Francesca Hornak Muses on her Journey to Seven Days of Us

Hardcover, 368 pages
Published October 17th 2017 by Berkley Books

Hey Navi Review Friends & Followers! Seven Days of Us hits the bookstores TODAY, and Francesca Hornak has stopped by to tell us more about her journey to writing and completing her debut novel, Seven Days of Us! This witty author has crossed over from article writing to offering us her first full-length novel, and this exclusive interview celebrates her journey from intern to fashion writer, contributor for The Sunday Times to debut fiction author! From parenting to wardrobe mishaps abroad, Francesca Hornak bares it all with us!

 

Question # 1

The number and caliber of publications you’ve written for is impressive! Could you tell us a little about your journey to becoming a columnist and sought-after magazine writer? How have your personal experiences affected your desire to pursue that field, if they did?

Thank you! I’ve just always adored magazines, and still find them completely compulsive. My parents didn’t really buy them, so they held this exotic allure for me. I vividly remember, aged seven, reading a copy of Vogue that a guest had left in our house and becoming obsessed with supermodels, especially Cindy Crawford. In all the photos from that summer I’m pouting and flicking my hair around. I know this is exactly why people disapprove of the media – I’m afraid I was a textbook case!

As for how I got into writing for magazines, I wrote to all my favourite titles asking for work experience and got a few internships during my university holidays. That led to a junior job at In Style when I graduated in 2005 (it was all a bit easier then, when there was still money in print journalism!). I loved the glamour and urgency of the offices – after three years of academia that was a massive relief.

Question #2

You’ve written a slew of articles for The Sunday Times and other publications. One of my favorites was your 2016 article “The Pointlessness of Parenting Guides” that appeared in Red, where you made some very convincing arguments about “ditching” the trend of parenting guides! What was the final straw in parenting that made you so compelled to write that article?

I think the final straw was a chart in a chapter on weaning, in a book called Coping With Two (yes, I was still reading these books after my second baby…) It had one column for messy foods, and one for less messy alternatives – supposedly to help you keep your house under control. It literally went ‘grated cheese’ vs ‘sliced cheese’, ‘full cup of milk’ vs ‘half full cup of water’ etc. I know the brain numbs a bit after a baby, but still!

Question #3

Your debut fiction novel, Seven Days of Us, hits the shelves in the U.S. in mid-October! What was the most difficult aspect of switching over from article writing to being a novelist? What about that process did you find more satisfying than column writing?

The hardest thing is not being able to hold every paragraph in my head, like I can with a 500 word article. The most satisfying thing for me is pacing the story – deciding to keep the reader in suspense, shocking them with a twist, giving them something funny after a sad episode and so on. With journalism, it’s just about conveying information or opinions as smoothly and entertainingly as possible.

Question #4

Where were you when the idea for Seven Days of Us came to you, and what compelled you to really sit down and bang it out at your computer?

I was staying with my parents-in-law’s house, in the week before Christmas. My best friend, who was treating Ebola in Sierra Leone, emailed me to say she was going to have to spend 30 days in quarantine at home when she got home in January. I wrote back to say it sounded like a budget modern play where the actors just sit in one room, and then I suddenly thought that a quarantine could be a neat fictional device to intensify the standard family Christmas set up.

The thing that compelled me to get it down on paper was a positive pregnancy test. I’d already had one baby, so I knew from experience that when I had another there would be no time to write. That 9 month deadline was the best incentive I’ve ever had to stop procrastinating. Unless I want a huge family I’m going to have to find something else in future, though.

Question #5

Who was the most difficult character for you to write in Seven Days of Us? Who was the most fun to write, and why?

The hardest was probably Olivia, because I don’t have much in common with her character – she’s quite reserved, and very earnest. The most fun was Andrew, because everything irritates him, so his parts were a chance to rant.

Question #6

From my time living in England, I know that there are so many stereotypes of American mores and behavior, one of which you very hilariously pointed out in Seven Days of Us:

“Guns? Guess he is American,” she said, as if it was an embarrassing medical condition.”

What has been your most memorable experience with someone from a different cultural background or nationality from yours, and how do experiences like that help you as a writer (and on a personal level)?

When I was 18 I did a teaching programme at a primary school rural Belize, and stayed with a host family. At first I followed the advice we’d been given about dressing very modestly, but after a couple of months when it became really hot I slacked off a bit and started wearing shorts and t-shirts when I wasn’t teaching. I’d noticed that other girls in the village wore the same, and I didn’t consider that as a teacher it wasn’t appropriate – or that, as a foreigner, different standards might apply to me. One day, an older woman in the village told my host mother that I dressed like a prostitute, and that I wasn’t fit to be a teacher. I came home to find my host mother at the kitchen table in tears, saying she was ashamed to have me in the house. It was absolutely mortifying, and I really realized how naïve I’d been. I wish I could say it had helped me personally, but I’m not sure it did as it was such a confidence knock! But it did teach me (the hard way) that you shouldn’t second guess at the rules when you’re away from home, and that just because people are smiling and waving doesn’t mean they actually like you! On the plus side, those kind of excruciating life experiences are helpful when you’re writing. You don’t need to be writing about the same incident – I think I had some of that pain and alienation in mind when I wrote about Jesse shaming himself as the guest, and foreigner, in Seven Days Of Us.

