The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

My 2018 gift book is Kristopher Jansma’s The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. From the outset I was dazzled and compelled to reread sentences— the way I read Fitzgerald— and with each finely spun phrase Jansma nudged me to see the world differently.

I sat there listening to the clocks’ little ticking noises. Inside each were little gears like the ones inside my watch, struggling and turning. I listened to the seconds escaping. And I knew then that each second was just escaping to a different clock, somewhere even farther away, and that the seconds just went on and on escaping like that forever. 

The narrator is only eight when he makes this observation about the fragile state of life and his existence. His childhood is unsteady at best. He grows up without a father and often left to his own devices in an airport terminal because his mom is a stewardess. His desperate need to prove himself is always palpable.

She looked at everything like it was a sad, small version of something better she’d seen somewhere else. It was how she looked at me.

This inner demon motivates him to excel, take risks and dream big. The narrator’s desires are so colorfully charged I was continually swept into his frenzy, certain his success was eminent. But his demon was never far away, and in the aftermath of each disappointment I kept wondering if the narrator would ever break free of self-doubt.

Evelyn Lynn Madison Demont. Even four Anglo-Saxon names cannot contain her. She should be a “the Third” or a “Countess di” something-or-other. My heart has been lost in the frozen tundras of hers ever since Julian first introduced us in our college days, seven years ago. Now the accidental thought of her sends sparks through me like I am one of Henry Adams’s dynamos. Everything I write is for her; none of it is ever good enough.

The biggest self-doubt of all is tangled within the narrator’s view of himself as a writer. Jansma uses each chapter of the narrator’s life to illuminate the unabashed truth about what it means for a person to choose a writing life, and the inevitable failure embedded in the process to reach publication.

Somewhere once, I read that the only mind a writer can’t see into is the mind of a better writer. When I watched Julian watching the world, I was always reminded of this.

As June came to a close, I heard from the first round of literary agents, who collectively declared my novella “forced” “unrealistic” and filled with “less-than-charming characters.”

He is the most vulnerable, innocent and charming unreliable narrator I’ve come across. Even at his most despicable he makes me want to dream bigger, lie better and go all out to be the person I’ve always coveted but never imagined I could be. And wow, isn’t that what writing is all about?

“Why are you like this?” she asks.

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” I say.

“I’d believe anything you told me,” she says. There are suddenly tears in her eyes, and I can’t look at them. But she turns away, thinking she’s robbed me of the satisfaction of seeing them.

“Well that’s just the problem,” I snap. “You would believe anything. And I’m a lair. That’s just what I am. I lie like I’m breathing. I lie to everyone, myself most of all. But with you it’s just too easy. I can’t stop myself, because you’ll believe anything.”

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is written like a series of short stories. I wasn’t sure how well I would like this structure, but after being mesmerized by Jansma’s Why We Came To The City, I knew I needed to give it a whirl. Reading Leopards gave me a literary high. Whenever I think about it I get buzzed. It’s a dare to adventure, to put yourself someplace you’ve never been. Jansma’s storytelling stimulates creativity because he makes a writer’s desperate desire for their words and stories to shine and matter feel tangible. Of course, it’s a desire wrapped in fear, but the only way to break through is to put one word in front of another just like the Narrator without caring about the results.

The Unchangeable Spots of LeopardsRead, savor, and dare yourself to write on.


Eclipse by John Banville

When renowned stage actor Alexander Cleave was a boy living in a large house with his widowed mother and various itinerant lodgers, he encountered a strikingly vivid ghost of his father. Now that he’s fifty and has returned to his boyhood home to recover from a nervous breakdown suffered mid-performance, he is not surprised to find the place still haunted. He is surprised, however, by the presence of two new lodgers who have covertly settled into his old roost. And he is soon overwhelmed by how they, coupled with an onslaught of disturbing memories, compel him to confront the clutter that has become his life: ruined career, tenuous marriage, and troubled relationship with an estranged daughter. Publisher’s Synopsis

No recovering actor can pass up a novel about a thespian who suffers a nervous breakdown mid-performance. But the main reason I scooped up ECLIPSE and savored every word was because of John Banville. The writer in me can’t get enough of the masterful way he handles first person narrative.

The shattered life of Alexander Cleave is big enough to tug on a reader’s heart, but the expansion of the reader’s empathy comes from the way Banville threads the lives of the reader and Alexander together.

It has always seemed to me a disgrace that the embarrassments of early life should continue to smart throughout adulthood with undiminished intensity. Is it not enough that our youthful blunders made us cringe at the time, when we were at our tenderest, but must stay with us beyond cure, burn marks ready to flare up painfully at the merest touch? No: an indiscretion from earliest adolescence will still bring a blush to the cheek of the nonagenarian on his death bed.

Readers don’t need to know the specifics to relate to Alexander’s youthful embarrassments because they are haunted by plenty of their own. Layered upon this basic vulnerability is Alexander’s awareness of who he is— not the image seen by those around him— the elemental core that makes him tick.

