Book Review: New Literary Fiction

The Great Offshore Grounds by Vanessa Veselka

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From the Publisher: “A wildly original, cross-country novel that subverts a long tradition of family narratives and casts new light on the mythologies–national, individual, and collective–that drive and define us.

On the day of their estranged father’s wedding, half sisters Cheyenne and Livy set off to claim their inheritance. It’s been years since the two have seen each other. Cheyenne is newly back in Seattle, crashing with Livy after a failed marriage and a series of dead ends. Livy works refinishing boats, her resentment against her freeloading sister growing as she tamps down dreams of fishing off the coast of Alaska. But the promise of a shot at financial security brings the two together to claim what’s theirs. Except, instead of money, what their father gives them is information–a name–which both reveals a stunning family secret and compels them to come to grips with it. In the face of their new reality, the sisters and their adopted brother each set out on journeys that will test their faith in one another, as well as their definitions of freedom.

Moving from Seattle’s underground to the docks of the Far North, from the hideaways of the southern swamps to the storied reaches of the Great Offshore Grounds, Vanessa Veselka spins a tale with boundless verve, linguistic vitality, and undeniable tenderness.”

For some books, the blurb is so spot on, it’s hard to craft a review that does anywhere near as good a job. “Vanessa Veselka spins a tale with boundless verve, linguistic vitality, and undeniable tenderness” (from the publisher). And yes, that is it! That is this book.

This was clearly a work of literary fiction. There was beautiful prose, an unconventional family unit, and lingering questions at the end of the story.

Reflecting upon this novel, it struck me as a series of misfortunes; self-inflicted, natural and societal; overcome by sheer will or dealt with in a way that may be seen as the lesser of two evils. The characters are confronted with poverty, tornados, theft, limited health care, rape, storms and any number of other things. Through persistence, the kindness of strangers and sheer doggedness, the characters in this book manage to make it to the other side.

One of the draws for me to this book was the idea of casting “new light on the mythologies–national, individual, and collective…”. This story has many personal philosophies different from my own. I re-read several passages trying to better understand a group of characters who hold fast to beliefs I do not personally hold. As I read, and later reflected, I recognized some prejudices in myself that it was somewhat refreshing to confront. One of the great joys of reading! We may share a country and national history, but the way we approach everyday life can be so different.

This story will stay with me for a long time. I would not be at all surprised if I chose to read this one again (and again and again)!

I got an ARC of this book from NetGalley and my copy says it is an uncorrected proof. As a relatively new (or at least not very experienced) reviewer of ARCs, this was my first one. I am not completely sure what the final book will look like, but my copy did not have a lot of obvious errors and I was not stymied by plot holes or character issues. I do understand that some quotes/lines/parts may change between my reading and publication. The publication date on this one appears to be the end of August.

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A Post-Apocalyptic Trilogy

After the End Trilogy: The Complete Post-Apocalyptic Box Set by Mark Gillespie

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This collection contained three novels: The Curse, The Sinners, and The End War. And while I would recommend reading them in order, they are each essentially self-contained.

All three of these novels are set in a post-apocalyptic America. The country has been devastated by a major international war. There are pockets of survivors throughout the country, but limited communication between the groups and no trust. We follow Eda as she makes her way out of one community into the wider, wilder land. Along the way, we meet other survivors; some good, some evil.

I found there to be more characterization in this book than I would have expected. Many characters have multiple facets and few felt cut-out. The majority of the characters we meet have at least one major surprise that kept this reader on her toes. One of my complaints about this story was that Eda is in her mid-thirties. She certainly read much younger than that. I understand she grew up in an age of war and the “wild years”, but she frequently read more like a child than a full-grown woman.

The first book, The Curse, started a little slow, but allowed the reader to understand the part of the world Eda knew. Once the action picked up, it seldom let go. The action continues through the next two installments.

Each book was on the short side, almost a collection of three novellas. I am more accustomed to longer forays into the post-apocalyptic world, but this was well-done shorter fiction. I could certainly read about more of Eda’s encounters and the next phase After the End.

I would be happy to read more works by Mark Gillespie and I will certainly watch for future installments in this world.

I received a free digital copy of this book from NetGalley, all thoughts in this review are my own.

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Debut Book Review

The Name of Red by Beena Khan

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

From the author: “On a rainy, winter night, a mysterious woman in a red dress seeking shelter comes inside the restaurant Kabir was busy working in —primarily the bar— and night after night, drink after drink, she comes back to the same spot. That is where he sees her for the first time.

Hundreds of patrons around her try to speak with her daily, but she dismisses them. It appears she wants to remain in a blissful peace alone with her booze and books. After seeing the mysterious woman reading a book, and because of his shy nature, Kabir gains entrance into her life by anonymously leaving books with notes for her.

The Name of Red is the story of two strangers, two different personalities who meet on a winter, rainy night who challenge each other. They have a connection which blossoms into a friendship due to their fondness of books. But they both have secrets that can bind them together or threaten their newfound relationship forever.”

I was offered a review copy of this book by the author. The premise of the book was intriguing. I enjoy literary fiction, two characters with different backgrounds sharing books, sounds like my cup of tea. Unfortunately, the execution of the story fell flat for me.

I read this book before its publication date, but have struggled to review it, as I did not enjoy it. But I understand that all mentions are (or at least can be) good. The more exposure a book gets the better off it will be, right?

For a literary work, I did not see much character growth. The characters get to know each other better, but it is much more of a character reveal than growth over the course of the novel. I liked much of the early interaction between Red and Kabir especially as they talked books. But as that waned, so did my interest in how much vodka we were drinking tonight.

The story was complete. There is a distinct beginning, middle and end. I did not, however, find the story overly captivating. There were moments of interesting tidbits: the books, the family backgrounds, etc, but much of the book was about what Red was drinking tonight, how many drinks, and how drunk she is. The flashes of interest were too spread out for me.

One of my regular concerns is of editing. This book was edited, but could still use a good overall, thorough editing. There were sentences that were poorly formatted and structured, there were a few times that I felt there was a contradiction of facts presented.

I understand the author is planning on telling the stories of additional characters from this story and I am sure that will be a fun experiment. I am definitely willing to read another story or two from this author and to watch how she grows as a writer.

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