Things That Happened Before the Earthquake by Chiara Barzini

Hardcover, 320 pages
Expected publication: August 15th 2017 by Doubleday Books
Welcome to LA? Nineties’ Hollywood gets an Italian makeover in this poignant and ruefully funny coming-of-age novel featuring a teenage girl who’s on shaky ground in more ways than one.
Mere weeks after the 1992 riots that laid waste to Los Angeles, Eugenia, a typical Italian teenager, is rudely yanked from her privileged Roman milieu by her hippie-ish filmmaker parents and transplanted to the strange suburban world of the San Fernando Valley. With only the Virgin Mary to call on for guidance as her parents struggle to make it big, Hollywood fashion, she must navigate her huge new public high school, complete with Crips and Bloods and Persian gang members, and a car-based environment of 99-cent stores and obscure fast-food franchises and all-night raves. She forges friendships with Henry, who runs his mother’s movie memorabilia store, and the bewitching Deva, who introduces her to the alternate cultural universe that is Topanga Canyon. And then the 1994 earthquake rocks the foundations not only of Eugenia’s home but of the future she’d been imagining for herself.”

Chiara Barzini’s Things That Happened Before the Earthquake was a novel built on a plausible premise, an exploration of assimilation into American culture through the eyes of an Italian teenager coming of age. I neither loved nor hated this novel, but I could see where the author was trying to go, and there did exist moments where I appreciated the bravery of her writing.

Eugenia’s parents come to the U.S. with stars in their eyes, hoping to make it big as filmmakers in L.A. They’re free-spirited in a truly European way, being shocked at the citations they receive for sunbathing topless on the beach and bewildered by things like private healthcare. They buy a Cadillac to fit in and change their wardrobe upon arrival, not wanting to be typecast as Italian gringos, wanting to fit in and instantly conform into their new surroundings.

Eugenia, is a typical teenager in a lot of ways. Aside from the fact that she has to worry about whether or not she’ll be threatened with deportation in American customs at the airport—and the fact that L.A. natives keep confusing her Italian heritage with French, which acutely annoys her—she searches for her own identity in much the same way as many teenage girls raised in the dazzling lights of a big city. She’s needy, clingy to people who often have little interest in her, exploring her surroundings and individuality through her newfound sexuality, the occasional recreational drug and a pretty consistent series of adventures brought on by risky, naïve behavior. She’s hungry for positive attention, desperate to find herself and fit in, from the “pump up” sneakers she thought would be cool to wear her first day of school (the other girls, she finds, have already graduated to wearing heels) to the slew of sexual trysts and arguably degrading positions she finds herself in. There are times when I questioned whether Eugenia was fearless or stupid, brave or simply naïve—but that is what coming of age is, isn’t it? A combination of all these things in its own right. Several of the scenes came off as memories of my own high-school experiences, of the other students around me all struggling to fit in and claim our places in the hierarchy that exists in every American school. Still, there were times where some of the scenes came off as uncomfortable and strange to me—but those were the moments when Barzini’s own fearlessness as a writer was on full display.

A key note to consider about this novel is that Things That Happened Before the Earthquake is exactly what this book felt like: things that happened.

The plot was pretty loose, and, for the most part, simply read like a series of events—misadventures if you will—that happened to a teenage girl after moving from her native Rome to the scorching Los Angeles, California, just after the riots brought on by the beating of Rodney King in ’92. With that in mind, the setting was rich, the landscape described down to the detail so that you could feel the grit in the Valley air, smell the salt of the sea on the shores of Italy. This novel was punctuated by pop culture events, like milestones that moved the story along on a timeline. The earthquake of 94’, the election of Silvo Berlusconi, O.J. Simpson and the white Bronco, gun to his head. It’s all seen through the eyes of Eugenia, commented on by a voice still trying to find itself. And that did have its own appeal, for sure.

