The Binding, by Bridget Collins (Review)


The Binding
by Bridget Collins

Genre: Historical Fiction / Fantasy

Length: 437 Pages

Release date: April 16, 2019

Synopsis: 

Imagine you could erase grief.
Imagine you could remove pain.
Imagine you could hide the darkest, most horrifying secret.
Forever.

Young Emmett Farmer is working in the fields when a strange letter arrives summoning him away from his family. He is to begin an apprenticeship as a Bookbinder—a vocation that arouses fear, superstition, and prejudice among their small community but one neither he nor his parents can afford to refuse.

For as long as he can recall, Emmett has been drawn to books, even though they are strictly forbidden. Bookbinding is a sacred calling, Seredith informs her new apprentice, and he is a binder born. Under the old woman’s watchful eye, Emmett learns to hand-craft the elegant leather-bound volumes. Within each one they will capture something unique and extraordinary: a memory. If there’s something you want to forget, a binder can help. If there’s something you need to erase, they can assist. Within the pages of the books they create, secrets are concealed and the past is locked away. In a vault under his mentor’s workshop, rows upon rows of books are meticulously stored.

But while Seredith is an artisan, there are others of their kind, avaricious and amoral tradesman who use their talents for dark ends—and just as Emmett begins to settle into his new circumstances, he makes an astonishing discovery: one of the books has his name on it. Soon, everything he thought he understood about his life will be dramatically rewritten.

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“Who the hell are you?”
“I’m the witch’s apprentice. Who the hell are you?” 

The reviews for The Binding  seem to be all over the place; either it will totally enchant you or bore you to tears, apparently. I think part of the problem for some readers is that the synopsis and marketing leave one expecting a full-blown fantasy novel. While there are fantasy elements and magic in this book, the overall feel is much more “historical fiction.” If you’re going into The Binding ready for a magical adventure, you may be disappointed.

But there’s a lot to love about this story. We get to watch the characters struggle with thorny ethical questions; what are the ramifications of helping someone to forget that they’ve done something terrible? What about forgetting the terrible things which have been done to them? What about binding good memories in exchange for money? If a person is so desperate for money that they’re willing to sell off their knowledge of, for example, their wedding day, are they really in a position to be capable of consenting to such a thing? Is offering money for something so treasured and irreplaceable inherently predatory?

At the heart of this novel is a love story, complicated by circumstances and drastic power imbalances. It’s messy, high stakes, and gut-wrenchingly genuine. It’s also the rare enemies to lovers story that doesn’t make me cringe. I don’t want to spoil anything, but Emmett has problems processing his feelings towards the love interest, for reasons that are obvious to the reader but not to him. His confusion manifests as hostility, and Collins managed to write the transition from that mindset into the love story very convincingly.

The Binding is slow, intricate, and contemplative. I think it’s somewhat a victim of poor marketing. Do not pick up this book expecting a fairy tale with loads of magic; with the exception of the ability to bind memories to a book, Emmett’s world is basically the real world of a few hundred years ago. Fans of detailed historical fiction or magical realism may want to sink their teeth into this novel.

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Thank you for reading! What was the last book you read that was completely different from the impression given by the synopsis? Let me know in the comments!

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Review – Tin Man, by Sarah Winman

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Tin Man
by Sarah Winman

Genre: Contemporary Fiction

Length: 214 Pages

Release date: July 27, 2017

Blurb via GoodReads: 

A novel celebrating love in all of its forms and the little moments that make up the life of an autoworker in a small working-class town.

This is almost a love story. But it’s not as simple as that.

Ellis and Michael are twelve-year-old boys when they first become friends, and for a long time it is just the two of them, cycling the streets of Oxford, teaching themselves how to swim, discovering poetry, and dodging the fists of overbearing fathers. And then one day this closest of friendships grows into something more.

But then we fast forward a decade or so, to find that Ellis is married to Annie, and Michael is nowhere in sight. Which leads to the question, what happened in the years between?

Tin Man is a love letter to human kindness and friendship, and to loss and living.

