Book Review: A Dual Inheritance

Dual_Inheritance_SMDual inheritance theory (DIT) is defined at the start of the book as,

“also known as geneculture coevolution, was developed in the late 1970s and early 1980s to explain how human behaviour is a product of two different and interacting evolutionary processes: genetic evolution and cultural evolution.”

Jennifer Egan (author of A Visit from the Goon Squad) is quoted on the front cover of A Dual Inheritance stating, “A big, captivating sweep of a romance…a searching exploration of class and destiny in late-twentieth-century America.”

Absolutely.

A Dual Inheritance includes four epic parts beginning in 1962 and ending in 2010. A big fat fatty of a book, it is indeed sweeping, a great generational saga, and one which had me stuck to the pages from the very beginning. I seemingly cruised effortlessly through its 472 pages in a small number of days. I loved reading about Ed, Hugh and Helen.

The story is mainly told from the perspective of Ed Cantowitz, the Jewish boy that loves the ladies and holds lofty and ambitious goals for great wealth. He is awed and dreams often of obtaining the great wealth he sees all around him at Harvard. Ed boldly approaches Hugh Shipley, the golden boy that has it all, one day on the Harvard grounds and from that point forward these two are fast and fierce friends.

What follows is 50 years of fabulous story telling.

50 years of romance, betrayal and wealth and social justice. And then there is Helen. Helen is the golden girl to Hugh’s golden boy status. Hugh has always loved Helen and their romance carries them through the whole novel. Hugh is the guy that was born with the silver-spoon in his mouth and despises it. He graduates and leaves everything and everyone behind to live in Africa and establish medical clinics. Ed graduates and with Helen’s father’s influence becomes a Wall Street financial titan. For the most part, it’s like the Three Musketeer’s- Ed, Helen and Hugh – they are always together. However, after Hugh has left for Africa and Ed has garnered his great wealth, they drift apart, and only one knows why. For many years he holds this close to his heart and never shares it with anyone. Helen remains true to Hugh and follows him to Africa, marries there and then they are on to Haiti.

Towards end I did feel that it loses some steam, or the force from reading the years between Hugh and Ed starts to peter out.  Also, Hugh seems to lose a bit of focus, or the writing of his character seems to meander. I really enjoyed the storyline following Hugh and Ed more than I did the two daughters, Rebecca and Vivi, which takes place in the last half of the book. Here it starts to meander a touch, but in the end wraps it up in a fairly good manner and the reader is not left too wanting. I understand the reason why the book turns more to Rebecca and Vivi, as Ms. Hershon seems to bring things around full circle with a little twist: the daughter of Ed has grown up in a world of great wealth and wants really nothing to do with it, is embarrassed at times by it and the daughter of Hugh has grown up following her parents from Africa to Haiti and is awed and dazzled by wealth. The opposite of Ed and Hugh and their story.

A Dual Inheritance was a fantastic read. Certainly if you love generational epics that cover class, romance, generations and friendship, this will be a most satisfying read for you. I was lost in its pages and thoroughly enjoyed every moment with Ed and Hugh. 4 – 4.5 stars.

Joanna Hershon’s website can be found hereLarge Hearted Boy also interviewed Joanna Hershon and asked her to compile a music playlist to use while reading A Dual Inheritance.  It’s fabulous and you can view that by clicking here. 

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Book Review: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

15811543Thanks to Lindsay and Elaine at Penguin Group USA for kindly sending us Kristopher Jansma’s debut novel The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards. I think that Mr. Jansma is definitely going to be an author to watch! His book read with a lovely prose and the story was definitely interesting enough that I read it all the way through without stopping (finished in only 3 days). The thing is, the uniqueness of this tale makes it very difficult to review! It is made up of seemingly unconnected stories that are actually connected and come around in a very cool way right back to where they started (reminiscent of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad in a way).

An unnamed narrator tells the story of his career in writing. He is only 28 years old so there really isn’t much of a career, per se, and since he is a liar and a plagiarizer you can’t really trust him to tell the truth (you never do find out his real name!). He has written 4 books so far and he has lost every single one of them. These are the tales of how the books got to be written, how they got lost and the people who influenced the stories.

