Category Archives: General Fiction

Normal People

Irish novel about love, communication and trying to fit in

Content warning: mental health, domestic violence

Now that I have discovered that, for me, less is more when it comes to audiobooks, I was intrigued to see this one offered for free on Audible last month. I’d heard about it, and one of the cover designs is quite memorable with the people inside the anchovy tin, but I didn’t know much about it. It was a quite achievable 7.5 hours long, and, regrettably, was the last book I started before the gyms closed.

Normal People cover art

“Normal People” by Sally Rooney and narrated by Aoife McMahon is a novel about two teenagers, Marianne and Connell, who go to the same school in a small Irish town. Connell, though quiet, is popular at school while Marianne has no friends. Connell’s mother cleans Marianne’s mother, and although he and Marianne have never spoken at school, they begin to chat when he comes over to collect his mother after work. When they find themselves drawn together, they agree to keep things secret from everyone else at school. However, despite the magnetism between them, the secrecy makes their relationship uncertain. When they later cross paths at university, they click and become friends again, but changes in social standing and shortcomings in communication undermine the security they long to find in each other.

This was an absolutely stunning novel. I was absolutely hooked on every sentence. When the gyms had to close, I was desperate to find something active to do so I could keep listening and I ended up tackling the wilderness that had become our lawns. I found myself laughing aloud and my jaw actually dropping more times than I could count while listening to this book. Rooney has an absolute gift for exploring the tension, vulnerability and misunderstanding that can occur between two people. For a book that is ostensibly just about two people, there was not a dull moment. McMahon was a fantastic narrator and captured the tone of each character perfectly.

By getting to know each other more and more deeply over the years, Connell and Marianne slowly reveal their own secret struggles with mental illness and domestic violence to each other and become each other’s biggest support. However, Rooney is unmerciful in exploring how as humans we can fail one another, and how sometimes the only way to make amends is to grow as a person and succeed the next time. Rooney also provides some interesting commentary on class. She examines how class differences can complicate relationships, asking whether those complications are not insurmountable, and noting that wealth doesn’t guarantee happiness protect against abuse.

This book was just fantastic. I’ve already been recommending it to friends. Even more exciting, just weeks after I read it, I found out that a TV adaptation is coming out that started YESTERDAY. If you want to read something really good, this is really good.

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The Brave

Family drama about love, loss and courage

Content warning: domestic violence, bullying, war, mental health 

“The Horse Whisperer” was, I think, the first book I read as a kid that was specifically geared for adults. I quite innocently read it because I was extremely into horses and thought it had something to do with this guy Monty Roberts, an actual horse whisperer, who I had read about. Although the book starts out with a girl not too much older than I was and her problems following a horse-riding accident, it quickly turned into another kind of story. While it hadn’t been the kind of book I was expecting, I enjoyed it a lot and even went to go see the Robert Redford and young Scarlet Johansson film adaptation with my best friend (also horse-mad). His debut novel, the author wrote two more that I really enjoyed and then a fourth that I wasn’t so crash hot on. I actually hadn’t even realised he had written a fifth until I came across it at the Lifeline Book Fair. This is another book that has gathered dust on my shelf for a long time, and during these times of isolation, I’m trying to do something about my ridiculous to-read piles. Yes, that plural is correct.

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“The Brave” by Nicholas Evans is a novel about an eight year old boy called Tommy whose parents send him to boarding school. A sensitive kid who still struggles with wetting the bed, Tommy is passionate about playing cowboys and Indians and watching his heroes in Westerns on TV. However, at the boarding school, he soon finds himself the target of merciless bullying and the few allies he makes are tenuous at best. After writing to his sister Diane about the horrible experience, the truth is revealed to Tommy about his identity, and soon he finds himself moving to Hollywood and meeting the actors who are his idols. Nearly fifty years later, Tom is a writer living in the USA struggling not to compare himself to his more successful peers. When his son, estranged after deciding to enlist in the armed forces, is charged with murder during an overseas deployment, Tom must try to repair their broken relationship by facing what happened in Hollywood.

