Book Review: THE RUMOR, a harmless piece of gossip turned deadly

Kara, Lesley - The Rumor (1)The Rumor
Lesley Kara

In 1969, while playing with a group of neighborhood children, ten-year-old Sally McGowen killed five-year-old Robbie Harris. She was convicted of manslaughter and when released disappeared while Harris’s family stayed in the public spotlight, the subject of scrutiny whenever a birthday or the anniversary of his death approached. His mother and sister never understood why Sally wasn’t convicted of murder and how she was able to leave prison and live a normal life.

Decades later, single mother Joanna Critchley, having relocated to the small seaside town where she grew up, struggles with finances and raising her child, Alfie, who was bullied in his previous school and who hasn’t yet made friends. Additionally, she has a complicated relationship with Alfie’s father, Matthew, an investigative journalist.

One afternoon while waiting for Alfie outside his elementary school, Joanna hears a rumor from another mother that Sally McGowen is living in their town under an assumed identity. That night at book club, she lets the rumor slip, and a few days later, another woman from book club tells her she thinks she knows who Sally McGowen is.

Determined to make friends with the other mothers, Joanna sees this information as currency, and she tells them her secret which gains her entry into the exclusive babysitting circle and access to playdates and birthday parties for Alfie. At the same time, someone has used the information to begin a campaign of terror which soon turns on Joanna and Alfie. Joanna, with help from Matthew, must find out the true identity of Sally to protect herself and her son before it’s too late.

The Rumor is a fast, engaging read with an interesting mystery that also questions if child perpetrators can be rehabilitated and how living under an assumed identity affects a person’s mental health. At times, though, I didn’t like the style. Joanna often made pronouncements, almost like she was breaking the “fourth wall” in which she would say “Oh, no” or “Oh, well.” Additionally, I felt very unmoored when it came to the setting. I could never quite figure out where the book was taking place, wondering where a small seaside town might be close enough to a large city to make sense in the context of the narrative. Ultimately, enough clues pointed to Boston as the big city. In the acknowledgements, Kara thanks someone for helping her adapt the manuscript for an American audience. I wondered if it originally was set in the UK, which might explain why the setting seemed awkward.

This is an ideal “airplane read” for mystery lovers: low commitment, entertaining, and undemanding.

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

Book Review: A PHILOSOPHY OF RUIN asks if personal destruction comes from free will or determinism

Mancusi, Nicholas - A Philosophy of RuinA Philosophy of Ruin
Nicholas Mancusi

Oscar Boatwright is shocked when he receives a call that his mother died on a flight from Hawaii to California. His parents live in Indiana, and he had no idea that they were coming to visit him, much less that they’d been in Hawaii. Soon, he learns the purpose behind their trip. His mother, Delia, suffering lifelong depression, had fallen under the spell of self-help guru Paul St. Germaine. Starting slow, she watched all of his video seminars, then started attending seminars in Hawaii, and finally paid extra for special session with St. Germaine himself. Because this seemed to help Delia, Lee consented.

However, these expensive sessions have not only stripped the elder Boatwrights of their entire savings; they also owe over $20,000. An assistant professor of philosophy who barely makes over $20,000 a year before taxes, Oscar isn’t in much of a position to help his father. He hoped his older sister Grace, married to a wealthy businessman, might contribute, but at the funeral, he learns that she is getting divorced and planned to ask her parents for help with her legal bills.

Oscar illegally downloads St. Germaine’s video lectures and learns that his lessons revolve around embracing insignificance and rejecting free will. Not only is he angry with this man who he felt cheated his parents out of their money; he is offended that St. Germaine is perverting his field, philosophy, with conclusions based on false premises and faulty evidence.

Meanwhile, the term has begun and Oscar revs up to teach his Intro to Philosophy class and grade the many papers his students submit. In his free time, when not watching St. Germaine’s lectures, he spends time with his one friend, Sundeep, another professor in his department. Sundeep convinces him to attend a guest lecture, and the lecturer enjoys the graduate school groupies so insists on dinner at a bar instead of a restaurant. Oscar drinks heavily, and early that morning wakes up with a young woman in his bed.