These stories are all true, but only somewhere else.

He starts off in Terminal B and he is 8 years old. He goes there every single day after school to wait for his flight attendant mother to return from whatever city she is flying back from. The vendors who run the various shops in the terminal act as his babysitters and to pass the time he writes his first book. Proud of his accomplishment he asks one of them, the ancient watch repairman Mr. Bjorn, to have a read. Unfortunately, as he is reading he suddenly drops dead. The policeman who finds the body laughs at the content of the book and cavalierly discards it in the trash, breaking our narrator’s heart. He swears off writing for good– that is until he is 16 years old and a beautiful debutante convinces him that he really IS a writer. He decides then and there that he MUST pursue writing as a career.

imagesHe meets Julian (or is it JEFFERY????) in his Fiction and Poetry class at Berkshire College and he is the most gifted writer that he has ever met. He stops at nothing to become more like Julian/Jeffery (minus being an alcoholic, gay agoraphobe) and they spend the next decade in competition– writing, travelling the world and getting into SPECTACULAR fights. Throw into the mix Ev– an actress and Julian’s best friend who our narrator is madly in love with– maybe. They sleep together at every chance they get and have fun making others feel uncomfortable in their presence. But Ev is cut from the same cloth as Daisy Buchanan (of Great Gatsby fame) and only wants him when there is no Olympic swimmer, Indian Prince or King of Luxembourg available as a better option. What better fodder for a writer– Ev becomes his muse.

There are weird trips to Dubai, Sri Lanka and Iceland, encounters with leopards, rebel groups and doppelgängers and then there comes a new girlfriend who may or may not help him to forget Ev, grow up and eventually write (and not lose) the novel that has been waiting to be published. 3 stars and seriously anxious to see what comes next from Kristopher Jansma!

Book Review: Sleeping In Eden

Thank you Howard Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, for sending Sleeping In Eden.  This is a smart and touching page burner!

EdenThe book starts with a kick.  I don’t know many readers who will be able to put the book down after reading the first chapter.  The story begins with a man who is found hanging by a noose in his own barn.  This discovery would be troublesome enough, but authorities then discover the skeletal remains of a girl under the barn floor.  Cue Dr. Lucas Hudson to the scene as acting coroner, and let the ride begin.  What first appears to be an open-and-shut suicide case becomes a twisting trail that leads the good doctor on a personal and very clever chase.  Nothing is quite as it seems.

Page burners may come and go, but the challenge is to get the reader attached to the novel’s characters.  This is expertly crafted in Sleeping In Eden.  You’ll like Lucas.  You’ll like the troubled young woman from his past.

You’ll also like Meg.

Thanks to beautifully penned flashbacks, you will get to know a young girl named Meg Painter, and the two beaus who pined for her affection: Dylan and Jess.  Sounds like a typical teen love triangle, but it’s too smartly written for that label.  I thought Meg was a brave and honest character, and I adored her spirit.  I also loved the complexity of Dylan, and the consistency of Jess.  But what in the world do these flashbacks have to do with the modern day quest to determine the identity of the girl under the barn floorboards?  How is she connected to the suicide?  How will the past and the present come careening together?

The quest of Lucas has many layers.  Evidence he stole from the scene.  A deeply troubled marriage.  A link to a young woman from the past who is now key for the mystery at hand.  A desperate need to fix things that are broken.  These culminate into a protagonist who is meticulously drawn.  His layers and the mystery are intertwined, and all of this is written without unnecessary drama.  It’s effective, and real.

Meg’s girl-next-door is lovely, and the flashbacks are seamless.  They paint a picture of a teen who comes from a loving family (what a nice change from so many of today’s novels), who is on a somewhat clumsy path of self discovery.  Her emotions are raw, and her personality is simultaneously magnetic and sweet.  She’s athletic, adventurous and intelligent, and it’s no surprise that there are two young men fighting for her attention.  How she feels about Dylan and Jess is complex.  For Meg, there are no easy answers, but she might just find herself stronger as she determines the best route for her heart.

