Book Review: LONG BRIGHT RIVER, perfection

Mickey Fitzpatrick joined the Philadelphia PD after high school while her younger sister, Kacey, an addict and prostitute, left home for the streets of Kensington, a neighborhood ravaged by the opioid epidemic.

Mickey responds to a what was supposed to be a death by overdose, but she notices signs of foul play. The young woman isn’t the first victim: her murder initiates a string of homicides in Kensington targeting vulnerable, addicted working women. At the same time, she learned that Kacey was missing.

With her partner, Truman, who is on medical leave, Mickey begins an off-the-books investigation to locate Kacey and find the murderer. Her queries take her into an underworld that threatens not just her and Truman but also her son.

Mickey narrates the present-day mystery while revealing how the once inseparable bond she shared with Kacey slowly disintegrated. Long Bright River by Liz Moore isn’t simply a mystery novel, though. It’s a meditation on place and family and how circumstances can limit choices. It’s a revelatory lament for those in the throes of addiction. And, it is a message about the importance of love and forgiveness.

To me, the writing was so beautiful, at times I had to stop to simply savor the language. Mickey was such an interesting narrator—so intelligent, so damaged, so unemotional. This was one of those books I wasn’t ready to finish.

Book Review: DEAD ASTRONAUTS, a climate fiction masterwork

VanderMeer, Jeff - Dead Astronauts (1)Set in the universe introduced in Borne, Dead Astronauts begins with an army of three who are determined to save the world from the Company. Begins, however, may not be the right word because time, in this book, has little meaning. Not only do the “astronauts” exist outside of—or possibly within any—time or place, the book itself is told out of sequence.

Jeff VanderMeer shifts perspective often, from a homeless woman who finds the journal of a mad scientist who works for the Company to the mad scientist himself. The creatures of the Company’s seemingly purposeless experiments, too, get voices, from the Behemoth living in one of the Company’s holding ponds to the murderous duck with a broken wing and the wise Blue Fox.

While I’m not quite sure I understand Dead Astronauts (in fact, I’m sure I don’t completely), I know that liked reading this postmodern novel. Some passages are so beautiful, I had tears in my eyes and some had me nodding my head in agreement—particularly when the Blue Fox discusses human’s hypocrisy when it comes to our attitudes versus actions in terms of the environment. I was (and am) ready to give up the earth to the Blue Fox, who I’m sure would be a better steward even though he might eat me for dinner.

Obviously, though, this book is not going to be for everyone, but readers who enjoy challenging, experimental novels or climate fiction should without a doubt add this to their reading list.

A side note: while this is set in the Borne universe, it is not a sequel, nor is it necessary to have read Borne to understand Dead Astronauts.

A minimum of 20% of royalties from Dead Astronauts will be donated to The Center for Biological Diversity, The Friends of the St. Marks Wildlife Refuge, and other environmental organizations because Jeff VanderMeer is the bomb.

Thank you to Edelweiss and Farrar, Straus and Giroux for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: MEG & JO, a contemporary retelling of Little Women

Happy Publication Day to Meg & Jo by Virginia Kantra!

Reimagining Little Women from a contemporary perspective, Virginia Kantra tells the story of the March sisters from the alternating points of view of Meg and Jo, the two eldest.

In New York City, Jo, laid off from her job as a journalist due to budget cuts, writes an anonymous blog while making ends meet by working in the kitchen of a gourmet restaurant under renowned chef Eric Bhaer—who happens to loathe food bloggers—but who is undeniably attractive.

Meg, a former loan officer, gave up her career to stay at home with her young twins. Her husband, John, a beloved teacher and coach, resigned from the school to work at a car dealership where he could earn more money for the family. What is on the surface a perfect family hides unspoken tensions about resentments and sacrifices.

As the holidays approach, Abby March becomes ill and requires hospitalization. Her husband, Ashton, a former military chaplain, is so focused on serving veterans though his non-profit organization, he is unable to provide Abby support, leaving it to Meg and Jo.

With the family in crisis, bonds are tested, and the sisters must consider both what they really want—and if they know each other as well as they think.

I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to write a book inspired by a classic, especially one as loved as Little Women. It requires balancing the spirit of the original with a realistic modern setting. The challenges must be only compounded when the source material comes from the late 1860s, when social and gender mores were so different!

