Review and Giveaway: American Rust by Philipp Meyer

American Rust by Philipp Meyer is a contemporary fiction novel set in a dying Pennsylvania steel town, where the largest employer has shut down years before, where few opportunities exist for the town’s youth or the adults who’ve spent their lives slaving away in the steel mills.

Isaac English is a smart but socially awkward young man saddled with the care of his disabled father. Bitter that his sister was able to get out after their mother’s suicide, he finally decides to leave town to make his way to California. Taking his father’s stash of emergency money and throwing some items in a backpack (journals, a jacket) he heads out, asking his one friend Billy Poe to join him in walking the tracks to the outskirts of town where the plan is he’ll jump a train.

Billy Poe is a young man who has used up all his chances. A football star in high school who’s had a couple scrapes with the law, a fight gone wrong, and some missed opportunities.. . now a few years have gone by and here he is, stuck. His glory days are behind him and his future looks bleak. With self doubt holding him back he has stayed behind with his mom in their trailer rather than pursue offers of college scholarships, thinking maybe he’d go away to school in a year or two- well, he realizes now he’s made a big mistake. Nobody wants him anymore and he’s full of regret.

So with no prospects and nothing to lose, Isaac and Billy set off. Before long they encounter a situation with some homeless men on their way out of town that turns violent and changes their lives forever.

Other characters in the book include Billy’s sad and lonely mother, who has had an on again/off again relationship with the chief of police for years; Isaac’s brilliantly stupid sister Lee, a genius and Yale graduate who married into a wealthy family but is still dangerously attracted to Billy Poe; Isaac’s used-up father, a man who favors his daughter and doesn’t realize his deep feelings for his son until it’s almost too late; and the conflicted Chief Harris, a man who means well but whose actions belie his questionable character.

Told from the perspective of all of these characters, this novel does a lot of things very well. Each voice was entirely unique and felt real and raw. Mr. Meyers has created memorable characters that leap off the page, with inner conflicts that are completely relatable. Not only do you want to know what will happen to Billy and Isaac, but you gain a deeper understanding of the complex issues facing towns like the fictional Buell, PA. This economically devastated yet beautiful town was a huge presence in the book. As I was reading, I kept wondering… even if you get out, can you ever escape your past?

American Rust is an excellent debut novel, dark and emotional.  It’s about loyalty, friendship, desperation, and loss.  Mr. Meyers storytelling is compelling and gritty. There is no happy ending here, but if you’re ok with that, this is one I highly recommend.

Random House has generously offered a copy of American Rust as a giveaway to one of my readers as part of it’s TLC Book Tour!  For a chance to win, leave a comment letting me know if you still live in or near your hometown, or if you’ve left it behind. The contest is open until Sunday, February 21, at midnight.

Book Review: The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf

The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf was my book club’s selection for our February discussion.  It was also a book we had on tour recently through TLC so I’d read a few reviews before I ever opened the book- although I don’t think that swayed my opinion of it.

Calli and Petra are 7 year old friends and playmates.  Calli is a selective mute.  You’d think that would make friendships difficult at best, yet Petra understands her, knows what she likes and dislikes, and is able to talk for her and smooth things over for her socially.  Friendship is easy at 7, and their friendship was very sweet.

Calli and Petra go missing from their respective homes in the wee hours of the morning on the same day.  Both girls’ homes back up to a wooded area where the girls have spent many happy hours playing, so the families think perhaps they are together and for some reason playing in the woods (at 4:30 am?).  Calli’s mom, especially, is not very concerned, having grown up in and around those woods.  But Calli’s dad, an abusive alcoholic asshole, was supposed to be leaving on a fishing trip with a friend at 3:00 am that very morning, and no one really thinks too much about that (I’m not giving anything away here because the reader knows from the beginning that dear old dad didn’t go fishing).  The police chief has a romantic history with Calli’s mother and a rivalry with Calli’s father, so there’s a massive conflict of interest, yet he’s on the case.  Small towns do things differently than the big cities, I ‘spose.

This book is told in very short chapters with very short sentences in the voices of different characters including Calli, Petra, Calli’s mom, Calli’s brother Ben, Petra’s dad, the police chief Louis.  Oddly, all the voices sounded the same to me, whether it was a 7 year old girl, a middle aged cop, or a 57 year old professor.  Same vocabulary, same tone- there just was no discernable difference.  I guess this bugged me more than it might have had it not been for the fact that the book I just finished prior to The Weight of Silence (American Rust) did that one particular thing VERY well- making the characters really distinct and individual.  I’m sure it’s not an easy thing for an author to do but it really goes a long way in engaging the reader.