Question #7

In Seven Days of Us, the father, Andrew, is a writer as well. He has several witty interactions with his editors throughout the novel that give readers a glimpse of the tug of war writers can sometimes have with their editorial teams! What is the most memorable “tug of war” you’ve ever had with one of your editors, and why was that issue so important to you?

So many! I used to be really precious, unnecessarily precious, about tiny changes. I must have been so annoying to work with (I got ridiculously stressed once because a sub-editor insisted on changing ‘his bicep’ to ‘his biceps’, which is technically correct but sounds stupid because nobody ever says ‘biceps’. I do stand by this, but my rage was disproportionate).

It wasn’t actually a style issue, but my favourite altercation with a sub editor was when I was a 25 year old fashion writer for a newspaper, and had a tiny section, literally one newsprint column wide, called ShopSpy. One day I wrote: “This week I’m loving this gigantic cocktail ring by new designer xxxx….’. But the sub-editor hyphenated ‘cocktail’, so that it in the newspaper it read like this:

SHOP SPY

This week I’m

loving this

gigantic cock-

tail ring

Haha.  It was a very awkward middle aged male sub – he went bright red when I came up to point it out to him. 

Question #8

With all of the great hype and reviews of Seven Days of Us, your readers are surely looking forward to your next works, too! Can you tell us what upcoming projects or articles you’re interested in working on?

Thanks! I’m writing a novel set around a communal garden in London. If Seven Days Of Us was about family, this is about community. 

Question #9

What is the strangest compliment you’ve ever received regarding your writing?

It’s not a strange compliment in itself, but I’m always surprised to hear people call it ‘warm’ or ‘heartfelt’ or ‘moving’ because to me my take on the world is quite critical. But I do cry easily, so maybe I’m soppier than I realise.

Question #10

Tell us one awkward/embarrassing/unique fact about yourself!

I love anything miniature. I had an amazing dollshouse when I was a child, but an adult playing with a dollshouse is creepy so I have to make do with sample toiletries and those teeny jams you get with hotel breakfasts.

 

Where the Tables Turn: Feel free to ask me any question you’d like for me to answer for my readers, and/or pose a question to your readers or the general public!

Question for you and your readers:

What one thing makes you fall for a book?

 

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Sarah Schmidt Pulls the Curtain Back on her Debut Novel, See What I Have Done

Hardcover, 328 pages
Published August 1st 2017 by Atlantic Monthly Press (first published March 28th 2017)
Hey Navi Review Followers! See What I Have Done hit the shelves a couple months back to rave reviews and more than a little press! Everywhere I looked, I saw this book–and its very talented, very candid author, Sarah Schmidt. After reading and reviewing the novel, I just HAD to know more about her and this book! Her zany tweets never fail to amuse and neither does she herself. In this exclusive Navi Review interview with her, we get up close and personal with the author of this celebrated novel about that infamous day in 1892–the Australian phenom herself, Sarah Schmidt.
Question # 1
It is so cool that you work around books all day at a public library—what a great place for a reader/writer! Could you tell us a little about your journey to becoming a published author? How did your work in libraries affect that journey, if it did?

 

I began working in public libraries around 4 years ago, so I was well and truly deep into writing See What I Have Done by that stage. But the catalyst to work in this area was the impending birth of my daughter. I remember sitting at my desk writing the novel and all of a sudden I had this overwhelming feeling of impending doom that to this day I still can’t completely describe. That’s when I started thinking about what was important to me and working in a community service organisation was up there. That feeling of urgency also helped push me to get the manuscript to a place I was happy with and do something with it. It took a few more years but it was the push I needed.

Question #2

See What I Have Done is told from multiple POVs in a 19th century setting. Was it difficult to write from so many perspectives and in such a setting? What was the most difficult and the most fun part about that?

In the beginning all I had was Lizzie and I knew immediately that she was never going to give me a complete story. She was always going to hide things, even from herself. I also couldn’t bear to be in her head for long periods of time. That’s when I started dragging other characters in and hoped that somehow these separate narrators would give as a ‘whole’ story in some form. I knew that if I could find empathy for each of them, even Benjamin, then I could find a way to write that point of view. Once I gave in to their wants and needs I really started having fun. Benjamin and Lizzie are the worst people and they would do and say things that I’d never dream of doing. Pushing your characters to do more and more is very satisfying!

Which brings me to the problematic nature of finding balance between your natural writing style and voice versus the voice of the character. I found this the most difficult aspect and although not perfect, I think I was able to find a balance. I know readers have said that they found Lizzie and Emma to be very similar. And I agree. That was a deliberate choice: I wanted them to be so similar because of their parasitic relationship and close proximity.