There is in me, deep down, as there must be in everyone— at least, I hope there is, for I would not wish to be alone in this— a part that does not care for anything other than itself. I could lose everything and everyone and that pilot light would still be burning at my centre, that steady flame that nothing will quench, until the final quenching.

By acknowledging the positive and negative aspects of Alexander’s nature, Banville primes the reader for the emotional conflict ahead. The nervous breakdown was only the warning bell. Of course, Alexander hopes to escape this personal war by running back to his childhood home, believing the solitude will allow him to restore and refresh. But Banville refuses to leave him in peace. After only a short time, Alexander’s wife returns, unannounced. Unlike the intruders and ghosts that have enabled him to avoid his demons, Lily shoves him into the fray.

Then one day in the midst of one of our rows she turned on me a frighteningly contorted face and screamed that she was not my mother! [] At first I had thought she was accusing me of demanding to be cared for and coddled, but I dismissed that, and in the end decided that what she had most likely meant was that I was behaving toward her as I had toward my real mother, that is, with impatience, resentment, and that tight-lipped, ironical forbearance— the sigh, the small laugh, the upcast eyes— which I know is one of the more annoying ways I have of handling those who are supposedly close to me. A moment’s thought showed me, of course, that what she had screamed at me was simply another form of her assertion that I was treating her like a child, for that, as she never tired of pointing out was exactly how I had treated my mother. 

Alexander’s acceptance of this uncomfortable truth is the gateway through which he begins to unravel the clutter that has become his life. And Banville, writing close to the bone, lets the reader experience Alexander’s transformation from the inside out.

Before I rose I had not known what I would do or say, and indeed, I still did not rightly know what I was saying, what doing, but at the touch of Lily’s chill, soft damp hand on mine I experienced a moment of inexplicable and ecstatic sorrow such that I faltered and almost fell out of my standing; it was as if a drop of the most refined, the purest acid had been let fall into an open chamber of my heart.

I read John Banville because I am in awe of the way he handles first person narration. My awe stems from how raw he allows his protagonists to be. The vulnerability, self-awareness and introspection that they share illuminates the complexity of the human soul, challenges me to excavate my own demons, and leads me to a new level of understanding of what it means to be alive in this fragile world.


TONY PARTLY CLOUDY by Nick Rollins

The back cover of Tony Partly Cloudy states that the story combines elements of comedy, satire and romance in the style of My Cousin Vinny or Analyze This— all true. But when I think of summing up the story I only need one word— happiness. For me, even though it was published in 2013, Nick Rollin’s debut is the feel-good book of 2016.

…the tale of a Mafia goon who defies the odds to become a famous TV weather anchor. 

If the word “fluff” comes to mind after reading the description above— fuggedaboudit! The tone of Tony Partly Cloudy is light-hearted, but the content is serious. The story opens with Tony Bartolicotti— who becomes known as Tony Partly Cloudy after his classmates deliberately mispronounce his name— at the age of seven. He is a boy with a gift for accurately predicting the weather just by standing outside and inhaling the air; he’s a fascinating character. Even more curious is the environment where Rollins chose to place his hero. Tony could’ve been tucked into a private school where he was picked on because of his name and out-of-the-norm passion for weather. In such an environment, Tony might’ve easily morphed into the woe-is-me-I’m-so-misunderstood teen, who turns into an antisocial adult and either seeks revenge or is saved by love. But Rollins chose not to be predictable. And even with Tony’s Italian background and a father that drives for a moving line and does stuff for the family business, Rollins successfully avoids the well-worn Michael Corleone storyline because the focus in Tony Partly Cloudy is on character.

My bookshelves are stuffed with characters I’ve bonded with so strongly, I could re-enact the scene in Wuthering Heights where Catherine Earnshaw says, “I am Heathcliff,” every second for at least an hour simply by substituting his name for Scarlett, Jack, Edna, Mayumi, and the list goes on. But it wasn’t until I read Tony Partly Cloudy that I actually saw, as a writer, how a relatable character is born.

Rollins begins with inherent conflict. Tony, who would like to turn his gift into a career, is surrounded by family and friends who expect him to follow in his father’s footsteps. And Tony’s father is not an open-for-discussion kind of guy.

“So you need to ask Frankie B how much money he makes.”

Vinnie was starting to get it. But his casual use of Tony’s Father’s name was teenage bravado— nobody under the age of twenty-one would ever address the man to his face as anything less formal than Mr. Bartolicotti or sir, not if they liked the way their teeth were currently arranged.

The issue of parental approval begins in childhood and often lingers into adulthood. By establishing this obstacle for Tony on page one, Rollins effortlessly connects his readers to his hero.

Frankie looked at his son a longtime. There might’ve been something resembling affection in his gaze. Or at least an absence of murderous intent— with Frankie that was about the most you could hope for.

