Category Archives: indie

Review: Shake Down the Stars by Renee Swindle

8th August 2013

pg1*This book was sent to me by the author Renee Swindle in exchange for an honest review.

It’s been five years since Piper Nelson’s daughter died, but she’s coping worse than ever. Her mother and sister are so absorbed in the sister’s celebrity wedding, they don’t have time to notice Piper’s pain. Her ex husband has moved on, and the loss seems to sever her last connection to her daughter, adding to her sorrow.

Her job as a high school teacher suffers as Piper begins drinking more and more to stave off the pain. And like many addicts, she’s hurt too many people by the time she reaches the end of her descent to know where to turn. Help comes in the unlikely form of Selwyn, whom Piper meets at a disastrous engagement party for her sister and her sister’s pro football fiance. Not put off by Piper’s anger and addiction, he instead offers her support and friendship.

She knows she needs to change, but how do you move on from such a loss? How do you shut it away when others are ready to pass over it?

Though Shake Down the Stars could easily have been a depressing or morbid book, Renee Swindle writes a book that feels incredibly realistic and respectful. Addiction is never demonized but written about with understanding and empathy. Swindle also respects that loss looks different to different people and that the reactions to death can range as widely as the people that death affects. But Piper can’t see that in her grief, and the family dynamics and her eventual recognition of them is just as pivotal to her story.

Piper learns to find joy and laughter again through unexpected relationships, including other addicts who walk the same road she does. Yet never does Swindle brush over Piper’s pain, making for a book that can cause laughter and tears sometimes on the same page.

ZZ Packer, author of Drinking Coffee Elsewhere says it best, calling Shake Down the Stars “a rich, savvy exploration of the many kinds of love, loss, and dysfunction that can unearth us or save us, bedevil us or deliver us.”

Add this to your Goodreads shelf.

Review: No Hope for Gomez! by Graham Parke

12th June 2013

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*I received this book from the author in exchange for an honest review. Self-published through Outskirts Press.

 Gomez has a slight problem – ok, he has several problems. He’s absolute crap at managing the antique store his parents left him. The drug trial he entered for extra cash has left him unsure what is real and what may be drug-induced side effect, and he thinks he may or may not be in love with Dr. Hargrove, the lab assistant who administers his drugs each week. When another participant in the drug trial ends up dead, Gomez realizes he may be in much more trouble than he thought.

As part of his entry into the drug trial, Gomez must keep a blog and post about his experiences. As successive posts get stranger and stranger, both the reader and Gomez wonder if what is happening – his upstairs neighbor drilling holes into Gomez’s ceiling; Dr. Hargrove asking him to stalk her stalker; a customer at the antique store wanting to buy his tax documents – is actually real.

Yet what could easily become an unmanageable mess of a novel becomes a funny, human look at life and its idiosyncrasies in the hands of Graham Parke. Gomez creates tests to discover if he’s actually in love with Dr. Hargrove or if his feelings are just the result of the drug trial. He investigates the death of Joseph Miller, another drug trial participant. He attempts to assuage the eccentric behavior of his assistant Hicks, whose proclivities for order rival Gomez’s own increasingly chaotic life.

In the end, the truth about Gomez is much less interesting than what the reader begins to believe, but Parke is forgiven this as it is Gomez’s journey, and his truth that make the novel: What is and what isn’t? How much of what we see is perspective and belief, and how much is objective truth?

Add this to your Goodreads shelf (it looks like they’re hosting a giveaway until July 4!).

Beside the Sea by Veronique Olmi: Thoughts

1st October 2012

*I picked up this book at BEA from the great people at Tin House Books.

Beside the Sea, a novella by Véronique Olmi, translated into English by Adriana Hunter, is what Lionel Shriver (author of We Need To Talk About Kevin) describes as “[a] sustained exercise in dread for the reader” because from the opening lines of the novella, it is apparent that all is not well with our unnamed narrator who is taking her two sons on a trip, staying in a rundown hotel, parceling out her coins for hot chocolate and a trip to the carnival, knowing all along it will be the last trip they make together.

We took the bus, the last bus of the evening, so no one would see us. The boys had their tea before we left, I noticed they didn’t finish the jar of jam and I thought of that jam left there for nothing, it was a shame, but I’d taught them not to waste stuff and to think of the next day.

This mother wants no witnesses to their departure, and though jam is left out, it won’t be used again, so she doesn’t mind the waste too terribly. Though the title implies a vacation of some sort, the way the author describes leaving, it doesn’t sound as though this will be a pleasant holiday on the seashore.

In that oddly-disturbing stream of consciousness manner evident in the brief quote above, the narrator and mother of two boys, describes the two-day trip, and as she does, her further descent and overwhelming despair are suffocating. Riding the bus, she describes watching the cars below:

So cars – which are normally so frightening – were pathetic little contraptions now…it made them see less dangerous, yep, we felt better protected in that bus, even if we were dying of cold.

And here:

Now that we knew where we were we could pretend we didn’t give a damn about anything, didn’t feel any danger, like the other passengers.

This is a fragile individual, one for whom the everyday is nearly impossible, but there are moments of lucidity:

…shoes are the ruination of many a mother. I love saying that: many a mother! then heaving a sigh, overwhelmed, like the ones who wait at twenty-five after four, that’s when you feel like you’ve got so much in common and might understand each other.