Here you’ll find a slow read driven by finding oneself in the midst of chaos, rather than being heavily driven by plotting, irony, or plot twists. That will appeal to a lot of readers. It was a book that read at a lulling pace but that still had its share of shocking, difficult and awkward moments that pierced through the lull. The characters were flawed in a way that seemed real, authentic, unaffected and devoid of pretenses, and for that readers can be grateful, because that can be hard to find. Fiction is littered with unthought-out stereotypes masquerading as engaging characters, but you won’t find a graveyard of those typecast bones here.

Things That Happened had a sort of hippie-ish soul to it, exploring the crevices of Italian culture and how they made assimilation into American society both difficult and noteworthy at the same time. Barzini was at times bold in her depictions of what unaffected thinking sounds like, what authentic living looks like, from “making out” with your grandmother, to rave parties in the middle of the desert to an inside glimpse of commune life. And, the cover art is phenomenal! (5 stars for that!) But, the slowness of the read couldn’t always hold my attention, and the loose plotting failed to grab me the way I wanted to be held by this story within these pages. For that, I award a solid 3 stars. ***

Chiara BarziniChiara Barzini is an Italian screen and fiction writer. She has lived and studied in the United States where she collaborated with Italian Vanity Fair, GQ, XL Repubblica, Rolling Stone Italy, Flair, and Marie Claire while publishing essays in American magazines such as the Village Voice, Harper’s, Vogue, Interview Magazine, Vice, and Rolling Stone. Her fiction has appeared in BOMB Magazine, The Coffin Factory, Noon, The NY Tyrant, Vice, and Dazed & Confused. She is the author of the story collection Sister Stop Breathing(Calamari Press, 2012) and has written a variety screenplays for both television and film. Her most recent film work, Arianna, the coming of age story of an intersex adolescent, won numerous awards at the Venice Film Festival and was nominated for Best Screenplay at the Italian Golden Globes, 2016. Upcoming movie projects include the film adaptation of “Wonder When You’ll Miss Me” based on the novel by Amanda Davis.

The Child by Fiona Barton

Hardcover, 336 pages
Expected publication: June 27th 2017 by Berkley Books

As an old house is demolished in a gentrifying section of London, a workman discovers a tiny skeleton, buried for years. For journalist Kate Waters, it’s a story that deserves attention. She cobbles together a piece for her newspaper, but at a loss for answers, she can only pose a question: Who is the Building Site Baby?

As Kate investigates, she unearths connections to a crime that rocked the city decades earlier: A newborn baby was stolen from the maternity ward in a local hospital and was never found. Her heartbroken parents were left devastated by the loss.

But there is more to the story, and Kate is drawn—house by house—into the pasts of the people who once lived in this neighborhood that has given up its greatest mystery. And she soon finds herself the keeper of unexpected secrets that erupt in the lives of three women—and torn between what she can and cannot tell…

 

I absolutely adored Fiona Barton’s debut novel, The Widow, so I was all-too eager to get my little hands on this one when I heard about The Child. Of course, that’s the problem with not reading blindly, isn’t it–with already being familiar with an author’s previous works: you go in with expectations, undoubtedly heightening your expectations on the author, and it doesn’t always pan out. When that happens, those reads seem to fall harder than if you’d never met their predecessors in the first place. But that didn’t happen here! This follow-up was awesome! Unfortunately, that’s what happened here.

Not too far into Fiona Barton’s sophomore novel, The Child, I realized that this one wasn’t nearly as clever as her debut, The Widow, and wasn’t nearly as captivating either. Read as a “rush job,” without the finesse and nuance of her previous novel. In a lot of ways, it reminded me of the follow-up to a blockbuster movie–you know, the ones where you can tell the studio was just rushing to churn the next one out to capitalize on the fanfare of the last one.

Have you ever read a novel and just knew you could pick out the characters on the street if you saw them? Their mannerisms are so real, their dialogue so witty, so poignant, so enthralling, that you recall a whole slew of their quotes from memory. These characters come alive on the page and delight you, make you want to be them—or at least kidnap them and keep them as your new bestie. Well, you won’t find that here, people. These characters didn’t saunter around, exuding their very essence across the page like in the previous novel.