The above is an example of where Rollins shines as a writer. He is all about specifics, and those specifics come through his characters’ inner landscapes. The reader is always clear about how the characters in the scene see each other, how they feel about the exchange and what the impact for them is personally. But the real pay off is watching Tony evaluate and re-evaluate his relationships.

Tony had never seen his father— the legendary Frankie B— being so…so…nice to anybody. Frankie was usually a blustery take-no-prisoners guy, and suddenly he was all humility and manners. It was weird to watch, but it also reminded Tony of exactly who he’d been playing poker with for the last few years. […] Tony smiled, still getting accustomed to the concept of actually liking his father. He had always loved him. But this liking— this was new.

Initially, I questioned the wisdom of starting Tony’s story at the age of seven; however, the transformation of his relationships run parallel to his internal growth, and this combination is the reason I found him adorable. Adorable is probably not the adjective usually associated with a male protagonist with ties to the family business— no one on the inside calls it the Mafia— but it fits, and this quality is one of Tony’s strengths; it’s also the obstacle to his career. Tony’s adorableness and his naiveté about life is the reason everyone inside and outside the family business like him. Unfortunately, part of what makes him adorable is the way he talks, which reminds everyone he meets— especially his boss— of the characters in GoodFellas and The Godfather. This is not the kind of image the television networks want to endorse; after beating the odds to make a living forecasting the weather, Tony’s career hits a plateau.

About this time, I wondered if the story would fizzle out because even the importance of Tony’s gift appeared to have faded from the frontline of the story. Then Nick Rollins flexed another one of his strengths; he takes advantage of what’s integral to the story— no deus ex machina for him. He uses Tony’s personality and members of his family to ratchet up the tension and catapult the story forward. Once these elements were recharged I remembered Tony’s rise to fame was inevitable (this plot point is in the back cover synopsis). But the delivery of this underdog element of the story is handled so well, his success felt unexpected and made me cry. Then just when everything is going well for Tony, Rollins dips back into Tony’s past and all that is good unravels. This left hook not only increases the tension, but also realigns the reader with Tony on a deeper level. In order to stop the dominoes of destruction in his life, he must come to terms with who he is and what he stands for.

In a year where politics and personal agendas seemed to have hijacked the focus of what it means to live a useful and compassionate life, I can’t think of a better book to read before heading into 2017. Tony Partly Cloudy is filled with humor and suspense, but the secret ingredient on every page is heart; I have no doubt that Tony’s journey will help readers unite, heal and hope, always.


VANESSA AND HER SISTER by Priya Parmar

Virginia Woolf was never introduced to me in school with a three-week analysis of her work like Emily Dickinson, or Edgar Allen Poe. No memories reveal a conversation with a friend saying, “If you read nothing else you must read Mrs. Dalloway.” Like Sylvia Plath, Zelda Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, my exploration of Woolf’s writing came after my fascination with her life. The Bloomsbury Group, founded in part by Virginia and her siblings, Vanessa, Thoby and Adrian, was a group of writers, philosophers and artists, intent on the development and promotion of the arts, as they flexed the rules of Victorian society. Information about the liberal nature of this influential group is abundant, but it wasn’t until reading Vanessa and Her Sister that the intellectual stimulation, the professional frustrations and personal jealousies of these extraordinary friends truly came to life. Priya Parmar’s novel made me wish I could travel back in time to mingle with the Stephen sisters and their peers.

Settling in with Vanessa and the Bloomsberries was unlike any other reading experience. Initially, I was overwhelmed by the cast of characters, ten family members and eighteen friends to keep straight, and feared an exam would be given in the end. For readers who have no background in the era of the Bloomsberries getting cozy with the characters might involve more patience than usual, but the payoff is more than worthy of the early uncertainty of who is who. The bulk of the story is conveyed through Vanessa’s diary entries and the rest is filled in through letters and postcard exchanges. This format, too, requires the reader to double check the cast of characters from time to time until all the relationships tumble into their notches. Then whoosh, the reader is in the flow.

What’s interesting about the storytelling for Vanessa and Her Sister is the structure itself allows the reader to feel as if they are in midst of an actual gathering of the Bloomsbury Group. The chaos of keeping tabs on everyone’s love life, the invitations to travel to nurture their creative interests and explore the innovations of the characters’ contemporaries, and the observations of character that are integral to regular interactions swirl around the reader with such specificity it was sad to remember I wasn’t really there.

The tug of these characters was so strong, when I wasn’t reading I often found myself thinking of Gil Pender’s obsession with Paris during the 1920’s in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. So, I asked myself, what is “calling to me” about these particular people in the early 1900’s in London?

And what if people are shocked that we have no curtains and hold mixed at homes and invite guests who don’t know when to leave? Only we live here, and we can do it how we like.

