Review: Tell The Wolves I’m Home

This was one of my picks for our NetGalley Knockdown Challange and I have to say I sure lucked out in picking it! Thanks so much to NetGalley and Random House for allowing us access to read this beautifully written debut novel by Carol Rifka Brunt!

It is 1987 at the height of the AIDS crisis and 14-year-old June’s favourite uncle, Finn, has been diagnosed. This means he will die– no doubt about it. Finn is June’s mother’s brother. They used to be close but now they have a strained relationship– he has done many things that she doesn’t really agree with– but they are cordial to each other. June absolutely ADORES Finn and would like to spend as much time with him as she possibly can before he passes away. Finn comes up with a project so that they can do just that. He is an artist and will paint a portrait of June and her sister Greta– it will be his last gift to his family as well as his last professional gig.

June is just a MAGNIFICENT character– she is so real. You want to hug her to pieces and tell her “life won’t always be this hard– being a teenager only sucks for a little while!!”. She lives in her own little world somewhere between child and young adult. She spends most her time alone hanging out in the woods– she’s the quirky girl wearing the medieval boots and Gunne Sax dress dreaming of becoming a full-time Falconer at a Renaissance Festival some day. She used to share this world with Greta but now that she is 16 she finds June babyish and constantly makes her feel stupid– especially about her feelings towards her uncle. June tries not to let it bother her but it does. Uncle Finn is the only one who has ever understood her completely, and he is dying.

(It is hard to remember that at one time that AIDS was considered to be the new leprosy– this book just TRANSPORTS you back to that time. June and Greta are actually afraid to admit that their uncle died of AIDS at school because they are worried they will get the “Ryan White” treatment!  It is amazing how far we have come in treatments and understanding of this disease! So great that being HIV positive no longer means an automatic death sentence.)

That’s what I want for you,” he said. “I want you to know only the very best people.”

That’s when I broke down and cried, because I already knew the very best people. Finn was the very best person I knew.

Uncle Finn dies soon after the portrait is complete and June is just DEVASTATED. She feels that she will never love again and that no one will ever understand her grief. But she soon finds out there IS someone else. Two weeks after Finn’s death she receives a package. It contains the Russian teapot with the bears on it that Finn always used when they came to visit– it is something that she has always admired. The note that comes with it is from Finn’s special friend, Toby. It also contains an invitation. June has never heard of this special friend so she covertly asks her mother for some information. The reaction is very strong and very negative. She seems to blame Toby for every wrong thing that has ever happened in Finn’s life– the choices he made, the company he kept, the disease he got. All June could think was “if he was so special, why have I never met him?” and her decision is made. She would say yes to the invitation and let this Toby guy know who Uncle Finn REALLY was! Only, he seems to know a lot more about Finn that she does. An awkward love/hate relationship begins between June and Toby as they come to terms with the death of their all time favourite person. And June begins to grow up (but just a little bit!).

This is another one of those stories where you just don’t want to say too much because June’s journey needs to be experienced first hand! You’ll laugh, you’ll cry! Awesome, AWESOME story telling, fantastic characters! Can this REALLY be a first novel?? Great Job!! 4 stars for me!! Can’t wait to hear more from this author!

(This song was in my head the whole time I read for no other reason than it had wolf in the title– great song tho– thought I would share.)

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Review: Gone Girl

Well, I’ll say one thing about Gone Girl: it was a terrific page burner.

Thanks to NetGalley for making this title available to The Hoarders; it’s a relief to see this smart novel among the Top 10 new fiction titles of the Bestseller list.  In a time when people are knocking themselves out to pick up the base Shades trilogy, this means that there is officially hope!

I can’t write too much about this book’s plot, because giving away its twists and turns would impact a new reader’s enjoyment.  Going into this story as naive as possible is unquestionably the best approach.

Nick and Emily Dunne are, for me, a modern-day War of the Roses.  Their marriage plight is astoundingly complex; their relationship a befuddled mess of half-truths, longing, and hurt feelings.  Writing a book about their relationship alone would have easily filled an entire story.  When Amy, however, vanishes out of the blue one morning, and all eyes point to Nick as her murderer, well… let’s just say that it’s time for the reader to buckle up.  No one’s going quietly. Game on.

