Reviews

The Roanoke Girl by Amy Engel

RoanokeUpon finishing this book, I took a long moment to wonder what the hell I’d just read. This book makes Flowers in the Attic look conventional.

The Roanoke Girls* tells the tale of then and now, with family history woven in. Cousins Lane and Allegra, through death and dysfunction, come to live with their grandparents on a sprawling estate in rural Kansas. The novel early chapters contain this brilliant gem.

“Roanoke girls never last long around here. In the end, we either run or we die”.

It’s so simple, yet it hints at the dark and twisted family saga to come. Lane, now an adult, receives a mysterious call from her grandfather, begging her to come home. Allegra has disappeared. Reluctantly, despite the fact she swore she never would, Lane returns home to a nearly unchanged town. After her abrupt departure ten years earlier, Lane finds that she falls right back into the same relationships that were always so toxic (and wonderful). As the days pass and there is still no sign of Allegra, Lane loses hope and begins retracing Allegra’s final days. What happened to her? And why?

The Roanoke Girls is, quite simply, a page turner. I flew through it in a day. It’s absorbing, disturbing, and filled with dread. I was trying to describe this novel to a friend, and I fell woefully short, but the plot truly does defy easy description. Or if you’re capable of describing it, people might wonder what there is to like. The secrets we keep are often what bind us together, and more often, tears us apart, especially within a family. Sordid family secrets and a twisted family tree keep Engel’s novel riveting, for better or worse.

For those of you who secretly enjoyed Flowers in the Attic, The Roanoke Girls is your modern update.

*I received a review copy of this book in exchange for my honest opinion.

Reviews

The River at Night by Erica Ferencik

RiverWinifred Allen needs a vacation.

She, along with three of her friends, decide that vacation is going to be rafting down a virtually uncharted section of the Allagash River, led by an “experienced” 20 year old named Rory. What could possibly go wrong?

If your go-to answer isn’t “Everything!”, than this isn’t the book for you – because the answer, my dear readers, is always everything.

The River at Night begins innocently enough, despite Wini’s doubts about the trip. She’s a thirty something graphic designer; stifled by a job she’s not passionate about, still mourning the recent loss of her brother. Pia, the leader of the group, is the go, see, do type of vacationer, while the others want a warm beach and tequila. In the end, Pia wins, and they go rafting.

If the four inexperienced friends venturing out to an isolated part of a river to raft through the wilderness sounds familiar, that’s because it is. James Dickey’s ode to masculinity Deliverance* followed much the same premise, with the same disastrous results**. Despite the similarities, I appreciated The River at Night on its own adventurous merits. I’m in what I’ll refer to as a get back to nature phase; because I cannot get enough of novels that, well, get back to nature. And this book delivers just that. Heart pounding rapids, murderous hillbillies, and pervasive, wild isolation attack the women and their guide as the make their way down the river. Ferencik prose absolutely oozes dread, so there’s no surprise when things go wrong.

Down a short dirt drive, a log cabin butted up into a hillside, a satellite dish stuck to its flank like a wart. A wooden sign that read sundries/guns/tackle/bait hung askew over the door. A smaller sign underneath – an afterthought – read Carhartt Quality Boots. A yellow light burned behind glaucous windows. Heavy pine branches clawed at the car as Pia crawled along the shoulder. I was struck by the sameness of the view in all directions, the sheer density of growth, and how easy it would be to lose our way just steps from where we sat. I felt watched, though I couldn’t remember feeling farther from civilization.

It’s how, why, and what they do in response that keeps you reading. Survival against all odds will always be a fascinating story. Despite the premise, I still find myself want to raft through the Allagash wilderness, so I’ll call Ferencik’s debut a success.

Though it’s a shame there isn’t a banjo.

*Deliverance is one of my favorite novels.
**Incidentally, the book touches on Dickey, Maine, which is a real place. A rather charming coincidence.

Miscellanea

Room // Six Degrees of Separation

RoomThe movie edition!

The idea behind this exercise is to connect books in any way that’s meaningful to you, from the profound to the inane. Although Kevin Bacon is typically behind the six degrees game, books are just a bit more fun. April’s leading book is Room by Emma Donohue.

Room was adapted into an award winning movie starring Brie Larson. While I’ve not read that particular book, Brie Larson also starred in the fun and dysfunctional The Spectacular Now (which I did read), as the girl who dumped the boy. The boy finds solace in a new girl, played by Shailene Woodley, who refuses to be a feminist because she likes men. Fifty billion eyerolls, if you please.

Woodley also stars in The Descendants by Kaui Hart Hemmings with George Clooney. My favorite Clooney movie is O Brother, Where Art Though?, which is loosely based of The Odyssey by Homer.

Costarring in said favorite Clooney movie is John Turturro, who appears in another one of my personal favorites, The Big Lebowski. That movie is loosely based on the work of Raymond Chandler, who wrote The Big Sleep. Jeff Bridges, who will always be The Dude to me, also appeared in True Grit (by Charles Portis) with Hailee Steinfeld.

And lastly, Ms. Steinfeld appeared in Hateship, Loveship, an adaptation of Alice Munro’s short story.

There you have it, from being locked in a room to a childhood game, in six easy steps, yet none of them literary… Care to join in?

 

Reviews

The Hearts of Men by Nickolas Butler

Hearts of menI am, barring any unseen literary missteps, now a lifelong fan of Nickolas Butler. Beginning with the superb Shotgun Lovesongs, following that with Beneath the Bonfire, and now releasing The Hearts of Men, I am absolutely on board with anything he writes. Cereal boxes, Ikea manuals, it doesn’t matter. Beginning at a Wisconsin summer camp in 1962 and spanning six decades, Butler’s newest novel is his best yet.

Nelson, bullied overachiever, is the camp’s bugler. Jonathan is a popular boy at camp. The two form an unlikely and uncertain friendship.

As the years pass, Nelson, a Vietnam veteran, becomes scoutmaster of beloved Camp Chippewa, while Jonathan becomes a successful businessman. They remain connected as both Jonathan’s son and grandson find their way to the camp.

This is not a happy book, and at times it is deeply unsettling, but it is timely. Filled with bravery, morality, and redemption, it shows what the most ordinary of boys and men are capable of. As it examines both Nelson and Jonathan at turning points in their lives, we learn about the ways they are shaped from their childhood, the men they become, and how complicated even the simplest person can be. It will undoubtedly be one of my favorite books this year.

At what point are you willing to read anything an author writes? One good book? Two? Three seems to be my number.

Reviews

The Guineveres by Sarah Domet

GuinSarah Domet’s debut novel takes its name from the four protagonists, all named Guinevere and all abandoned at the Sisters of the Supreme Adoration convent.

Vere, Win, Ginny, and Gwen are desperate to escape their circumstances and hatch a plan to do so during a parade in a float. When that fails, the girls are sentenced to work in the convent’s sick ward, where they hatch yet another plan, this one involving comatose soldiers. They are nothing if not determined.

Each Guinevere has her own voice, though we hear most from Vere. Woven into the girls’ tales are the stories of the lives of various female saints. The nuns generally remain in the background, but are well drawn and not stereotypically Catholic, which I greatly appreciated. The nuns, though strict, genuinely care for the girls.

Rather than a novel about faith, Domet’s debut is instead a wonderful coming-of-age tale. It’s a subtle, complex novel depicting the inner lives of teenage girls, and their search for home and family—a winning combination with lovely writing. Don’t miss it (like I did)!

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