Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

Freshwater

Freshwater by Akwaeke Emezi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


I’ve never read anything like Freshwater, and I’m so grateful that I did. This semi-autobiographical novel presents a rotation of narrators who all share the same body: the Nigerian college student Ada and the multiplicity of ogbanje children who shift in and out of her consciousness. The way that the author’s spiritual beliefs help frame the characters’ experience is fascinating… a metaphysical look at an identity as multiple, that a Western understanding might otherwise call fragmented, is presented in a way where we understand the motivation, the cruelties, the protection, and the pain of all the spirits within the “marble room” of the mind in an entirely new way. It was a difficult book to read purely because of the unceasing emotional pain of the narrative. But the writing is boldly inventive and captures a unique human experience of self-finding through the dark. A sensational debut.



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Book Review: North Writers by John Henricksson, editor

North Writers I: A Strong Woods Collection

North Writers I: A Strong Woods Collection by John Henricksson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


A lovely collection of short essay/memoir writings from a highly specific part of the American (and Canadian) landscape. A variety of voices and experiences are present here. Some of the pieces feel dated for the modern reader while others remain poignant and fresh. If you have love for the north woods, you’ll find something to enjoy at some point in this book. I would recommend reading it in small bites at a time. The volume is split between nature-focused writings and more human encounters–my preference was for the former.



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Book Review: The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin

The Shadow of Sirius

The Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


I don’t know what I could add to the observation of the committee who awarded this set of Merwin’s poems the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry: “A collection of luminous, often tender poems that focus on the profound power of memory.” Not only are many of the individual poems so special*, but the overall permeating sense of the book creates a unique color of emotion when read all together. Another of his reviewers identifies it, again, so much better than I can: “his personal anonymity, his strict individuated manner, his defense of the earth, and his heartache at time’s passing.” It is all that and more.

W.S. Merwin truly was a master poet, and there are so many places here to stop and say “oh”! in this collection, one of the finest and latest in his long, prolific career. If you love poetry, especially if you’ve been away from it for a while, I highly recommend The Shadow of Sirius.

*There were so many standout poems in the collection, but if I had to pick one: “Just This.”



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Book Review: Shipwrecks of Lake Superior, edited by James Marshall

Shipwrecks of Lake Superior

Shipwrecks of Lake Superior by James R. Marshall

My rating: 3 of 5 stars


I found this charming book in a used bookstore in Door County, Wisconsin. Compiled in the 1980’s, this volume is a collection of articles that methodically explores the known history of shipwrecks in Lake Superior–a topic that I’m currently researching. For the purpose of information, it’s an awesome find. The writing quality does widely vary from article to article. Some are filled with poetic prose, others unbearably dry. All of them are written by maritime history enthusiasts and divers, not necessarily writers… However, I found that created amusing results. For instance, the clearly heated opinions over theories regarding the reasons a ship might or might not have sunk come through with barely veiled salt. It’s great.
*
Like most of the non-fiction books I read, I wouldn’t recommend it other than for a very specific audience. Want all the facts on Lake Superior wrecks right at your fingertips, down to the names and lengths and crews of every single ship, but with no real regard for writing quality or organization? Look no further!



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Book Review: Rough Magic by Lara Prior-Palmer

Rough Magic: Riding the World's Loneliest Horse Race

Rough Magic: Riding the World’s Loneliest Horse Race by Lara Prior-Palmer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Lara Prior-Palmer’s Rough Magic is a disarmingly contemplative memoir. It is a very satisfying book for two opposing reasons. 1. It is a horse book that is actually about horses in a very major way–the way they move, look, communicate, feel. The horse race referred to in the title encompasses the bulk of the book, and that’s what we all truly want if a book has a horse on the cover. 2. The book also is a joy to read because of its human narrator, who treats the story as looking glass, postcard, forecast, and saga. She looks ever inward, sparing us no qualm or thorn as she faces her immediate inner and outer landscapes. It is a quiet, meditative, foggy book. Prior-Palmer lets us get lost with her, and the result is quite lovely, quite true.