Evans is an incredibly readable writer and with smooth prose that is engaging without being too challenging. He tackles a lot of different issues in this book including bullying, domestic violence, identity, war, state-sanctioned violence, mental health and family. I thought that the scenes early in the book where young Tommy is experiencing the brutality of British boarding school were particularly effective and reminiscent of Roald Dahl’s autobiographical book “Boy“. Although Evans is an English writer, the way he writes about America is always very compelling. This is true of this book especially, which at heart is about a man who comes to the USA as a young boy and makes it his home.

Although a relatively easy read, this isn’t my favourite of Evans’ books. Evans usually constructs his novels around an interesting job: horse whisperer, firefighter, even wolf biologist. He also has a keen interest in the physical environment and natural beauty of the USA. While I get that this book is comparing the fantasy of Western film and TV with the reality of Hollywood, particularly the dark underbelly of the entertainment industry, I just didn’t find the book as effective as his previous efforts. The twists I felt you could sense a mile away. The parallels between Tom’s experiences and his son’s experiences didn’t feel as strong as they could have been. Finally, the ending felt just a little too tidy.

An easy read that addresses some important social issues, but ultimately not as hard-hitting as some of his other novels.

Image of Castor the Sloth, looking through a telescope. #StartOnYourShelfathon The Quiet Pond.

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Braised Pork

Surreal novella about a young Beijing widow

Back in the good old days, before social distancing, I used to go to the gym and listen to audiobooks to inspire me to keep going back. After my last few experiments, I thought perhaps 10+ hours of audiobook was a little long for my limited attention span and memory, so I thought I would try something a little shorter. On Audible, you can set the search terms for books of particular lengths, so I browsed some of the shorter ones (4 – 6 hours). This one was just over 5 hours, and sounded perfect.

Braised Pork cover art

“Braised Port” by An Yu and narrated by Vera Chok is a surreal novella about a young woman called Jia Jia whose husband dies unexpectedly while taking a bath. Childless, largely locked out of his will and without the structure of her traditional marriage, Jia Jia is left with their apartment and a small allowance. As she slowly starts to venture out into the world seeking a new independence through her art, Jia Jia begins to be plagued by realistic dreams of a watery world and the image of the fish man drawing her husband left on the bathroom slink. Eventually, after her attempt at a new romance falls flat, Jia Jia decides to retrace her husband’s last trip to Tibet to try to discover the significance of the fish man.

This is an unusual, dreamlike story the pacing of which mirrors Jia Jia’s own meandering life. I really enjoyed Yu’s writing style. She has some striking imagery that really stayed with me. There was one particular scene where she refers to Jia Jia’s hair as looking like a stroke of calligraphy, and there are quite a few similar turns of phrase throughout. This is an original story with a unique point of view. Jia Jia is an intriguing character who, after having lived her whole life doing what she’s told, suddenly finds herself cut adrift. Although she finds a new purpose searching for the meaning of the fish man, there is still the sense that she is struggling to find her independence from men, be it her belated husband, her father, her lover or even a fellow traveller. Yu explores some interesting nuances of class in Beijing, in particular Jia Jia’s new status as a widow with limited financial resources. Chok is an excellent narrator with a clipped accent and matter-of-fact style that lends itself perfectly to the story.

Although it is a short read, this is a complex story that incorporates a lot of themes, elements and locations. While many of the scenes were themselves steeped with meaning, the story didn’t always feel as though it had a strong central thread to connect them together. I think the part that I struggled with the most was the significance of the watery world and the fish man. I’m not quite sure if I had tuned out while I was doing stretches at the gym or whether the story was deliberately left open-ended, but it felt like despite the several small revelations, the final picture was still kind of indecipherable.

A fascinating debut that perhaps leaves the reader with more questions than answers, I’m looking forward to seeing what Yu writes next.

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Filed under Audiobooks, Book Reviews, General Fiction, Magic Realism, Novella

Yocandra

Cuban novella about sex, love and politics

I’m always on the lookout for world literature, and this one caught my eye at the Lifeline Book Fair some time ago. It’s a compact little book, and just the thing for me trying to race to meet my reading goal for 2019. I was also delighted to find the original receipt for the book which was bought from Smith’s Alternative Bookshop, before it changed hands to become a cafe, bar and live music venue.