Though, to be fair, it’s not all cons in this one. One of the better aspects of this novel is that Barton uses the format of short chapters to swiftly draw her reader in and keep them turning pages. It’s a style that I now recognize her for. That technique makes the read seem shorter, faster, and is a true hallmark of the modern-day thriller, which was once again used brilliantly here. Well, to an extent. Of all things, The Child was chalked full of filler. I could almost palpably feel myself ripping at the cotton-like filler to get down to the meat, the core of the novel. Some of the chapters were completely useless to the plot as a whole and slowed the read down to a near-screeching halt, contradictory to the goals of the short chapters, placing The Child very squarely into the “cozy thriller” category and loosening the tauntness that readers look for in a good mystery thriller.

All I needed for complete this novel was a cuppa Earl Grey and a biscuit. For some, this’ll work brilliantly, but I can see the flatly written characters turning off character piece buffs, while the added family drama will turn off mystery thrill seekers, stripping away its well-roundedness and landing this one in a category for a very specific kind of reader. It’s not that the characters here were unlikeable, more like they were just silly. Crying at the slightest stimulus. Sighing and huffing and wedge-driving over men who, for the majority of the read, weren’t much more than cliché sketches of cheaters and adulterers themselves. There were moments where I actually imagined them fawning and fanning themselves at the thought of these men, swooning in their own misery, and that made the read feel long, like I was trudging through used Kleenex the entire time.

Let’s go ahead and address this here, shall we?

There’s so much chatter in the book world about (female) characters who are unlikeable for being shallow or crass—The Girl on the Train immediately comes to mind—but these characters in The Child were equally unlikeable for a completely different reason: because they were so spineless, weak and lacking of any motivation that I could get behind for the vast majority of the novel.

**SPOILER** You can’t toss in driving motivation in the last quarter of the novel and expect me to suddenly care; no, I’ve already been too turned off by the past 300 pages to care at this point: Writer 101. **END SPOILER**

There were a lot of tears in this book, even moments of rushing out of a grocery store, abandoning their grocery cart, because the noise was too unbearable. These characters all needed a swift kick in the ass if you ask me.

Hmm, and the ending. I won’t give anything away, but I will definitely say that I’m not sure how I feel about it. It could’ve been a phenomenal ending, but it was executed poorly and via unlikeable characters, so, in the end, it just felt like a hastily done soap opera ending. There were loads of other sections that could have been scrapped in favor of perfecting the ending, believe me—and the fact that the ending was held up by sappy, weak-willed characters just ruined it, like spilling liquid on a watercolor painting. **MILD SPOILER** I get the feeling that it was meant to be a tear-jerker ending but came off as vaguely melodramatic the way that it was handled, **END SPOILER** which, all in all, landed The Child with a average score of 3 stars ***

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Fiona BartonMy career has taken some surprising twists and turns over the years. I have been a journalist – senior writer at the Daily Mail, news editor at the Daily Telegraph, and chief reporter at The Mail on Sunday, where I won Reporter of the Year at the National Press Awards, gave up my job to volunteer in Sri Lanka and since 2008, have trained and worked with exiled and threatened journalists all over the world.
But through it all, a story was cooking in my head.

The worm of this book infected me long ago when, as a national newspaper journalist covering notorious crimes and trials, I found myself wondering what the wives of those accused really knew – or allowed themselves to know. It took the liberation of my career change to turn that fascination into a tale of a missing child, narrated by the wife of the man suspected of the crime, the detective leading the hunt, the journalist covering the case and the mother of the victim.

Much to my astonishment and delight, The Widow is available now in the UK, and around the world in the coming months. However, the sudden silence of my characters feels like a reproach and I am currently working on a second book. My husband and I are living the good life in south-west France, where I am writing in bed, early in the morning when the only distraction is our cockerel, Sparky, crowing.

New Boy by Tracy Chevalier

Hardcover, 192 pages
Expected publication: May 11th 2017 by Hogarth

From the New York Times bestselling author of Girl with a Pearl Earring comes the fifth installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a modern retelling of Othello set in a suburban schoolyard

Arriving at his fifth school in as many years, a diplomat’s son, Osei Kokote, knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day so he’s lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can’t stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players – teachers and pupils alike – will never be the same again.

