BOOK REVIEW: Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch

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BOOK REVIEW: Dark Matter, by Blake CrouchTitle: Dark Matter by Blake Crouch
Published by Crown Publishing
Published: July 26th 2016
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 342
Format: Hardcover
Source: Blogging for Books
Goodreads

“Are you happy with your life?” Those are the last words Jason Dessen hears before the masked abductor knocks him unconscious. Before he awakens to find himself strapped to a gurney, surrounded by strangers in hazmat suits. Before a man Jason’s never met smiles down at him and says, “Welcome back, my friend.”
In this world he’s woken up to, Jason’s life is not the one he knows. His wife is not his wife. His son was never born. And Jason is not an ordinary college physics professor but a celebrated genius who has achieved something remarkable--something impossible.
Is it this world or the other that’s the dream? And even if the home he remembers is real, how can Jason possibly make it back to the family he loves? The answers lie in a journey more wondrous and horrifying than anything he could’ve imagined—one that will force him to confront the darkest parts of himself even as he battles a terrifying, seemingly unbeatable foe.

 I suppose we’re both just trying to come to terms with how horrifying infinity really is.

Dark Matter is a wild ride through alternate realities and the realities we create for ourselves. It’s a fast-paced thriller that will keep you guessing about the twists and turns until the very end.

Jason lives a comfortable, happy life, but from the beginning we see that he’s consistently plagued with the question what if. What if he didn’t marry his wife and settle down with a kid? What if he won a prestigious prize instead of his friend? What if he continued on his research instead of losing funding because he decided to focus on his family? Jason confronts those what-ifs when he’s abducted and pushed into a different reality. In the first reality that is different from his own, he sees what his world could have been if he decided to focus on his work rather than focus on his family, and in the midst of trying to get back to his “home” reality, Jason realizes that his other self has stepped into his role and taken over his alternate self’s what-ifs.

It’s bendy, it will probably make you think what just happened many times until everything comes to a head and you have to read to the very end. It raises the questions of reality, that realities can be created together and shared together, and that our futures are created every nanosecond along the way. If you aren’t careful, your split selves may come back for you. And ultimately it’s a romance in the sense that Jason realizes that life isn’t worth truly living unless he’s with his Daniela, no matter how many versions of her he meets along the way back home.

I really enjoyed this. It’s an exciting, breezy read that makes me hope that there will be a mini-series or a movie of this, because it would be so cool to see some of the scenes played out on screen.

Thank you to Crown Publishing and Blogging for Books for a review copy!

BOOK REVIEW: The Book of Esther, by Emily Barton

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BOOK REVIEW: The Book of Esther, by Emily BartonTitle: The Book of Esther by Emily Barton
Published by Tim Duggan Books
Published: June 14th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Magical Realism
Pages: 432
Format: Hardcover
Source: Blogging for Books
Goodreads

What if an empire of Jewish warriors that really existed in the Middle Ages had never fallen—and was the only thing standing between Hitler and his conquest of Russia? 
Eastern Europe, August 1942. The Khazar kaganate, an isolated nation of Turkic warrior Jews, lies between the Pontus Euxinus (the Black Sea) and the Khazar Sea (the Caspian). It also happens to lie between a belligerent nation to the west that the Khazars call Germania—and a city the rest of the world calls Stalingrad.
After years of Jewish refugees streaming across the border from Europa, fleeing the war, Germania launches its siege of Khazaria. Only Esther, the daughter of the nation’s chief policy adviser, sees the ominous implications of Germania's disregard for Jewish lives. Only she realizes that this isn’t just another war but an existential threat. After witnessing the enemy warplanes’ first foray into sovereign Khazar territory, Esther knows she must fight for her country. But as the elder daughter in a traditional home, her urgent question is how.
Before daybreak one fateful morning, she embarks on a perilous journey across the open steppe. She seeks a fabled village of Kabbalists who may hold the key to her destiny: their rumored ability to change her into a man so that she may convince her entire nation to join in the fight for its very existence against an enemy like none Khazaria has ever faced before.The Book of Esther is a profound saga of war, technology, mysticism, power, and faith. This novel—simultaneously a steampunk Joan of Arc and a genre-bending tale of a counterfactual Jewish state by a writer who invents worlds “out of Calvino or Borges” (The New Yorker)—is a stunning achievement. Reminiscent of Michael Chabon’s The Yiddish Policemen’s Union and Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, The Book of Esther reaffirms Barton’s place as one of her generation’s most gifted storytellers.

I am Esther, and like my namesake before me, I will save the Jewish people.

Emily Barton’s The Book of Esther is an anomaly. Take Joan of Arc, dieselpunk, magical realism, let it simmer with Judaism, and you’ve got a very distilled essence of what this book contains. It doesn’t fit neatly into a genre, and it’s a little chaotic, but it’s worth reading for so many reasons.