The next day, he is mortified to learn that that the young woman, Dawn, is a student in one of his classes. Although he tries to extricate himself from the entanglement to protect his career, he is undeniably drawn to her and unsuccessful in cutting personal ties. Their relationship becomes even more complicated when she tells him that she is a drug dealer and needs him to make a pick-up for him. He’ll earn a large sum, but if he refuses, she might report their sexual encounters.

Oscar knows that he shouldn’t agree, but he fears the consequences of refusing, he’s tempted by the money, and he’s seduced by the danger. Once he picks up the package, though, the danger is greater than he imagined, and his training as a philosophy instructor certainly is insufficient when confronting rival drug dealers and partners he can’t trust.

Although Oscar had adamantly rejected St. Germaine’s message, his trajectory since his mother died questioned the very foundations of his life philosophy. Was he in control of his behavior, making decisions that led him from point to point? Or was his free will a myth, his path established long ago and out of his control?

Setting a philosophy professor against a self-help guru offered a new and interesting take on the concept of free will, but A Philosophy of Ruin did not take full use of the opportunity. The kind of questions I would expect Oscar to ask due to his academic training were missing. The dialectic between free will and determinism formed the overarching theme of the novel, and I was disappointed that it wasn’t addressed in this way.

At times, Oscar was a sympathetic character, and Mancusi’s prose to describe his inner dialogue was so spot on, I thought he was describing my own thoughts. As Oscar descended deeper into ruin, though, he was less fathomable, though I suppose that’s the point.

As a character, though she had potential, Dawn never fully came together for me since it was never quite clear what her motives were and if she was being sincere or manipulative. She did show, however, that she was willing to make sacrifices for her partners.

Though his foray into drug dealing might be the biggest danger he faces, Oscar’s largest challenge is coming to terms with St. Germaine and his ideas, and his final accounting as well as the ending of the book, including his father’s role, were unsatisfying to me.

That said, A Philosophy of Ruin, a quick read, offers a portrait of an ordinary and even boring man whose life quickly diverges into an otherworldly disaster provoking the question: at what point can personal tragedy be averted?

Thanks to Hanover Square Press and NetGalley for providing an advance reader’s copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: TURBULENCE, a literary relay race around the globe

Turbulence: A Novel
by David Szalay

A woman in her seventies takes a plane ride from London home to Madrid after visiting her son who is being treated for prostate cancer. Normally reticent on flights, the woman, terrified of flying, drinks bloody marys and keeps to herself. However, after ten minutes of extreme turbulence, she and her row mate begin to talk. When she passes out, he quickly goes to the flight attendant who calls for a doctor’s help.

The unexpected turbulence that causes the woman and her row mate, Cheikh, to interact creates ripples that initiate what amounts to a literary relay race as readers follow a figurative baton around the world. Emphasizing the connectedness of today’s society, the book is structured around flights. Whereas the first chapter ended in Madrid, the second picks up there following a character that somehow had contact with whomever enjoyed the point of view of the previous chapter in a type of benign contagion. In some author’s hands, organizing around flights might be gimmicky, but here, it feels a natural reflection of how accessible travel has become.

Crossing the globe as it does, Turbulence contains a diversity of characters in different settings, socioeconomic conditions, and internal and external conflicts. Although characters come from a range of countries and within those countries live in different environments, to my mind, the prose rang authentic and often eye-opening.

Personally, I love books that have separate but slightly connected chapters so I was biased towards the book, but as with all books of this structure some characters are so interesting they seem short-changed and as if their story is incomplete and some characters aren’t as interesting or as well-developed as others.

While most of the characters are named, a few aren’t, and I’m not sure there is a significance to that if any, and what is says about these characters, both women, regardless. Also, throughout the book, the impact of privilege born of wealth weaves into each chapter. Although not all of the wealthy are white, all of the poor are people of color.

A quick but impactful read with an interesting structure, Turbulence should be on the reading list of any fan of literary fiction.

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

Book Review: ASK AGAIN, YES, after unthinkable violence, can a family forgive?

Ask Again, Yes
Mary Beth Keane

The Gleesons and Stanhopes lived next door to each other in the small town Gillam, outside New York City where Brian and Francis were both police officers. Though the men briefly were partners, their paths diverged, and living on the same street didn’t bring them closer together. Lena, Francis’s wife, lonely outside of the city and away from her friends and family, unsuccessfully tried to befriend Brian’s wife, Anne. But, Gleeson’s youngest daughter, Kate, and Stanhope’s only son, Peter, were born six months apart and became the best of friends, as close as siblings, until their teenage hormones shifted their relationship.