The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970’s suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Peeking over the shoulders of four 11 year olds Osei, Dee, Ian, and his reluctant girlfriend Mimi, Tracy Chevalier’s powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.

This review contains spoilers.

Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy is a bravely re-imagined work of Hogarth Shakespearean fiction. Reset in the 1970s on an elementary school playground, Othello’s racial tensions and treachery are re-imagined here in a unique new format.

When Osei arrives at his fourth school in as many cities, he is squarely familiar with not only the sensation of being the “new boy” but of being the only black boy as well. A product of an educated, diplomatic Guyanese family, he is bright and sharply intelligent. He knows what to expect in this all-white atmosphere that he has once again been implanted into, but, to his surprise, becomes friends with the Golden Girl of the sixth-grade class on his very first day. Yet, when jealousies and tempers flare, the prejudice toward the school’s lone black student propelling hateful words and malicious deeds forward, the students’ lives are forever changed in this one day at school.

Admittedly, this is a highly imaginative setting for these characters, yet I can’t really imagine this novel as an adult read. With that being said, I am grading it as (high-brow) YA, in the similar vein of vocabulary and maturity as Ransom Riggs’ Peculiar Children series. Here, I enjoyed the witty wink toward the original with Chevalier’s use of derivatives of the original characters’ names: Othello became Osei; Desdemona became Dee; Iago became Ian, and so forth.

William Shakespeare’s Othello has long been one of my absolute favorites of his works—what can I say? I’m more partial to his tragedies. Tracy Chevalier’s adaptation of it is a work of short literary form—under 200 pages—that read quickly but not necessarily immersively. For the majority of the read, I felt that I was sitting on the surface of it all, the contrived situations and melodramatic plot fitting for YA, I suppose, but wasn’t immersive for me as an adult reader until the last fifth or so of the novel. There, the plot picked up speed and the threads of action began to pull together.

As a YA read, Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy functions as a relatable, lesson-teaching book with easily identifiable characters—the new kid, the mean kid, the popular boy, the skanky girl, the sidekick, and the “weird” girl. All of the typical players you’d need for a playground drama exist here, and that makes this a great read for middle schoolers and early high schoolers. Also, the subject matter, and the way that Chevalier tackles it here, is also expertly handled for that age group, where it will read as not only relatable but shocking simultaneously.

However.

I definitely had some issues with this read, which is part of the reason why I just can’t label it as adult fiction and why I could not give it a higher rating:

**SPOILER START**

1) The drama turned to melodrama pretty quickly, because of the unlikeliness of this plot line. Of course, we can argue that Shakespeare often gravitated toward the melodramatic—his plays were for theater, after all—but New Boy was often delivered as a string of events that all culminated into the ending, rather than a plausible story line that I could get behind.

2) One of Osei’s (the re-imagined Othello’s) main characteristics at the start of the novel was that he was experienced in not only being new, but in being the only black student as well. His older sister is a “rebellious” teenager who holds her fist in the air, a Afro proudly atop her head and ends all of her correspondences with the phrase Black is Beautiful. From the perspective of an African American, I would argue that Osei’s reactions to what happened on that day at school are highly unlikely and poorly imagined. In short, they read as if they were written by someone who has no experience themselves with such feelings, which left me feeling that there were several practical elements of New Boy that were poorly handled, certainly too poorly handled to pass or function as an adult read.

**SPOILER END**

Chevalier’s New Boy tried to take us there—to that place at the crossroads of “coming of age” and “discovering oneself.” At times, it worked and rang true, and at other times it failed and crumbled flatly to the floor. While I applaud her attempt at re-imagining this classic work, at giving a voice to that little black boy in the 70s in his bewildering surroundings faced with confusing decisions, it didn’t always work for me, and I’ve seen Hogarth Shakespeare done better. So, Chevalier pulled away from this one with a solid 3 stars. ***

Also, I thought I’d go ahead and throw in that I give 2 big thumbs up for all of the COVER ART done for this novel! That’ll get you to pick this one up if a review won’t!

