The Last Cruise, by Kate Christensen

36534861Traveling is a strange experience. Travelers are between places. They’re in a pause. Their lives will begin again when they get to where they’re going. At least, it feels that way when you’re a traveler. For the people who work in airports, hotels, and on cruise ships, however, this is their day job. Nothing has paused for them. In The Last Cruise, by Kate Christensen, we get to see people who’ve put their lives on pause for a little while and people who are working as hard as they can. And then we get to see what happens when they’re thrown together when everything goes wrong and all the boundaries between passenger and employee break down.

Christine arrives at the Queen Isabella at the invitation of her friend, who plans to interview the staff for a book about the “new economy” on the ship’s last voyage from Long Beach, California, to Hawaii. She’s prepared to have a good time and not think about the fact that her husband wants children and she doesn’t. On the same day, Mick shows up reluctantly for a gig as a sous chef. It’s okay money, but he doesn’t want to be away from his lover in Paris, even for two weeks. Also on the same day, Miriam and the other three members of the Sabra String Quartet (made up of Israeli veterans of the Six Day War) board the Isabella at the request of the owner’s wife.

By bouncing between these three characters, we see different slices of life on board a cruise ship. Seeing their perspectives made me think hard about how oblivious we passengers can be to what’s going on behind the scenes. Of course, the employees work hard to make things smooth for us travelers, but it’s startling to see how much labor it takes to maintain the illusion. Then things get really interesting. Half the crew walks off the job to protest their low wages. The engine catches fire and the the ship loses power. Oh, and norovirus breaks out. The illusion of a floating resort completely shatters and the three protagonists have to decide what they’re going to do. Do they compromise? Do they work? Do they hold out hope for rescue?

The only thing I can say about the ending is really a warning. It will devastate you. I finished it a couple of hours ago and I still feel stunned. I’m not sure if I liked the ending or not, but I certainly enjoyed the ride—a lot more than the passengers and staff of the Queen Isabella, that’s for sure. Aside from my mixed feelings about the ending, I enjoyed this book a lot. I liked the way it showed me the pause between here and there that comes with traveling, took me behind the scenes on a cruise ship, and gave me some beautiful scenes in which everyone came together in spite of the circumstances.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 10 July 2018.

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Eden, by Andrea Kleine

35721129When they were teenagers, Hope and Eden were kidnapped by a man who claimed to be their father’s friend. They both physically came out of the woods, but they left something of themselves behind. In Andrea Kleine’s Eden, we follow Hope almost twenty years later as she tentatively goes on a quest to track down her sister, who went off the grid shortly after the kidnapping. It’s been years for Hope, her sister, and their parents, but they haven’t really moved on. The kidnapping derailed everyone’s lives. No one is healthy in this book, but Eden is not a catalog of mental illness so much as it explores the impossibility of “letting go” of trauma in the way that Hope’s friends and family constantly exhort her to do.

Hope is a struggling playwright in New York City at the beginning of the novel, when she gets a letter informing her that the man who kidnapped her and Eden years ago is up for parole. (This is really the cherry on top of a bad month because Hope’s mother had just died of lung cancer.) The local district attorney wants Hope and Eden to testify to make sure he stays in jail. The DA also suspects that the kidnapper murdered a girl shortly before he took Hope and Eden into the woods. If Hope and Eden testify, maybe the guy will be convicted of murder, too. So Hope halfheartedly goes home. She talks to her father, Eden’s mother, and anyone else she can find who remembers Eden.

I was astonished by the selfishness of the parents in Hope and Eden’s life. Suriya, Eden’s mother, took off when Eden was a child and lives a peripatetic life as a hippie at a series of communes and collectives. Hope and Eden’s father seems to be content to be a sad sack who castigates himself with his failings as a parent, so much so that others have to comfort him. Luce, who was the father’s girlfriend at the time, at least has the self-awareness to admit that she didn’t like being a stand-in mother. It’s little wonder that Eden left and Hope has become so closed off to others that she’s emotionally crippled.