In the beginning I ‘forgot’ that this book was set in the 19th century and wrote it as if it was happening now. Obviously you bring in the social context of the time to fill the world you’re creating and to give your characters plausibility but I found the more I tried to remind myself this was 1892 the harder it became to write. I added details like clothing, transport etc at the very end of the process.

Question #3

Who was your favorite character to write in See What I Have Done? Who was the most difficult?

At different stages I had a favourite and for years I was addicted to Lizzie. She preoccupied my thoughts at all times and even now I consider writing new scenes for her because I’ve become so used to her being a shadow.

But my favourite character to write was probably Bridget, not least because she knows that family is utterly dysfunctional and had total motivation to leave that house.

Question #4

As a working woman and writer, how do you manage to keep your life balanced? Do you have any tips for other writers on how to manage it all in today’s busy world?

I’ll be honest: I’m not sure I have found a balance. Before I had my daughter it was a bit easier to work and write. I had structure. But things will always change and you need to adapt for where you are at that stage of your life, especially if you decide you’d like to have children.

The only thing I know for sure is that if you really want something you’ll figure out a way to get it done. For a long time after I had the kid, the only way I was able to write See What I Have Done was to get up at 5 am and write for an hour before work.  Often that was all the time I had so I used it wisely. It’s slow going but that’s ok. The other thing I’ve learnt is that you need to take care of yourself. If writing is that thing that makes you happy, makes you feel your complete self, do that and never feel guilty. Because men don’t.

Question #5

Do you think the mystery will ever truly be solved on whodunit?

I don’t think it will and I’m okay with that! I think the mystery is what fascinates and if we were to find out, I think a lot of people would be disappointed. I still maintain that the logical explanation to this case is the simplest: someone in that house is responsible.

Question #6

With all of the great hype and reviews of See What I Have Done, your readers are surely looking forward to your next works, too! Your online blog offers this info on your next project: 

“1. that it’s a dual narrative family portrait spanning 30-40 ish years.

  1. It is about a woman who takes a car trip with her child. Nothing is what it seems.

The working title is Blue Mountain. (You got 3. I’m generous like that!)”

Has blogging through this process been helpful to writing your next novel? If so, how?

It’s been helpful to blog in some ways because it’s forced me to think more logically about how I’ll approach this second novel. The first time around I went purely on gut instinct. That was fine except it took eleven years! This time around I’m still using my gut but encouraging it to be more focussed in some ways.

The other thing that’s been helpful blogging about the creative process is that it reminds me that the beginning of things can be hard and messy. You become very used to working on something that is draft ten, draft twelve. When you start something it’s horrifically beautiful. Your immediate thought is ‘This is shit. I can’t write. This won’t be anything good,’ but at some stage draft one begins to become draft two, draft three, and edges closer to being the manuscript you want it to be.

Question #7

What is the most interesting/funny/strange experience you’ve ever had working in the public library?

Where to begin! Public libraries are weird places. Most of my experiences have been relatively neutral but my work colleagues have told me some incredible stories…like the time they had to step over a sleeping man to get into the building. Only it turned out he was dead.

Question #8

What is the strangest compliment you’ve ever received regarding your writing?

Someone once told me a story about how they died five times. They said something like ‘I’m telling you this because you seem like the type of person who just gets it.’

Question #9

What is your favorite quote from SWIHD, the one that really made you feel one with the story?

Oooh, that’s a tough one. I don’t think there’s one singular moment (although the repetition of ‘the clock on the mantle ticked ticked’ really anchored a particular mood for the novel very early on in the writing process) however when I wrote Benjamin’s line, ‘I used to be butter – the way I’d disappear at the sign of heat’ I knew instantly who he was and what he was going to become. I also knew thematically what I could do with that line for other parts of the novel. Up until that moment I didn’t really connect with him. I have no idea where it came from but I’m glad it arrived when it did.

Question #10

Tell us one awkward/embarrassing/unique fact about yourself!

I feel my whole life could be summed up as one embarrassing, awkward moment after another!

There is however one moment that haunts me to this day and I can’t believe I’m about to make this public. The setting: high school, geography class. I got my period while standing at the front of the class giving a presentation. I had no idea it was happening and no one told me…until much later. I was mortified but the only thing I could do was just push on through the day and act as if it didn’t happen. I think that’s how I survived much of my teenage years.

 

You can follow Sarah’s blog here: https://sarahschmidt.org/

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Incest by Christine Angot

Paperback
Expected publication: November 7th 2017 by Archipelago Books (first published November 18th 1999)

A daring novel that made Christine Angot one of the most controversial figures in contemporary France recounts the narrator’s incestuous relationship with her father. Tess Lewis’s forceful translation brings into English this audacious novel of taboo.