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I had a… complicated relationship with this book. This was a story of first loves, heartache, and loneliness, and while I was drawn into the emotions of the characters, I felt less so with the story itself. (Was there much of a story? It felt rather thin, honestly, even taking into account the short length.) Winman’s writing style was at times quite lyrical and melancholy, full of quotable moments such as this: “And I wonder what the sound of a heart breaking might be. And I think it might be quiet, unperceptively so, and not dramatic at all. Like the sound of an exhausted swallow falling gently to earth.”

However, the narrative structure was endlessly frustrating to me. The novel bounces around time seemingly without regard to coherency. It creates a stream of consciousness effect which I suppose was meant to draw the reader into Ellis and Michael’s heads, but the lack of clarity instead had the effect of drawing me out of the story, particularly in the first half of the book, which is told from Ellis’ perspective. (The latter half, from Michael’s perspective, seemed much more coherent.) Combined with Winman’s eschewing of the use of quotation marks, trying to make sense of what could have been a quite lovely book felt like somewhat of a chore.

There’s something about first love, isn’t there? she said. It’s untouchable to those who played no part in it. But it’s the measure of all that follows.

I adored the relationships in this book, and I don’t at all regret reading it. However, I have to confess I’m a bit confused by the number of five-star rave reviews on GoodReads. To me, it felt like a novel which was certainly great at moments, but overall, a bit lacking.

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Review – The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

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The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo
by Taylor Jenkins Reid

Genre: Historical Fiction / Contemporary

Length: 388 Pages

Release date: June 13, 2017

Blurb via GoodReads: 

Evelyn Hugo is finally ready to tell the truth about her glamorous and scandalous life. But when she chooses unknown magazine reporter Monique Grant for the job, no one in the journalism community is more astounded than Monique herself. Why her? Why now?

Monique is not exactly on top of the world. Her husband, David, has left her, and her career has stagnated. Regardless of why Evelyn has chosen her to write her biography, Monique is determined to use this opportunity to jumpstart her career.

Summoned to Evelyn’s Upper East Side apartment, Monique listens as Evelyn unfurls her story: from making her way to Los Angeles in the 1950s to her decision to leave show business in the late 80s, and, of course, the seven husbands along the way. As Evelyn’s life unfolds through the decades—revealing a ruthless ambition, an unexpected friendship, and a great forbidden love—Monique begins to feel a very a real connection to the actress. But as Evelyn’s story catches up with the present, it becomes clear that her life intersects with Monique’s own in tragic and irreversible ways.

ratingfive

To say that I loved The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo would be an understatement. This is one of those books that ends leaving you aching for another page, another chapter.

As far as structure, this book can be divided into three separate categories:

  1. First person perspective of Monique, who is struggling with the dissolution of her marriage as she interviews Evelyn Hugo, aging Hollywood darling and ex movie star
  2. First person perspective of Evelyn Hugo as she reveals her life story to Monique
  3. Newspaper/magazine article asides describing various significant events of Evelyn’s life as seen through the limited perspective of the press

This structure is very effective in calling attention to the wide gap between Evelyn’s reality and the constructed version propped up in the press, where rumors are sometimes reported as fact and vice versa. The Evelyn Hugo that exists in the public’s mind bears little resemblance to the Evelyn Hugo that Monique discovers throughout the story.

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The book touches on a variety of social issues; racial issues are at the forefront early in the novel. Struggling to find her footing in Hollywood, Evelyn Hugo is subjected to a whitewashing makeover reminiscent of Rita Hayworth. With bleach blonde hair and a new last name to sweep her Latina heritage under the rug, the studio hopes to make her more palatable to the masses. While this wasn’t explicitly forced upon her, it’s clear to her that her success to dependent on going along with it. She seems to be okay with this at first, realizing only afterwards how taxing this will prove to be, such as when she struggles to determine whether speaking Spanish in front of her Latina maid is worth the risk of exposure.