The boldness to be at the forefront of change is enviable. What artist doesn’t long to be the first to break with rules, question expectations and ignite self-awareness? Witnessing the Bloomsberries in action has nudged me to think twice about where I’m going as a writer. Another aspect of these extraordinary individuals that kept me plugged into the story was the timelessness of their frustrations. Today we speak of Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and those they admired at the time like Matisse and Picasso, because of the impact they had on their particular field of expertise. Yet, they too, were struggling and wondering if they would ever break through.

The rest of us are still living on the borrowed fuel of potential and so far have not left deep footprints. But together we carry a brackish air of importance. As if we are doing something worthy in the world. Maybe how we live our lives is the grand experiment? Mixing company, throwing out customs, using first names, waiting to marry, ignoring the rules and choosing what to care about. Is that why we matter? Or perhaps Miss Warre-Cornish is right and we do not matter in the least.

Delving into the lives of Vanessa and Her Sister also reminded me of what no longer seems appreciated: silence. One of my secret wishes is for the internet, all cell phones and television to go on the fritz long enough for everyone, who is wired in, to have enough time to discover the wonder of sitting with their own thoughts, and then take those discoveries and develop and channel them into something other than a sound bite.

Tonight the talk was purposeful, intentional. No one spoke unless there was something to say. When there was nothing to say, we made room for silence, like a thick blue wave rolling through the house.

The most delicious element of Parmar’s novel is again, wrapped in the storytelling structure. Letter writing has become an underrated, if not lost, art form. However, Parmar’s use of diary entries and letters to illuminate the intimate story of two sisters and their legendary friends shows us, and will remind many, of how breathtaking it is to bare one’s soul on the page. And how the exchange of thoughts through letters encourages the writer to not only share how he feels, but to thoroughly understand why he possesses those feelings.

Nessa is powered by some internal metronome that keeps perfect time, while the rest of us flounder about in a state of breathless pitching exaggeration, carried by momentum rather than purpose.

Virginia has a vibrancy about her that makes time spent with her seem inherently more valuable than time spent away from her; minutes burn brighter, words fall more steeply into meaning, and you feel you are not just alive but living.

Vanessa and Her Sister is an intimate portrait of Vanessa and Virginia Stephen as they struggled to define themselves as women and artists in an era dominated by men, and in the process helped launch a movement of artistic freedom that continues to resonate. Since finishing Vanessa’s tale I have reread A Room of One’s Own and The Voyage Out and still feel compelled to revisit the rest of Woolf’s published works and learn more about her sister and their contemporaries. And that, dear reader, is the reason I believe Vanessa and Her Sister exemplifies the power of historical fiction.


ROOM by Emma Donoghue

Room is Emma Donoghue‘s seventh novel. It became an international bestseller from the moment it reached the shelves in 2010 and was short-listed for the Man Booker prize. I’m embarrassed to say I knew nothing about Room until the trailers for the film version came out. The reason I share my shame is because everyone lives in some kind of isolation from the world. In 2010 I was in the thick of balancing writing, childrearing and disgruntled patients in desperate need of root canals. I’m not saying my isolation can compare to what the protagonist in Donoghue’s novel endured, neither will yours. Yet, isolation is one of the common grounds through which we are able to connect with this extraordinary journey.

Room is the story of a five-year-old called Jack, who lives in a single room with his Ma and has never been outside. When he turns five he starts to ask questions, and his Ma reveals to him that there is a world beyond the walls. Room is told entirely in Jack’s voice.

Twelve days have passed since I finished Room and I still miss Jack.

Today I’m five. I was four last night going to sleep in Wardrobe, but when I wake up in Bed in the dark I’m changed to five, abracadabra.

The first two lines, Jack’s first thoughts and I fall in love. His energy, wonder, imagination, faith and trust resonate in every line and the spaces in between. But his wonder is where the magic happens. All children possess a sense of wonder but Jack’s is magnified because all he knows of the world is contained in Room, thanks to his mother’s genius in explaining life so it fits within the four walls of their existence.

The moon is God’s silver face that only comes on special occasions.

Nothing more than this and yet, we know Jack feels how fortunate he is to have this opportunity to see the Crescent Moon. And it’s not because he feels deprived because there are thousands of things to do each morning. Jack’s enthusiasm for every element of his life is the counter weight to what the readers understand about the horrible truth of his existence through his mom’s explanations.

“Remember we have to choose things he can get easily…I just mean, he might have to go to two or three stores, and that would make him cranky. And what if he didn’t find the impossible thing, then we probably wouldn’t get Sunday treat at all.”  

“But Ma,” I laugh. “He doesn’t go in stores. Stores are in TV.”

The power of what goes unsaid lingers and smacks against every moment of Jack’s joy, so the tragedy of the situation weighs heavy in the readers hearts.

