The Heart Goes Last

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

Review: Margaret Atwood’s new dystopian novel The Heart Goes Last, while initially well-designed, fails to make a lasting impression.

The book follows Stan and Charmaine, a young couple living in the midst of an economic crash. Desperate for safety and normality, they sign up for the Positron Project, a clean, structured town where inhabitants live and labor in the gender-separated prison of Positron for a month and stay in the fifties-esque town of Consilience the next. Atwood manages to patch together a world like that of 1984 and The Stepford Wives mixed with her own developments. When both Stan and Charmaine become involved with their “Alternates,” the people who live in their home the months the couple is in prison, the story becomes more complicated.

The novel focuses on the relationship between Stan and Charmaine, which becomes increasingly tangled as the plot progresses. Atwood does a fantastic job adding depth to the couple by revealing their candid, often disturbing thoughts. Even more hauntingly, the dystopian world Atwood describes so well could easily fit into the next few years.

Though unsettling, the book is, at least, an enjoyable read. Stan’s prison side job as chicken pimp, a woman romantically attached to a teddy bear, and the growing absurdity of the main couple’s situation prompt a few smiles.

Atwood’s voice is also impressive. Some of her lines provoke deep thought while others aim to entertain, and she writes so smoothly there is never a clash between the two. She is even able to catch me off guard with a couple plot twists that stomp my initial predictions away.

In the last quarter of the book, though, the story seems to get out of Atwood’s hands. The stitches that pull the novel together become more obvious and start to fray. The plot gradually loses its realism, pieces don’t match up quite right, and secondary characters lose their depth. Worse yet, the dystopian clichés that Atwood initially appears to use jokingly become more serious and groan-worthy. Near the novel’s end, the story’s humor fades and takes on a more moralistic tone.

Atwood crams the last few chapters with events meant to drive the main themes home, but, though interesting, these events seem too much like an afterthought. The final chapters don’t drive the main themes home as much as they pull these themes to the surface. By the end, Atwood bares the story’s already thinly veiled meaning to readers as though they are incapable of jumping to interpretations themselves.

Still, the central meaning is designed better than similar stories, and it is an enjoyable read.

The problem with The Heart Goes Last is not a matter of enjoyment, though. The problem is that the heart of the novel goes before the Atwood is finished, but she keeps working at it anyway, hoping a frenzy of shocks will keep it alive until the end. In truth, the story flat-lines before Atwood is willing to wrap it up.

Recommendation: Fans of Atwood might be able to overlook these issues and appreciate the author’s intent. I think fans of The Stepford Wives and more mature fans of The Giver may also value this novel. It is a likable read for a general audience, but those unable to enjoy books featuring extramarital affairs, customizable prostitute robots, and “Big Brother” settlements should stay away.

Thanks to NetGalley for sending me an ARC of this book–even if I didn’t review it until it was published.

The Courtesan: Biographical historical fiction in the voice of a tragic fairy tale

This book was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4.5/5

Review: Though its voice is reminiscent of a tragic fairy tale, Alexandra Curry’s debut novel The Courtesan is actually a work of biographical historical fiction.

The story begins in 1881 with the execution of young Sai Jinhua’s father and her subsequent sale to a brothel. Under the cruel eye of Lao Mama, Jinhua endures footbinding and “bed business” with the support of her maid Suyin. The two girls become like sisters to one another until the haunted Sub-chancellor Hong makes Jinhua his concubine, taking her away from Suyin and brothel life.

When her new husband is asked to serve the Chinese empire as an ambassador to Vienna, Jinhua accompanies him on the journey, where she is drawn to European culture in a way he does not understand. Defying her husband’s wishes, she obsesses over learning German and even begins to fall for a Prussian count.

In keeping with the tragic fairy tale style, Jinhua does not have the blessing of a happily ever after.

She returns to a changed China as a changed woman, and her new-found Western sympathies threaten herself and those dear to her under the rise of the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists.