Eden has the benefit of being a unique account of the aftermath of trauma. I’ve never seen anything like it. But just because this book is unique doesn’t necessarily make it enjoyable. I daresay this book will make readers angry because of the terribly self-absorbed parents. Hope clearly needed and still needs help, but most of the people in her life are incapable of providing that help. That said, how does one help someone who goes through what Hope and Eden did? The only thing we can say for sure is that you can’t just tell them to “move on” and “let go.”

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 10 July 2018.

Safe Houses, by Dan Fesperman

36463975Helen Abell heard something she wasn’t supposed to hear at the beginning of Dan Fesperman’s Safe Houses. In fact, she hears two things she wasn’t supposed to hear. Also, she was taping the people speaking in one of the Berlin safe houses she monitors for the CIA. Even worse: some of the people who were saying things they shouldn’t know she has incriminating tapes. This is the set up for a thrilling mystery that spans almost four decades and two continents.

Helen’s half of Safe Houses follows her as she pisses off the wrong people trying to right a wrong and root out some possible treasons in 1979. Thirty-five years later, Henry Mattick helps Helen’s daughter, Anne, solve the mystery of Helen’s 2014 murder. (This isn’t a spoiler. The murders happen very early in the book.) Henry also works for the government and has special skills, though he’s not as official as Helen was. He’s already in the small Virginia town where Helen lived for decades, keeping track of her visitors, when she and her husband are suddenly and brutally murdered. Anne does not believe the official narrative, that her developmentally disabled brother murdered their parents with a rifle. Someone gives her Henry’s name and she hires him to basically double-down on the job he was already doing.

Once all of this is set up, we’re off to the races with Helen, Henry, and Anne. I loved all the twists on the standard spy and mystery plots. Helen isn’t fighting the Russians or the East Germans; she’s up against the good old boy network of American intelligence. Henry isn’t sure which agency he actually reports to, but it’s clear there are factions and rot. Anne is not as strong a character, but that may be because she’s not a point-of-view character. (There is also a shoe-horned-in romance plot that was unnecessary and kind of irritated me.) I had a great time keeping track of all the double-crosses and sinister henchmen.

Aside from the romance subplot, I liked Safe Houses. It’s got gripping action scenes and original conflicts. Fesperman did a great job creating two settings in which the characters feel like they have no where to turn. Because Helen, Henry, and Anne are pretty much completely on their own, we have to wait and hope that they will find a way to survive with only the slimmest chance of rescue. I’d recommend this for thriller readers who’d like something other than the usual spy v. spy or spy v. terrorist fare.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, fore review consideration. It will be released 3 July 2018.

Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi

Trigger warnings for rape, abuse, and self-harm.

35412372Mental illness is difficult enough to talk about even using the vocabulary of psychologists. It gets even more difficult when culture has another explanation for why someone feels so wrong all the time. In Freshwater, by Akwaeke Emezi, something went wrong when Ada was born. Physically, things went fine, but something happened that left her with company crowding her brain. She is ọgbanjea vehicle for supernatural beings who were supposed to clear out before Ada hit puberty. From the perspective of Western medicine, Ada has dissociative identity disorder. Whatever anyone calls it, Ada’s life is chaotic, inside and out.

As a small child, Ada screamed a lot. She was a difficult child for her parents. But given that her brain is also occupied by other beings, it’s little wonder that she has such a hard time expressing herself. Her problems only get worse when she gets older and her body develops breasts and starts to menstruate. She falls into the grasp of abusive boyfriends who compound her psychic damage. Meanwhile, Ada hurts herself to try and find some relief from all the pressure.

This is a hard book to read but, because it is told mostly from the perspective of Ada’s guests, there is enough distance to soften some of the misery for us readers. Some of these guests, like Smoke and Shadow, are respectful of Ada’s body. Others, like Asụghara, believe they are doing Ada a favor by shutting her away from her body while they have sex. Yet others, like Saint Vincent, and more ambiguous because they want Ada’s body to mirror how they see themselves. That said, Ada has friends who want to help her and will step in when Ada spirals out of control. She might seem alone with her guests for most of the book, but those friends are watching out for her.