Still, whenever I think of Room I never think of tragedy. Instead I marvel at the resilience of the human spirit, the inherent hope and faith that belongs to each of us, and the power of love. The bond between Ma and Jack is infectious. We love both of them instantly because of the strength of the love they share. We want to protect the two of them as much as Ma wants to protect Jack from Old Nick, and the equally frightening possibility that Old Nick could permanently abandon them. The love Ma and Jack share is the purest form of love between a mother and child. They are each other’s lifeblood, happiness and sorrow. When their circumstance changes and Ma is taken away because the doctors are trying to figure out what she needs, and Jack offers the cure…

Me, she needs me.

It’s difficult to swallow how no one else seems to grasp this truth. The simplicity in Jack’s solution winds us back to his level of wonder—far beyond our own. Jack’s time with Ma in Room, removed from the bustle of the outside world provided him with five years of contemplation and space to appreciate every aspect of his existence. He experiences disappointments as well—no birthday candles for his cake—but these moments never overtake his spirit or his gratitude for having the opportunity to come from Heaven into Ma’s tummy to save her.

Contemplation has been at the forefront of my days since reading Room. Marveling at the wonder of Jack and his extraordinary journey has showed me there are really only three kinds of fiction. The first dazzles and expands our imagination and leaves us with a new perspective on who we are and what we are capable of. The second is an undercurrent that washes through us and opens our awareness to our self and the world on a very personal level. The third blooms from the author’s heart and zooms directly into our own; the depth to which these stories touch us is so difficult to explain, sometimes the only thing you can do is hand the book to a friend and say, “Read this.”—this is Room.


MAYUMI AND THE SEA OF HAPPINESS by Jennifer Tseng

This August will mark my fourth year of reviewing books. The journey has impacted my writing life in so many ways, I feel like Robert Redford in his last scene with Bearclaw in Jeremiah Johnson.

Bearclaw: You come far Pilgrim.

Jeremiah: Feels like Far.

In the beginning I wrote purely about my love for the story. The further I dug into my own manuscript, the more I evaluated the books I read based on the elements of storytelling I was wrestling with at the time. Over the last six months, I’ve wondered if I would ever be able to read a novel without thinking like a writer. Would I ever again be able to read for the pure fun of getting lost in another world, without a care in the world—other than my care and concern for the protagonist? The answer is, YES. Thanks to Jennifer Tseng’s Mayumi And The Sea of Happiness I’ve come home to my love of reading.

So what is it about Tseng’s debut novel that reawakened the pure Reader in me? At first I believed it was a result of Tseng’s roots in poetry. Her first book of poems The Man with My Face won the 2006 PEN American Center Open Book Award. Her second book Red Flower, White Flower won the 2013 Marick Press Poetry Prize. There is a satin cadence in her writing that reels us in with a dose of surprise that positions us on the edge of danger.

I was a librarian after all, near-sighted, spectacled, sitting at a desk, legs crossed, mind adrift, a woman who, at any given moment, would have rather been reading.

My reawakening may have started with Tseng’s mastery of words, but the reason she blew the analytical writer out of my head is the strength of her uncommon tale and a protagonist who, in spite of her inappropriate behavior, felt like a part of me.

Forty-one years old, discontented wife and dutiful mother, Mayumi is a librarian on an island off the coast of New England. Her work feeds her passion for reading […] but it does little to remedy the dulness of her daily routine. […] until the day she issues a library card to a shy seventeen-year-old boy…

I don’t know whether my connection to Mayumi’s discontentment is a natural side-effect to the responsibility of motherhood, or if my restlessness is an understandable off-shoot of an artistic spirit who inadvertently ended up steering the family ship. The answer probably lies somewhere in-between, or maybe it’s something else. What matters more is that I’m asking the question, wondering, probing and observing more careful the actions of myself and others. This is why we read.

What I appreciated most was Tseng’s patience in delivering the story. The first third of Mayumi’s journey is a wrestling match with her conscience.

How does one do something inappropriate in as appropriate a manner as possible?

The tug between guilt and desire creates an ever-present tension we cannot turn away from because we’ve been there. Perhaps not because of lust, but who hasn’t wanted to do something they ultimately knew was wrong. As Mayumi’s obsession with her seventeen-year old grows, so does our obsession to understand how she will deal with this crisis. The mind-loops of justification, rationalization and her attempts to prevent this inevitable act are grounded and sane because Mayumi is a sane human being. She doesn’t live on the edge of psychosis, or the border of mental illness. She’s simply a woman who wants something society has told her is wrong. She needs to figure out how to deal with it, and because she could be a librarian in our own town, we root for her to come to her senses, while being swept up in her logic to commit the crime she may very well go to jail for.

Another powerful element of Mayumi And The Sea of Happiness that makes this debut novel impossible to put down is the inevitability of Mayumi’s transgression. By the time we reach the consummation of the affair we, too, have accepted there is no way for her to resist. Having written that statement, a part of me is shocked that I’ve done so. How can I admit that there was no way for her to back away? This alone, is a testament to how thoroughly Jennifer Tseng has delivered the complexity of Mayumi’s inner turmoil.