The families lived in a precarious balance until Kate and Peter became eighth graders. That year, tensions flared until an unimaginable act of violence tore the two families apart and shifted the relationships within each family forever. The Stanhopes left Gillam, and the families and individual family members tried to heal, making mistakes along the way, but the events of the fateful night were a fulcrum against which they all pivoted. Even as Kate and Peter found each other again, the ghosts of the past threatened them and their loved ones unless they could find the strength to forgive.

Overall, I enjoyed Ask Again, Yes. The story captivated my attention and I thought the language was lovely. Some of the characters, too, particularly stood out as unusual–Anne–or lovable–George, Brian’s brother. Francis’s journey, too, was a valuable window into his situation. Despite the dark turns the novel takes, it ultimately promotes a message of forgiveness and compassion.

Some things I liked less about the novel included reliance on what I think are overdone conflicts, for example alcoholism and infidelity, though they are perhaps overdone because so common and then deserve attention. The novel shifted perspective among characters, sometimes leaping forward in time, and while I don’t mind that in general, at times in this novel it felt a little jerky. Kate, who is a spitfire as a child, becomes rather passive as she becomes an adult, perhaps because of her circumstances, but it’s a shame she lost her moxy. Finally, the tone of the novel was one of reporting which served a bit to distance me from the emotions of the characters.

Ask Again, Yes should appeal to readers who like contemporary fiction in general or who enjoy family dramas and coming of age novels, and I would encourage those in these categories to read it.

Thank you to NetGalley and Scribner for providing an advance readers copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: THE EDGE OF EVERY DAY – SKETCHES OF SCHIZOPHRENIA

Sardy, Marin - The Edge of Every Day (1)The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia
Marin Sardy

When just a young girl, Marin Sardy’s mother began exhibiting symptoms of schizophrenia, though she never admitted to a problem and therefore was never diagnosed or treated. She did however, keep foil on the end of the television antennas and was so fearful of assassins she barricaded the door at night and often took the children to sleep in a motel.

Her parents got divorced, and her father bought the house next door so they could easily share custody, but he never discussed his ex-wife’s mental health. At times, Marin thought she was the one who had a problem. No one else was talking about it, so maybe her mother was the sane one.

By the time her little brother Tom reached his twenties, the family still wasn’t talking about mental health, but they had to acknowledge that the “shapeless thief” that stole their mother had set his eyes on Tom as well.

In The Edge of Every Day, Sardy combines innovative slices of writing to explore the illness that stalked her family and how it affected her and her other family members, particularly her father. She also reaches into the past to see how tendrils of genetic code of previous generations might have influenced the present and so to the future.

The chapters or essays in the volume take on different forms. Some are list, such as strange things Sardy has encountered. Another is a list of responses of family members–siblings, aunts, her father, her grandmother–to her mother’s symptoms. So striking is the repetition of hopelessness and lack of understanding evident in the “I don’t know”s in their reflections. Another chapter is told in “loops” of time.

The writing is lovely and raw, showing how mental illness echoes in a family, a group of friends, and a community. Sardy also frequently calls attention to the inadequate institutions available for those suffering from mental health issues which keeps them from getting the individualized treatment they need.

Though the chapters cover diverse subjects, from Sardy’s teenage gymnastics career to her David Bowie-inspired wardrobe in her twenties and her relationship with wicca, the theme of walking the line between mental health and mental illness winds through them giving them a cohesiveness. Only one chapter, “Dades Gorge,” seemed out of place, and I am slightly mystified as to why it was included. Also, after Tom began exhibiting symptoms of schizophrenia, Sardy focuses on him and puts aside the thread of her mother; I would have liked their stories as they affected Sardy to be more integrated.

The Edge of Every Day cuts deeply and though the story is often painful, it reveals in beautiful prose a family’s struggle with this mental illness that is still often misunderstood. The book will appeal to those who enjoy readings memoirs as well as anyone who desires an intimate account of living with a family member having this condition.

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