The narrator is falling out from a torrential relationship with another woman. Delirious with love and yearning, her thoughts grow increasingly cyclical and wild, until exposing the trauma lying behind her pain. With the intimacy offered by a confession, the narrator embarks on a psychoanalysis of herself, giving the reader entry into her tangled experiences with homosexuality, paranoia, and, at the core of it all, incest. In a masterful translation from the French by Tess Lewis, Christine Angot’s Incest audaciously confronts its readers with one of our greatest taboos.

JEEZ – W.T.F. did I just read???

The novel closes powerfully–I will say that. Over and over again, the narrator compares herself to a dog. She feels so ashamed of her actions–that she may have even thought she liked her actions at the time, and even now in retrospect–that she compares herself to a dog as someone she loves leaves her:

“It wasn’t his brains I was sucking, do you realize, I could have had very handsome men, I could have loved Nadine’s movies, I could have spent Christmas Eve with you. Either had very handsome men or been with you. But no, you see, Marie Christine. You’re leaving tonight, we canceled the tickets to Rome. You’re going to be with your family, I’m weeping like the dog I am, you don’t celebrate Christmas with your dog. Dogs are stupid, you can get them to suck on a plastic bone, and they’re stupid, dogs believe you. They don’t even notice what they’re sucking on. It’s horrible being a dog.”

There were moments when I thought, “Whew! Might not make it through this one! This stream of consciousness makes me want to slap her and tell her, ‘Sit down and be quiet!'”

This novel was characterized not only by the graphic nature of the relationships described here (incestuous fallacio inside of a church confessional anyone??) but by the chaotic stream of consciousness Angot used to give us her story. Honestly, I both expect and respect that this stream of consciousness is probably what it REALLY sounds like in our heads when we are distressed like this–so unnerved that we feel we’re really bursting out of our heads, seams popping us undone like a shoe two sizes too small. So, Christine Angot shows IMMENSE talent in being able to convey that so effectively. I will give her that. I decided to push through a bit longer and there were moments of gleaming, shining narration that took my breath away–whether for good or bad reasons you can be the judge, but I’d argue that the ability to do so at all can only be all good, no matter the road we took to get there.

“Drinking, to get control, I had to call her two hundred times in those anxious days. It’s normal. And at night. You stop, that’s it. It happened yesterday. I stopped it all. I don’t call anymore, I don’t love her anymore…But the last forty-eight hours, I spent them crying, telephoning, running around, delivering letters, running to get a taxi, the taxi wasn’t going fast enough. I stopped, but not on my own: she said stop. She couldn’t take it anymore either. I begged her for one last weekend. To do the thing I never do, to lick, I can say it, I hoped to be revolted by it for good.”

For me, it wasn’t that the subject matter here bothered me–I have a strong stomach for the taboo and love reads that push all of my limits. It was the author’s method a stream of consciousness that at times maddened me (fitting, perhaps) and at times impressed me. I want to experience the inner thoughts of a manic, yes–show me that!–but I do not want to live inside of those thoughts at that high a frequency of mental vibration for an entire 200 pages. Ultimately, I was too compelled to skim through the read because of this manic narrator’s voice, and for that I give the 2*, though there were definitely some shining moments to be found within these pages.

I could say, “Full review to come” but I think that’s probably enough for now, don’t you? Not even sure how to rate this one, but I’m leaning toward 2* at the moment. Will get my bearings and then possibly reconsider… 🙂

The cover art, though is absolutely exquisite. So simple and yet so beautiful, so telling.

**I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Archipelago Books, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Christine AngotFrench novelist and playwright, she is perhaps best known for her 1999 novel L’Inceste (Incest) which recounts an incestuous relationship with her father. It is a subject which appears in several of her previous books, but it is unclear whether these works are autofiction and the events described true. Angot herself describes her work – a metafiction on society’s fundamental prohibition of incest and her own writings on the subject – as a performative (cf Quitter la ville). Angot is also literary director for French publishers Stock.

Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak

Hardcover, 368 pages
Expected publication: October 17th 2017 by Berkley Books

A warm, wry, sharply observed debut novel about what happens when a family is forced to spend a week together in quarantine over the holidays…

It’s Christmas, and for the first time in years the entire Birch family will be under one roof. Even Emma and Andrew’s elder daughter—who is usually off saving the world—will be joining them at Weyfield Hall, their aging country estate. But Olivia, a doctor, is only coming home because she has to. Having just returned from treating an epidemic abroad, she’s been told she must stay in quarantine for a week…and so too should her family.

For the next seven days, the Birches are locked down, cut off from the rest of humanity—and even decent Wi-Fi—and forced into each other’s orbits. Younger, unabashedly frivolous daughter Phoebe is fixated on her upcoming wedding, while Olivia deals with the culture shock of being immersed in first-world problems.

As Andrew sequesters himself in his study writing scathing restaurant reviews and remembering his glory days as a war correspondent, Emma hides a secret that will turn the whole family upside down.