For much of the book, I was very uncomfortable with the gender dynamics. Abby March was completely self-sacrificing and taught her daughters to be the same way in relationships. Meg internalized those messages and reproduced her mother’s behavior while Jo rebelled so completely against it, she wouldn’t allow herself to be close to anyone. Their poor communication skills made their relationships and emotional health suffer. Meanwhile, Beth and Amy were coddled while Meg and Jo assumed all the responsibility for the family.

If I could have reached into the pages and shaken the characters, I probably would have. They did, though, have room to grow, and pressures that made the status quo untenable. My concern is that Meg and Jo never seemed to stop defining themselves independently of the men in their lives. Still, the setting was charming, and I think fans of the original will be satisfied!

The two younger March sisters don’t get much play in this novel, but a second book, Beth & Amy, is in the works in which they will have the spotlight.

Thank you to NetGalley and Berkley Publishing Group for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: THE FAMILY UPSTAIRS by Lisa Jewell

In The Family Upstairs by Lisa Jewell, Libby Jones inherits a mansion in London’s exclusive Chelsea neighborhood when she turns twenty-five. Though the house is in disrepair, it is nevertheless worth millions of pounds. With her inheritance, Libby also learns the identity of her birth parents, owners of 16 Cheyne Walk, where, twenty-five years earlier, police arrived to find three bodies dressed in black robes, dead of an apparent cult-related suicide pact. A well-cared for baby was rescued from the scene, but four teenaged children living in the home were missing and never located.

Libby senses more to the story, and aided by her co-worker, Dido, an expert on Agatha Christie, and Miller, a journalist whose dedication to the story cost him his marriage, she attempts to find out what really happened at 16 Cheyne Walk. Libby, however, isn’t the only person who has been waiting for her twenty-fifth birthday, and as she comes closer to the truth, her safety becomes ever more perilous.

To be honest, the book started slow for me, but about eighty pages in, I was hooked at a shocking pivot point, and I ended up liking the book overall. It is told from the perspective of three different characters, and their overlapping and at times conflicting narratives kept me intrigued. Given the events at 16 Cheyne Walk, it was interesting to observe how the teenagers were affected. I do wish, however, that there had been a bit more context regarding the adults’ psychology.

Once I got into the groove of the book, I was highly invested and stayed up late finishing it! The Family Upstairs is my favorite Lisa Jewell book so far.

Book Review: MONA IN THREE ACTS, a painful, beautiful character study

We first meet Mona when she is almost ten, locked in a dark room in the basement by her mother, Agnes and accepting the punishment as her due since she has internalized her mother’s criticisms of her being difficult and poorly behaved. But, the cruel discipline soon ends when her parents are in a devastating car accident that kills Agnes.

Mona’s distant father, Vincent, waits only nine months before marrying Marie whose moods are erratic. Marie often lapses into paranoia, believing Mona or her brother Alexander’s benign behavior to be a deliberate slight. Mona learns to repress her emotions to humor Marie and keep peace in the family. Highly verbal with a rich interior life, the precocious child is observant and insightful but given her age is not always accurate in her observations.

Part II finds Mona, in her mid-twenties, at a turning point in her life when she accepts a position with an acclaimed theater producer/director and meets a famous author while Part III presents Mona in her mid-thirties as she faces personal and professional crises wondering if she can ever escape the patterns she learned as a child.

For me, reading Mona in Three Acts, set in Belgium, written by Griet Op de Beeck, and translated by Michele Hutchison, was a pleasure. I really felt for Mona in my bones, and I particularly enjoyed Part I, when she was trying to understand adult problems through a child’s perspective. Above all, the book is a character study, and its structure allows the reader to watch Mona’s evolution over time. Personally, I also really like books that have gaps like this where the events of the intervening years are puzzles to solve.

Mona’s central challenge—the pull between fulfilling family responsibility and expectations and pursuing individual passions—as well as her challenging relationships with her father and stepmother reflect universal conflicts, and I think many readers can if not see themselves in Mona certainly empathize with her. She also has some brilliant reflections: I highlighted many passages!

I was satisfied with everything in the book, but I did wish the novel had developed certain areas more, particularly how outsiders like spouses and boy/girlfriends relate to the family dynamics and a subplot about a conflict between Marie and one of Mona’s younger siblings which felt incomplete.

I really enjoyed Mona in Three Acts, and I wasn’t ready for it to end. Readers who enjoy literary fiction, character-driven novels, and books in translation should consider this book.

Thank you to NetGalley and Amazon Crossing for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.