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Book Review: The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

The Rise of Endymion (Hyperion Cantos, #4)

The Rise of Endymion by Dan Simmons

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


The final installment in the Hyperion Cantos delivers on every front, succeeding in weaving together the hundreds of mysteries that Simmons scatters seemingly haphazardly everywhere throughout the four book set. This is simply cerebral sci-fi at its best, set at a scope so dizzying that it makes many other complex fantasy universes look like child’s play. Even amid a story that spans the entirety of time and space, though, the novel remains extraordinarily intimate. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that these coexisting features of the writing mirror Simmons’ ultimate point: that every moment in time, every place in the universe, every possible future–all these things do not make the individual human insignificant. Rather, the most personal and private of our emotions may make up the very fabric of reality as we know it, and stretch in significance far beyond what we could ever imagine. An ambitious notion, with an ambitious set of books to accompany it, ending here pretty much perfectly.

**I will also add that I think Simmons’ editor could have been a little more aggressive on some instances of repetitive over-explanation in this particular installment… but I forgive Dan Simmons anyway because this series is stunning, unforgettable, and otherwise without flaw.



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Book Review: Endymion by Dan Simmons

Endymion (Hyperion Cantos, #3)

Endymion by Dan Simmons

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos series continues on in its dazzling way in this, the third novel of four. The two previous books are on my all-time favorites list, so I’ve been waiting a good long time to savor Endymion. While it is, by my estimation, the weakest of the series, that really doesn’t mean much because it’s still ridiculously good. The series is a masterclass in world building, although in Simmons’ case it’s more like universe building. The characters are captivating and the sense of adventure is so solid. It’s everything one could ask for from classic sci-fi–big ideas peppered with aliens, androids, space battles, showdowns, time travel and spaceships with personalities. Raul is a compassionate and charismatic everyman who, despite his multiple death sentences, is very easy to love. Certain scenes (the rainbow shark swarm, the resurrection creches, and the arrival at an empty Qom Riyadh, for instance) were incredibly creepy and real-feeling. There’s some hefty exposition in there–though done well–that is hard to immediately care about in certain sections, but I know it will all come together in book four, which I am going to start reading…. Right. Now.



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Book Review: Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

Ghost Wall

Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Sarah Moss writes beautifully–and with a keen sense of danger–in this novella. The evocative imagery spun for Ghost Wall‘s Northumbrian setting pulls heavily, just like the thick of a bog. It’s an uncomfortable but resplendent story that presents a vulnerable type of hero we rarely see: someone who is young and extremely capable, but also extremely helpless to use that capability to save herself. In many ways, a story of constraint runs parallel to one of awakening, and that’s mirrored in a really lovely way as Moss describes how bodies look and feel, long for and resist. More than anything, this fierce little book asks us who our ghosts become, and whether they function as hungry entities to appease or as shadowy warning cries that we only hear when we most need to. Also: a reminder to notice and act when we need to protect someone who can’t protect themselves.



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Book Review: The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

The Essex Serpent

The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The Essex Serpent is a thought-provoking, lushly gothic read that imagines an Austen-esque heroine in her darkest timeline. Sarah Perry, much like her insatiably curious heroine Cora, unearths everything she can find within her narrative, revealing pieces of debates about religious belief, social obligation, and the nature of friendship. It’s a story filled with the pursuit of forbidden desires and is really fairly devoid of redemption–which is, I think, exactly the point. Mythical serpents are always better in our minds than seeing the truth flayed on the shore, and Perry plays with this idea in human nature. What if the things that we wanted to happen–with our friendships, with our fascinations, with our attractions, with our deaths–were all actually granted? Would it be what we wanted and hoped for? Or would we rather cling to the mystery of what our lives might be like? The novel brims with life, but also with defeat. An absorbing read.



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Book Review: The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


This book is wildly experimental and very, very, very weird. It’s an ambitious and powerful hellscape with a spellbinding staying power. Matt Bell makes a torrential statement with this novel, the narrative structure of which resembles something like echoes that you can see bouncing off of a set of mirrors that you can hear. It’s truly beyond literal description and yet finds its footing in classical allegorical territory–it’s a psychological tour through grief, marital love and resentment, self-hatred, and the perverse (or courageous) will to keep going through any despair. The reader who approaches this monstrosity needs to be willing to accept almost anything as truth, and must be up for constant gut-turning imagery and lots and lots of pain. But: the reward is great. The story is a spinning, dreamlike voyage that I found impossible to go back from once I began. Bell pulls his reader deeper and deeper in, until it’s done. The rage and sorrow communicated in this story are as real as the plot is impossible, and that’s the towering literary feat of this pitch-dark, fantastical read. It reminds us that our choices, however we may choose to move on from them, are irreversible, and only our own to atone for.



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