Alone with my secret, I indicted and rehabilitated, analyzed and haggled. I accused myself of rape, molestation, and willful negligence. Alternatingly, I defended my right to feel pleasure and love, my right to refuse loneliness.

But perhaps the most beautiful part of the telling of the tale is how empty the pages are of sex. Mayumi’s relationship with her lover is absolutely a relationship. Our interactions cause us to grow, and Mayumi’s affair might, very well, be considered her MFA in self-awareness and life. Her time with the boy is filled with questions, musings and wonderment at how her life has unfolded, while containing many of the struggles of conscience she wrestled with in the first third of the book. The affair is an enormous event in her life, but in the end it is only one aspect of her life. She is a wife, a mother, a librarian, a woman and all of these aspects of her personality are given a thorough reexamination because of this one event.

Mayumi And The Sea of Happiness is an exquisitely told tale of inappropriate behavior that takes our breath away, while giving us pause to examine the line we walk, perhaps everyday, between guilt and desire.


THE EXECUTION OF NOA P. SINGLETON by Elizabeth L. Silver

When I picked up The Execution of Noa P. Singleton I was certain it wasn’t a comedy and the chance for an uplifting ending was slim. What I didn’t expect was how deep my level of engagement would be. Elizabeth L. Silver has crafted a novel so unpredictable, my own response to the ending still amazes me.

The novel opens Six Months Before X-Day—the story delivered to us in countdown format. This ominous structure lies in the back of our minds and adds to the turmoil we feel as the events of Noa’s life unfold. She is a most curious narrator. On the second page she sets herself up as unreliable.

Sadly though, my memories are starting to fade in here. Events slip off their shelves into the wrong year, and I’m not always sure that I’m putting them back into their proper home.

A page later she confesses.

I was lucid, attentive, mentally sound, and pumped with a single cup of decaffeinated Lemon Zinger tea when I pulled the trigger.

On the surface the juxtaposition of these statements seem to confirm her unreliability, but as Noa shares the events of her case with the lawyer, who has been hired by her victim’s mother for the sole purpose of securing clemency, I found it impossible not to believe her account. She is a character who refuses to soft soap anything.

I’m in prison, for Christ’s sake. It’s literally a vacuum into which people are sucked to clean up the outside.

Yet, over and over she insists her memory is faulty. Her persistence led me to wonder whether or not it was only a tactic to somehow win me over. That’s when I recognized how powerful a first person narrative is because these narrators are totally in control to manipulate and redirect the reader anyway they choose. Noa gets her hooks into us first through her honest communication about her situation.

I lie down so much that my body can’t always handle the mere act of standing upright. Sometimes, when a guard comes to my door and lets me know I have a visitor like Oliver or Marlene, I stand from my bed, and instead of walking toward the bars, I fall to the floor instantly, my muscles atrophied, my limbs bereft from activity, my bones hollow and echoed.

She massages our empathy by insisting her memories are as weak as her body and we begin to wonder if, perhaps, she is confused about her own guilt. Once Noa and the readers are on equally wobbly ground, Elizabeth L. Silver makes an extraordinary choice as a writer to avoid the Why of her protagonist’s story.

Everyone is so fascinated with the accursed “why” of my crime. They are obsessed with the organic origin of my hate as if it were born in some petri dish, fused together by the toxic roots of my genetic tree.

This choice deepens our investment because without Noa’s why it is up to us to figure out the truth behind her crime. We are able to do so in the same way a juror would by listening to the facts as they trickle in over the six months period the lawyer has to prepare the petition for clemency. The slowness with which the facts are revealed is another way Silver keeps us hooked. Each time a previous fact is clarified or something new is revealed about Noa, or any of the other characters connected to the crime, the information is so significant or surprising we second-guess our last decision about Noa’s guilt, keeping us uncertain and putting us on shaky ground as we progress through the novel.

Here is what amazed me most about Silver’s novel. Once the truth was finally laid bare about Noa’s crime and punishment, I was overwhelmed with anger about our criminal justice system. And at the same time, I recognized the more aware we are of injustice, the stronger we become to do battle for positive change. So, although The Execution of Noa P. Singleton is a dark tale it holds the potential to uplift us.


BINDS THAT TIE by Kate Moretti

Avenue of Mysteries was all set to accompany me to the hair salon—a woman needs a good book for a hair salon. John Irving’s new novel is intriguing but the hardback is large and the story is dense, not exactly the best combination for a reader who is going to be continually interrupted. So, I grabbed Kate Moretti’s Binds That Tie with the idea of simply starting it at the salon and finishing it up after I’d reached the end of Irving’s book. The most interesting thing about intentions is that sometimes they get overruled by more pressing matters. In this case, I couldn’t sever myself from Binds That Tie. How’s that for a powerful title?