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“Yocandra” by Zoé Valdés and translated by Sabina Cienfuegos is a novella about a young girl born minutes after Labour Day in 1959, the beginning of the Cuban revolution. Named Patria by her father, patriotically inspired by the fatherland, she later changes her name to Yocandra. Sexually precocious, she marries and divorces young, embracing instead a bohemian life of writing, alternating lovers and living under Cuba’s authoritarian socialist republic regime.

This is a fascinating and spirited book that explores the life of a liberated woman in a restrictive regime. Valdés is a fearless writer who surprises the reader with her candid descriptions. Yocandra’s world is one of contradictions, where sex is a metaphor for politics and love is a game. Self-invention is everything, and everyone has a pseudonym – chosen or assumed. The four main players in Yocandra’s sphere are her ex-husband and current lover the Traitor, her other lover the Nihilist, her best friend the Gusana and her friend and exile the Lynx – each an archetype of Cuba that she loves in her own way. Editor-in-chief for a literary magazine, Yocandra’s life is one of contradictions where she is surrounded by economic poverty but intellectual wealth. I love how Yocandra grapples with her feelings for Cuba, her island prison, and how her efforts to keep her lovers in the dark about one another hilariously come undone.

However, this is a complex book and if, like me, you are not very familiar with Cuba’s political history, you may find that on the first read quite a lot of it goes over your head. Valdés goes out of her way to shock the reader with some of Yocandra’s sexual exploits, and as a short book, I feel that some of the character building suffers a little from brevity.

Nevertheless, this is a clever and unique book that will keep you on your toes and show you a side to Cuba you never knew about.

 

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Hare’s Fur

Novel about family, trust and ceramics

I picked this book up at Muse one day while having a browse of the bookshop. It’s not secret I love rabbits, and although this book isn’t about any lagomorphs, it still piqued my interest. I have a soft spot for books about ceramics anyway, and I hadn’t heard of this local author before, so I bought myself a copy.

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“Hare’s Fur” by Trevor Shearston is a novel about Russell, a potter who lives alone in the Blue Mountains. Grieving the death of his wife only months previously, Russell continues with his work throwing his beautiful bottles, teapots and plates and glazing them with his signature glaze using ore from a secret place near his home. One day while collecting ore, he finds three children camped out in a cave. Although still raw from his loss, as he learns about their story, Russell must decide how much he can open his heart to the siblings.

This is a quiet, subtle novel with a strong sense of place. Shearston writes beautifully about the art of pottery and leads the reader gently into an understanding of this craft, the skill required and the value of excellent ceramics. I thought Shearston handled the issue of class, one of the main themes in this book, very well. Although not wealthy per se, Russell is an educated, accomplished man who mostly socialises with peers from the art world. His life of routine and contemplation is starkly juxtaposed against the disrupted lives of three kids who have grown up in poverty and are facing the prospect of foster care. The social observation rounds out the reader’s understanding of the Blue Mountains region as a place not only of scenic beauty that attracts tourists and artists alike, but also a place with pockets of disadvantage.

While the strength of this novel is its mood, it is a slow burn so if you’re looking for action or suspense, it might not be for you. This story unfolds slowly and gently with a focus on characters rather than plot.

An enjoyable and insightful novel, perfect for a weekend read.

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The Swan Book

Speculative fiction novel about an Aboriginal woman and her swans

Content warning: sexual assault

I’ve mentioned previously on this blog that I’ve started listening to audio books as a means of motivating myself to go to the gym. I’m still fine-tuning how exactly I select which books to listen to, but certainly the quality of the narrator is something I’ve realised is important to me. I have been trying to read more books by Aboriginal authors, and although I had heard of this author, I hadn’t actually read any of her work. I was scrolling through the categories on Audible and this book jumped out at me. I listened to the narrator in the sample, and immediately knew I wanted to hear more.

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“The Swan Book” by Alexis Write and narrated by Jacqui Katona is a speculative fiction novel about an Australia in the not too distant future. The story is about a young woman called Oblivia Ethylene who does not speak and whose story begins when she was found living in a tree. Taken in by a climate migrant Bella Donna, Oblivia lives on a swamp inside a rusted out hull in the middle of a military-run Aboriginal camp in Australia’s far north, and they are visited often by the overbearing Harbour Master.