From the beginning, it is clear that Curry conducted a lot of research for the novel. She pulls idioms from the German as well as the Chinese language. She threads other historical figures through Jinhua’s story and holds to her understanding of those figures. Her depiction of Chinese and Viennese culture of the late 1800s is rich enough that I can imagine it without much difficulty.

Still, The Courtesan is not Sai Jinhua’s story—it is what Sai Jinhua’s story might have been. By the end of the novel, it is clear that Curry filled in the holes and questions of Jinhua’s story with her own imagination and interpretation. This did not deter my enjoyment of the story, but those who prefer historical fact over historical fiction might not find the book so pleasurable as a result.

One of my favorite traits of the book—second only to Curry’s fairy tale voice—is her constant movement between characters’ perspectives. While most of the book is told in third person limited from Jinhua’s angle, other chapters explore the minds of side characters like Suyin and Jinhua’s Viennese maid.

My favorite chapters, though, are the ones that tapped into the viewpoint of characters who stand in the way of Jinhua’s desires. The first chapter, for example, details the death of Jinhua’s father from the executioner’s eyes. Other chapters look through the lenses of Jinhua’s father’s First Wife, the go-between who brought Jinhua to the brothel, Lao Mama, and Sub-chancellor Hong’s First Wife.

The constant movement between characters humanizes those who don’t deserve to be humanized and adds gravity to the novel.

That is not to say the book lacks gravity without these chapters; on the contrary, it takes every grim turn a story can take.

The scenes of footbinding and “bed business” are graphic and characters—particularly those from the brothel—swear intensely. These details made the book difficult to read, but I believe they’re necessary for the portrayal of Jinhua’s environment in this novel.

The most important judge of any historical fiction piece, in my opinion, is that the reader wants to learn more about the figures and events covered in the piece by the end than they did when they began.

For this reason especially, I belief The Courtesan is a success. I’m now far more interested in Sai Jinhua the events leading up to the Boxer Rebellion than I was before reading the novel. I’ve already begun poking around to see what others believe to be the true story of Jinhua and to learn more about the Boxer Rebellion.

Though I love the novel’s style and believe it to be a successful work of historical fiction, the novel fell short in the realism of its main character. Jinhua herself is ever-changing—a trait Curry likely instilled to emphasize her “many lives.” It may be less poetic, but I believe the depiction of Jinhua as having one life with many phases would have saved her character from frequent contortion.

Aside from this fault in Jinhua’s character, The Courtesan is a masterfully written novel with a great love for tragedy.

Recommendation: Fans of Amy Tan, Chinese fairy tales, and the historical context of this novel will likely enjoy it.

I would not recommend this book to victims of abuse or those sensitive to a gritty narrative.

The Courtesan will be available for purchase September 8th.

A Place We Knew Well: A book I liked not so well

This eBook was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 3/5 stars

Review: Susan McCarthy’s A Place We Knew Well had intriguing characters and twists but a disappointingly slow beginning and flat ending.

The novel looks at the Cuban Missile Crisis through the eyes of a family living in suburban Florida. It examines the contrast between the cookie-cutter family values of the 60s and the mounting stresses of a potential World War III.

The characters of A Place We Knew Well are complex and add more depth to the plot.

Wes Avery, whom the novel seems to focus on most, is a World War II veteran who fears the worst may come of the Cuban Missile Crisis but continues to behave as though all is well for the sake of his family.

Sarah Avery is a housewife who numbs her worries with pills. Her prejudices and nervous breakdowns make her the most interesting character of the novel.

Charlotte Avery, their only child, struggles to prepare for homecoming in the midst of the Crisis.

The novel opens with the Charlotte of modern day rummaging through her father’s garage, where she finds several odd items that all relate to their family’s struggles during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Wanting to know the relationship between the objects and Charlotte’s distaste for that time of her life, I turned the page.

The slow pace and the focus on Wes quickly bored me. I wanted to know more about Sarah and Charlotte. While the beginning of the story offers a good snapshot of the times–particularly with the added perspective of the Cuban boy Wes hires at the garage–I wanted more action. Perhaps because I know from history that the Cuban Missile Crisis was resolved, I felt little of the suspense the Crisis presses on the Avery family.