Moretti’s novel unfolds through two points of view. Maggie and Chris Stevens have been married for ten years—their blissful romance scarred by miscarriages and infidelities. When Maggie engages in, what she believes is a harmless flirtation, a deadly split-second decision forces Maggie and Chris onto a dangerous path fraught with secrets, lies, and guilt. This back cover capsulation led me to purchase the book, but the foundation for why I couldn’t turn away came from the opening lines from each POV character.

She hadn’t meant to kill him.

Not a day went by that Chris didn’t think about how he’d paralyzed a man.

These lines alone foreshadow a tale fraught with conflict and internal complexities, and Kate Moretti delivers. Binds That Tie covers a lot of unpleasant territory for readers: infidelities, murder, lies, revenge. Yet, no matter what indiscretions Maggie and Chris partake in, it’s impossible to condemn them because we empathize with the circumstances that have driven them to do what they do.

Not a Mom. Her belly was flat from not bearing children. Her skin, never stretched, was a smooth expanse of peach. Painted toenails, impeccable manicures, bikini waxes, and expensive haircuts were the things that had replaced child-rearing.

We are never out of touch with Maggie or Chris’s inner turmoil—this is where Kate Moretti shines—so by the time we get to this passage…

…Chris climbed into his truck and headed home under the same grayish pink sky he’d seen when he drove in. Is it dawn or dusk? And then he realized that the answer didn’t really matter either way.

We are intimately in tune with the desperation point they are functioning from. This base level of tension mounts as a tiny pool of characters are introduced—in particular, Chris’s best friend and lawyer Jake, who is Maggie’s ex-boyfriend and her sister Miranda’s husband. Crossover relationships are risky because they can feel forced or too convenient, but not here. Moretti’s complex intermingling of her characters works because the way in which these four people became intertwined is rooted in a natural flow of life events. The result is an emotional layer of suspense capable of competing with any thriller.

Her life had been invaded the way a gust of snowy air blew into a fire-warmed house.

This passage encapsulates the energy and chaos of this riveting novel. Binds That Tie is an examination into relationships people trust and the secret truths that destroy them. A fascinating read with an ending that shimmers and teeters on a landslide.


THE KEEP by Jennifer Egan

Why or how Jennifer Egan landed in my TBR pile is as mysterious as her novel. The Keep was an unexpected delight and is one of the books I’ve read in 2015 that is poking at my writing life.

Like most people, I read for entertainment: to experience the thrill of a life greater than mine, but the further I’ve progressed on my journey as a writer the more what I read informs the writer in me. This year in particular has taught me an enormous amount about character intentions, voice, brevity and the emotional well, but The Keep has nudged me to consideration another dimension in storytelling. Jennifer Egan’s story sweetly coaxed me onto the tightrope where I suspended my disbelief then cut the rope and allowed me to fall further into another realm of possibility.

Two cousins, irreversibly damaged by a childhood prank, reunite twenty years later to renovate a medieval castle in Eastern Europe. In an environment of extreme paranoia, cut off from the outside world, the men reenact the signal event of their youth, with even more catastrophic results. And as the full horror of their predicament unfolds, a prisoner, in jail for an unnamed crime, recounts an unforgettable story that seamlessly brings the crimes of the past and present into piercing relation. (Back Cover)

When the novel opens we are in the presence of the castle and rooted in Danny’s point of view. Danny is a character of high sensitivity and awareness.

Danny always paid attention to smells because they told the truth even when people were lying.

Danny’s life is a mess, which is why he’s accepted his cousin Howard’s invitation. We don’t necessarily approve of Danny but we empathize with his desire for change based on the memories he shares with us. Then wham we’re introduced to a new narrator:

But that wasn’t Danny’s line, that was Howie’s. He was heading into memory number two, I might as well tell you that straight up, because how I’m supposed to get him in and out of all these memories in a smooth way so nobody notices all the coming and going I don’t know.

And bam, we’re back into Danny’s POV. I thought perhaps I missed something and went back to the beginning, reading extra slowly to see if I had been careless in my comprehension. Nope. A second or two of dismay enveloped me then delight carried me forward. Egan was asking me to read outside the box and I could find no reason not to oblige. In fact, I was hooked, and my intrigue increased when Howard was officially introduced and he informs us of his vision for the castle he plans to renovate—a hotel where people will be able to reconnect with themselves.

What’s missing? What do they need? What’s the next step? And then I got it: imagination. We lost the ability to make things up. We’ve farmed out the job to the entertainment industry, and we sit around and drool on ourselves while they do it for us.

Like Danny I’m skeptical of his cousin’s idea and fearful of where this is all going to lead. Is Howard setting him up, is this an elaborate plan for payback? The reader in me is thrilled by how my level of investment is growing. What excites me more is the sense that I’m being challenged as a writer. I don’t believe Egan ever intended this to happen, but from this moment on my writer-self was as much invested in her storytelling as my reader-self—watching in awe as her characters crashed through boundaries.