The Book of Esther follows the journey of a young Jewish woman named Esther, who takes it upon herself to follow her calling even though she is initially hesitant, even though she faces opposition from her family and her village, and even though she knows her journey will be a difficult one. This novel explores the roles of women in Jewish society, and it shows the strength it takes to overcome the captivity women sometimes face in traditional roles. Barton also challenges the divide of male and female roles in Jewish/traditional society by having Esther go on a journey to transform herself into a male, because she knows that only in a male form will she be accepted and taken seriously by her society. Esther also meets a scholar who has transitioned from female to male by faith in the Hashem (in effort to keep this review as spoiler free as possible, I won’t name names!), and I loved how Barton weaves this into the story and celebrates his identity, especially his identity in his faith. Barton allows Esther to be naive regarding this scholar, and both characters grow and learn about identity and what it means to be oneself through each other. However, Esther learns along the way that no matter what the mystics have whispered, she cannot be anyone but herself. By the end of the novel, instead of encouraging every woman to follow her radical lead, Esther quietly encourages those she meets to be themselves, whoever and whatever they are and choose to be.

There are some things to keep in mind about the novel that might deter or confuse some readers. This novel requires some sort of knowledge of Judaism and Jewish history to fully appreciate because it explores the magical parts of creation and Jewish and Kabbalist mysticism. Having prior knowledge will help in the beginning of the novel when some ideas and concepts are glossed over because it is presumed the reader has prior knowledge. This novel is religious, but it’s not out to convert the reader to a particular belief or reinforce in readers that a particular belief is “correct.” This novel has a love triangle, but it’s not key or essential to Esther’s story.

All in all, The Book of Esther is a must read if you enjoy magical realism infused with a Jewish Joan of Arc, dieselpunk with mechanical horses, and a feminist journey of identity. I enjoyed it immensely, and I still think about it frequently because Esther has inspired me to keep questioning everything because she questions everything. Through that questioning, Esther learns a lot about herself and her identity. She told throughout the entire novel that she can’t do this or that because she’s a girl. Instead of giving up, she follows her heart and does it anyway. And you know what? People listen.

I received a free review copy from Blogging for Books. All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Bradstreet Gate, by Robin Kirman

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BOOK REVIEW: Bradstreet Gate, by Robin KirmanTitle: Bradstreet Gate by Robin Kirman
Published by Broadway Books
Published: April 5th 2016
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 336
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Blogging for Books
Goodreads

A tour de force about three friends affected by a campus murder, for readers of Donna Tartt, Meg Wolitzer, and Jeffrey Eugenides.

Georgia, Charlie and Alice each arrive at Harvard with hopeful visions of what the future will hold. But when, just before graduation, a classmate is found murdered on campus, they find themselves facing a cruel and unanticipated new reality. Moreover, a charismatic professor who has loomed large in their lives is suspected of the crime. Though his guilt or innocence remains uncertain, the unsettling questions raised by the case force the three friends to take a deeper look at their tangled relationship. Their bond has been defined by the secrets they’ve kept from one another—Charlie’s love and Alice’s envy, Georgia’s mysterious affair—and over the course of the next decade, as they grapple with the challenges of adulthood and witness the unraveling of a teacher's once-charmed life, they must reckon with their own deceits and shortcomings, each desperately in search of answers and the chance to be forgiven. A relentless, incisive, and keenly intelligent novel about promise, disappointment, and the often tenuous bonds of friendship, Bradstreet Gate is the auspicious debut of a tremendously talented new writer.

The copy on the back of Bradstreet Gate compares the novel to Donna Tartt’s The Secret History. That’s really what drew me in to choose the book in the first place, and I felt surprised that I hadn’t heard about the book until I saw it as an option on Blogging for Books. The only comparisons I found to The Secret History were the simple fact that this novel revolves around a group of students attending Harvard (and what comes after) and that there is a death/murder of a student. Other than that, the comparison ceases to be relevant.

Bradstreet Gate is a character novel, and there is no blatant revelation over who killed Julie Patel. It could have been Storrow, it could have been Alice, and it could have been Charlie, but nothing is ever made quite clear and I found that entirely frustrating. Halfway through I thought it might have been Alice because of her stilted relationship to everyone else on campus, but as the novel progressed and Charlie became more and more successful with weird little hints and recollections of “what he did,” I have to wonder if Charlie was the one who did it. He was the little brother, the one his father “[looked] for ways to be rid of him.” Charlie had a strained relationship with his father, and his father always referred to his youngest son as “the judge.” Charlie’s the one who shows an interest in Georgia, who has a relationship with Storrow the professor, and he shows a passing interest in Julie Patel and later finds out she has a boyfriend. In his frustration over Storrow’s relationship with Georgia, Charlie could have very easily staged Julia’s murder to destroy Storrow, which did happen. On the other hand, Storrow had a military history and had the working knowledge to execute a flawless murder.