This book was a page turner and I read it in two sittings (it would have been one, but I had to force myself to put it down and go to bed).  I wanted to know what would happen and so I kept going. And throughout I kept thinking, what is the deal with the dad?  What the heck is going on? However, the ending was unsatisfying and the writing unsophisticated.   The plot was full of so many coincidences that believability went right out the window.  Maybe I’m just a much more discerning reader than I used to be, but this one felt very amateurish.

I wonder what the other members of my book club will think..

Review: Homer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow

homer-and-langleyjpg-cda43efd81e324e5_smallHomer and Langley by E.L. Doctorow is a work of fiction and a first person narrative about two real life men, the eccentric Collyer brothers of New York, who were killed by their own filth and clutter in their home in 1947.

I’m a fan of the show Hoarders on A & E.  The compulsion to accumulate and never get rid of anything is weirdly fascinating to me.  Kind of like a train wreck; it’s horrific but you can’t turn away.  My husband is a packrat.  Nothing to this extent, but it’s still annoying.  He has business cards from every person he’s ever met, going back  20+ years.  Old sweatshirts from high school clog his closet.  He won’t let me throw them out.  But I (sort of) understand that he keeps these things for sentimental reasons. At least we don’t have stacks of newspapers to the ceiling, rotting food, musical instruments, baby carriages, 6 pianos and a Model T littering our home.

180px-Collyer1aThese guys were the original hoarders.  They had normal childhoods, but then Langley went off to war, Homer lost his eyesight, and their parents died of influenza.  Langley came back a changed man, having been exposed to mustard gas.  It twisted his brain, damaging his mind and spirit.

Of the two men, Langley Collyer was the accumulator of stuff.  He would find ‘useful’ things on the curb meant for the garbage collector and bring them home.  He also needed to protect his stuff from possible intruders by setting up booby traps.  He shuttered the windows in their Manhattan brownstone overlooking Central Park so that no one would be able to see in and covet their valuables.

Homer, being blind, had no choice but to depend on Langley.  At first he could easily manuever the rooms and halls of their home, but as the home filled up with treasures, and the rooms turned into mazes, he couldn’t manage as well.  In the end they had to tunnel through all the crap to get from one room to another.

180px-Collyer_03

Langley Collyer - NOT a neat freak!

Langley stopped paying the bills, because he couldn’t be bothered with them even though they had plenty of money, and before long they were in danger of losing their house.  The utilities were turned off and the wolves were at the door.  Langley read legal books in order to delay the inevitable, to fight back and defend himself.  Finally, at the very last possible moment, he wrote a check and famously paid off the entire mortgage in one fell swoop.

The author took significant liberties with the stories of Homer and Langley Collyer, even changing the years they were alive.  In reality they died under more than 300 tons of trash in their homes in 1947, but in the book, they lived thru the Woodstock era.  It seems Doctorow did this so that he could use their lives as a framework to highlight major events in history.  He also created a scenario that never happened to explain the brothers hoarding behaviors.  He made Homer a pianist, when in truth it was Langley.  And he made the onset of Homer’s blindness happen in his teens, decades earlier than it actually happened- probably a plot device to make Homer more dependent on Langley.

The fact that the book was narrated by the blind brother made for a very introspective story.  Their fictional lives were long and took them through Prohibition, the Depression, the Cold War, and the hippie era, meeting eccentric characters but not forming many attachments.  They thought of the household help as family but when they leave (or die) it is just Homer and Langley and all their junk.  Day after day, year after year, nothing much happens.

When Homer’s hearing starts to go towards the end of his life, he has only his memories and his consciousness left, and he becomes trapped in his body as well as his home.  There is a claustrophobic feeling so stifling at this point that I could not wait for the book to end. I imagine Homer felt that way in life too, a feeling of ‘let’s just get this over with.’

Homer and Langley is an interesting study of the inner lives of these oddball brothers and their tragic demise, but I found it somewhat dull and plodding.  Yet, even several weeks after finishing the book, I’m still thinking about it.