The second POV character, the prisoner in the tale, is firmly in place and I am as fascinated by his story as Danny’s. He’s writing Danny’s story, and on the surface there is nothing out of the ordinary about this. The surprise for me is how real Danny is to me at this point. I have the keen sense the stories are happening simultaneously, in parallel worlds and the prisoner is not so much making his story up as reporting what he sees.

Parallel storylines are nothing new in literature, but what sets Egan’s structure apart from other novels is the way in which The Keep’s storylines are bound together. A Twilight Zone atmosphere permeates the descriptions and makes the reader wonder if what the characters are experiencing is reality or a figment of their imagination.

The feel of her hand made him shudder: twigs and wire floating around in the softest pouch of skin he’d ever touched—like a rabbit’s ear or a rabbit’s belly or some even softer rabbit place […] Her way of moving was jerky, impatient like she was shaking off a person she was sick of.

The Keep is an extraordinary tale, which challenges the reader to expand their sense of believability, a mystery unfolding with layers of questions that hold the reader’s attention until the final twist, where a third narrator surfaces to bring this spellbinding story to a close.


THE GREEN ROAD by Anne Enright

Tension leads to suspense. But suspense doesn’t ensure the reader will remember what the book is about a year, or even six months later. Curiosity—however—that desperate need to know how the heck all the pieces of the story will fuse together, will keep a reader locked-in and nudge him to ponder the essence of the story long after he reaches the end. Anne Enright’s The Green Road is for readers who love the state of heightened curiosity.

I bought Enright’s novel from Dubray Books in Dublin, Ireland after reading the back cover.

The children of Rosaleen Madigan leave the west of Ireland for lives they never could have imagined, in Dublin, New York and various third-world towns. In her early old age their difficult, wonderful mother announces that she’s decided to sell the house and divide the proceeds. Her adult children come back for a last Christmas, with the feeling that their childhoods are being erased, their personal history bought and sold.

I envisioned tongue-lashing dialogue in between food fights, and siblings manipulating each other for a bigger piece of the homestead. What I found was more fascinating. The invitations for Christmas, which include the announcement for the sale of the house, aren’t officially sent until the halfway point. And another sixty pages are used to assemble the family.

While organizing my notes I contemplated Enright’s pacing and asked, Would The Green Road fall in the category of a quiet novel?

In quiet novels, the hero’s journey is usually an interior one, and the character is changed by the world, rather than going out and changing the world.—Forest Avenue Press

 Others may disagree but I say, No. What this 2007 Man Booker Prize Winner has done is compose a compelling and disturbing tale about a dysfunctional family through a meticulous focus on Character.

The dysfunction of the family stems first from the uniqueness of each of the members, and Enright wastes not time in establishing who is who. Each Madigan possesses a distinct voice, rhythm and POV impossible to interchange.

“Yeah,” said Hanna. Who was fed up of people talking about some tiny flower like it was amazing. And fed up of people talking about the view of the Aran Islands and the Flagging fucking shore.

Distinct voices and point of view are essential for igniting conflict, but what prevents the Madigans from bonding is their keen awareness of each other’s differences.

…the last time they met—it must have been 2000—a year when Constance no longer recognized her own reflection coming at her from the shop window and Dan was looking better than ever. She did not know how he managed it. Constance actually thought there might be make-up involved; or Botox perhaps. It was as though the light had a choice, and it still chose him.

The siblings’ differences set them adrift to pursue what they hope will be fulfilling lives, but their unrealistic intentions and expectations end up perpetuating an epidemic of disappointment that adds to their disconnect.

Emmet fell in love with a child in Cambodia, his first year out. He spent long nights planning her future, because the feel of her little hand in his drove him pure mad: he thought if he could save this one child, then Cambodia would make sense.

Their dissatisfactions morph into a relentless restlessness until even the simplest task is impossible to accomplish.

And it was true that Dan stalled in the shop if he was ever obliged to buy a gift. Stalled, refused, could not calculate, drew a blank, was a blank. Walked away, as though from something terrible and, by the skin of his teeth, survived. 

The care with which Enright bares the unspeakable flaws of Hanna, Constance, Emmet and Dan allows us to see how fragile they are. So we, in turn, take care and offer our patience as their story unfolds. Then on Christmas Day all the pieces fuse, because as fragmented as these siblings are they are bound forever by the ineffectiveness of their mother.

This maddening woman, she spent her entire life requiring things of other people and blaming other people, she lived in a state of hope or regret and she would not, could not, deal with the thing that was in front of her, whatever it was. Oh, I forgot to go to the bank, Constance, I forgot to go to the post office. She could not deal with stuff. Money. Details. Here. Now.

On the surface The Green Road appears to be much ado about nothing, but thanks to the conscientious attention to Character the lives of the Madigans end up touching on the everything of life. And the curiosity, which fuels the readers journey, lingers on.


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