The writing was clean, but I found everything structural in the novel to be lacking clarity and cohesion. The characters lacked depth and resonance (as in I didn’t really feel anything at all towards any of them), the plot and pacing seemed jumpy, like one moment it was one day and years had passed in the next paragraph. I felt like I had to read the last several pages just to make sense of what happened and to see if I’d missed some important, revelatory detail. I didn’t. It just sort of ends, falls off, and nothing’s really resolved.

However, after reading the essay in the back of the book, there is some connection thematically to some of the content of the novel. Kirman writes that she had a charged friendship with a professor of hers as a student with whom she had a relationship ten years later, and it got me thinking of this novel in the sense that she is trying to come to terms with that relationship and the attraction students have to their instructors. At the beginning of the essay, she writes, “Why did people speak of falling in love? Why was the experience of romantic enchantment described as a fall?” In that context, and if that context was advertised with the book in the first place, I might have gone into reading the book differently. The essay in the back of was my favorite part about the book, and I’ll be thinking about some of the ideas she presented for quite a while.

“What George Eliot understood so well about young women – and intellectualism and naïveté and practical life and corporeal desire – can be revealed, also, by experience. Reality inevitably assaults our fantasies and brings the objects of our infatuation down to earth, whether we wish it to or not.”

“Possibly he was after the same idea that I’ve introduced here: the fall from grace accomplished by Eve, thanks to her wish to taste of wisdom reserved for God alone. Such a wish may not drive everyone who falls, head over heals, but I suspect it is present whenever some co-ed finds her pulse quickening as her dark, magnetic professor looks her way, and she begins to dream only about him, and to ignore the boys who sit beside her in the dining hall or stalk the showers of her dorm. Rules may discourage her from doing more than dreaming – they might try to rescue her from her own desires – but now and then she’s bound to fall. That’s just part of the story of being young, human, and hungry: tempted to seek knowledge beyond what is permitted, in the highest places and forms, and in the lowest, too.”

Book provided for an honest review by Blogging for Books.

BOOK REVIEW: Shylock Is My Name, by Howard Jacobson

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BOOK REVIEW: Shylock Is My Name, by Howard JacobsonTitle: Shylock Is My Name by Howard Jacobson
Series: Hogarth Shakespeare #2
Published by Hogarth
Published: February 9th 2016
Genres: Fiction, Retellings
Pages: 288
Format: Hardcover
Source: Blogging for Books
Goodreads

Man Booker Prize-winner Howard Jacobson brings his singular brilliance to this modern re-imagining of one of Shakespeare’s most unforgettable characters: Shylock
Winter, a cemetery, Shylock. In this provocative and profound interpretation of “The Merchant of Venice,” Shylock is juxtaposed against his present-day counterpart in the character of art dealer and conflicted father Simon Strulovitch. With characteristic irony, Jacobson presents Shylock as a man of incisive wit and passion, concerned still with questions of identity, parenthood, anti-Semitism and revenge. While Strulovich struggles to reconcile himself to his daughter Beatrice's “betrayal” of her family and heritage – as she is carried away by the excitement of Manchester high society, and into the arms of a footballer notorious for giving a Nazi salute on the field – Shylock alternates grief for his beloved wife with rage against his own daughter's rejection of her Jewish upbringing. Culminating in a shocking twist on Shylock’s demand for the infamous pound of flesh, Jacobson’s insightful retelling examines contemporary, acutely relevant questions of Jewish identity while maintaining a poignant sympathy for its characters and a genuine spiritual kinship with its antecedent—a drama which Jacobson himself considers to be “the most troubling of Shakespeare’s plays for anyone, but, for an English novelist who happens to be Jewish, also the most challenging.”

A daughter doesn’t have to have an education to be taught how to hate her father. She can learn rebellion through an open window. It’s in the nature of a daughter.

Shylock Is My Name is Howard Jacobson’s addition to the Hogarth Shakespeare series, and I felt it to be such a let down after reading Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time. I read Jacobson’s J last year and was disappointed in it in similar ways as I am disappointed in this one. While he can write, Jacobson is very disjointed in his writing, as if he is showing off to us plebs how smart, how intelligent, how verbose, how white, how upper class, and (in this case) how Jewish he is and therefore how much better he is than the rest of us. I can’t help but wonder if this is one of those books that are written for men, about men, and by men that us helpless females are too different fundamentally to understand what it’s all about.

In this case, this is Jacobson’s rendition of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. I have vague recollections of reading this play and finding Shylock interesting, but this novel didn’t seem to capture the Shakespeare “essence” as I felt Winterson’s retelling did.

