?  And why?


Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, Debut Novels, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, mystery, Summer Reading, thriller

The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan

Book Review: The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan

The Curiosity by Stephen P. Kiernan (William Morrow; 432 pages; $25.99)

I still remember the sensation I felt when I read some of my favorite novels for the first time—Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain, Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, and Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son.  The sense that I was not reading just another ordinary book or just another mundane story overwhelmed me.  Instead, I was considering the writer’s very own soul.  Reading these narratives turned into a transcendent experience.  These emotions resurfaced as I read Stephen P. Kiernan’s dazzlingly provocative, compelling debut The Curiosity, and I welcomed them.  The Curiosity blends science fiction, fantasy, romance, and history, producing an intriguing and poignant tale guaranteed to leave an indelible mark on readers.

the curiosity   Kiernan’s first novel is adroitly plotted, skillfully paced, and interspersed with delicate foreshadowing.  Dr. Kate Philo, a scientist on an innovative mission led by Erastus Carthage, and her team look for small frozen life forms such as plankton and shrimp in the Arctic Ocean that they can “reanimate,” or bring back to life.  The experiments thus far have worked, but not on large beings and only for a very short time period.

Imagine their shock when they find a man frozen in the ice, a discovery that redefines both life and death.  On Carthage’s orders, the specimen is shipped back to his state-of-the-art research lab in Boston.  There, scientists reanimate the subject regardless of the implications, inciting media frenzy and leaving religious fundamentalists reeling. The “Lazarus Project” reignites the age-old debate between science and religion.

The Curiosity is told from varying, intricately-drawn viewpoints.  Kate, the sole female protagonist, energizes Kiernan’s narrative as she illustrates sympathy, empathy, and even love for the subject.  Kiernan contrasts Kate with Carthage, the vain and obsessive-compulsive antagonist, a character I loved to hate.  Curiously, Carthage’s account is told in the second person.  Kiernan’s use of “you” ensures no one will identify with this adversarial narrator, undoubtedly a deliberate and highly effective move.  Daniel Dixon, a reporter, functions as another of The Curiosity’s raconteurs as he stokes the media firestorm yet ultimately redeems himself.

The true star of Kiernan’s work, though, is the curiosity himself, the man raised from the dead: Jeremiah Rice.  As he slowly regains his memories, we learn that Jeremiah was a judge who fell overboard into the Arctic Ocean in 1906.  Priceless are Kiernan’s passages in which Jeremiah tries to understand and navigate the twenty-first century.  Heartbreaking are the passages in which he discovers the fates of his loved ones.  As Jeremiah’s health falters, the story takes on an ominous dimension.  Reanimation of a human is just too new and mysterious a phenomenon.

Jeremiah’s future matters deeply to us.  To experience his death a second time would dishearten the reader, as Kiernan understands.

The author

The author

His and Kate’s fate are precarious but makes for captivating reading.  Whatever happens, I know you will root for Jeremiah just as I cheered him on.

Brilliant, imaginative, and thoroughly unconventional, The Curiosity is my new favorite novel.  As a reader and reviewer, I hold so many books in my hands.  But The Curiosity is a story that will be forever etched in my heart.    Kiernan binds you to his narrators in such a way that you will never forget them; his characters stay with you always. That is why I hereby declare the hand of Kiernan divine.  When you finish this tale, you are not the same person who started it.  And that’s a good thing.


Filed under book review, Bookmagnet's Best Books of the Month, books, contemporary fiction, Debut Novels, fiction, historical fiction, literary fiction, mystery, Summer Reading

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells by Andrew Sean Greer

Book Review: The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells (Ecco; 304 pages; $26.99).

greta wellsWho would we be if we had lived other lives?  Would we be ourselves or would we be altogether different people? Andrew Sean Greer forces us to ponder these existential matters in his third novel The Impossible Lives of Greta Lives, a deeply moving, atmospheric, and haunting tale.

“The impossible happens once to each of us,” Greer writes in his book’s first sentence.  Immediately, the reader knows this is a novel that will distinguish itself from others; Greer succeeds in producing a singular achievement that lingers in the imagination and in the heart.

In 1985, Greta Wells suffers.  Her brother, Felix, has died from AIDS, and her lover, Nathan, has left her:   “What is it, the missing of people?  It kills, and kills, and kills us.”  Depression plagues Greer’s main character but the possibility of a cure emerges in the form of electroconvulsive therapy.  Miserable and lonely, Greta decides she has nothing to lose.

After her first session, though, Greta experiences a rather curious phenomenon.  In bed the night of her treatment, Greta wishes Felix had not died and that Nathan had never left.  She closes her eyes and sees “one bright blue star floating there in the darkness, pulsing with light.” She thinks, “any time but this one,as the light splits and then splits again, “the throbbing blue stars dividing until they formed a circular cluster of light, and there was a kind of thunder.”  Her last recollection is falling into the radiance.  Her doctor had warned that she might experience confusion, but Greta is ill-prepared for this.