Black Swan

A photo I took a while back of black swans on Lake Burley Griffin, Canberra 

However, as time passes, it becomes clear that Oblivia is not a reliable narrator, and her life actually began before she was found in a tree. We learn that Oblivia was gang raped, outcast from her family and deeply traumatised by the experience. Oblivia forms a deep connection with swans that come to Swamp Lake, later renamed Swan Lake, inspired by Bella Donna’s own love for the white swans of her homeland. After Bella Donna dies, Oblivia is visited by the newly sworn-in first Aboriginal President of Australia, Warren Finch who informs her that she is his promised bride. As Oblivia is forced to follow him to the Southern cities, she is in turn followed by the ghosts of her past and confronted by new ghosts in her future.

This is a deeply rich and complex novel that tackles a number of issues through a unique perspective such as trauma, the Intervention and climate change. I was struck by how many of the issues and predictions Wright made seem even more pressing now, only 7 years after publication. Oblivia is a fascinating character who appears both more aware and more naive than she first seems. Wright is a natural storyteller with a patient style, slowly unfurling each new piece of information and examining it from several perspectives before laying it down carefully before you. Nothing is rushed in this novel, yet at the end I found myself still unsure about so many elements of the plot. How much was real, how much was Oblivia’s fantasy, and how much was something in between? I’m still not certain what happened to the Genies or to Warren Finch, and whether Oblivia saw herself on TV or an impostor.

I absolutely must comment though on the narration of this book. Jacqui Katona was a superb narrator who captured the spirit of the novel completely. She has a soft, slightly cracked voice that reminds me of dust picked up by a desert wind. I loved listening to Katona speak in language, and she had a great knack for capturing the voices of the different characters, the matter-of-factness of the narration generally and even singing refrains from some of the songs referenced in the book.

Although Katona brought this book to life, I did at times find it a bit challenging to listen to. It’s no secret to anyone who has met me that I’m not the best at processing what I hear, but I did find this book at times maybe a little complex to concentrate on while I was also trying to count reps at the gym. Although Wright revisits pieces of the story several times, I did at times find myself asking whether a certain part was supposed to be ambiguous, or whether I had just missed something while I was trying to set the speed on the cross-trainer.

A captivating, intricate and extremely relevant book that Katona impeccably narrates.

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Tin Man

Novel about love, loss and living a life

Another find from the Lifeline Book Fair, I picked up this book because of its striking yellow and blue cover, and bought it because of the author. I read Sarah Winman’s “When God was a Rabbit” shortly after it came out, and I remember being very struck by the book at the time. I actually have her second book on my shelf to read as well, but I decided to tackle this one next.

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My partner very kindly modeled for me

“Tin Man” by Sarah Winman is a novel set in an industrial UK town from the 1950s to 1990s about two men, Ellis and Michael. In the first half of the book, the narrative flits between past and present, and we learn that Ellis is mourning the death of his wife Annie. However, as his moves through the motions of trying to keep going, his thoughts keep drifting back to the past and his mother, his father and his best friend Michael, who moved to their town when he was 12. The second part of the book is told from the perspective of Michael, whose journals shed light on the intensity of his friendship with Ellis and the hardship of being a gay man in London during the HIV/AIDS epidemic.

This book isn’t very long, not much longer than a novella, yet Winman crams entire lives between these pages. She is without a doubt a beautiful writer and excels in her relationships, capturing their complexity and fluidity over time. Ellis and Michael are great contrasting characters and Winman is able to shift narrative perspective completely, examining events through two different experiences. I think I particularly enjoyed the character of Ellis, who Winman depicts as a very young soul who struggles to find a sense of self among the strong personalities in his life. She picked a clever title for this book, referencing both the career Ellis is stuck in as well as his emotional state. I also really enjoyed Ellis’ mother Dora. The opening chapter about the story of how she came to possess a painting was enthralling in its banality about a raffle ticket at a community centre, and I, perhaps like Ellis, found myself wishing that there was more of her in the novel.

This is a surprisingly difficult book to review, especially without revealing too much of the story. I completely understand Winman’s message, and how constrained so many people felt (and still feel) by society when it came to loving who they love. However, the theme of same-sex love being sidelined for heterosexual love when one charactergrows out of it” is a theme I’ve come across many times in very well-known works such as “Brideshead Revisited”, “the Color Purple” and even the “Tales of the Otori” series. Perhaps it would have been better if the character of Annie had been fleshed out a little more, but of all the characters in the story, she remains the most mysterious. Everyone seems to automatically adore her, but we as readers don’t really get much opportunity to understand why.

An intricate novel that I think will touch many people, even if it tackles some familiar themes.

 

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The Testaments

Sequel to “The Handmaid’s Tale”

This book hardly needs an introduction. Everyone has been talking about Margaret Atwood since her prize-winning novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” was made into a television series and commenting at length about the extent to which the story mirrors current events today. The original novel ends rather abruptly, but with the TV series now renewed for a fourth season, it has gone far beyond the ambit of the original novel. So when Margaret Atwood announced that 34 years after the original novel she would be publishing a sequel, there was a huge amount of interest. The interest was compounded when she (somewhat controversially) was awarded the Booker Prize for the new novel jointly with author Bernadine Evaristo. I have a fraught relationship with Margaret Atwood’s writing. Some of her books like “Cat’s Eye” and “The Blind Assassin” I would name among my favourite novels of all time. Others, like “The Heart Goes Last” and “The Robber Bride” left me lukewarm. Buying this eBook left me feeling a bit apprehensive, but with tickets to see her speak in Canberra just next month, I knew I had to read her new book.

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“The Testaments” by Margaret Atwood is a dystopian novel set approximately 15 years after the events of her acclaimed novel “The Handmaid’s Tale”. There are three point of view characters: Lydia, Agnes and Daisy. Lydia is an Aunt: a high-ranking woman governing and implementing laws about women in Gilead, the nation formerly known as the USA. Agnes is an adopted daughter of a Commander in Gilead who escapes an arranged marriage by agreeing to become a Supplicant: a future Aunt. Daisy, also an adopted daughter, lives in Canada. However when her parents are victims of a terrorist attack, Daisy learns her true identity and become essential to Mayday: an underground resistance movement.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” ended on a cliffhanger, and for those readers who were desperate to know what happens next, to Gilead as much as to Offred, this book certainly answers those questions. Atwood is at her strongest in Lydia’s flashbacks to her arrest when the government was overthrown and Gilead was first established. I felt like the scenes where successful, “immoral” women were detained inside the stadium were realistic, compelling and deeply disturbing. I also felt that Atwood was asking the reader an important question: can the means always justify the ends? The idea of Supplicants to be a interesting form of subversion.

However, this is a bit of a tricky book to review. In some ways, we are living in a time of sequels, prequels, retellings and reboots. There seems to be a chronic inability to leave things to the reader’s imagination. I’m not going to go into depth about a related pet peeve of mine: unnecessarily verbose fantasy novels, but it’s a similar problem. The books I’m enjoying the most right now are those that leave me wanting more. Apart from exploring what it means to be a Supplicant, I wasn’t sold on Agnes’ story and Daisy’s story, while certainly the most action-packed, seemed chaotic and the plan to infiltrate Gilead felt flimsy. Maybe ultimately it was a question of scale. In a classic fantasy or science fiction novel, I would happily suspend my disbelief that a nobody becomes a chosen hero who saves the day mostly through luck and timing. For a story that purports to be a realistic alternative future, it was hard to be convinced. Neither Agnes nor Daisy were particularly compelling characters, and I found myself mostly looking forward to Lydia’s chapters hoping for more flashbacks.

I haven’t read Evaristo’s novel, the other winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, but I am a little surprised that this was a joint winner. For fans of the TV series and original novel, this will fill in plenty of gaps and show old characters in new light. However, I think that “The Handmaid’s Tale’ was excellent as a standalone novel and while this sequel is fine, it was not necessary.

 

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If Cats Disappeared from the World

Japanese magic realism novel about death and the little things

I had noticed this little book a while ago in a bookshop. It has a striking cover, a ink black cat with eyes embellished with gold foil that makes it look like it’s staring right at you. I noticed it, but didn’t buy it. Then one day I was checking my street library, and a copy was sitting right inside. Of course I had to read it.