In close proximity, not much can stay hidden for long, and as revelations and long-held tensions come to light, nothing is more shocking than the unexpected guest who’s about to arrive…

Seven Days of Us is the quintessential heartwarming family novel, a quick and quaint little holiday read to be devoured in one sitting. With flashes of wit, intellect and social reflection peppered in, Seven Days offers a great combination of laughter and insight, as we get to know these characters while they re-get to know each other. Imagine being stuck in your home for seven days with your family, unable to flee into the night, unable to avoid the unavoidable. To me, that sounds like the worst kind of torture! And Francesca Hornak brought that feeling to life in a meaningful way that allows the reader to identify with at least one of the characters, always a treat.

This read is not one that will bog you down, nor is it one that will stay with me, personally, for very long. Seven Days of Us is a novel that stays in its lane; it doesn’t try to masquerade as something it’s not, and I can respect that. I don’t know that it was “sharply” anything, as the blurb implied, and the ending did hurry to a close like an urgent hand at your back. BUT, it is a read for the lovers of the quaint and cozy literary experience, a novel for anyone who loved the movie The Family Stone (2005), and a delightful treat for those on holiday to pass the time and enjoy a chuckle. If that’s what you’re looking for, you’ve found a home and a warm mug of Earl Grey within the pages of Hornak’s Seven Days. 3*

**Thank you so much to Berkley Publishing who reached out to me and sent me a physical ARC of this book!

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Francesca Hornak Francesca Hornak is a British author, journalist and former columnist for the Sunday Times. Her debut novel Seven Days Of Us will be published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Random House, in October 2017. Little Island Productions has pre-empted TV rights to the book.

Francesca’s work has appeared in newspapers and magazines including The Sunday Times, The Guardian, Metro, Elle, Grazia, Stylist, Marie Claire, Cosmopolitan and Red. She is the author of two nonfiction books, History of the World in 100 Modern Objects: Middle Class Stuff (and Nonsense) and Worry with Mother: 101 Neuroses for the Modern Mama.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published September 5th 2017 by Scribner

A searing and profound Southern odyssey by National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward.

In Jesmyn Ward’s first novel since her National Book Award winning Salvage the Bones, this singular American writer brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first-century America. Drawing on Morrison and Faulkner, The Odyssey and the Old Testament, Ward gives us an epochal story, a journey through Mississippi’s past and present that is both an intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle. Ward is a major American writer, multiply awarded and universally lauded, and in Sing, Unburied, Sing she is at the height of her powers.

Jojo and his toddler sister, Kayla, live with their grandparents, Mam and Pop, and the occasional presence of their drug-addicted mother, Leonie, on a farm on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. Leonie is simultaneously tormented and comforted by visions of her dead brother, which only come to her when she’s high; Mam is dying of cancer; and quiet, steady Pop tries to run the household and teach Jojo how to be a man. When the white father of Leonie’s children is released from prison, she packs her kids and a friend into her car and sets out across the state for Parchman farm, the Mississippi State Penitentiary, on a journey rife with danger and promise.

Sing, Unburied, Sing grapples with the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power, and limitations, of the bonds of family. Rich with Ward’s distinctive, musical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing is a majestic new work and an essential contribution to American literature.

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is true Southern Gothicism at its finest. It is a novel that I’ve been waiting a very long time to read, and I mean that both literally and figuratively. There is so much within these pages—so much angst, so much wonder and so much sorrow—that I am still grappling with it even now. And that’s a wonderful thing, the best feeling and the most lasting impression a writer can ever bestow on their reader.

I read, before reading this novel, that Jesmyn Ward had recently been called the modern-day Faulkner, and I doubted this, I admit, likely because of all the books out there I’ve encountered doing reviews that are buoyed up by their awe-inspiring cover flaps and exalted comparisons to other, greater works, only to fall flat on their faces under the weight of such lofty and inaccurate comparisons. But Sing, Unburied, Sing is the real deal. Its utter humanity and heart bursts forth from every page, particularly leading up to the climax, never shying away from the reality of hard living, always staring it down right in its face, urging us to look it in the face, too. Don’t turn away. I could never turn away.

This is the tale of two Mississippi families, one black and one white, joined by bloodshed and bloodlines. Joined by love and hatred, by death and birth. But this is also a coming-of-age story of one teenaged boy, Jojo, whose life is forever changed. Jojo is the biracial son of the often high, often absent Leonie—who sees her murdered brother, Given, in drug-induced hallucinations—and Michael, whose hostile, racist family will never accept his black girlfriend and half-breed children. Jojo is caught between being a parent to his three-year-old sister, Kayla, and learning to be a man from his grandfather, Pop. But this place he is emotionally sandwiched between is a place he calls home, a place of comfort and togetherness, between Kayla and Pop—until Leonie comes back from a bender and piles them all in the car on the way to Parchman Penitentiary to retrieve Michael from the prison that has changed and ended so many lives connected to theirs. It is on this journey that Jojo sees the naked truth of racial hierarchies and the hatred the South is all too known for, and discovers his gift of sight he never knew he had. And it is also on this journey that Jojo faces who his mother is, what she is capable of and what she will never be.