Greer transports Greta into the past to 1941 and 1918, where she is herself yet not herself.  In these periods, Greta is sister, lover, wife, and even mother.  People around her are the same, but their circumstances are different, much to Greta’s surprise.  “A shift in weather, and we are a different person.  The split of an atom, and we change.”

In The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, Greer effectively accomplishes a stunning feat in historical fiction by evoking qualities of not one but three past eras. From the beginnings of the battle on AIDS in 1985 to a nation on the brink of war in 1941 to a country recovering from the “war to end all wars” in 1918, Greer shows how Greta is powerless as the weight of the future bears heavily on her shoulders yet she cannot change anything.  She knows how World War II will take the lives of millions and change men’s and women’s roles forever.  Greta is all too aware of how soldiers returning from Europe have survived trenches and mustard gas only to be felled by the Spanish Flu.

Yet Greta can appreciate all the things that others take for granted.  She laments the beauties of the past eliminated in the name of progress.  Greta is “the only one who” knows “what would be lost.”

One constant remains: in each epoch, Greta is unhappy and pursues the same kind of electroconvulsive treatment she sought in 1985.  They will each keep switching lives as long as each Greta prefers a different present.  “If other worlds surround us, just a lightning bolt away, then what would stop us from slipping there?  If love has left us, well, then there is a world where it has not.  If death has come, then there is a world where it has been kept at bay.  Surely it exists, the place where all the wrongs are righted…”

Andrew Sean Greer

Andrew Sean Greer

In his newest novel, Greer concerns himself with righting imbalance; he wants to set things right in the world, and this motivation appears in his other works as well.  “A  mistake, made in another world.  And here: it could be righted,” he pens in his intriguing narrative.  The idea of romantic devotion is the focus of The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, and Greer’s use of time travel allows him to achieve equity where inequity once reigned.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells is perfect for fans of Audrey Niffenegger’s  The Time Traveler’s Wife and the recent bestseller ( and one of my favorite novels) Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.  As with The Confessions of Max Tivoli, Greer makes the impossible possible, wonderful, and mesmerizing.  Upon closing the book, I was left with this question: “Why is it so impossible to believe: that we are as many headed as monsters, as many armed as gods, as many hearted as the angels?”  Indeed, why?



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Book Review: In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell (Soho; 320 pages; $25.95).

in the houseReading Matt Bell’s first novel In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, I often looked up from the book and blinked furiously in confusion.  I expected to see a house with myriad rooms, a strange sky above me, a lake in the distance, and a wooded green.  Instead, my own familiar environs surrounded me.   That is just how powerful the setting is in Bell’s dreamlike, fabled, and beautiful debut.  The story of a marriage and its collapse become much more as Bell infuses myth, allegory, and symbolism into his story, transforming the work into something else entirely.

A couple marries and, longing to get away from the rest of the world, moves to a bizarre land.  The husband builds them a house, which the wife improves upon not by her hands but with her voice.  If the husband starts building a room, for example, the wife can simply sing the rest of the space into being.  For a time, despite the presence of a bear, a presence that looms over the entire novel, they are harmonious.  Yet, their family is incomplete.

He longs for a child; she tries to give him one, but fulfilling that longing is not easy as her every pregnancy fails.  The wife senses that she and her husband are slowly drifting further and further away from one another.  Determined to save her marriage, the wife sings a son into existence.  When the husband discovers the horrible truth of the child’s origins, he goes in search of his wife and their “foundling.”

As the husband walks through the house his wife built, now abandoned by them, Bell shows us the remnants of a failed marriage.  “And in this room,” Bell writes, “The sound of my wife’s knuckle first sliding beneath the beaten silver of that ring, a sound never before heard, or else forgotten amidst all the other business of our wedding day.”  Behind each door the husband opens is a different and striking scene.  Each room holds a memory, a recollection the husband has long forgotten, but which the wife tucks away.

In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods may seem otherworldly, but the story is actually very familiar and recognizable.  “As her side of our bedchamber grew some few inches, I did what little I could to right our arrangement, tugged hard at the blankets that barely covered the widened bed—until once again all things were distributed evenly, even as they were somehow also further apart.”

The debut is a simple story of love, marriage, parenthood, and aging amplified by mystery, lore, and imagery.  A fabulous and fantastical journey into the heart of a husband and wife and into the unknown, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods is by turns dark, mysterious, and foreboding.  Bell imbues such imagination and brilliance into this tale.  Bell provides a real insight into ourselves, and therein lies the real beauty of the story.