McCarthy redeemed herself, though, and renewed my interest with a plot twist that caught me off guard and the introduction of a character very unlike the others.

Though the missiles never explode, the family does.

The loss of two stars on my rating is attributed in part to the initially slow pace and the focus on Wes, who bored me. Mostly, though, the book disappointed me in its final chapter, which was structured as a character’s email to the author.

I’ve read too many stories that end or begin their novels in this manner, and I think it’s not only cliche, but also a bit cheesy. Granted, some of these novels have been a success–such as Rick Riordon’s Kane Chronicles–but A Place We Knew Well would have been better suited to end differently.

I agree that the author should end in modern day, but why not continue in narrative form and finish the scene of Charlotte at her father’s garage? Without a full-circle ending, the introduction feels incomplete. More than that, it feels unnecessary. What is the importance of naming Charlotte’s father’s attorney if he only came up a couple times, and only in the introduction? Will Charlotte ever learn the relation between the items she discovered in her father’s safe? What happened to the character introduced halfway through the story?

The ending McCarthy chose also allows for little emotional weight. I’ve spent over 250 pages with these characters but all I know of their futures is told in a formal, detached letter to a stranger. The long-term effects of the Cold War on the characters is revealed through numbers and politics when it should be revealed through emotional narrative; numbers and politics belong in the Author’s Note.

The novel would have been much stronger if McCarthy had ended it in a place I knew not so well.

Recommendation: Those interested in the Cuban Missile Crisis and/or life in the 1960s might enjoy this novel.

Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A read I prescribe to those on all walks of faith

A big thank you to Howard Books for sending me an early copy of this book! And hardcover, no less! It comes to shelves today and I’m excited to see what other readers think.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Review: In Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome, Reba Riley recounts her experiences with thirty religions in one year–a quest she felt led to undertake on her 29th birthday.

Riley struggles with “Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome,” which she describes as “A condition of spiritual injury that occurs as a result of religion, faith, and/or the leaving, losing, or breaking thereof.” While I haven’t faced a big break with the church, I know people who have and I’m sure many can relate to the term.

During her 29th year, Riley also struggled with a mysterious illness no doctor seemed able to diagnose. She felt that, if she couldn’t heal her body, she could at least work toward healing her spirit.

In the novel, Riley discusses her experiences among the Amish, Buddhist, Muslim, Scientologist, Hindu, Native American, Wiccan, Jewish, and a whole hodgepodge of Christian churches varying from virtual reality to a drive-in to a movie theater.

What impresses me most about this book is not the fact that the peacock and disco ball on the cover actually relate to the story (though that is impressive); it’s Riley’s voice. She manages not only to keep me laughing, but also to keep me thinking. I’ve never read a memoir with so prominent a voice. At some point near the beginning of the book, I connected with her (I think it was when she fell down the stairs and flashed her birthday party crowd and everyone on the street). By the end, I felt like we were good friends. If I ever run into her on the street, I’ll probably start conversing as though I’ve known her for years and she’ll just stare back at me wondering who the heck this blonde chick is.

I’m also amazed by Riley’s story. I always have a hard time believing miracles in memoirs because the author is typically biased. But Riley clearly didn’t want to go back to church. And I don’t believe she would change her memory of her story to fit the religion she chose because she didn’t chose a religion at the end of her experience; she simply chose faith.

I don’t fully agree with her theology, but I don’t have to in order to appreciate this book. It is clear that God has made an imprint in her life; miracles are woven into each page. More than her story itself, I was interested to hear her thoughts on religions I’m unfamiliar with. Through her experiences, I feel more open to experiences like meditation and fasting, to which I was previously closed. I also feel more tolerant of beliefs like Scientology and Native American religions, at which I previously scoffed.

