The Exiles by Allison Lynn

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The Exiles follows a plot structure that I’ve read before: young New York family, tired of living in the city, seeks greener pastures in a small town, only to have something horrible befall them in the small town. Through this horrible thing, they realize that New York might not have been the cause of all their problems. Nate and Emily have plenty of problems. Nate is estranged from his father, his only living relative, and his family history is full of tragedy. His relationship with Emily was a bright spot in his life, including the birth of their son, but the past few months he has been keeping something terrible from Emily and it directly affects their son. He doesn’t know how to come clean, so he’s been suffering from anxiety ever since his son’s birth. Emily is also keeping secrets from her husband and both are unsure how to bring these secrets out in the open.

In an effort to get rid of the biggest anxiety in their life, their financial problems, Emily and Nate decide to move to a small Rhode Island town, where they will start over. They will be able to afford a savings account, a house, everything. When they go to pick up the keys from their real estate agent, their car full with all their worldly possessions is stolen. Nate and Emily must navigate the holiday weekend with less than $100 and nothing but what they were carrying when the car was stolen.

The stolen car is only a catalyst. It gets Nate and Emily to share a hotel room for the weekend, three claustrophobic days where all of their secrets must eventually come to light. This is a story about people who make awful decisions for reasons they don’t understand. The characters can’t see how they got from point A to point B, how they went from a sane, normal person to making rash decisions that affect everyone around them.

I liked a lot of things about The Exiles. Nate and Emily, though you might not necessarily like them, are characters you sympathize with. They’ve simply been overwhelmed by life. They think it is New York that has changed them, has made them unable to live life as they should, but they did it to themselves.

The Exiles is a farce in the sense that the situations are all extreme: Nate’s secret, Emily’s secret, the stolen car, the unlikely appearance of a few characters that’s uncannily timed, the complete lack of consequences for anyone’s actions. So if The Exiles is a farce, what exactly is it exposing as ridiculous? The middle class aspirations of the 90s and early 2000s? We know that life for Nate and Emily is only going to get worse. They have no savings and the economy is about to come crashing down around them. The audience knows this, Nate and Emily even casually mention how much trouble they’d be in if anything went south. Perhaps it’s the idea of a perfect life: the small town, the nuclear family, the perfect cookie cutter house. It’s the American dream and it’s not going to make Nate and Emily happy. Only they can do that.

In the end, I guess I’m not sure what the point is, but I’m also not sure how much it matters. I liked The Exiles especially once I realized that nothing was quite as it seemed. If you only like your protagonists likeable, I’m sure you’ll dislike The Exiles. But if you like books where the morals are a little bit grayer and the outcomes a little bit less defined and clear, you’ll fall for this one just like I did, even though I wasn’t expecting to.

I received this book as a part of the TLC Book Tour. You can read more about this tour, including other stops on the tour, here.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker

I have thought a lot about The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker since I finished reading it. I read it almost as soon as I received it in the mail and I’ve had a lot of time to think about it. The more and more I think about it, though, the less I am truly sure what my opinion of this coming-of-age story is.

The Age of Miracles is the story of the earth’s slowing. When the earth’s rotation slows and the days get longer and longer, Julia and the rest of the world try to go on living their life as normally as they can. They keep to a 24 hour clock, waking and going about their days in darkness some days and sleeping through the sunshine. Gravity and climate change affect daily life. There is a mysterious illness associated with the slowing. Everything from the way we grow plants to when we sleep is thrown into uncertainty.

I suppose, in a sense, the ultimate takeaway from this novel is that life goes on in a disaster like this. Will husbands stop cheating on their wives if the world ends? Will middle schoolers stop being, well, middle schoolers just because there might not be a tomorrow? Will first love be any less bittersweet because suddenly the sun is too strong for people to walk outside? The title The Age of Miracles comes from a moment when the narrator, an adult Julie (therefore ruining any suspense about the fate of humanity, since we know that, at the very least, Julie becomes a young adult) compares the time when we are between childhood and adolescence “the age of miracles.” But so too is the earth slowing a horrific kind of miracle.