The two story lines of Sleeping In Eden could easily stand alone, which is interesting since one is a mystery and one is a coming-of-age journey.  As the two stories develop, you’ll start to feel uneasy about how they could possibly be related.  That nagging discomfort you’ll feel will be the understanding that these lives are indeed linked, which means that there are bitter outcomes ahead.  Exactly how they’re linked, and whose hearts will break will have to be revealed to you when you read it.  You’ll find no spoilers here.  I will say, however, that after reflecting on the story afterward, I was thankful that it was not without hope.  The book’s close will leave you smiling, despite what inevitably transpires.

Sleeping In Eden is well worth your read.  If you like a gripping story with excellent characters and an undercurrent of inspiration, then this novel is for you.  4 stars for Sleeping In Eden, and the knowledge that I will read more of Nicole Baart’s work.

Book Review: The Shelter Cycle

15815603The Shelter Cycle by Peter Rock was read for the May meeting of the Critical Era bookclub. We’ll also be speaking with Peter about this book at the end of the month. I’m certain, like what has happened for us so many times before, is that after discussing the book with the author, it will become something much more than initially realized after closing the final pages. For me, while the The Shelter Cycle  was very interesting, it still seemed quite unfinished and/or underdeveloped closing with a rather abrupt ending.

When this title was first circulated as the planned May selection and was accompanied by this book trailer, I think all of us at the Literary Hoarders were excited for it.

The Shelter Cycle is a fairly quick read, at only about 186 pages, and shares most of its story between Francine and Colville, two former members of the religious group/cult called the Church Universal and Triumphant.

Francine has completely distanced herself from the Church and we come by her pregnant with her first child and married to a man that has absolutely no idea of her former life and activities. Colville reappears in Francine’s life following the media frenzy surrounding the disappearance of a young girl living a few doors down from Francine and her husband, Wells.

Colville is Francine’s former best friend from the Church and the person whom she was told shared each other’s fate. When Colville bursts back into Francine’s life, she begins a rediscovery process and drives back to the shelter and pays a quick visit to the Messenger. The Messenger is obviously suffering from Alzheimer’s and speaks in circles to Francine. She does all of this without explaining it to or even letting Wells know. At the same time, Colville is also visiting the shelter, but is it during the same time as Francine? Colville seems to be returning to the Church’s teachings and lifestyle and preparing for his life inside the shelter on a more permanent basis.  He’s seeing visions, he’s hearing things, and someone from the Church is guiding him along his future path – are they really happening?

Then, Francine returns home to have her baby. Colville kidnaps the child believing she’s the next Messenger. Alas, this kidnapping is short-lived. Colville returns the baby. The end. I’m serious. That’s the end.

Quotes taken from Peter Rock’s website do describe the quirkiness found in The Shelter Cycle:

“Pete Rock is not a normal novelist — he simply refuses to tell a story that is predictable or that permits us to put it aside … Certain writers are so unnervingly original their work secedes from our shared world and makes up a world of its own. With The Shelter Cycle it’s clear that Pete Rock’s world is the most singular and wondrous of them all.” -Susan Choi

“Peter Rock is marvelous at revealing both the insightful strangeness and the madness erring on the outskirts of civilization, and at showing with great sympathy how quickly we can slip from one to the other. A wonderfully humane book about the weirdnesses that make up people’s pasts, and the way they persist into the present.” -Brian Evenson

I am in agreement here, The Shelter Cycle is not a predictable story, and there is indeed strangeness between the pages. I did enjoy reading it however, it is always a great read when exploring these vastly strange and weird cults or organized groups lamenting and preparing for the world’s end. It’s always surprising to see the power and hold over so many that one person can have. It’s surprising to see how many hundreds of people prepared for years to live underground and the magnitude of the project and building of the shelter. However, it still read as though it were unfinished and Francine and Colville remained very underdeveloped in my opinion. Their entwined fates remained disturbed and broken. The abrupt ending does no favours to the reader in discerning how it really ends for Colville and Francine. A good read. But not much more than that.