This need to hide aspects of her identity foreshadows what is easily the main conflict of the novel. Evelyn spends most of her life in love with another woman and hiding it for the sake of her career and reputation. She is a bisexual character who owns the label “bisexual,” something that is strikingly rare in fiction. She is not an “I don’t like labels” bisexual or an “I went through a phase” bisexual (why straight authors feel the need to write such characters I’ll never understand), she is explicitly bisexual and goes so far as to call out another character for failure to use the correct word. “Don’t ignore half of me so you can fit me into a box. Don’t do that,” she says.

Throughout her rise to fame, Evelyn struggles to reconcile her shame, not of her identity itself but of her own willingness to hide it for the sake of success, with her sense of understanding that she’d probably do it all over again. She is hungry for fame, success, the adoration of the masses, and yes, money.

Reid has constructed a picture of an intensely realistic, flawed, captivating woman. At moments, it’s easy to feel as if you’re reading the memoir of a flesh and blood person. There are intensely fun passages which can feel like getting the inside scoop on real-life Hollywood royalty, but Evelyn’s unflinching honesty about her own personal demons makes the book so much more than that. This was compulsively readable and completely lovely.

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Review – On Burning Mirrors, by Jamie Klinger-Krebs

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On Burning Mirrors 
by Jamie Klinger-Krebs

Genre: LGBTQ, Contemporary Fiction

Length: 450 Pages

Released: April 20, 2018

Blurb via GoodReads: 

Jules Kanter is a wife, a mother and a successful journalist; but she’s completely fallen for the subject of her latest story—a talented musician/bartender named Erin. While plagued with guilt over an affair that causes her to question her sexuality, coupled with the fear of hurting everyone she loves, Jules pours her emotions into her writing. But, she never imagined her words would be discovered when she wasn’t there to explain them.

ratingthree

I want to preface this review by saying that I seem to be in a minority opinion when it comes to this book; it currently has a very respectable 4.26 average on GoodReads, but I’d personally place it in the 2.5-3 range. So, if the premise sounds interesting to you, take my somewhat critical review with a grain of salt. This may also have to be a bit vague, as some of the issues that took away from my enjoyment of the book had to do with plot points rather than writing style. I will aim for only being specific in terms of plot when it comes to things that happen very early in the narrative; you won’t be reading any plot twists here.

I was cautiously optimistic going into this book. Representation was cause for optimism, but one half of the lesbian couple being dead from the word “go” tempered my excitement a bit. (Bury Your Gays, anyone?) Jules dies in a car accident on the way home from visiting her lover, Erin. The manner of her death may seem incidental, but to anyone familiar with the BYG trope, it may have thrown up some red flags. While it was a matter of a chance accident, the timing of the accident means that Jules’ death was an indirect result of falling in love with Erin. Gay characters often die in fiction as a direct or indirect result of their relationships; it’s depressing at worst, and simply overdone at best.

Jules’ death turns Erin’s and Will’s worlds upside-down. In order to better understand the woman they’ve both loved and lost, they attempt to work past their differences and begin to form a hesitant bond. It was interesting to watch this play out, particularly in terms of how Will’s character evolved from (in my opinion) a rather intensely unlikable person to someone who was trying to practice empathy despite his own heartache.

Erin evolved throughout the story as well, and easily becomes the best developed character of the novel, with a detailed background and significant growth. There was one major narrative blip when it come to Erin towards the end of the novel, which I won’t spoil here, but I will say that it felt jarring and unnatural and didn’t add anything of value to the story.

On Burning Mirrors is a story of secrets, grief, and healing. Erin and Will both struggle to find a way to move past the loss of a woman that neither of them feels like they ever truly had to begin with. It is a story of finding closure in the face of unexpected loss.

I received a free review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own and not influenced by the publisher. 

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Read Before You Watch: The Miseducation of Cameron Post

The Miseducation of Cameron Post movie adaptation comes out this Friday, August 3! What better time to explore the source material?

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The Miseducation of Cameron Post
by Emily M. Danforth

Genre: Young Adult, LGBTQIA, Coming of Age

Length: 470 Pages

Release date: February 7, 2012

Blurb via GoodReads: 

When Cameron Post’s parents die suddenly in a car crash, her shocking first thought is relief. Relief they’ll never know that, hours earlier, she had been kissing a girl.