I was so excited for The Age of Miracles. That amount of anticipation is bound to lead to some kind of disappointment. If you’ve already practically written the book in your head before you’ve read it, it’s never going to live up to your expectations, and that was part of my problem with The Age of Miracles. It never quite was the book I wanted it to be.

This is not a science fiction novel. There is fictional science in this story and it plays an integral role in the story, but at the core of this story is that life goes on. The changes in Julia’s life start with the slowing of the earth, but they would have happened without it, too. Instead of the slowing of the earth being what the story is about, it is simply a metaphor for the upheaval of adolescence. Is there something wrong with that? Not particularly, I just didn’t think it was as interesting a story as it could have been. The Age of Miracles is a melancholy novel and I think the tone works, especially considering the fact that Julia is telling her story as an adult. Julia has some nostalgia for this tumultuous time period, when everything was new and terrifying.

Ultimately, I found The Age of Miracles to be uneven. The characters were very one-note, but I can see how this could come about from the narration style. Julia, after all, would only remember her father a certain way, not necessarily for the complex man he was. But this is also my problem with an adult narrator telling about their childhood: it’s such a limited focus. I wanted to move beyond Julia’s vision.

Some of the details of this novel, though, were perfect. Thompson Walker diligently researched what could possibly happen if the earth’s rotation slowed, and these were some of my favorite parts of the novel. I could have read 100 pages more about the way the world reacted to the slowing instead of Julia’s own small world.

And we’re, unfortunately, back again to the novel I wanted to read, instead of the novel I did read. Sometimes when anticipation is that high, it is the reader’s fault that the novel didn’t live up to the anticipation. Sometimes it is the novel’s fault. In this case, I think it was a little bit of both. The Age of Miracles is good, but it could have been great.

Thank you to TLC Book Tours for sending me a copy of The Age of Miracles to review. You can read more about this tour, including links to other tour stops, here.

The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White by Daniel J. Sharfstein

What we expect out of a book is not often what we get. When a book surpasses our expectations, we are excited and giddy at the thought of a book that not only didn’t let us down, but impressed us. When a book doesn’t meet our expectations, there is a lot of complex emotions, but always a lingering question: is it the book’s fault, or mine?

I feel bad turning the review of this book into an existential question about book reviewing, but I can’t help it. The Invisible Line is a book that I was so excited to read, but unfortunately, I just didn’t enjoy reading. But I also can’t say that it was entirely the fault of The Invisible Line.

Let’s talk about what The Invisible Line is: well-researched, a fascinating, worthy topic, and fairly readable. Essentially, Sharfstein traces the lives of three families that “pass” from black to white through the generations. Their descendants often aren’t even aware that they have black ancestors in their family line. Sometimes the process occurs over a generation, sometimes several. What I really gained from the experience of reading this book was the realization that what we think of as something so fixed, racial relations in the US before and after the Revolutionary war, was actually a lot more fluid. This book really did make me think and made me interested to read more, but I wish it had been more readable.

Those who like this book are probably shaking their heads at me, because Sharfsteins book reads more like a novel sometimes than a piece of history, but that was exactly my issue. In the same way that I wonder when I am reading historical fiction how much is true and how much is made up, I couldn’t get past some of the additions Sharfstein added to the narrative. Take this passage for example:

Gideon Gibson rode alone through the perpetual twilight of the woods on a Sunday. In the thick forests of the South Carolina backcountry, light hit the ground scattered and split, filtered through leaves and pine needles as through a cathedral’s stained glass. Sunbeams swirled with dust and gnats in the torpid August air. When Gibson reached his destination, one man was waiting for him, as agreed. In the open they would have taken shots at each other. But here they could meet quietly and alone, as equals and gentlemen. (13)

While I can appreciate the beauty of that passage, how, exactly, does Sharfstein know what the light looked like? He mentions in the Introduction that he relied on letters and historical accounts for much of his atmospheric information, but I just wasn’t convinced by it. I’m all for writing creatively and writing non-fiction in a way that is keeps people reading, but it was distracting for me. I would always wonder: where did that information come from? Sharfstein does address in his notes where he originally read about the physical details, but it seems odd coming from a very fiction-like omniscient narrator. That is not to say that I prefer completely cold, academic writing, but this way of infusing life into a book about history just isn’t for me.