What I disliked about this novel is the consistent and sexually charged current of a father obsessed with what enters his daughter’s vagina. Yes. Literally. I don’t recall that interpretation made of Shakespeare’s play, so it caught me off guard.

In chapter eight, Strulovitch comments on his daughter, Beatrice:

It had been going on a long time. She was thirteen when it started. Thirteen in fact, twenty-three in appearance. Luscious. A Levantine princess. A pomegranate. She was luscious to herself, too. He had caught her looking at her reflection in the mirror once, pouting her lips and laughing at her own fullness, smoothing her thighs, pushing out her breasts, amused by the too-muchness but overwhelmed by it at the same time. As though it imposed a responsibility on her. Was this really her? Was this really hers to do with as she chose? […] Of course she had to deploy herself. Of course she had to feel her beauty had a purpose beyond her own gaze and, yes – because she knew he tailed her, knew he followed her into her own bedroom even – beyond his.

It continues throughout the novel with Strulovitch thinking about whether or not he should find his daughter attractive. He also, through the entire length of the novel, considers the utmost importance of his existence was to make sure that the penis that enters her vagina is circumcised and importantly Jewish so that Beatrice is not banished from her family. Strulovitch is incredibly abusive in all ways to his young daughter in the way that many fanatic religious believers are. As her father, he believes he controls her entirely, from her day-to-day life to her private, sexual life. When she doesn’t listen to him, he goes off and throws a tantrum, demanding that pivotal pound of flesh.

In all, I think because I am not both “male” and Jewish, I miss the point of this self-reflexive novel. It brings to the forefront questions of Jewish morality in the modern age and whether or not the honest Jew should bend to the modern ways or be rigid as tradition dictates. And where The Merchant of Venice is argue as anti-semitic, I wonder if Jacobson’s novel is meant to be a mirror to it of sorts as it is constantly questioning the role of Jewishness in society where Merchant did not.

And where the play is unsympathetic toward Jewish people, this novel is unsympathetic toward women. It’s incredibly misogynistic in a way that’s uncomfortable and anger-inducing. Men do not own women and should absolutely never control the expression of a woman’s sexuality, no matter what age or relation. But alas. I don’t think Jacobson works for me, and I don’t think I’ll read anything of his in the future.

This book was provided to me for my honest review by Blogging for Books.

BOOK REVIEW: 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, by Marie Helene Bertino

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BOOK REVIEW: 2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas, by Marie Helene BertinoTitle: 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino
Published by Broadway Books
Published: October 27th 2015
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 288
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Blogging for Books
Goodreads

An enchanting and staggeringly original debut novel about one day in the lives of three unforgettable characters  Madeleine Altimari is a smart-mouthed, rebellious nine-year-old who also happens to be an aspiring jazz singer. Still mourning the recent death of her mother, and caring for her grief-stricken father, she doesn’t realize that on the eve of Christmas Eve she is about to have the most extraordinary day—and night—of her life. After bravely facing down mean-spirited classmates and rejection at school, Madeleine doggedly searches for Philadelphia's legendary jazz club The Cat's Pajamas, where she’s determined to make her on-stage debut. On the same day, her fifth grade teacher Sarina Greene, who’s just moved back to Philly after a divorce, is nervously looking forward to a dinner party that will reunite her with an old high school crush, afraid to hope that sparks might fly again. And across town at The Cat's Pajamas, club owner Lorca discovers that his beloved haunt may have to close forever, unless someone can find a way to quickly raise the $30,000 that would save it.   As these three lost souls search for love, music and hope on the snow-covered streets of Philadelphia, together they will discover life’s endless possibilities over the course of one magical night. A vivacious, charming and moving debut, 2 A.M. at The Cat's Pajamas will capture your heart and have you laughing out loud.

If you are anything other than humbled in the presence of love, you are not in the presence of love.

Marie-Helene Bertino’s writing is incredibly fresh and free-flowing, almost like jazz itself. It feels timeless it the sense that this story could have happened in the fifties or sixties or in contemporary times. There are very few details that suggest that this novel happens in the 2010s (I think there is only one mention of a touch screen phone). Because of that timelessness, the novel reads like a dream sequence. It’s effective and transporting.

This novel takes place over the span of a single day, from seven in the morning of Christmas Eve eve to seven in the morning of Christmas Eve. It follows a handful of interconnected characters, but it seemed to lack a deeper focus in characterization. When it ended, I wanted to know more about who these characters are and what happens in the coming year. I wanted to read more about Madeleine, the nine year old girl who doesn’t take shit from anybody. I’d really like to read about who she becomes when she grows up, because I think it would be a fascinating companion piece.

Overall, I enjoyed it. It’s a great novel about what happens between ends and new beginnings, and sometimes that’s exactly the novel we need to read.

A copy of this book was provided for review by Blogging For Books. All opinions are my own.