The Atlas of Forgotten Places: A Novel
When Sabine’s niece, Lily, goes missing after a stint as an aid worker in Uganda, Lily’s stepfather begs Sabine for help. Sabine spent almost two decades in Africa, and she knows she must fly to Uganda if she has any chance of helping Lily. Official channels prove to be of little help, but Sabine finds the support she needs in Christoph, a Swiss academic, and his assistant, Rose, a local woman who is frantic to find her boyfriend, Ocen. As Sabine and Rose uncover the extent of Lily and Ocen’s involvement, they realize their loved ones are in more danger than they could ever have imagined. Moving deep into lawless territory in Congo, where the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army is a constant threat, Rose must face the worst horrors from her past in order to save the ones she loves most.
This stunning novel is, first and foremost, a true page-turner–expertly plotted, with riveting storylines for both Rose and Sabine. Williams knows well the world of her story, and reading Atlas is an immersion in both Uganda and the morally fraught culture of aid work. Williams is compassionate but relentless in how she shapes her characters’ fates, and even those who escape with their lives will be scarred forever.
Thomas Dunne Books
Jenny D. Williams
The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House
Two characters move the narrative of The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House forward: Nan and Jeff. Nan is a straight, recent middle-aged divorcee looking for purpose; Jeff is a gay, 30-something professor looking for purpose. Different genders, sexual orientations, and life stages, but similar dilemmashow do you live in a world of uncertainties and purposelessness? Treats subject matter is heavy, but his story is mundane; there is no moral, no point, no ah-ha moment. There is only the bleakness of life.
Nan has sold her family home and fallen in love with a larger house in the Queen Anne section of Seattle. A bit rundown and far too large for just one woman, she decides to offer the Yellow House as a meeting place for the gay mens AA group. Jeff, recently departed from NY at the onset of the AIDS epidemic, arrives in Seattle, ready for a new love and new lifewhich leads him to Henry, a troubled 20-year-old with a dark past. Through Henry, Nan, and Jeff cross pathsmuch happens in between.
The book is well-written with a tight narrative. There are elements of magical realism and glimmers of light here, but there is also an inescapable darkness that makes one wonder how anyone made it out of the 20th Century alive.
The AIDS epidemic, once loud, ugly, and violent, has become quiet as the battle against it has become more successful and the frontlines have receded to the margins. So it is surprising, and perhaps uncomfortable, for this Yellow House to rise as a reminder of a now mostly bygone era. Yet there is a truth here that is recognizable to manyespecially urban dwellers. This novel taps into the underlying fear associated with living. While this book fits comfortably within AIDS literature, the disease takes backseat to the more immediate questions: how do you define your purpose, and how do you go on after tragedy?
The isolation and anonymity of the overpopulated urban jungle becomes denser as time goes onthe small enclaves within more competitive and exclusivepersonal purpose becoming obscured by peer pressures and simple survival. Here, what becomes known as arf, could just as easily be cancer or Alzheimers or PTSD or any number of other ailments that are both physically and mentally debilitating to the individual and community. Treat takes the most feared disease of the modern age to talk about fear itself and the lengths we will go to hide, mask, and run from it.
In this, The Rise and Fall of the Yellow House is evocative and reflective. Yet there is little the reader is left with but the blanket of fear under which all the primary characters huddle. In that, Treat leaves this reader wanting morenot for the sake of a happy ending, but for the sake of balance. There are always survivors, but, here, there is only devastation and loss. These characters, masterfully made flesh and blood, never have the benefit of a laugh, a real connection or any joy. The rise is so short and the fall so permanent.
The Book of Colors
Nineteen-year-old Yslea moves from Jimmy’s row house to Rose’s soon after discovering her pregnancy. Although they are neighbors, Yslea would rather care for the old dying woman than be around a guy who has a porn website business that involves video taping another row house neighbor, Layla. Unfortunately, Layla’s little daughter, Ambrosia, is in the same room as the salacious activities. Surprisingly, Ambrosia seems to be at peace in her own worldspending her time quietly rocking while looking at her cardboard book of colors. Rose seems to be at peace, too, knowing that death is around the bend. Surrounded by all these strange situations, Yslea learns a thing or two about herself, the world, and God, especially when miracles take place.
Raymond Barfield’s debut novel focuses on life choices amid impoverished settings. Barfield’s first person narrative features a young woman who is surrounded by an interesting collection of characters. While they each have their views on life, death, and spiritual mattersparticularly God and the Catholic Church, Barfield’s zeroes in on Yslea’s persistent thought processes. Unique to Barfield’s plot is his writing style, which has a bit of lilting poetic feel to his text. Emphasizing Yslea’s rambling qualities, Barfield style is laced with a flurry of similes and elongated sentences that are periodically punctuated with a string of coordinating conjunctions.
Barfield surrounds Yslea with a combined foiled and static cast. While pushing Yslea to see herself for who she is and what she can achieve, they are also making their own life choices. Indeed, Yslea has had her fair share of hardships. Yet her positive outlook is inspiring as she views small and seemingly nonessential things in life with immense interest. Great examples are her raccoon bone collection, the stained-glass window she makes out of broken beer bottles for Rose, the attention she gives to her favorite bookRobinson Crusoe, and how she deals with “the troll under the bridge.”