The structure of the book did not work for me either. I kept getting confused by which family we were talking about and, try as I might, I could not keep the details straight. It made for frustrated reading when I was constantly going back and forth to try and figure out what had happened previously in the family’s history. I understand the inclusion of all three families, because their histories and their experiences with passing were so very different, but this book would have been much more manageable for me if it had focused on one of the families.

But these are, for the most part, personal hang-ups. I am not saying that I think Sharfstein’s book is bad, on the contrary, I think it is an interesting and valid addition to the books published on race. As an introduction to the topic, I’m not sure it was a good place to start, but it certainly got me interested in reading more about race relations in the US. His writing style is not for me, but there are plenty of people who do love this kind of writing.

I’m really interested to see what the rest of the reviewers on this tour think of The Invisible Line as I’m pretty confident that I will be in the minority here. It is a good book and if you are interested in this topic and already know something about it, I highly suggest you pick this up.

Special thanks to TLC Book Tours for sending me a copy of this book to review.

Previous stops on the tour: My American Melting Pot

Because I am confident that there are other people who would like this book a lot more than I did, I’d like to pass my copy on to another reader, so they can review it on their blog. If you are interested in reading and reviewing The Invisible Line, please leave a comment and I will randomly select a winner in one week.

Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust

I admit it, I was seduced by a book title. When asked if I wanted to review Unprotected Texts by Jennifer Wright Knust I almost couldn’t pass up a book with such a clever title. This book, subtitled The Bible’s Surprising Contradictions About Sex and Desire, Unprotected Texts looks at just that, the ways in which the Bible and the writers of the books of the Bible are frequently contradictory in terms of sex and sexual morality.

Once I read the introduction, I was sure I was going to love this book. Part of the inspiration for this book came from the fact that she was repeatedly called a slut in middle school, even though the people calling her that didn’t know what her sexual activities were. Jennifer was not a “slut” as society defines the term, but anyway, was being a “slut” really so bad? So Knust decides to analyze what the Bible actually says about sex.

Two things are keeping me from giving this book a good review and neither of them are really Knust’s fault. First, this book ended up not being anything like I imagined and second I am not the targeted audience for this book. So let’s deal with the first problem. I thought that this book was more a social commentary informed by what the Bible actually says, rather than an in depth analysis of Biblical passages. Unfortunately, there was little social commentary in this book at all. Knust does sometimes address major political figures, like Jerry Falwell, but only talks vaguely about more common problems within evangelical Christian sects when it comes to sex, virginity, marriage and gender inequality.

Second, I’m really not the targeted audience for this book. While I’m very interested in Christian history and the Bible as literature, I’m not exactly interested in it as a moral guideline. Though I grew up in the Christian/Catholic tradition, I am nonpracticing and am not what you would call a believer. I don’t think that Knust’s book is necessarily only for believers, but I am just not as interested in the amount of biblical detail that Knust provided. I want more commentary rather than analysis of the specific Biblical passages. How is what Knust finds going to influence society? Is it going to change anything?

When Knust did talk about modern society in relation to the biblical, I was very impressed. I wish the whole book were like this quote:

Whatever I am teaching, however, I usually begin by asking participants what they wish the Bible said about the topic at hand. Do we wish that the Bible would reject war as a political strategy? Or perhaps we believe that the Bible should support defensive if not offensive wars. Do we wish that the Bible would confirm gay marriage, instead of rejecting it as so many Christians insist? Or perhaps our concern has to do with the role of women. Perhaps we wish that Paul had not told women to be silent and learn from their husbands at home, especially since talkative and independent women can be found throughout the Bible just as often as silent, obedient women. Whatever we wish for, I point out, probably can be found somewhere in the Bible, which is why it is so important to admit that we have wishes, whatever they may be. We are not passive recipients of what the Bible says, but active interpreters who make decisions about what we will believe and what we will affirm. Admitting that we have wishes, and that our wishes matter, is therefore the first step to developing an honest and faithful interpretation.