“When I wake, Michael’s rolled all the windows down. I’ve been dreaming for hours it feels like, dreaming of being marooned on a deflated raft in the middle of the endless reach of the Gulf of Mexico…Jojo and Michaela and Michael with me and we are elbow to elbow. But the raft must have a hole in it, because it deflates. We are all sinking, and there are manta rays gliding beneath us and sharks jostling us. I am trying to keep everyone above water, even as I struggle to stay afloat. I sink below the waves and push Jojo upward so he can stay above the water and breathe, but then Kayla sinks and I push her up, and Michael sinks so I shove him in the air as I sink and struggle, but they won’t stay up: they want to sink like stones…they keep slipping from my hands…I am failing them. We are all drowning.”

If a hallmark of Southern writing is setting, Ward’s novel offers that in spades. Here, in the blazing sun of Mississippi, you can feel the sweat dripping from the characters’ brows, feel their pulse as they confront one another—as they confront themselves. The suffering within these pages was tangible, palpable, like a pulse in the air, a drumbeat at the turn of every page. It marked the characters’ lives just as numbers mark the bottom of each page. But Ward goes beyond that—beyond the quintessential tale of Southern burdens, anguish and racial hate, beyond the stereotypes we can all so readily pluck from our minds to describe the Bible Belt in all its historical wonder and terror. My one note of criticism is that the voices didn’t always sound realistic for the characters. JoJo and Leonie’s chapters after sounded like they were coming from the same voice (the sophisticated voice of the author rather than the rugged voices of folks who have been through some “thangs,” and that rang false to me). But, when I say that Sing, Unburied, Sing is true Southern Gothicism at its finest, I mean that it binds, bridges and merges every aspect of the genre—social commentary, magical realism, surrealism and grit. Blood, sweat, tears, but, most of all: haunting and poetic soul. That it did in spades despite the hiccup with the voices.

This novel will stay with me for a long time. There were aspects of this book that I did not immediately like, but that all came together in the end. And, quite honestly, I haven’t read such an emotively resonating ending like that since Toni Morrison’s “Recitatif,” and for that I could only ever give a well-deserved 5 stars. *****

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**I received a copy of this novel from the publisher, Scribner, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

Jesmyn WardJesmyn Ward is the author of Where the Line Bleeds, Salvage the Bones, and Men We Reaped. She is a former Stegner Fellow (Stanford University) and Grisham Writer in Residence at the University of Mississippi. She is an associate professor of Creative Writing at Tulane University.

Her work has appeared in BOMBA Public Space and The Oxford American.

The Golden House by Salman Rushdie

Hardcover, 400 pages
Expected publication: September 5th 2017 by Random House

When powerful real-estate tycoon Nero Golden immigrates to the States under mysterious circumstances, he and his three adult children assume new identities, taking ‘Roman’ names, and move into a grand mansion in downtown Manhattan. Arriving shortly after the inauguration of Barack Obama, he and his sons, each extraordinary in his own right, quickly establish themselves at the apex of New York society.

The story of the powerful Golden family is told from the point of view of their Manhattanite neighbour and confidant, René, an aspiring filmmaker who finds in the Goldens the perfect subject. René chronicles the undoing of the house of Golden: the high life of money, of art and fashion, a sibling quarrel, an unexpected metamorphosis, the arrival of a beautiful woman, betrayal and murder, and far away, in their abandoned homeland, some decent intelligence work.

Invoking literature, pop culture, and the cinema, Rushdie spins the story of the American zeitgeist over the last eight years, hitting every beat: the rise of the birther movement, the Tea Party, Gamergate and identity politics; the backlash against political correctness; the ascendency of the superhero movie, and, of course, the insurgence of a ruthlessly ambitious, narcissistic, media-savvy villain wearing make-up and with coloured hair.

In a new world order of alternative truths, Salman Rushdie has written the ultimate novel about identity, truth, terror and lies. A brilliant, heartbreaking realist novel that is not only uncannily prescient but shows one of the world’s greatest storytellers working at the height of his powers.

Salman Rushdie’s 13th novel, The Golden House, plays out as a Shakespearean drama re-imagined in the eyes of a postmodernist and set in the Obama era of ultra-riche Manhattan. (There, how’s that for an elevator pitch?) This novel is full of nostalgic references, ornate erudite descriptions and high-brow prose, as you would expect from the man who brought us Midnight’s Children and holds an esteemed Booker Prize. I was first introduced to Salman Rushdie by Hanif Kureishi, who wrote one of my favorite college reads, The Black Album, in response to the fatwah issued by Islamic fundamentalists intent on killing Salman Rushdie for writing his 4th novel, The Satanic Verses. So, you can imagine the anticipation I felt to finally meet this great novelist and essayist up close and in person for myself—or as up close and in person as one’s words on a page will allow us to get to the true author themselves.