Review: In A Perfect World by Laura Kasischke

In-a-Perfect-World-199x300It’s the end of the world as we know it… and I feel fine.. that song kept running through my head as I was reading this book..

In a Perfect World by Laura Kasischke is a story set in the near future.  It’s a dystopian family drama, with a growing sense of doom extending right through to the very end.

Jiselle is a busy flight attendant who, at 32 years of age, has been a bridesmaid six times. After one particularly difficult evening at work (seven hours in a plane full of passengers that never left the runway) she is sitting in an airport bar, sipping a glass of wine, when a gorgeous pilot, Captain Mark Dorn, takes notice of her.  Three months later, after a whirlwind courtship, they become engaged.

It’s on the afternoon of Mark and Jiselle’s engagement that they see the white balloons for the first time.  One balloon for every victim of the Phoenix flu.  Groups in every major American city are releasing white balloons.  Are they a compassionate expression of concern, or a political statement and condemnation of the current administration in the White House?  The media can’t decide.

And when Mark and Jiselle go out of the country for their honeymoon, they are warned that people aren’t renting rooms to Americans.  Taxi drivers won’t drive Americans. Jiselle and Mark view it all as a minor inconvenience rather than any kind of true threat. The Phoenix flu, reminiscent of swine flu or bird flu, is spreading across America and beyond. Fear and panic are taking hold throughout the world and Americans are being shunned wherever they go.  But Mark and Jiselle are in love *cue the angels* so they don’t focus on that.

Before Jiselle knows what hit her she is living in Mark’s log cabin and stepmom to his three children.  Everything is picture-perfect.  Unfortunately, Mark’s daughters hate her and make no effort to hide it, but Mark’s little boy Sam is a sweetie and they form a bond.

The new family has some adjustment issues.  Jiselle quits her job to take care of the kids, and Mark, due to his flight schedule, is frequently absent.  The older girls are horrible to Jiselle but she remains kind to them.  The family situation reaches a crisis level and their marriage is put to the test when Mark, after a flight to Germany, is quarantined for months in that country. Even though the kids and Jiselle are still getting to know one another, they must rely on each other as the flu becomes a pandemic and the outlook is dire.  Will the family survive?

This isn’t an easy review to write because the book has a bit of an identity crisis.  Is it a ripped-from-the-headlines tale about a flu epidemic?  Yes.  Is it a romance?  Sort of.  A family drama? Sure.  Just when I thought the story would go down one path, it went down another.  I was most drawn into the story line about the pandemic.  I’ve got the swine flu symptoms memorized and my kids never leave the house without hand sanitizer, so I read that part with fascination and dread.  The fact that something like this could happen (is happening) makes it scary.  The author included plenty of information surrounding the flu and the spread of disease to make it timely and realistic.

But the reading experience wasn’t intense.  I wasn’t on the edge of my seat.  I thought Jiselle was a little silly, worrying more about her relationship (‘he hasn’t called.. what does it mean?’) when there were much bigger things to worry about, like how they would survive.  I was less interested in the romance and subsequent family drama than about the pandemic, and when Jiselle would blather on about how handsome Mark was, it was all I could do not to skim and skip ahead to get back to the sections about the flu.  It felt like two separate stories, with the one being much more compelling than the other.

I liked this book for the beautiful writing.  It was a quick read that I didn’t put down until I had finished it.  But I didn’t care for the ending.  I don’t need a perfect ending but I do like to have something of a clue as to what happens.  It’s all left up to speculation, which would probably make it an excellent choice for a book club.  They could debate what happens to this family. They could give opinions on what, if anything, Jiselle heard at the end.

In a Perfect World isn’t perfect, however I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the subject matter.  It’s a thought provoking read and one I won’t soon forget.

For other opinions of the book, check out the rest of Laura Kasischke’s virtual book tour:

Monday, October 12th – Starting Fresh

Wednesday, October 14th – BookNAround

Thursday, October 15th – Book Club Classics!

Monday, October 19th – A Reader’s Respite

Friday, October 23rd – The Book Nest

Monday, October 26th – Galleysmith

tlc-logo-resizedThursday, October 29th – A High and Hidden Place

Monday, November 2nd – Word Lily

Tuesday, November 3rd – Books on the Brain

Thursday, November 5th – Write Meg

Many thanks to Trish for including me on this TLC Book Tour.