*I received this ARC from the publisher, Hogarth, via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
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In her own words, Tracy Chevalier, “Talked a lot about becoming a writer as a kid, but actual pen to paper contact was minimal. Started writing short stories in my 20s, then began first novel, The Virgin Blue, during the MA year. With Girl With a Pearl Earring (written in 1998), I became a full-time writer, and have since juggled it with motherhood.”

The Trophy Child by Paula Daly

Hardcover, 386 pages
Expected publication: March 7th 2017 by Grove Press (first published January 26th 2017)

“Karen didn’t believe in keeping a lid on things, picking your battles, and all that other claptrap parents were advised to do. When did people stop being parents, exactly? Karen knew when—when they were scared to death their kids wouldn’t love them any more if they scolded them, that’s when. When they’d fallen out of love with their spouses and so the thought of conflict with their child, the thought of saying a simple ‘no’, panicked them beyond measure. For Christ’s sake, people didn’t even scold their dogs any more…”

Trophy children are quite en vogue these days, judging by the recent publications so many publishing houses have put out. I, myself, have read and reviewed a large handful of novels about this “perfect child” phenomenon, often featuring plots wrapped around the mystery of the death or fall of that child. The backstories here are often the same, stemming from parental pressures inflicted by those living vicariously through their offspring, rather than asserting those pressures upon their own lives, so it really ends up coming down to two things: intended audience and execution. Paula Daly’s latest novel, The Trophy Child, is definitely for a certain audience and the execution was fine. But that’s about all that it was: fine. If the above blurb made you think you’d encounter some spin on this “perfect child” motif, adding poignancy, startlingly well-drawn characters, or anything resembling originality, you may be disappointed by this one.

Here you will find the quintessential “thriller” for housewives. I say that more so honestly than sarcastically, but, to answer your next question, “No, this one did not work for me.” I was bored to skimming (if not tears) for the majority of the first half of this novel, and could find nothing of value or originality to take from this one. It was formulaic in most ways imaginable; the twists were enough to keep me reading, while not enough to provide any sense of shock or admiration from me. Not a single character in this novel interested me or made me yearn for more, likely because I never saw anything within any one of these characters that made me care about the outcome of the lives in the slightest. How’s that for honest?

Starting with the “Tiger Mom” herself, Karen Bloom is painted as an overly ambitious sort of mother, one who pushes herself, her children and her husband to exude perfection in all shapes and forms. We have them here in the U.S., too, of course, usually identifiable by their hectic schedules filled to the brim with carting their minivan full of children to this practice or that, passing the days away in Whole Foods in their Lululemon getups. We know these women, and whether we identify with them or not, they have become a notorious stereotype in our culture. Thus, suffice it to say, the brilliantly written blurb for this novel will be more than enough to get readers to pick this novel up, but I suspect there will be polarizing opinions on this one. Here’s why:

Paula Daly has a fan base; there are plenty of people out there who are looking for a comfy pseudo-thriller, some book that you can curl up on the couch with and take in with a cup of Earl Grey and a bit of skim milk. If you’re one of those readers, then you may absolutely love this one! Daly will have lived up to her reputation and really entertained. However, if you’re looking for any sort of depth, action, major thrill, or narrative creativity, you’ve come to the wrong place and should step no further.

The trouble with Paula Daly’s The Trophy Child is that the 350+ pages that it took to tell this tale were not particularly well used. The characterizations were in a lot of ways lackluster and uninteresting, namely because the characters failed to live up to anything more than the stereotypes they’d been written as. Karen Bloom is, seriously, just a disagreeable and annoying person, to the point that she actually contemplates fairly early on in the novel whether not she should throw a huge tantrum, because its ‘been a while since she’s thrown one.’ (Goodness, I just wanted to slap her in the face and tell her to get off the page.) Her husband is mealy mouthed and spineless and also happens to be a drinker and womanizer. Add in the pothead son, the duo of the order-barking military grandfather + the spacy wife and you’ve got yourself a rather interesting novel, right? Wrong. Just think The Nest meets cozy pseudo-thriller, and you’ll have a pretty good idea of what to expect here, because none of these stereotypes were particularly turned on their head, no new and entertaining characterization of these typecasts ever happened across the page. I quickly lost interest and had to fight the urge to skim ahead. Often, I lost this fight with myself and went ahead and did it.