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Thank you to my colleague Ingrid and her obliging cat Callie for these great photos

“If Cats Disappeared from the World” by Genki Kawamura and translated by Eric Selland is a Japanese magic realism novel about an unnamed postman who is diagnosed with stage 4 brain cancer. Distraught, the narrator is offered a deal by the Devil, who appears as his doppelganger, as a way to prolong his life. For every additional day the narrator chooses to live, the Devil will remove an item from the world. The first item seems simple: telephones. However reminiscing about his ex-girlfriend and their relationship which was conducted primarily over the telephone, leads the narrator to reconnect with her one last time. The next item, television, also becomes problematic. When the Devil proposes cats, the narrator is faced with making Cabbage, the cat he inherited from his mother and who has suddenly started speaking, disappear.

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This is an unusual little novel with an intriguing premise: how much of the world can you remove before life isn’t worth living? I quite enjoyed the story of an ordinary man, with an ordinary job, who is faced with the reality of his unremarkable life just before his untimely death. I liked how the author explored the way that the narrator had allowed himself to become isolated, and how he had lost contact with those most important to him and how ultimately, in the wake of his mother’s death, he had himself become lost.

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It’s difficult to review a book when you like the idea but not the execution. I want to say something first about the translation, because it’s not clear how much of my criticism is due to the translation, and how much is due to the writing itself. I think that Kawamura has a relaxed, minimalist narrative style that Selland has adapted into a modern American tone. While occasionally drawing on global elements at points in the story such as Christian iconography, the Devil’s choice of attire and his travels with his ex-girlfriend overseas, there is not a very strong sense of place in this book.

While I understand that the narrator is meant to be a generic everyman, with nothing distinctive about his life except his feelings and relationships, I struggled to find a foothold while reading. I think that overall, Kawamura probably spent a little bit too long spelling out exactly what the author was thinking and feeling at any given time, and not really enough on fleshing out the novel’s strength: exploring the idea of what would happen if things started disappearing from the world. Maybe that would be the difference between magic realism and science fiction, but I think I would have preferred Kawamura to have committed more fully to his concept and spent less time the exposition of a backstory that I wasn’t invested in.

An interesting concept that felt like it needed colouring in.

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Opioid, Indiana

Novel about disadvantage and coming of age

Content warning: drugs, mental illness, suicide

I received a copy of this book courtesy of the publisher.

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“Opioid, Indiana” by Brian Allen Carr is a novel about 17 year old Riggle who ends up living with his uncle in a rural Indiana town in Trump’s America after his parents have died. When Riggle is accused of having a marijuana vape pen, he is suspended from school for 5 days. Careful to conserve his mobile phone data and avoid his uncle’s wrath, Riggle tries to think of what to do for the week. However, when his uncle’s girlfriend tells him that his uncle is missing, he realises that if they can’t come up with the $800 rent that’s due, they’re going to have nowhere to live. So starts 5 days of Riggle looking for his uncle, finding work, meeting locals and chatting with Remote, a shadow puppet his mother introduced him to who explained how the days of the week got their name.

This is an engrossing book that explores a number of issues that continue to impact disadvantaged rural areas under the leadership of President Donald Trump. Poverty, drug addiction, grief, depression, suicide, lack of job opportunity, lack of housing security, mental illness, gun violence, school shootings and Confederate flags all take their toll on Riggle. However, I found him to be a really warm and interesting character despite the significant amount of hardship he had endured, not least of which was losing both his parents.

Very few books about orphans deal with the trauma of parents dying in a meaningful way, and I felt that Carr’s use of Remote as both a comforting remnant of childhood as well as a lens through which Riggle sees the world as inspired. Other things that his mother taught him, such as making an omelette, end up opening doors for Riggle that he didn’t even know were there. I also thought that Carr introduced an intriguing bit of unreliability into Riggle’s story when he begins to notice people making a particular shape with their hands that looks like Remote, suggesting that Riggle is unconsciously seeking meaning in a world that makes no sense.

There are a lot of themes woven through this book, and one that I think I would have like a little more developed is Riggle’s friendship with Bennet. Bennet, an easygoing biracial character with a loving yet strict mother, draws out an sense of intimacy from Riggle. However, given how important friendships are during times of difficulty, and given the distance from Riggle’s only other friend, I think I would have liked to have seen this friendship developed a little more.

A well-constructed and unique novel, I’m surprised it hasn’t received more acclaim.

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