Gillian Flynn has a great talent for leaving her reader with a sense of never knowing which end is up.  The moment you align yourself with one character, the next section leaves you with the sudden desire to crawl into the pages and brandish a well-timed slap.  In the following chapter, you humbly return to that person’s side, vowing not to stray again.  Then, you’re raising an eyebrow pages later, and are wondering how you could have been so foolish just 5 minutes ago.

After about 100 pages of this, you find yourself questioning your ability to judge anyone at all.  “How well do I know my own spouse?  Perhaps it’s time to keep a diary?”

I have to say that finally finding out which character was the root of the issue was nothing short of a relief.  In this ultimate “he said, she said” approach, the reader is left guessing for the bulk of the novel.  This is always a welcome feeling for a Hoarder, because who wants to invest the time and energy into a book if you’re foretelling every moment before it hits the page?  I felt like I was having a quiet duel with the author: “a HA!  I know where you’re going with this!  Wait… no…. false alarm.  Damn.”

When the last section of the novel kicks in, you’re waiting.  Waiting for…. well, I’ll keep mum on that, because you might be ‘waiting’ for a different outcome than the one I found myself needing.  I have to admit that when the book closed, I wasn’t as satisfied as I had hoped.  It was a clever way to end the novel, and I don’t question its wisdom.  It just was not the ‘twist’ that I was anticipating.

Then again, that’s exactly what Ms. Flynn wanted, wasn’t it?

She got me again.

4 stars!

Review & Discussion Details: The World Without You

The world without you. Is it really any different now that you’ve gone? In Joshua Henkin’s latest novel, The World Without You, the Frankel family gathers in their summer Berkshire home for a memorial to their lost son, brother, uncle and father. Leo was the youngest, the only boy in the family, and a journalist covering the Iraq War. He was killed on July the 4th. It’s been one year since this tragedy and his wife, sisters, nephews and parents have not seen each other much over the past year following the funeral. Over the holiday weekend, they will travel from all over to come together and hold a memorial service marking the one year passing.

Inside the pages of The World Without You, Mr. Henkin unveils some of the most authentic and fascinating characters in Gretchen, Lily, Noelle, Clarissa, David, Thisbe, Amram and Marilyn (there are others too, but these are definitely the most notable!). And through Leo’s spouse, siblings, and parents the question of, is the world really any different without you, is sought. Does it take bringing the family together again as a way to recognize and realize the tragedy of their individual lives and to base their despair solely on the loss of Leo? Or was it just a matter of time and would they have fallen to pieces with or without him alive in their world?

The World Without You also features some of the best and well-written sibling rivalry between sisters and interaction between the daughters, their spouses and parents I have read in a long, long time. Again, extremely authentic. So authentic to me I actually thought I was standing in the doorway watching my own family come together during a holiday dinner!

All I know, Gretchen says, “is that I’m surrounded by blood relatives, but it’s the people who have married into this family who have shown the most character.”

The Opinionless Virtual Book Club held our own Q&A with Joshua on the evening of July 30 where we had the great pleasure in asking him questions about the novel, his inspiration, and his upbringing, to name just a few. We asked him questions about growing up with sisters as he writes with exceptional insight and predominantly from the female point of view? (he simply nailed that dynamic!) and shockingly, no, he grew up with all brothers!

We also touched upon the subject and any connection to Daniel Pearl by creating the character of Leo as a journalist instead of a soldier, during the Iraq war. Joshua notes he was quite aware of the connection yet there was no concious decision concerning Daniel Pearl, he was not writing about him specifically. He simply didn’t want Leo’s death to be about cancer, or a car crash. The Frankels are a politically astute family and therefore this scenario was a much better fit. He also touched upon the point about Leo dying on July 4th, a date when most Americans are celebrating, not mourning like the Frankel family.

Thank you Mr. Henkin for a wonderful hour spent chatting with you! Your insight and charm were a delight! Random House also held a Q&A session with Joshua and you can read this here, for further insight.

I’m now quite interested in reading his previous novel, Swimming Across the Hudson!