As the years pass and the couple gets older, the wife can no longer remember her husband or the foundling.  Sadly, she cannot even remember the songs she once sang.  Most arresting to me was the squid the husband turned into as he swam into the depths of the murky lake, his aches and pains and age dissolving away.  Muted passages like these spoke volumes to me and lend the narrative richness and power.

Reminiscent of the work of Aimee Bender and Karen Russell, In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods has already

Matt Bell

Matt Bell

garnered attention from the Indie Next list, choosing it as one of its selections for July.  Bell’s lyrical language, his crystal clarity, and his sharp and colorful setting explain what all the fuss is about and herald the arrival of a major new literary talent.

When you open In the House upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods, you leave your world behind and enter a shadowy and forbidding landscape.  And you will be so glad you did.



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Book Review: You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt

You Are One of Them by Elliott Holt (Penguin; 304 pages; $26.95).

you are one of themWhen two school-age girls have a falling out, the clash can seem like the outbreak of world war.  Both sides have many friends, allies who declare war simply because of loyalty to one party.  Think of them as NATO versus the Warsaw Pact.  There is no détente, and things can quickly get ugly.  Each girl deploys secret agents to spy and gather intelligence on the opposing foe.  Undercover surveillance reveals the weaknesses of each adolescent, failings that must be exploited at any cost.  Mutually assured destruction is a given.  If one of the girls tells a deep, dark secret on the other, retaliation will be swift and massive.    In this electrically charged, DEF-CON 1 environment, nuclear war becomes a real possibility as the chances of disarmament plummet.  This terminology recalls the blackest, iciest days of the Cold War—the early 1980s—the setting of Elliott Holt’s smart and suspenseful debut You Are One Of Them.

Hostile young girls are not that much different from warring nations.  Best friends Sarah Zuckerman and Jennifer Jones write letters to Soviet Premier Yuri Andropov in 1982.  Incredibly, the president replies, but only to Jenny’s missive, not to Sarah’s.  Andropov invites Jenny and her family to the USSR on a good-will tour.  Jenny becomes a celebrity practically overnight but never mentions Sarah’s letter or the fact that it was all Sarah’s idea.  Say good-bye to that friendship.  A new cold war between former best friends thus commences.

Then, in 1985, Jenny and her family die in a plane crash.  The news devastates Sarah, sending her into a tail-spin.  Because Sarah thinks she is defective since those closest to her end up leaving or dying (her sister, her father, her best friend), defectors from the Soviet Union like Mikhail Baryshnikov, Vitaly Yurchenko, and Oleg Gordievsky fascinate her.   After college, Sarah decides to visit Russia for the first time.  She hopes to find a position in journalism in Moscow.

Sarah, though, has another reason to visit Moscow.  She receives a strange letter from a woman who spent time with Jenny during her tour of the Soviet Union and alludes to the possibility that Jenny did not actually die in the crash.  Here’s where the story turns exciting and interesting, especially when Sarah comes face to face with a woman who may or may not be Jenny.

Holt’s ending is intentionally ambiguous.  However, I preferred the vague ending to a clearer conclusion in this instance.  I liked not knowing.  I liked closing the book and wondering how one can navigate a course for truth when secrets and lies cloud the way.   Of course, the novel’s indefinite finale may frustrate some readers, but I appreciated the enigmatic mystery.

The character of Jenny is loosely based on Samantha Smith.  In December of 1982, Smith, a ten-year-old girl from Manchester, Maine, wrote a letter to Andropov.  Smith asked the Soviet premier if he planned to mount a nuclear war against America.  He replied to her, and, at his invitation, Smith toured the Soviet Union the next year.  Her picture was everywhere, and she even became a television actress.  This little girl was America’s youngest ambassador, but her life was cruelly cut short in 1985 when she and her parents were killed in a plane crash.

Set in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s when Star Wars was on the minds of moviegoers and presidents alike and in Moscow during the

Elliott Holt

Elliott Holt

1990s when the world map was constantly being drawn and redrawn, You Are One of them is fast-paced to reflect that fast-moving world.  Because the author lived in Moscow from 1997 to 1999, her writing radiates with intricate ease as Sarah navigates Moscow.  Holt is thus able to transport us to a strange, new, and uncertain Russia—a country that was once just as perplexing as the mystery that is at the heart of You Are One of Them.

Holt excavates the familiar terrain of friendship, loyalty, betrayal, and deception in You Are One of Them, but her penetrating gaze and knowing voice propel her tale far past other novels.   You Are One of Them shares the feel of The Americans and is just as addictive.  I was glued to every page of Holt’s novel.  I would have endured a nuclear winter to spend more time with these striking and well-illustrated characters…well, maybe.


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