Review: Two Years, No Rain by Shawn Klomparens

coverTwo Years, No Rain by Shawn Klomparens is a fitting book for me to review right now, as the first rainstorm of the year blew through today.  After digging out the umbrellas and dusting off the boots it occurred to me that the kids probably wouldn’t fit into any of their rain gear.  Yes, it has been that long since we’ve had rain.  I can’t remember the last time we had measurable rainfall in Southern California, but it was probably back in March or April.

The weather is used as a metaphor in Two Years, No Rain.  Andy Dunne is a weatherman on the radio but his job is a bit dull and predictable, what with the ever-present sunshine and mild temps in San Diego County.  Not only has the climate been dry; Andy’s career and personal life have gone through a long drought as well.  But the storm clouds of change are looming on the horizon…

Andy’s marriage has failed after his wife cheated on him repeatedly.   Even so, he feels responsible because he hasn’t been an attentive husband.  For the last two years he’s been pining away for a married colleague, Hillary.  Late night phone calls with wine glasses in hand (drunk dialing?) and frequent texting (“What are you wearing?”) are as far as the relationship has gone, but there’s an emotional investment here that he can’t deny.

Hillary sets him up on an interview for a new children’s TV show similar to Blues Clues and he lands the job.  He starts a workout regime in order to prepare for his on-air gig and within weeks he looks and feels better than ever and is being recognized whenever he goes out, and not just by kids.  Hot young moms all over town want to buy him a drink or get his autograph.  He likes the attention to a point but is mostly uninterested and wants to be with Hillary.  He’s waited for her (and the rain) for a very long time.

Hillary’s husband has taken notice of all the messages between them and tells Andy to back off.  The indignant Hillary tells her husband she can be friends with whoever she wants, and soon Andy and Hillary have regular lunch dates and are getting cozier and cozier.  However Hillary is inconsistent (come here.. go away.. come here.. go away) and Andy is confused.  Hillary’s husband is neglectful and often absent, making her open to Andy’s attentions at times but also leaving her with guilt over their relationship.

Andy drinks too much, makes some poor choices, gets really angry,  holds a grudge,   passes out, falls down, ignores health warnings, finds success, carries on with a married woman, and buries his true feelings.  He’s also sweet, wounded, vulnerable, a good uncle, and a nice guy.  In other words, he’s a very realistic and relatable character.

I liked Andy and hoped he would figure everything out, but he also frustrated me.  He wasn’t exactly a man of action.  He was rather passive and just let things happen to him,.  I wanted him to be more of a take charge guy; more John Wayne, less.. I don’t know.  I’m trying to think of an actor that’s kind of bland.   He had a certain charm, especially in the scenes with his niece, and I did like him, but I was really waiting for him to be a more manly man.  But that was not to be.

I enjoyed Two Years, No Rain.  It was unusual reading a chick-lit style book with a guy as the main character.  That was a first for me and it was a refreshing change of pace. There were funny moments, good dialogue, and unusual situations.  If you like chick lit, but are looking for something a little different,  give this one a try!

A bunch of us discussed this book over the summer.  Check out this post to see the comments.  You can visit the author’s website and learn more about his work HERE.

Review: Goldengrove by Francine Prose

Goldengrove-PB-199x300Goldengrove by Francine Prose is a tender examination of a young girl’s grief over the loss of her beloved older sister, Margaret.

Margaret is a dreamer, a lover of old movies, a poet and singer.  Nico and Margaret are sisters and co-conspirators, finding ways for Margaret and her boyfriend Aaron to be together behind their parents’ backs.  With summer coming up, the last summer the sisters will be together before Margaret goes off to college, they are looking forward to spending time together.  One warm spring day, Margaret and Nico take a rowboat out on the lake.  Margaret, smoking cigarettes and talking to 13 year old Nico about boys and sex, stands and gives Nico a final salute before diving into the water and heading for shore.  Except, she never gets there.  Margaret drowns in the lake, and life for her family is never the same.

“What had we talked about before?  Margaret had done all the talking.  Now there was nothing to say.  We were the wallflowers left behind when Margaret waltzed away.”