I would characterize Paula Daly’s The Trophy Child as an okay read for a quick little jaunt, something to read when you’re off of work on a random Tuesday or something. A nice airport read as you suffer through a layover. But it’s unlikely that I’ll remember anything in particular about this novel by the time I finish my next on, and, for me, that warrants a ‘Meh’ and a half. That’s about it. 2.5 stars, which, on a good day, could be rounded up to 3, per my rating scale of “Average.” ***

 

*I received an advance-read copy of this novel thanks to Grove Press, via Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

**To see more reviews, follow the blog on Twitter @thenavireview and on Goodreads at Navidad Thelamour!

Everything You Want Me to Be by Mindy Mejia

Hardcover, 352 pages
Expected publication: January 3rd 2017 by Atria/Emily Bestler Books
I received an advance-read copy of this book from the publisher, Atria/Emily Bestler Books, via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This review contains spoilers, which are noted within.

There’s a lot to be said for being a teenager today. Of course, every era has its modern innovations and social expectations to contend with, but it’s rare that we get to see this from the inside looking out, through the eyes of a teenager living in the center of it all. What do they see and how do they feel about it? Does that societal pressure produce a diamond, as the saying goes, or does it crush us under the weight of its expectations?

Everything You Want Me to Be aimed to be that mirror for us, to shine a light in the dark recesses of the life of a teen-aged girl who was struggling to have and be it all, to exude perfection while finding what it was in life that mattered to her most. At any age, that’s a tall order, but Mindy Mejia’sEverything You Want Me to Be strives to take us there, to put us front in center in that girl’s shoes. However, I didn’t find it to be all that it was cracked up to be, and it wasn’t nearly all that I’d hoped.

The entire novel was about playing a part, pretending for onlookers and living a secret life that no one knows about, yet it didn’t delve deep enough to evoke any real feelings about it for me. Honestly, Miss Hattie Hoffman didn’t seem to be going through much more than the average city teenager, and the small-town aspect wasn’t brought to life nearly enough to truly juxtapose this in some startling way. And even that would have been completely fine if Hattie’s layers had been more defined, more fine-tuned, peeling deeper down. But I always felt that I was just skimming the surface of this girl behind the smile. She started out a Mona Lisa, and while we learn what she was thinking behind that sly smirk, true enough, I didn’t feel affected by the truths and realizations once Mona Lisa had been unwrapped. I didn’t feel the tension that the author was going for. The countdown to 18 seemed uneventful and rushed so that, when it came, I was underwhelmed and unimpressed for most of the read. The last fifth of the novel picked up, but it didn’t make the previous eighty percent feel especially worth it for me.

I recently said to someone, “It’s so true that we rate books based on how they make us feel, and how they make us feel is based off of our own life experiences,” and this is a novel that makes that statement truer than ever. Some will love following Hattie. They’ll find her particular brand of drama to be shocking and stimulating, but Everything You Want Me to Be didn’t go deep enough. It didn’t set Hattie apart from every other girl yearning to leave the small town and hit the big city. **SPOILER ALERT** Oh, and if you were planning on leaning on her love affair as that crutch that made her stand out, that it thing that made her different, try that somewhere else: that story’s too played to take us anywhere shocking now on its own. It wasn’t enough to make this a five-star read. **

What I will say is that Mejia did a good job of affecting a high schooler’s voice. Hattie came off as genuine; her voice was completely plausible. Her needs and desires totally matched that of a seventeen-year-old girl. But the other characters didn’t live up to their own potential. They were less well-rounded, affecting and impactful than they could’ve been by a long shot. Everything You Want Me to Besomehow managed to read both melodramatically and underwhelmingly simultaneously. Yet, in the background was a story that was decent. A story with an interesting premise that could’ve been richer, that could’ve been…more. The highs and lows melded together to end up being a bit blah with just a hint of salt to season it here and there.

I didn’t see the drama of the “fractured” pretender that Mejia was trying to paint. Instead, I saw a normal girl, written by the hand of an author who wants to assume that all kids are just kids, that they aren’t complex or individual in their own way, thus making Hattie some remarkable mystery (which, to me, she wasn’t). **Spoiler Alert** Except for the affair with her teacher, which has become almost less than a taboo with the shocking number of occurrences in the media these days, so that needed to be pushed further—made exceptional —to stand out as the shocker that it was intended to be.**

Maybe this novel should’ve been set in the 50s, so that the “innocent girl with a secret” plot would be more poignant.

The entire time that I read Mejia’s Everything, I could see where she was trying to take her reader; I just never quite got there. Often this novel was on the verge of being adrenaline-inducing, but it was always just shy of the mark for me, and for that I give 3 stars ***

Behind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

     

Hardcover, 304 pages
Published August 9th 2016 by St. Martin’s Press (first published February 11th 2016)

   Behind Closed Doors turned out to be a decent debut that did its job entertaining me and building some tension, but it didn’t keep me up late at night reading or anything kin to that. B.A. Paris’ debut novel is the tale of Grace Angel (yep, quite the name, I know). She meets her McDreamy—a George Clooney look-alike—after years of potential husbands fleeing at the idea of having to care for her sister, Millie, who has Down Syndrome. Not only does Jack Angel not mind this arrangement, but he’s also a champion in the legal world for defending domestic abuse victims. So, who woulda thought he’d turn out to be a deranged domestic abuser himself, right! Grace finds her every move and conversation controlled by her husband, who portrays the very picture of perfection to outsiders—the beautiful wife who cooks five-course meals and always knows just the right thing to say. But this arrangement is for show only, and he literally keeps her held captive, locked in a thread-bare bedroom for days at a time with ever more sadistic methods of torturing her. As Grace tries to figure out how to extricate herself and her handicapped younger sister from his terrifying and oppressive grip, we learn just how deranged the human mind can be….

Okay, so we have to address the big issue that lots of reviewers are having with this one: yeah, you could drive a freight train through the plausibility of motives, honestly. But, we do live in a crazy world, and anyone who’s known someone who’s gone through domestic violence will understand the imprisonment—mentally, emotionally, physically—that Grace experiences. So, with that in mind, Closed Doors didn’t particularly strike me as “far-fetched,” BUT (no, I can’t just let this one off the hook) I found Grace’s motives to be questionable for sure.

In the first chunk of the novel, I was ready to write Behind Closed Doors off as a beach read if ever I’ve seen one, and I was ready to pinch myself for not taking advantage of the “sample” feature for e-reads (but wouldn’t that just take all the fun out it)! But the novel righted itself at some point, and the thrill finally began.

Now, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that one of my qualms with this one is that it took the easy way out by narrating all of the little intricacies that would’ve made this read more special—that would’ve earned it 5 stars. It takes real skill to thrill the begeezes out of someone with action scenes and mounting tensions, but it’s a much smaller order to just tell the reader what you want them to know and how that should make them feel. As a reader, it’s those moments of realization, those instances of ah, that’s what he meant. I get it that both delight and submerge us in the story. But, those moments take dexterity of imagination and real skillfulness with plots, with words. That you won’t necessarily find here, but if you’re looking for a quick read that’ll give you a little bit of a heart pound—you know, nothing too crazy, nothing that’ll really stretch or scar you—then look no farther.

In the end, Paris managed to craft a pretty well-executed novel, and I can see why some people were inclined to give it 5 stars. But for me, this was a 5-star idea with 3-star execution. That’s my final answer, and I’m sticking to it. 🙂 ***

Patches of Grey by Roy L. Pickering, Jr.

Published January 8th 2010 by M.U.D. House Books (first published January 8th 2009)

 

       “They all believed back then that love lasted forever. By now they surely knew…that forever was a treacherous myth, though probably a necessary one.”

This novel was given to me by the author in exchange for an honest review.

       Patches of Grey by Roy Pickering is the emotional story of the Johnsons, a family from a Bronx tenement pre “rise of Obama.” If you love Sister Souljah, Sapphire and old-school Omar Tyree, this will be a great read for you. Tony, the eldest son and main character, yearns for more than his poor upbringing can provide for him and knows that he is smart enough to use his grades to get out. He is constantly ridiculed by his father, Lionel, a drunk and abusive man, and his younger brother, C.J., who is proud to have been just initiated into a local gang. Tony’s dreams of getting away, not to mention his once-coveted, now-won Caucasian girlfriend, put him at constant odds with his father and brother, while his mother and sister deal with their own emotional and physical turmoil dealt to them by the men in their lives. Over the course of a year, their lives are changed, tragedy strikes and Tony’s dreams of collegiate life and affluence thereafter may never be realized after all.

There were some truly lovely patches (no pun intended) of narrative prose in this one, but they were often overshadowed by the sheer amount of purple prose surrounding them. At times, it disoriented me, some of the sentences were so overwrought with it. There were too many metaphors and too much hyperbole, so the essence of these oft-lovely lines was often lost in the sheer quantity of them, as if the author wanted to slap on more and more lights, more and more decoration, when the tree itself would’ve sung beautifully. Enveloped within the metaphor-flooded prose was vernacular that sometimes hit the mark and sometimes did not. The transitions from narration to dialogue were often choppy and forced, trying to straddle two worlds unsuccessfully. There were moments when the author’s hand showed through glaringly, usually displayed as soap-box-worthy soliloquys on social injustice. There were also some editing issues here.

All in all, I found Patches of Grey to be an emotional narrative with a flawed message. There was a deep story here, one that often grabbed me and sometimes moved me, but in the end, I didn’t respect the characters. It’s not that the storyline was not wholly believable—it was—but I didn’t feel satisfied with the read because it yielded to the stereotypes, allowing them to win after all. If this was meant to be a cautionary tale, it didn’t go far enough with presenting its moral; it seemed to just concede defeat. There were hints towards the end that maybe things could be different in the future, but that wasn’t enough for me; I’m sorry to say that the hastily offered explanation in the final paragraphs felt like a cop-out to actually writing out a fully developed end to this story that would leave the characters well-rounded and, perhaps, whole. I can literally point out the moment that this novel lost me and my respect. Trust me, I hoped that it would be a plot twist that would right itself, a curve in the bend that the characters would bounce back from—or, at least, be educated on—but that never happened:

“It was not the decision to leave his gang which had doomed C.J., or even the choice to join in the first place. His fate had been determined the moment he was born a black male into a white world.”

While I was ecstatic to find that Pickering didn’t stoop to using easy bow-tie, happily-ever-after endings, the above quote does adequately summarize the faulty message of this story right up to the end: that in no way, shape or fashion were their circumstances any fault of their own doing, because of their own choices, not even a little. This novel allowed the characters to wallow, to not fight harder. Instead they surrendered, conceding defeat to society in a way that made them bitter, in a way that they could never recover from. The mother, Caren, believes, “…love is never granted free of charge. Once one’s heart was surrendered, it became subject to the whims of its captor. She complained little of its mistreatment because it had been her choice to give it away,” a beautiful line that really grabbed me, but simultaneously annoyed me because she, like some of the other characters, assumed that she had little choice in what happened in her own life. The moments that were supposed to function as absolution, as moments of strength and clarity for the characters, were too hastily done to stand up to the ravages of what the aforementioned phrases had done to them, and the reader.  There could’ve been so much more here. This was a surprising stance for a novel that seemed to shoot out of the gate with a purpose, a mission, a true message. Did we need happily ever afters? No. But is anything offered to the world by perpetuating stereotypes, by not adding anything to the diaspora dialogue? No.

In that way, this novel felt like regression. I gave this one 3 stars, keeping in mind what else is out there in this genre. ***