In addition to questions of who has the right to Ada’s body, there is the overall question of what is happening to Ada and her guests and why. Readers have the option of interpreting Ada’s condition as being an ọgbanje or as having dissociative identity disorder. There is evidence in support of either option. I’m not going to weigh in for option or the other, because that’s really up to each reader. But I will say that I loved the way Emezi used Igbo beliefs throughout this book to create an affecting, thoughtful, and honest portrait of a woman who is struggling against abuse and confusion.


Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Recommended for readers who have someone in their lives with severe mental illness. Also recommended for readers who have experienced feelings of not fitting in the world or their bodies.

The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai

36739329The protagonists of Rebecca Makkai’s terrifyingly sad novel, The Great Believers, Fiona and Yale, are trapped by love and obligation. In 1985, Yale is living through the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Chicago. His friends and dying all around him while he and his lover worry about catching the virus. In 2015, Fiona is tracking down her estranged daughter, who disappeared after leaving a cult. Both of them desperately want to love someone who can’t love them back. The stakes in 2015 are different from those in 1985 and I often wondered why the 2015 chapters were included. It wasn’t until near the end that I saw the echoes and similarities between the two plots make sense. When they did, I was floored by the emotional impact of Yale and Fiona’s story.

Chicago-based Yale believes he and his partner, Charlie, are relatively safe from HIV/AIDS because they’re monogamous. It’s a cold comfort given how many of their friends and former lovers are dying terrible deaths from AIDS-related illnesses. In 1985, before there was any kind of treatment, all they could do was comfort the dying and try to keep themselves safe. Unfortunately, Yale discovers that Charlie has cheated on him and that Charlie has HIV. This should have been a great year for Yale, in spite of everything, since he has just started negotiating the donation of previously unknown art by Amedeo Modigliani, Jeanne Hébuterne, Tsuguharu Foujita, and Chaim Soutine for a new gallery at Northwestern University. This donation could have made his career, but it gets mired in legal fighting at the same time as Yale’s life is falling apart.

Meanwhile, in the Paris of 2015, Fiona is trying to find her daughter Claire. (The Great Believers opens with a funeral for a man named Nico, who is Fiona’s brother.) We slowly learn more about how Fiona took care of so many of her dying friends in Chicago after her brother died. Though she was so caring of others, Claire ran fast and far from Fiona as soon as she could. All Fiona wants (and all Yale wanted) was to be loved by the people they love. For some reason, their love wasn’t enough for Charlie or Claire. Makkai’s characters are not pitiful victims of unrequited love. The more time we spend with them, the more I sympathized with them, hoping that they could learn to let those loves go and find some other happiness.

One of the ideas that comes up several times in The Great Believers struck me hard. The donor of the paintings tells Yale the story of artists who were lost in World War I and the Spanish Flu Epidemic. She leads him to imagine all the life and art that was lost when several of the artists died. She reminds Yale that they were called the Lost Generation, because they were so cut off from what had come before and because some many people had died. Yale is also a member of a Lost Generation: the people who died of AIDS and AIDS-related diseases by the thousands in the 1980s. What might life be like now if they were alive now? What might they have created if they’d lived?

This is a sad book, but it’s also a book about struggle. Yale and his fellow gay men are not going quietly. Towards the end of the book, Yale becomes an actively protesting member of ACT UP. Fiona hires a detective and flies to Europe to find her daughter, just to make sure Claire is safe. It’s also about staying alive longer, claiming your space and defending it; art; who owns what; and much more. It’s a slow book, but it will reward patient readers with a lot of food for thought and a wallop of an ending that blends hope and sorrow.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 19 June 2018.

The Lost for Words Bookshop, by Stephanie Butland

37946044Trigger warning for domestic violence.

Lovejoy Cardew is in hiding. She has good reasons for laying low. There’s the notoriety of what happened with her parents. There’s the lingering trauma of foster card. There’s the obnoxiously persistent ex-boyfriend. But when books from her past start to arrive at work at the beginning of The Lost for Words Bookshopby Stephanie Butland, Lovejoy rethinks the wisdom of hiding. Perhaps the time to hide is over and it’s time for her to get angry and live.

I really enjoyed taking a peek into Lovejoy’s life. (Also, her name is the best.) When we first meet her, she’s a quiet employee of Archie’s York-based bookshop. She has an encyclopedic knowledge of the store’s contents and can find readers anything they ask for. The biggest annoyance in her life is Rob, a former boyfriend who won’t take no for an answer. Her biggest fear, we learn, is that she will be found out once more as the daughter of a violent father and a criminal mother. It takes several chapters for us to learn what actually happened; the writing moves luxuriously slowly. Some chapters are set in 1999, when Lovejoy is nine, in the last happy year she spent with her parents. Others are set in 2013, in the months when she dated Rob. The chapters in 2016 show Lovejoy as slowly falls in love with poet and magician Nathan—and as she tries to figure out who is sending her books that she knows her mother owned.

Some of this plot summary makes it seem like The Lost for Words Bookshop sound a bit like a mystery. That’s not really what this book is about. Rather, this book is about how difficult it is to break free of controlling, abusive relationships. The relationships in this novel are like frogs in boiling water. The wronged partner (with one notable exception) doesn’t leave immediately. They’re invested in the relationship. They believed their abusers’ apologies. They stay long enough to be hurt terribly. There’s no pity in The Lost for Words Bookshop, only understanding, for which I am very thankfully. Domestic violence is not used to create instant backstory or to raise the stakes for narrative tension. This book also offers a deep look at what it might feel like to be a secondary victim of domestic violence: it’s not just the partner who is physically and emotionally hurt, but also their children.

I really enjoyed the emotional depth of The Lost for Words Bookshop, as well as the thread of book love that runs through the entire story. I also loved watching the relationship between Lovejoy and Nathan as it grew. The epiphany that hits Lovejoy towards the end of the book is so satisfying that I would have liked the book just for the conclusion. This is a great, booky read.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 19 June 2018.

Number One Chinese Restaurant, by Lillian Li

35020361There are two ways to respond to a family legacy. One way is to try and carry on whatever one’s progenitors created. The other way is to strike out on one’s own to create something new. In Number One Chinese Restaurant, by Lillian Li, Jimmy Han finds a third way: to try and create a new restaurant that will leave the old family Duck House in the dust only to land smack in the middle of possibly irreparable problems. This novel follows Jimmy and a few of the employees of the Duck House at a moment of dynastic crisis, as they face questions about what they want to be and what they want to leave behind.

Number One Chinese Restaurant begins and ends with a conversation between Jimmy and Uncle Pang, a man who is not an actual member of the Han family. Pang, however, is a connected man and those connections have made it possible for the family to create the Duck House when they came from northern China to Maryland. Jimmy plans to open a new restaurant, one that won’t serve cheap Peking duck and Americanized Chinese food. He wants to go upmarket. He also wants to leave Uncle Pang’s favors behind. Unfortunately for Jimmy, Pang is not a man to let a lucrative venture go without a fight. Hours after Jimmy hands over what he thinks is his last payment to Pang, Pang hires a young ne’er do well waiter to burn the Duck House to the ground.

Jimmy trades places as narrator with Ah-Jack and Nan, employees who should’ve retired years ago, and Pat, the budding arsonist. Ah-Jack is a diabetic waiter who is still serving tables because his wife has terminal cancer. Nan has been in love with Ah-Jack for years, so she frets about him as much as she does her son, Pat. Each chapter of Number One Chinese Restaurant shows this handful of characters sinking into problems that they can’t see solutions for. Should Pat turn himself in, will he take down his girlfriend (Jimmy’s niece) with him if he does? Will Ah-Jack and Nan find a way to be together? Will Jimmy’s new venture succeed or go down in metaphorical flames the way the Duck House succumbed to real ones?

These questions sounds like good fodder for an interesting book. There are parts that made for good reading. My problem is that I wasn’t invested in any of the characters—except maybe Ah-Jack, because his problems didn’t come from hubris or a thwarted sense of entitlement. While I can deal with unlikeable characters (as long as I can understand why they’re unlikeable), I have a hard time with characters I just don’t care about. Still, readers who like books that take the quotidian and raise the stakes so that it feels like actual kingdoms are at stake might enjoy Number One Chinese Restaurant.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration. It will be released 19 June 2018.