But that relief doesn’t last, and Cam is soon forced to move in with her conservative aunt Ruth and her well-intentioned but hopelessly old-fashioned grandmother. She knows that from this point on, her life will forever be different. Survival in Miles City, Montana, means blending in and leaving well enough alone (as her grandmother might say), and Cam becomes an expert at both.

Then Coley Taylor moves to town. Beautiful, pickup-driving Coley is a perfect cowgirl with the perfect boyfriend to match. She and Cam forge an unexpected and intense friendship — one that seems to leave room for something more to emerge. But just as that starts to seem like a real possibility, ultrareligious Aunt Ruth takes drastic action to ‘fix’ her niece, bringing Cam face-to-face with the cost of denying her true self — even if she’s not exactly sure who that is.

The Miseducation of Cameron Post is a stunning and unforgettable literary debut about discovering who you are and finding the courage to live life according to your own rules.

ratingfour

I’ve always heard this book described as “a book about a girl who gets sent to a gay conversion therapy camp,” and while that’s true, it may give you a false impression of the book. Cameron arrives at camp past the halfway point of the book and a lot has already happened in the story by that point. The Miseducation of Cameron Post details the discomfort of being gay in a small, rural town, the pressures of compulsory heterosexuality, and coming out vs. being outed.

The longer I stayed at Promise, the more all the stuff they were throwing at me, at us, started to stick, just like to those sticky hands, in little bits, at first, random pieces, no big deal. For instance, maybe I’d be in bed during lights out and I’d start to think about Coley and kissing Coley, and doing more with Coley, or Lindsey, or whomever, Michelle Pfeiffer. But then I might hear Lydia’s voice saying, You have to fight these sinful impulses: fight, it’s not supposed to be easy to fight sin, and I might totally ignore it, or even laugh to myself about what an idiot she was, but there it would be, her voice, in my head, where it hadn’t been before.

Cameron struggles throughout the book to come to terms with the deaths of her parents, caused by an accident she somewhat blames on herself. She has been raised in a conservative town and already internalized a lot of shame before being sent to conversion camp.

There are no clear villains in Cameron’s story; the characters surrounding her are nuanced, and those running the camp seem to genuinely believe in what they’re doing. Reverend Rick, one of the two main authority figures at the camp, believes himself to be a “former” homosexual. He is warm and inviting, and believes his program is the way for “troubled” kids to live a normal life. These things are important, because without them, he would be a cardboard cutout of a person with no shades of grey. Never does it feel like Danforth is trying to justify Reverend Rick, only to understand him.

The tone was fitting for the story; it is told in first person from Cameron’s point of view and Cameron feels her age throughout the story. Danforth has also made it very easy to connect with Cameron. The book is sometimes a bit slow but atmospheric, drawing you into Cameron’s town and the early 1990’s. Danforth has crafted a poignant story to explore a highly sensitive topic with the care it deserves.

Maybe I still haven’t become me. I don’t know how you tell for sure when you finally have.

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This Is How It Always Is – Review

 

Happy Pride Month, everyone! The timing was not planned, but today I’ll be reviewing a novel about a transgender child, so it seems fortuitous that I’ve finished this book just in time to kick off Pride Month.

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This Is How It Always Is, by Laurie Frankel, released January of 2017

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This is the story of Poppy, formerly known as Claude, her four older brothers, and her parents, Rosie and Penn. It is the story of how her family struggles to grapple with her identity, or perhaps more accurately, with their fears over how the rest of the world will react to her identity. This is a book about when keeping a secret begins to feel like telling a lie, about a parent’s wish to keep their child safe, about balancing bodily autonomy with a child’s incomplete capacity to make their own decisions.

***Please note, minor spoilers may be ahead*** I’m not sharing anything earth-shatteringly shocking in terms of plot, but in order to fully express my thoughts on this book, I will be sharing a little bit more about the plot than I typically would in a review. Some of the issues I had with this book had to do with specific plot elements which will be discussed below.