But no one does understand this mother, and she’s obviously been tested before as she mentions the social worker with whom she’s met multiple times for various reasons, though none is ever explained. We do know, though, that she’s incapable of remembering almost anything, so rarely remembering to pick up her young son from school that the 9-year-old Stan takes over the responsibility.

At times, she’s painfully aware that she’s different:

You’re never what they want you to be. You irritate them, disgust them….Sometimes, no one knows why, someone exactly matches what everyone expected. And everybody loves them, they cheer them and put them on TV. It’s very rare.

When they finally reach their destination, wet from the rain, dirty, and exhausted, she talks about her weariness:

I’m the only one who’s so exhausted, didn’t I used to long to be knocked down by a car and break my leg so I’d finally have a good enough reason to be left in peace? When am I going to be left in peace?

Yet her children don’t seem to disturb that peace, though her son Stan is ever watchful, watching over Kevin, the youngest, and his mother, obviously aware of any changes in her mood and sensitive to them. Reading her descriptions of him made me achingly sad, so aware that his little life was full of anxiety, wondering if his mother would need to cry or need to sleep or need silence.

They go to the seaside because the boys have always wanted to see it, and because the outing isn’t successful, ruined by a shopkeeper who scorns the few coins she has to feed the boys on their trip, she decides to make it up to them, taking them to a carnival, wanting to see them happy. But the happiness doesn’t last, and they return to the hotel:

I was frightened. We went into that place like going into a church….Churches are very old but they never die. An empty church is something you can’t explain, I like it. The hotel was the same. Something had to happen there.

And happen it does, in a most effective way. The translation award-winning Adriana Hunter is beautiful, all the more because of the challenge of the stream of consciousness narration. At 119 pages, this novella is brief but incredibly powerful, exploring all those unanswerable questions that arise when a mother kills her children.

Buy your copy from Barnes and Noble or Indiebound. Check out what others thought on Goodreads.

The Iguana Tree by Michel Stone

11th April 2012

*This book was sent to me by the publisher Hub City Press in exchange for an honest review, as part of TLC Book Tours.

Hector viewed America as The Great Opportunity. Lilia saw it as The Unknown.

In The Iguana Tree by Michel Stone, Héctor and Lilia are a young married couple with a baby girl. Héctor is determined to go to America to live a life he can only dream of in Puerto Isadore. Lilia, on the other hand, loves her home with its beautiful ocean views, familiar tastes and scents, and friends and family. Héctor crosses the border, fitted into a compartment on the underside of a semi, along with at least a dozen other men, some moaning and crying out during the trip. He meets Miguel on the crossing and follows him to South Carolina where Miguel has family and connections. An injured farmer, Lucas, hires Héctor, and Héctor learns the satisfaction of making a living on American soil.

Lilia, on the other hand, is lonely. After her grandmother dies, Lilia has no one but her tiny daughter Alejandra. She decides she cannot wait to join Héctor, so an old boyfriend arranges a coyote (smuggler) for her and her daughter. But Lilia’s transport is even more dangerous than Héctor’s, and her passage is one full of rape, fear, murder, and loss.

Reunited, Héctor and Lilia are no longer a happy young family. Broken by their experiences, the two must continue to fight for their place in America while trying to find a way back to one another.

Told mainly from Héctor’s point of view, The Iguana Tree shows the interior life of an immigrant, one who is learning English and marveling at the change he encounters in El Norte. This, to me, was the most successful aspect of this novel. Héctor is so intelligent and so observant, and I particularly enjoyed his observations about his employer Lucas, a proud man who lost his leg in a chainsaw accident. The two men come from such completely different backgrounds, yet their love of the land and hard work bind them, and the relationship is one that grounds the novel. Stone also does an excellent job of showing Héctor’s introverted and extroverted lives, emphasizing that an immigrant is not unintelligent in the least, but highly capable of adapting and communicating.

On the other hand, I also felt an intense disconnect with this novel. Lilia makes an extremely poor decision, and the consequences of that decision drive the last 75 pages at a breakneck pace. The action of the novel seems condensed, the novel rushing to a hurried conclusion that felt much different than the novel that preceded it. Specifically, the last three pages were incredibly heavy handed and felt out of place. In some ways, The Iguana Tree felt wholly unfinished, and though this could have been intentional, I think a story with such import needed more development for readers to fully understand the motivations of its main characters and the inevitable end to which each arrived.

I have seen several references to this novel as reminiscent of John Steinbeck (one of my all-time favorite authors), and while I  don’t think it is quite that caliber, my favorite parts of the novel are in the same vein as East of Eden in that these men understand the value of land beyond monetary gain and have a connection to it that isn’t often emphasized in contemporary literature.

All in all, though this wasn’t completely successful for me, many bloggers are raving about this book, and it’s one I think most people would enjoy, particularly if you are interested in the undocumented immigrant experience.

The Iguana Tree was released on March 1, 2012 by Hub City Press, and you can buy it for your Nook or from Indiebound. This book is on tour right now, so don’t take my word for it. See what other book bloggers have to say about The Iguana Tree.