Building slowly but progressively and replete with unexpected everything, The Book of Colors is nothing less than purely original and brilliantly written.
Eli Cochran is your average, spunky young adult. He comes from an average family, and might appear even to blend into the vast majority of people within his demographics. However, when you look closer you see a young man struggling to stay afloat. One minute he is being hired for a wonderful position after receiving his bachelors degree, the next minute he is waking up in jail. His sudden bursts of rage and craze also set him apart from your average Joe. His journey through young adulthood takes you on a remarkable adventure that shows relationships, family, finances, and success are all in someway dependent on his addiction and current mental state, whatever that state might be at any given time. When he reaches his thirties he realizes that all the hard work and education he has is doing nothing for him. He is nothing. Finally, there comes a time when Eli wants help. He realizes he is older, fatter, and that one more wrong move could kill him. As he embarks on his journey of recovery, we delve in even deeper to who he is and how he became a man he loathes.
As I started this book, I did not know what to expect. Most of us have had some exposure to books about coming of age as well as battling mental illness. This is a tough subject to navigate. What is an even heftier challenge is executing a narration of someone journeying through mental illness of some sort. However, Alex de Schweinitz did an excellent job at portraying this feeling. He truly grabbed my attention and pulled me into this book. At first, I felt that the writing was very dizzying and threw me in many different directions. I found myself reading things over again and feeling a bit crazy.Then it dawned on me that I felt crazy, just like Eli. Genius! Brilliant! This was the point in The Deadender where I really connected. I started to think less of Eli as a crazy kid that needed some serious help and more as a lost soul who was going through something that any one of us could go through. As far as I’m concerned the only main character in this book is Eli. All of the other characters ended up feeling minuscule in my mind. I believe this was caused by how deep I was inside the alcoves of Eli’s mind. Every other person in the story was somewhere in the background. It wasn’t until Eli started to change that the dialogue within the story also started to change. This is when I felt other characters held more of a presence in the story. Overall, this is an easy and enjoyable read. However, you must be ready for an emotional journey through Eli’s ups and downs- and as I mentioned prior, they can become quite dizzying- in the best literary way possible, that is.
The Last Brazil of Benjamin East
The year is 1980. Seventy-two-year-old Benjamin East returns to America from Brazil after an almost 40 year hiatus. Quite a big dreamer, coupled with his idealistic mindset of the America of yesteryear, Benjamin hopes to become famous by publishing his memoir. En route to New York, Benjamin helps a complete stranger, Amy McCaffrey, escape from her abusive husband. She, too, carries a hope of utilizing her art scholarship. The only problem is that it was issued to her more than seven years ago. After their quests lead to rejection, the odd couple heads out on a month-long bus trip to California. Once again, they hope for their dreams to be fulfilled. But this time, Benjamin and Amy have no idea that they are about to embark on a soul-searching journey.
Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author Jonathan Freedman relays a story inspired by his experiences as a foreign correspondent in Brazil. Although the first draft of The Last Brazil of Benjamin East literally sits in a box for more than thirty years, Freedman finds that he is still fascinated by the “larger-than-life” fictional character, Benjamin East, that he created as a young writer. But, to properly develop Benjamin’s character, Freedman incorporates a variety of helpful literary tools starting off with Amy, Benjamin’s sidekick. Clearly Amy is young enough to be Benjamin’s daughter, and their backgrounds initially appear to be unrelated. The truth is that they have more in common then they realize: they have difficulty facing their marred pasts.
Freedman surrounds his two protagonists with a handful of negative characters. From examples such as the immigration officer and Louie (Benjamin’s brother) to Rosemary (the waitress at Harvey’s) and Joshua (the fledging writer), this foiled cast consistently force Benjamin and Amy to introspection. Benjamin and Amy’s characters are exceptional because they are always running away from their problems, and their reactions are unpredictable. And this unpredictability gives Freedman wide opportunities to create endless un-hackneyed scenes and keeps his plot fresh and always moving. In addition, Freedman alternates scenes throughout his third-person narrative that includes Benjamin’s flashbacks to both happy, as well as unresolved, moments during his time in Brazil.
While all these literary elements are pertinent to the design of this story, what makes Freedman’s recent novel so appealing is that it is purely a human-interest story. Certainly, readers will be able to relate to Benjamin and Amy in one form or other whether from personal experience or familiarity with a family member or acquaintance. Tender-hearted and provocative from beginning to end, The Last Brazil of Benjamin East is an engaging read and destined to be an award winner.
Problems is the first person account of Maya, a downtrodden and occasional grad student who is struggling to write a thesis and to quit a heroin addiction. Maya is also bored in what seems like a marriage of convenience and is actively pursuing an affair with one of her professors. Maya’s frank observations about sex and sexual desire, although self-destructive, are somehow her most likable attributes, because her analysis of this behavior often comes up short. She seems to attribute most of her follies to her heroin addiction, yet her addiction seems incidental or an after thought, as if the plot of the novel would be exactly the same with or without it. As refreshing as it is to read novels centered on problematic female characters, Problems focuses too much on using an unlikeable character to subvert tropes about addiction without offering much insight into addiction. Written in wispy, broken monologues, the narration contains some witty one-liners, but it is ultimately a too slight novel that doesn’t add much to the genre of melancholic 20-something creative types trying to make it in New York City.