This book tackles delicate issues head-on. It’s a positive step towards more transgender representation in fiction. It’s a book about LGBTQ youth that doesn’t end in complete tragedy, which is surprisingly rare in fiction. One of my favorite things about this book was the detail with which it expressed the nuance of the “coming out” process, made extra complicated in this story because, at the age of just five, this wasn’t something Poppy was equipped to handle for herself. So her parents were left with the task of deciding who should know that Poppy was transgender. Should Poppy’s best friend’s parents know? The school principal? The school nurse? Could it conceivably become important for them to know? And deciding who to tell is only half the battle. What about when? 

Maybe there was a moment when the moment was right, but over the years, Rosie and Penn realized the impossibility of finding it. For the first few thousand of them after they met someone, it was too soon, Poppy’s story too awkward and complicated, to intimate, too risky to share with new acquaintances. But by the time those acquaintances became close friends, it was too late. Perhaps there was a perfect moment in between, when you were close enough to tell but not so close it was problematic that you hadn’t done so already, but it was infinitesimal, too fleet and fleeting to pin down, visible not even in hindsight.

There was a lot to love about this book, and I wanted to love this book, but I finished it feeling that it was just okay. Frankel’s writing style sometimes got under my skin; it’s all very stream-of-consciousness, shifting sometimes without warning between the two parents in such a way that you’re left wondering when one’s thought ended and the other’s began. It’s long-winded and rambling and feels much longer than its 327 pages.

I was also a bit hesitant about the author’s handling of the subject matter before I even started the book; the blurb makes it clear that Poppy (still referred to as her birth name, Claude, in the blurb) identifies as a girl, and yet uses male pronouns. I feel like this may have been an attempt at clarity, working under the assumption that a lot of the readers stumbling across the listing for the blurb may not be educated in trans issues, but it just felt really unnecessary.

Coming back to the subject of coming out, despite the nuance in the discussion the characters have about this topic, I feel that Frankel had one major misstep in this regard. Poppy’s family moves to a new town when she begins to transition; there are a variety of reasons for this, but part of the decision was based in the thought that it would be easier on Poppy if her new classmates only ever knew her as a girl. This would save her the trouble and trauma and teasing that would almost certainly come with coming out. For a while, this goes well. Then one of her classmates finds out and, of course, tells the whole school. Poppy is traumatized, understandably so.

Poppy’s mother, Rosie, goes to her former colleague, Mr. Tongo, looking for advice. Mr. Tongo, a counselor at the hospital where Rosie worked before the family moved, has periodically popped into the story as the voice of reason, an eccentric but wise character who helps Poppy’s parents cope with the many complications and decisions which come with raising a transgender child. When Mr. Tongo finds out that Poppy has been forcibly outed, his response can essentially be boiled down to, “Good! Glad that got out of the way early! It’ll be much simpler this way.” This is fundamentally ridiculous. Coming out and being outed against one’s will are universes apart, and a character who is meant to be a counselor of all things would absolutely know that what Poppy is dealing with at this point is, first and foremost, a crisis. 

Finally, the family as a whole did not feel believable. While there are a few isolated incidents of teenage boys acting out, overall the family is so sickly sweet as to feel unreal. The parents’ marriage is nearly perfect; the closest the come to experiencing a marital crisis is an isolated disagreement on how best to deal with Poppy, medically speaking, in light of her gender identity. Both want to support her identity fully and without question; they simply aren’t in full agreement on what constitutes the best way to do that. I felt like the story would have gained a certain degree of believability if there had been some familial conflict which didn’t revolve around Poppy. I appreciate the author’s desire to write a transgender character with a healthy and supportive family, but the picture-perfect nature of the family was so extreme as to be almost distracting.

Laurie Frankel reveals in the author’s note that she wrote this book in part because she has a transgender child. Given her background, certain aspects of this book felt surprisingly tone-deaf to me. The world is in need of more LGBTQ representation in fiction, and in that sense I’m grateful for this book.

But it feels like Poppy deserved a better story.