And here you have it. Sit back and imagine this:

The Golden House trots along the Obama era years, from his inauguration on January 20, 2009, through the election that gave us our 45th president. This political period is the mirror against which these characters see their lives unfolding, crumbling and transforming. Nero Golden and his household of three sons, of which he is the god-like patriarch, are expatriates of an unnamed country (which is eventually named) after a terrorist tragedy takes the life of their matriarch and shady financial deals finish them off in their homeland, sending the family to New York to rebuild their lives with the help of their obscene and conspicuous wealth by way of the American Dream. They move into a mega-mansion in an affluent neighborhood in Manhattan, where all 22 homes of the community back into a luxurious garden oasis that the families all communally enjoy. It is in this near-utopian communal setting where lives begin to cross and our narrator, René, meets the leading family. We follow him on his journey to infiltrate, observe and ultimately document the Golden lives in a film he’s been longing to make but isn’t really sure of how to go about doing. Along the way, characters come and go. As the modern-day “Julio-Claudian” drama unfolds, death occurs. Birth occurs. Marriage occurs. The saga of their lives unfolds, shatters, melts down and repairs—never in that order.

If you’re looking for a single word to describe this novel, a good starting place would be dense though I cannot argue that it is unnecessarily so, and the read certainly wouldn’t have been the same without this aspect. Literary allusions—call me Ishmael— abound on every page here and, quite honestly, you might want to have a digital encyclopedia on hand for quick reference through some of these passages— Chinese hexagrams of divination, for example? But I loved that, reveled in it for the most part, in fact, because this enlightened display of narrative talent played with so many forms of storytelling, from conventional narrative formatting to scenes written as screenplays, from the use of quotation marks to the use of not-a-one, and back again. It was a journey, but at least it was a ride too, crossing the lines of contemporary fiction, post-modernism and metafiction.

Here you’ll find wry social commentary that crackles and pops with dry irony, heaped on in healthy doses so that no culture—past or present, Eastern or Western—is safe from the scrutinizing eye—though, with the backdrop of this novel being set specifically against the Obama era, much of the commentary hits hard on American culture, smashing up against it forcefully and knocking down our perception of it, knocking down the barriers around talking about it, from Black Lives Matter to the collapse of the housing market to transgender transformation and everywhere in between:

“Once upon a time…if a boy liked pink and dolls his parents would be afraid he was homosexual and try to interest him in boy stuff…they might have doubts about his orientation but it wouldn’t occur to them to question his gender. Now it seems you go to the other extreme. Instead of saying the kid’s a pansy you start trying to persuade him he’s a girl.”

“What is American culture?” This novel dares to seriously ask—often pokes fun at—and ultimately explores—no, turns inside out—this beloved cliché we and the world over cling to called the American Dream, from the viewpoint of the transplant, from the viewpoint of those ultimately in search of themselves in the whirlwind that is our lives in our culture today.

“…I could feel it, the anger of the unjustly dead, the young men shot for walking in a stairwell while black, the young child shot for playing with a plastic gun in a playground while black, all the daily black death of America, screaming out that they deserved to live, and I could feel, too, the fury of white America at having to put up with a black man in a white house, and the frothing hatred of the homophobes…the blue-collar anger of everyone who had been Fannie Mae’d and Freddie Mac’d by the housing calamity, all the discontent of a furiously divided country, everyone believing they were right…”

Rushdie’s insightful narrative is at times chilling it its acute accuracy about our cultural climate and our 45th president—“…the Joker shrieked…in that bubble…gun murderers were exercising their constitutional rights but the parents of murdered children were un-American…mass deportations would be a good thing; and women reporters would be seen to be unreliable because they had blood coming out of their whatevers…”— and made The Golden House a complete package, which managed to be both entertaining and at times mildly surreal, with the help of a wink toward a more avant-garde formatting technique and a nod toward the “magically real.”

I navigated this novel with the sense of one at their grandfather’s knee, he with brandy and cigar in hand, hearing a tale that was often fascinating in its baroqueness. The Golden House is chocked full of so many things we love in reads—solid plotting, whimsy and intellectual stimuli—which made the ornate density of this novel worth persevering through in the end—and that both stirred and excited my reader soul, like a hearty helping of literary gumbo you have to close your eyes and smile to enjoy, adding depth to the layers of the pages, of these words. And, that was easily enough for 4.5 stars. ****

**I received a copy of this novel from the publisher, Random House, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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Salman RushdieSir Ahmed Salman Rushdie is a novelist and essayist. Much of his early fiction is set at least partly on the Indian subcontinent. His style is often classified as magical realism, while a dominant theme of his work is the story of the many connections, disruptions and migrations between the Eastern and Western world.