Margaret’s death is a minor tragedy in their small upstate New York community, but completely devastating for her family.  Her dad loses himself in his writing project, and her mom self medicates with alcohol.  Nico is mostly forgotten and ignored, although as their One Remaining Child, they do set down some rules and safety guidelines for her that sometimes seem a bit extreme.  At one point she wants to tell Margaret how goofy her parents are behaving, but then remembers the reason they are acting that way.  While her parents are distracted, Nico goes through every stage of grief.  Consumed by thoughts of Margaret, she must learn to cope with her loss.

Nico helps her dad at his bookstore, Goldengrove, and during slow times she reads up on heart conditions, fearing she has the same physical ailments Margaret had.  She also begins secretly hanging out with Aaron, becoming partners in grief with her sister’s lover. She believes he is the only one who understands what she’s going through, and being with him makes her feel normal again.  But his reasons for wanting to spend time together are different than hers; he wants to turn her into Margaret and doesn’t see her for the young, naive girl she actually is.

The majority of the story takes place during the summer after Margaret’s death; all of it, actually, except the last 4 or 5 pages.  This would be my only quibble with the book- the ending, with Nico as an adult, felt kind of tacked on, detached, and unnecessary. However, even with the quickie ending, this is realistic fiction at it’s finest.

Francine Prose has written a piece of art, a mournful yet exquisite novel that was an absolute pleasure to read.  She is amazingly talented and I am thrilled to have discovered this new-to-me author.  I’d highly recommend Goldengrove to anyone who enjoys beautiful writing, coming of age stories, or family drama.

Goldengrove is Francine Prose’s 15th novel.


For other stops on this blog tour, check out the TLC Book Tours schedule.

Listen to Francine Prose discuss Goldengrove with Book Club Girl on Blog Talk Radio on Air.

Review: Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

51bdApUjo-L._SL500_AA240_Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger is a modern gothic tale set in London near Highgate Cemetery.

The story begins in a hospital, where 45 year old Elspeth dies of cancer while her younger lover, Robert, is at the vending machines getting coffee. Robert crawls in bed with her and wraps himself around her in a touching scene I won’t soon forget.

Elspeth has an estranged twin, Edie, who lives in Chicago. Edie and her husband Jack also have twins, Julia and Valentina, mirror images of each other. Elspeth has left her London flat and everything in it to her nieces, two young ladies she has never met, with the stipulation that they live alone in the flat for one year, and that their parents never set foot in the flat. Julia and Valentina, unmotivated girls who’ve already dropped out of two colleges, find this all a bit mysterious but decide to give it a go.

Once the twins arrive in London and settle in, it’s not long before they sense an otherwordly presence in the flat. Valentina is more attuned to it than Julia and becomes fixated on discovering what it all means.

There are a number of superb peripheral characters in Her Fearful Symmetry that were well developed and interesting. Martin, a neighbor in an upper flat, struggles with raging OCD. His wife Marijke lives apart from him, but their love story is touching and beautiful. Robert, also a neighbor, a guide at Highgate, and the one tragically left behind after Elspeth’s death, is a study in grief and longing.

I don’t want to give away too much of the plot because it’s truly an amazing reading experience. However as much as I enjoyed it, there were parts that left me confused. There’s an intricate twist about Edie and Elspeth and Jack. I re-read that section twice and finally had to get out a piece of paper and diagram the whole thing just to make sense of it. There were scenes that I really enjoyed (the BEST was when Elspeth snagged the kitten!!), but the end felt rushed and wrong to me. I’m sure there are many people who will disagree with me about the ending, but I felt almost cheated by it.  Rather than saying, “Wow!” at the end, I was saying, “What??!!”  I was waiting for a showdown between two characters (one alive and one dead) that never came, and that disappointed me.   I had hoped for answers about one character’s motivations and there weren’t any, which forced me to speculate.

rip4150However, don’t let me scare you off.  Niffenegger is a pro at writing about love and emotions and does so in a most creative way in Her Fearful Symmetry. This author, who made time travel so believable in The Time Traveler’s Wife, now gives us a beyond-the-grave love story, full of suspense and impending doom. If you’re looking for a creepy ghostly read for October, look no further! Her Fearful Symmetry will be in stores tomorrow, Tuesday, September 29th.

I read HFS as part of the RIP IV Challenge.

FYI, the publisher is giving away ten ARCs and three first edition hardcovers on October 1st in a lottery to anyone who joins the Facebook page as a fan and sends an email to hfs@regal-literary.com. Good Luck!


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