Once upon a time, the followers of Jesus knew that they were interpreting the Bible, not simply extracting truth from a set of divinely inspired texts. (241)

I think that Knust has a brave, important thesis: the Bible is so contradictory about sex and sexual morality that we cannot know or judge based on what we believe the Bible to say. Almost any opinion can be supported by a passage in the Bible. As such, those who are quoting the Bible to justify what they are doing, need to back up and think again. It’s very clear, from the length of the bibliography and notes alone (almost the same length as the actual text of the book) that she knows her stuff. She is a Biblical scholar, minister and professor at Boston University.

Unfortunately, I just don’t know that this book really has the power to change people’s opinion. I sincerely hope that it does get some people thinking and maybe even inspire the book I actually wanted to read.

Like I said, ultimately, none of this is really Knust’s fault, just the unfortunate experience of expectations unmet.

Proud Book Nerd also wrote a post about Unprotected Texts.  Did you? Let me know in the comments and I’ll add you to this list.

Special thanks to TLC Book Tours for sending me this book to review. For more information about the tour, click here.

Character driven family drama in The Summer We Fell Apart

When I first began reading The Summer We Fell Apart, I instantly fell in love with the narrator Amy, the youngest daughter of the Haas family and her innocent analysis of one summer in her life.  Her mother is an actress and her father is a writer and both are overly dramatic and uncaring.   They hurt each other and ultimately hurt their children, though perhaps unintentionally.  Amy, a high school student, is not only dreading the departure of her favorite brother George for college, but also trying to understand Miriam, the slightly older exchange student who comes to live with them. Her voice was touching and innocent, but still aware that her life and the lives of her siblings were changing forever that summer, when their father finally left their mother.

When I realized that the different parts of the novel were from different perspectives, one part for each Haas child, I was disappointed because Amy was so unique and I absolutely did not want to leave her. Fortunately, each and every single character surprised me: I enjoyed all of the characters and their respective sections of the book.  Each voice managed to be unique, while at the same time bringing new insights to the character.  It was a very perfect example of how to pull off this style.  Too often with alternating narrators or changing narrators, one becomes more believable or more enjoyable to read than the other.  Antalek never falls into this this trap, instead each section informs the reader about a character’s motivations.

The title to this novel is somewhat misleading as this book does not only take place during one summer, but it’s about the consequences that summer had on the family for many years to come.  We are first introduced to Amy and George when they are in high school, but end when they are in their late twenties/early thirties.  I was instantly drawn to Amy in her introductory section and Antalek was smart to allow Amy to begin the story, because she did not quite understand everything that was happening and that allowed the story to be unfurl gracefully, with each child revealing a little bit more.  George, the younger brother, also had a wonderful voice that I loved immediately.  He falls in love with the fathers of one of his students and it’s a really touching love story.

I really wasn’t looking forward to Kate’s section because of the descriptions of her provided by George and Amy: overbearing and rude.  However, this is really where Antalek proved that she knew what she was doing.  Kate’s section helped me to understand her character, and even though I didn’t always like what she was doing, I at least got where she was coming from.  Finally there is Finn’s section, the shortest, but one of the most important.  The culmination of the consequences of that summer in one tragic event brought the children and their mother together again to face their responsibility and their injuries.

The Summer We Fell Apart really surprised me.  Though the subject matter was heavy, it is a very hopeful novel that acknowledges not only the ways that families can hurt us, but also the way they can comfort and shelter us, even when we are least expecting it.

So go read this!: now | tomorrow | next week | next month | next year | when you’ve exhausted your TBR

Disclaimer: I received this book for review from TLC Book Tours.  Next stop: Dolce Belleza.