His fourth novel, The Satanic Verses, led to protests from Muslims in several countries, some of which were violent. Faced with death threats and a fatwa (religious edict) issued by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, then Supreme Leader of Iran, which called for him to be killed, he spent nearly a decade largely underground, appearing in public only sporadically. In June 2007, he was appointed a Knight Bachelor for “services to literature”, which “thrilled and humbled” him. In 2007, he began a five-year term as Distinguished Writer in Residence at Emory University.

See What I Have Done by Sarah Schmidt

Hardcover, 328 pages
Published August 1st 2017 by Atlantic Monthly Press (first published March 28th 2017)
In this riveting debut novel, See What I Have Done, Sarah Schmidt recasts one of the most fascinating murder cases of all time into an intimate story of a volatile household and a family devoid of love.

On the morning of August 4, 1892, Lizzie Borden calls out to her maid: Someone’s killed Father. The brutal ax-murder of Andrew and Abby Borden in their home in Fall River, Massachusetts, leaves little evidence and many unanswered questions. While neighbors struggle to understand why anyone would want to harm the respected Bordens, those close to the family have a different tale to tell—of a father with an explosive temper; a spiteful stepmother; and two spinster sisters, with a bond even stronger than blood, desperate for their independence.

As the police search for clues, Emma comforts an increasingly distraught Lizzie whose memories of that morning flash in scattered fragments. Had she been in the barn or the pear arbor to escape the stifling heat of the house? When did she last speak to her stepmother? Were they really gone and would everything be better now? Shifting among the perspectives of the unreliable Lizzie, her older sister Emma, the housemaid Bridget, and the enigmatic stranger Benjamin, the events of that fateful day are slowly revealed through a high-wire feat of storytelling.

Sarah Schmidt’s See What I Have Done is a novel that has the advantage of having a truly titillating premise and a built-in fan base of readers who already know of Miss Lizzie Borden’s infamy:

Lizzie Borden took an axe
And gave her mother forty whacks.
When she saw what she had done,
She gave her father forty-one. 

If you’ve ever sung that “nursery rhyme” to yourself, you’re already at least a step ahead. See What I Have Done has its roots in the factual 1892 trial of Lizzie Borden–the characters are even based on and named for the real people who were in and out of the house on the fateful day of the murders. With those common facts out of the way, Schmidt rolls up her sleeves and dives into the task of reconstructing that fateful day and retelling the notorious story of Miss Lizzie Borden.

Let me start by first of all saying that the cover art and title of this novel are both phenomenal. In a bookstore setting (whether in person or online) I’d definitely reach for this book, even if just to see what it’s about!

With that out of the way, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also add that Schmidt has a true talent for finding her readers’ pressure points and picking at them consistently, a skill that sets a suspenseful novel apart from a predictable one. I can see this author’s method working for so many readers, pulling them in and making them feel immersed in these characters’ very thoughts. But, it didn’t work for me. In fact, there were times when this novel was an uphill struggle for me.

The one thing that will always stick out to me about this novel is Lizzie’s temperament. Throughout the novel it was eerily strange despite her obviously childlike temperament, menacing just below the surface in a way that was clearly deliberate on the author’s part. Whether she was not in her right mind in a vaguely sociopathic way or in a childlike way hinting at mental retardation I could not fully tell (though I’m leaning toward the latter), but it certainly functioned to add a little unpredictability and upheaval in the otherwise monotonous 19th century lives these characters seemed to lead.

However, there was something about the execution of this novel that really turned me off—possibly intentionally—but I definitely didn’t take to it the way I would have wanted to. Lizzie’s personality was like an itch under my skin, one I wanted to scratch until she was gone completely and long forgotten about. Instead of building suspense or anxiety, her twitchiness and oddities really just annoyed me to the point that I could no longer stand her. I wanted to be out of her head—away from her altogether at times—at any cost. Only, her chapters were by far the most interesting, as the others seemed to melt into the background for me as a reader. The characters’ voices didn’t pull me in; their actions didn’t interest me. So, that left me with Lizzie, and you can imagine the conundrum that left me in as a reader! 🙂 There was just too much of it. A titillating hint here and there is intriguing; 5 hints toward her psychological oddities per page, every page is annoying. That’s what created that itching sensation under my skin, the tap dancing on my reader Spidey senses.

The thing is, Sarah Schmidt’s ability to affect her reader in that way is a true gift, a skill that’s difficult to hone and display. So, just because it didn’t work for me personally doesn’t mean that I don’t see the cleverness and mental dexterity it took to execute that aspect of this novel, and for that I tip my hat off to her. I’d recommend this novel to lovers of The Village (2004) or of historical mysteries in general. There’s absolutely a fan base out here for Sarah Schmidt and See What I Have Done, and I look forward to giving her another shot the next time she hits the shelves. 3 stars ***

**I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Grove Atlantic, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.**

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Sarah  SchmidtSarah Schmidt is a Melbourne based writer who happens to work at a public library. See What I Have Done is her first novel.