Though I believe many of Riley’s anecdotes about visits to different sects of Christianity were important to her personal story, I would have liked to hear more about her visits to other religions. I know there’s not a wide variety of religions represented in Ohio, but at one point Riley casually mentions she visited Christian Science, Unitarian Universalism, Sikhism, and Seventh-Day Adventism. She does acknowledge that these visits “barely registered” because her illness drained her of the energy needed to “research or get into the services.” If she did not attend services, how did she visit these religions? What were her interactions with these religions like? I’ve been curious about the beliefs of Christian Science and Sikhism in particular, and I wish she would’ve explored these more later or written more about what experiences she did have.

Though I would’ve liked to hear more of Riley’s experiences, this is only because I found the experiences she did share incredibly interesting. She doesn’t just attend services of other religions; she does what people of those religions do on her visits, cleaning herself before service at a mosque; getting audited by Scientologists; eating peanut butter, marshmallow cream, maple syrup, jelly, meat, cheese, and pickle sandwiches with the Amish. Anytime an individual steps far out of their comfort zone, an interesting story begins.

Throughout the book, people of all religions tell Riley of her destiny as a healer. I think this is a destiny she lives out through her book and her blog. This book will bring healing to many people, regardless of whether they’re searching for faith, running from faith, or already bound to faith. Reading Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome is especially a good remedy for those who identify with the title diagnosis.

Recommendation: Everyone should read this book.

Well, not everyone everyone–I can think of one or two super conservative people who may be disturbed by Riley’s theology to the point of burning or banning it, which I don’t much care for–but people from all walks of faith should read this. (Yes, I’m talking to you.)

Walk on Earth a Stranger: Stranger in a Good Way

My library offers a summer reading program, with different incentives for each age group. This was my brother’s first year in the teen group, where, after reading four books, he could select one book from the library’s prize stash to keep. And this year (now that I’m finally in the adult group and can no longer pick a book) they had ARCs on the shelves. And one of the ARCs was Walk on Earth a Stranger by Rae Carson, one of my favorite authors. I begged my brother to pick that book for me. Like a loving little sibling, he did.

And like a true little brother, he wouldn’t let me touch it, holding it just out of reach at all times.

He finally gave it to me last Sunday for my birthday, and, naturally, I read it soon after.

That was probably the longest backstory for a book review, but it had to be told. In any case, here are my thoughts on the YA novel.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Review: This book is very different from Carson’s Fire and Thorns series. That’s not a bad thing; it just took me a few chapters to adjust to Carson using words like “blast” and “witchy.” The novel takes place during the California Gold Rush. The protagonist, 15-year-old Leah Westfall, calls herself “witchy” because she can sense gold around her. In the time of the California Gold Rush, this is an incredibly useful talent. It should be no surprise, then, that anyone who finds out about her powers would want to use them for their own gain. So when someone takes everything away from her and attempts to control her, Leah dresses like a man and runs off to California on her own. As anyone who’s played Oregon Trail knows, Leah encounters quite a few setbacks on her journey.

One of the things I loved about the Fire and Thorns series was the unusual protagonist. While Leah Westfall is by no means usual for her time (what kind of girl can hunt and muck the stables in 1849?), she is a familiar character. The situation and fantastical elements Carson surrounds Leah in, though, are new and intriguing. No book about Western America in the 1800s has interested me as much as this one. In fact, I can’t say I’ve heard of many books at all on the subject, and certainly not any YA novels. Walk on Earth a Stranger is one of a kind in its setting and audience.

Leah may be a familiar character, but the rest of the cast are not. Jefferson, Leah’s friend from home who sets off for California shortly before her, is unpopular at school because his mother is Native American. His father is an abusive alcoholic. The Joyner family, whom Leah works for on much of the journey, is the mid-1800s version of a “white picket fence” family, but each member of the family (except Olive, who remains out of the spotlight) becomes increasingly complex as the book progresses. Reverend Lowrey is an obnoxiously religious Presbyterian pastor. The Illinois College Men are “confirmed bachelors.” The Hoffmans are German immigrants. James Boisclair is a wealthy, free African American.

The plot is a little slow, but I imagine that fits the time well. The trip to California was not a fast one. Still, the novel is indisputably faster than another book about Southerners moving to California in hope of finding wealth. Regardless of the pacing, I consider this book a page-turner.

The fantastical element of the story–Leah’s “gold-witching”–is not as central to the story as I expected. It set the plot in motion, but it doesn’t play as large a role as Elisa’s magic in Girl of Fire and Thorns. Leah’s talent does help her find others several times in the story, but I think there could be a bigger buildup of tension to her secret being revealed. My favorite kind of plot is one in which the main character keeps a secret from everyone else for so long, the reader might melt if they don’t reveal the secret soon. That might be an exaggeration, but I didn’t feel anything close to melting when Leah reveals her secret to one of the main characters. I’m glad the focus remains on history rather than fantasy, though, as I was able to learn much about the time and setting through this novel.

Recommendation: I can’t think of a way to recommend this book other than to say who might not enjoy it.

I don’t think everyone who loved Girl of Fire and Thorns will love this book. It’s for a different audience, certainly.

I also don’t believe super conservative families will enjoy the book’s take on religion. Though, truthfully, I’m from a more conservative background and I find the novel honest in this aspect. In a time where much of the church encouraged slavery and white male supremacy, I find Leah’s attitude toward Christianity completely understandable.

I also wouldn’t say this book is just for people who love the old west; Carson does well explaining the setting in an interesting way, so people unfamiliar with the historical context might enjoy it, too.

Esther–A novel that will be queen of Christian fiction this year

This eBook was provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

Review: Confession–I’ve never read a book about a character of the Bible. But this book has me interested in reading more.

The story of Esther is one many Christians know by heart. The virgin Jewish girl is captured for King Xerxes to either become his wife or become his concubine. She manages to win his heart and secure her place on the throne while keeping her Jewish heritage a secret. Her cousin, the king’s accountant, reveals to her that Xerxes’ adviser, Haman, has convinced Xerxes to sign an edict to kill and plunder from all Jews–men, women, and children alike. Esther must choose to either speak up for her people at the risk of her own life or remain quiet and allow her people to be slaughtered.

Not only did Rebecca Kanner do the research for this novel; she also managed to bring the characters to life.

To become queen to a man like Xerxes, I believe Esther must have been one of the most intelligent, independent women in the Bible. She had to fight other concubines for the throne, earn the king’s favor enough to also earn his ear, and be wise enough to turn the king against one of the men he favored most–all as a woman who took the place of Queen Vashti, who was dethroned because she “disobeyed” her husband.

Kanner paints Esther not only as the cunning woman I believe she was, but also as someone who could march beside a target without flinching from the arrows. Someone who could keep moving forward in the face of tragedy. Someone who could watch men be tortured. Kanner’s Esther has a ferocity which rivals her beauty–a trait I believe puts this interpretation above all others.

Though I’ve known this tale since early elementary school (thanks, VeggieTales), the plot felt new to me. Kanner added suspense not only through Esther’s fiery personality, but also in her strained relationship with her husband, her attraction to one of the king’s most loyal soldiers, and her conflicts with other girls in the harem.

One of the most interesting traits of this book is that it actually had sex scenes. I expected Kanner to do as most Christian authors do and leave off at the bedroom door, but she went a little further. She wasn’t graphic or obscene; she simply wrote what she thought may have happened between the king and the woman he made his wife. And really, why shouldn’t Christian fiction have simple sex scenes? Too often Christian fiction authors shy away from the subject. I understand if they’re uncomfortable with writing it, but God created sex to be a good thing, under the right circumstances. Heck, Song of Songs is about sex, and it’s in the Bible! But I digress. Don’t worry about the book being too scandalous; if it were a movie, it’d be PG-13.

The reason why I withhold half a star from my rating is because–despite the plot holding my attention–certain sections felt too long. The walk Esther is forced on at the novel’s start drew on a little too long for my liking, as did the part where Esther decides to train in self-defense. Moreover, the ending felt too happy. Perhaps Kanner was just trying to show that God rewards those who serve Him? Or perhaps I am used to novels that end on more of a low note.

Recommendation: I’d recommend this book for those ages 18 and up who are interested in Biblical adaptations or even just interested in historical fiction with a strong female lead.