For other opinions of The World Without You, please visit these sites: Opinionless; Bagels, Books & Schmooze and EW.com/Books

Book Review: I am Forbidden

Anouk Markovits takes us on a remarkable journey, allowing us to witness the inside of a strict, highly devout religious sect and hear of all that is forbidden to the Satmar people. The word forbidden is often spoken, thought, prayed…many, many, many things, thoughts, emotions, dreams are forbidden to them. It’s a melancholy story, yet also a beautiful one that gives us a compassionate, well-rounded glimpse in to the lives and different choices of two girls growing up in the same home.

Best friends, sisters for life.

This is a story I ripped through in just a few short days (finished in under 2 I think?) The writing starts out as quite sparse and almost erratic in places, but once you become steeped deep in the lives of Mila and Atara it becomes almost impossible to put down. Markovits gracefully shows compassion to both of their tales, one sister that remains devout, one that dreams of escape.

The story begins with a very young boy named Josef witnessing the murder of his family by the Romanian Iron Guard. He is later found by his housekeeper whom steals him away, cuts the payot (side curls) and baptizes him as her own. Josef’s story is brought to the attention of Zalman Stern, a leader in the Satmar community, when Josef rescues another Jewish girl Mila, after witnessing the murder of her family.  Zalman is honour bound to both return Josef back to his people, but also to help Mila. He brings her in to his home to raise with his family. She shares everything with Atara, the daughter of Zalman Stern.

The story progresses as we discover one who begins to question the suffocating rites, rituals and beliefs they must remain beholden to, and one that remains devout and unwavering. Following a particularly harsh beating from her father after riding a bike on the Sabbath, Atara begins to examine her religion with a critical lens. Is this all there is to life, to become a mother like hers whose body is destroyed from pregnancy after pregnancy, too exhausted to enjoy any sight or sound around her other than little ones clamouring for her attention, never to be able to attend university, never allowed to read books or even walk in to a public library?

Atara daydreamed of preparing for the baccalaureat with her classmates at the lycee, but then her family would be erased from the register of good Hasidic families, her siblings condemned to bad marriages, to no marriage at all…Was it a selfish heart that dreamt of living her own life?

If Atara fulfills her dream of an education and continues on the path to escape, will she lose Mila forever too?

Mila later marries Josef, thereby completing their connected destinies, Mila’s long, beautiful, beautiful hair is shaved off as law dictates that Josef can never touch her hair. And Atara flees from her home, leaving her family and community far behind.

There are a number of (heartbreaking) moments when you read about the married life between Josef and Mila and the emotionally crippling rules they must honour: “He stroked her lips, her lashes – he stopped. Bride and groom must separate as soon as the act is consummated. When was it permitted to speak again? He pulled up a chair, making sure it did not touch her covers, And every bed whereon she lieth shall be unclean.

For 10 years Josef and Mila are married, and barren. By their law, Josef must divorce. 10 years without child is the limit. Both desperate with love for one another, they both commit acts so strictly forbidden in their belief with heartbreaking end results for them and their family. It just wrenched on my heart to see how they loved each other so, but their religious teachings and law did not allow them to truly come together because they remained so conditioned to what their law and the Rebbe states is so, true and just in their religion.

My only sadness was that we knew nothing of the time during which Atara had fled. We are only brought back in to her life after many decades has passed and Mila’s granddaughter must seek her out prior to revealing the family secret to the Rebbe. No one was allowed to ever speak Atara’s name again, and there was never any mention of where she went or how she was able to remain hidden. I so wished to read more about this part! But the finale of the story is incredibly heart breaking, but again, Markovits handles with such compassion and justice to all sides.

There are a number of interviews and reviews with Anouk Markovits on her site here. From reading through these interviews, she seems a very poised and calm person, yet such a heroic and brave person too for her decision to leave all she knew of behind and move away from the punishingly strict sect. There is much in this story that you can see is semi-autobiographical for Markovits. The New York Times wrote a great review that can be read here.

I do recommend this one, I always enjoy peeking in to these religious sects and organizations, and Markovits does so with the Satmar in I am Forbidden in a very compassionate yet heart breaking way. 4 stars.

Scenes from a Satmar wedding: