Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong

On Earth We're Briefly GorgeousSYNOPSIS:

Poet Ocean Vuong’s debut novel is a shattering portrait of a family, a first love, and the redemptive power of storytelling

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is a letter from a son to a mother who cannot read. Written when the speaker, Little Dog, is in his late twenties, the letter unearths a family’s history that began before he was born — a history whose epicenter is rooted in Vietnam — and serves as a doorway into parts of his life his mother has never known, all of it leading to an unforgettable revelation. At once a witness to the fraught yet undeniable love between a single mother and her son, it is also a brutally honest exploration of race, class, and masculinity. Asking questions central to our American moment, immersed as we are in addiction, violence, and trauma, but undergirded by compassion and tenderness, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous is as much about the power of telling one’s own story as it is about the obliterating silence of not being heard.

With stunning urgency and grace, Ocean Vuong writes of people caught between disparate worlds, and asks how we heal and rescue one another without forsaking who we are. The question of how to survive, and how to make of it a kind of joy, powers the most important debut novel of many years.

RATING: ☆★☆★

Dear Ma,” within the narrator’s head—or it might have been his heart—the name begins tolling, very much like a bell, “I am writing to reach you—even if each word I put down is one word further from where you are.” And although he knows his mother is illiterate—her education capped at the age of 5 after a napalm raid destroyed her schoolhouse in Vietnam—and thus, all his hours and pain will be folded in paper and put away, the words kept tumbling out, catching fire as they went.

He is Continue reading “Review: On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong”


Review: Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane


Francis Gleeson and Brian Stanhope are two NYPD rookies assigned to the same Bronx precinct in 1973. They aren’t close friends on the job, but end up living next door to each other outside the city. What goes on behind closed doors in both houses—the loneliness of Francis’s wife, Lena, and the instability of Brian’s wife, Anne, sets the stage for the stunning events to come.

Ask Again, Yes by award-winning author Mary Beth Keane, is a beautifully moving exploration of the friendship and love that blossoms between Francis’s youngest daughter, Kate, and Brian’s son, Peter, who are born six months apart. In the spring of Kate and Peter’s eighth grade year a violent event divides the neighbors, the Stanhopes are forced to move away, and the children are forbidden to have any further contact.

But Kate and Peter find a way back to each other, and their relationship is tested by the echoes from their past. Ask Again, Yes reveals how the events of childhood look different when reexamined from the distance of adulthood—villains lose their menace, and those who appeared innocent seem less so. Kate and Peter’s love story is marked by tenderness, generosity, and grace.

RATING: ☆★☆★

Lying in my bed at night, after finishing this book, I found myself unwilling audience to a seethe of clashing thoughts about the story, like watching a flickering home movie projected into a makeshift screen. My mind refused to release me to oblivion, and, although the ending does bring to one’s mind the setting of one’s soul at ease and the wheeling of stars into alignment, I turned the last page feeling heavier with what I knew. I still do.

So, what’s this book about?

Brian Stanhope and Francis Gleeson are friends, but perhaps “friends” is an inaccurate word to use. They moved into neighboring homes in the small town of Gillam with their respective new brides, Anne and Lena, but mainly were thrown together by the fact that they were both rookie cops in a tough Bronx precinct—a situation which, at the time, did not seem necessarily unpropitious. Francis’s youngest daughter, Kate, and Brian’s only son, Peter, sought true friendship in the golden harbor of each other’s arms, but tragedy found them first. Violence and towering rage were like a leak that stole all the air from their homes, and soon, a final invisible mooring line snapped, and Kate and Peter were both cast adrift.

Years later, Kate and Peter are still rummaging the dark, and each other, for happiness, spitting the past out behind them and throwing themselves into the future. But once unearthed, there was no containing the memories, and they are soon being hunted by all the sorrows they had collected over the years—their whole arsenal, turned against them. Kate and Peter will soon find out that tragedies do not immunize you against further tragedies, misfortune doesn’t get scattered around in fair proportions, and the past could become a stone that quickly drags you to the depths when “you repeat what you do not repair.”

The plot of Ask Again, Yes, for a while, has some trouble catching flight, but as the families’ tragedy is dragged to the fore, the depth of the author’s storytelling prowess unveils itself. There’s a vicious grace and a soul-baring emotional honesty to the novel, and Keane has deftly crafted a masterly wrought diorama full of realistically rendered relationships and tensions, observations about family, the ties that bind mothers and sons even through years of separation, and the ways love ferments in the airless conditions of unaddressed trauma. The author invites us into the low-lit corners of every household at those tremulous moments in which the whole human condition is suddenly within reach, if heartbreakingly so, and the story she tells, as strange in its specificity as it is, remains universal in its familiarity.

One of the novel’s most poignant successes is the way Keane challenges her readers—and characters—by offering a myriad of angles on the events, and infusing each with enough complexity to make them lodge themselves in the reader’s mind. The tragedy that has befallen the Gleeson and Stanhope families is disinterred throughout the novel, reexamined and re-discussed. Loose threads are picked out of every version and efforts are made to knit it all together in order to make a single, comprehensible tale.

Keane lets every character speak for themselves, and lets the reader decide which character should capture their allegiance. She never ignores their faults, their achingly human proneness to self-justification, but she also captures their longing to be kind, and despite myself, I often suffered a deep pang of sympathy for them. That’s what good storytelling does, I think—it transforms a character from a tangential sketch into a human being, links “us” to “them.”

Ask Again, Yes is irreversibly sanguine; but it isn’t the easiest read. It’s a dark, disturbing book; and as you read the novel, it is impossible to dislodge a sense of foreboding from your mind—the feeling like seeing a shark’s fin vanishing beneath the waves. We do not so much wonder what might happen as worry about what will happen. That haunted atmosphere permeates every page, and I could feel the dread stirring in me like ash as Kate and Peter stubbornly carry the hopelessness none of them would utter before them, hoping for the other to filch it away.

But Ask Again, Yes is more than just another story about a family with little to offer but a sad history. There’s plenty of nuance, dimension and empathy to Keane’s novel. Ask Again, Yes provides a potently visceral portrait of what it’s like to live with mental illness, while delicately probing the long-lasting repercussions of its non-treatment. The layered narrative across the decades does a good job of showing how attitudes towards mental illness are changing for the better—but we still have a long way to go.

At the novel’s heart also lurks the certainty that the things one is made to endure in childhood could not be undone and would steer their fates for many years to come, that the pain suffered in youth is bound to leave a rotten place, like a bruise on fruit, somewhere on one’s soul. “The beginning of one’s life matters the most,” writes Keane, “life is top-heavy that way.” Even so, Ask Again, Yes, wades through the darkness with heart. Hope makes an appearance (or, if anything, the last stage before hope becomes attainable). Hope that no matter how far you travel away from your loved ones, it’ll come a day when you will make out each other’s silhouettes again. That you may have given each other wounds, but they are not always mortal.

“Things are better now, they feel like they’re getting better—don’t they? But there might be more coming. This might be the least of it. Have you thought about that? We knew nothing about what it meant to grow up, to be partners, parents, all of it. Nothing. And maybe we still don’t. Would you have said yes back then if you’d known?”
“But I know now. So ask me.”
But he couldn’t find the right words. “I’ll give you a hint,” she said, squeezing his hands until he looked up to meet her eyes. “Then and now, I say yes.”

Ask Again, Yes is a hugely sensitive and deeply humanizing story about the never-ending ache of love and loss. Not to be missed!


Review: A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles


He can’t leave his hotel. You won’t want to.

From the New York Times bestselling author of Rules of Civility–a transporting novel about a man who is ordered to spend the rest of his life inside a luxury hotel.

In 1922, Count Alexander Rostov is deemed an unrepentant aristocrat by a Bolshevik tribunal, and is sentenced to house arrest in the Metropol, a grand hotel across the street from the Kremlin. Rostov, an indomitable man of erudition and wit, has never worked a day in his life, and must now live in an attic room while some of the most tumultuous decades in Russian history are unfolding outside the hotel’s doors. Unexpectedly, his reduced circumstances provide him entry into a much larger world of emotional discovery.

Brimming with humor, a glittering cast of characters, and one beautifully rendered scene after another, this singular novel casts a spell as it relates the count’s endeavor to gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a man of purpose.

It’s always a shock, after you finish a particularly good book, to look up and see the world go about its business with perfect indifference, while you just sit there, feeling like something has shifted, moved, broken open inside you. The trance of being immersed in your reading is so intense you turn the last page and step forth into the real world with a sense of complete unreality. Like you couldn’t remember being there, the way you might feel when you’re driving home and you suddenly find yourself in front of the garage, unable to remember the actual drive.

This is how this book made me feel, and I’ve no doubt that it will reside, for many years, in the low-lit corners of my memory. I am already looking forward to reading it again.

So, what’s this book about?

The glory that had shone upon Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov—a member of the Jockey Club, Master of the Hunt—vanishes when he is unceremoniously sentenced to life confinement in Moscow’s Metropol hotel.

But for all that it was a prison, it was a luxurious one. The year is 1922, and behind it all, looms the haunting specter of a country that is at the fragile end of a brutal history; an ill-timed glance or a foot set in an unfortunate spot could bring down death and woe upon a person, in the form of a bullet to the head or an exile to Siberia.

But Alexander Ilyich Rostov finds a fire, a fierce brightness in this new existence. The Hotel Metropol is a world unto itself, and within its walls, “the world had come and gone”. Men and women were drawn to it from every far-flung crag of every country, spilling their stories while the count carefully gathers them up for safekeeping. And over the years, Alexander also forges a link between him and several residents of the hotel—the chefs, the doormen, the bartenders, the seamstresses—and creates a door that he can knock at and count on being opened at any time.

But soon the years begin to press into a moment more akin to a yellow-edged photo than a vivid film, and the count begins to feel, for the first time, the true weight of his sentence. The fear that he wouldn’t ever leave the hotel, that he would stay and grow old and bent and be put in the ground there, becomes a monster that dogged his heel, and he walks on through his days trying so desperately not to meet its eyes—lest it pounces.

The hotel is the count’s prison, and it is his sanctuary, but for how much longer can it be either?

To what end, he wondered, had the Divine created the stars in heaven to fill a man with feelings of inspiration one day and insignificance the next?

It’s not at all an easy task to make a story of imprisonment within a strait and unchanging setting feel so hugely mesmerizing. Fortunately, Towles is a maestro of his craft, and he sets off all the fireworks he can with it. The resulting book—like the count—thrives in captivity.

I will not go on and on about the beauty of the prose, how Towles pulls you deep into the currents of his language, and makes you want to linger, about the gorgeously realized setting or the propulsive plot, and how I had to marshal my tired eyes in order to see the pages, driving myself past exhaustion to a kind of surreal and tenacious wakefulness, because I just couldn’t stop reading. I will not rhapsodize about the author’s voice: the Austen-esque arched eyebrow, the conspiratorial wink, the sly, confiding tone. The piercing irony and the craftiness with which he always seems to know the right nerve to touch, at exactly the right moment, to wound or to excite or to outrage most.

Instead, I want to talk about the characters, about the deep and protean themes, and how much pure and unfettered fun this book was. A Gentleman in Moscow is as funny and playful as it is smart and profound. Towles ruminate meaningfully on selfhood, friendship, parenthood and the devastating unattainability of modest hopes, and those ruminations are driven by a deep urge to make observations about people, to see them, really see them, in all their glorious, and sometimes mundane, glory. People, after all, “deserve not only our consideration,” writes Towles, “but our reconsideration.”

It is undeniable that A Gentleman in Moscow lives and dies on its characters—so richly drawn and so idiosyncratically compelling are they—and the novel thrives with the people it focuses on, who, together, make something like the word family.

The details of the count’s life at the Hotel Metropol are vividly painted, and it’s a treat to simply spend time with him. He has such a strong presence to him, as though he breathes all the air on the page and only leaves enough for other characters by benevolence only. I loved his dignity, his steadiness, his sense of humor, his heartbreaking thoughtfulness—and how manages to preserve those qualities despite his circumstances (which he was ferociously committed to “mastering”). He takes joy in savoring the simple pleasures of life—good wine, good company, and a good book. He charmed people, and let himself be charmed by him, and right there in that prison, he found belonging.

“These are the greatest of conveniences, Anushka—and at one time, I had them all. But in the end, it has been the inconveniences that have mattered to me most.”

The count is also utterly captivating in his interactions with other characters: Nina, the precocious 9-year-old who holds a master key which allows her into every room; Emile, the grouchy cook with his caustic whit and cavernous gloom; and Andrey, the French maître d’ with a preternatural knowledge of the hotel’s inner workings and preternaturally agile hands. Their presence was like a warm stone the count cupped in his hands, and I relished the feeling that their solitudes had joined together, canceled each other’s out. There is tragedy at the heart of this story, after all, but there is also unimaginable tenderness—and it’s what follows you off the page.

It comes as no surprise to me that this novel was a stokingly popular hit, and I’m so glad I read it. If you’re worried this may not be your thing—like I was—trust me: A Gentleman in Moscow is your thing, and you’re doubtless going to enjoy your time here.

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Review: A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay

41458663In a chamber overlooking the nighttime waterways of a maritime city, a man looks back on his youth and the people who shaped his life. Danio Cerra’s intelligence won him entry to a renowned school even though he was only the son of a tailor. He took service at the court of a ruling count–and soon learned why that man was known  as the Beast.

Danio’s fate changed the moment he saw and recognized Adria Ripoli as she entered the count’s chambers one autumn night–intending to kill. Born to power, Adria had chosen, instead of a life of comfort, one of danger–and freedom. Which is how she encounters Danio in a perilous time and place.

Vivid figures share the unfolding story. Among them: a healer determined to defy her expected lot; a charming, frivolous son of immense wealth; a powerful religious leader more decadent than devout; and, affecting all these lives and many more,  two larger-than-life mercenary commanders, lifelong adversaries, whose rivalry puts a world in the balance.

A Brightness Long Ago offers both compelling drama and deeply moving reflections on the nature of memory, the choices we make in life, and the role played by the turning of Fortune’s wheel.

RATING: ☆★☆★

It felt unsettlingly disorienting to turn the last page of this book and be back in the noisy, bustling world. I struggled from the webbing of the story, and a deep melancholy that would not lift for many days begun to settle around me. Each word I tried to put down was one word further from what I meant to say. There was, in me, such a simmer of emotions; and I was tempted to read the book again, to go back and relive those moments, open them up and stretch them out full length to see what it was that had left this story so indelible upon my psyche. Continue reading “Review: A Brightness Long Ago by Guy Gavriel Kay”


Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips


One August afternoon, on the shoreline of the Kamchatka peninsula at the northeastern tip of Russia, two girls – sisters, ages eight and eleven – go missing. The police investigation that follows turns up nothing. In the girls’ tightly-woven community, everyone must grapple with the loss. But the fear and danger of their disappearance is felt most profoundly among the women of this isolated place.

Taking us one chapter per month across a year on Kamchatka, this powerful novel connects the lives of characters changed by the sisters’ abduction: a witness, a neighbor, a detective, a mother. Theirs is an ethnically diverse population in which racial tensions simmer, and so-called “natives” are often suspected of the worst. As the story radiates from the peninsula’s capital city to its rural north, we are brought to places of astonishing beauty: densely wooded forests, open expanses of tundra, soaring volcanoes, and glassy seas.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

The correct response to the ending of this book is a violently whispered, “fuck.” Continue reading “Review: Disappearing Earth by Julia Phillips”


Review: I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver


When Ben De Backer comes out to their parents as nonbinary, they’re thrown out of their house and forced to move in with their estranged older sister, Hannah, and her husband, Thomas, whom Ben has never even met. Struggling with an anxiety disorder compounded by their parents’ rejection, they come out only to Hannah, Thomas, and their therapist and try to keep a low profile in a new school.

But Ben’s attempts to survive the last half of senior year unnoticed are thwarted when Nathan Allan, a funny and charismatic student, decides to take Ben under his wing. As Ben and Nathan’s friendship grows, their feelings for each other begin to change, and what started as a disastrous turn of events looks like it might just be a chance to start a happier new life.

At turns heartbreaking and joyous, I Wish You All the Best is both a celebration of life, friendship, and love, and a shining example of hope in the face of adversity.


The beginning of I Wish You All the Best jarred me. It kicked up a riot of emotions; each word a lash, wrenching out your breath and dealing blows to your insides. Continue reading “Review: I Wish You All the Best by Mason Deaver”


Review: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo


With her daughter to care for and her abuela to help support, high school senior Emoni Santiago has to make the tough decisions, and do what must be done. The one place she can let her responsibilities go is in the kitchen, where she adds a little something magical to everything she cooks, turning her food into straight-up goodness. Still, she knows she doesn’t have enough time for her school’s new culinary arts class, doesn’t have the money for the class’s trip to Spain — and shouldn’t still be dreaming of someday working in a real kitchen. But even with all the rules she has for her life — and all the rules everyone expects her to play by — once Emoni starts cooking, her only real choice is to let her talent break free.

RATING: ☆★☆★☆

With the Fire on High was soft, enfolding, light as a dusting of snow upon my forehead, the kind of novel that deadens the harshness of the world and takes the sting from any barb. Continue reading “Review: With the Fire on High by Elizabeth Acevedo”


Review: Aurora Rising (The Aurora Cycle #1) by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman


The year is 2380, and the graduating cadets of Aurora Academy are being assigned their first missions. Star pupil Tyler Jones is ready to recruit the squad of his dreams, but his own boneheaded heroism sees him stuck with the dregs nobody else in the Academy would touch…

A cocky diplomat with a black belt in sarcasm
A sociopath scientist with a fondness for shooting her bunkmates
A smart-ass techwiz with the galaxy’s biggest chip on his shoulder
An alien warrior with anger management issues
A tomboy pilot who’s totally not into him, in case you were wondering

And Ty’s squad isn’t even his biggest problem—that’d be Aurora Jie-Lin O’Malley, the girl he’s just rescued from interdimensional space. Trapped in cryo-sleep for two centuries, Auri is a girl out of time and out of her depth. But she could be the catalyst that starts a war millions of years in the making, and Tyler’s squad of losers, discipline-cases and misfits might just be the last hope for the entire galaxy.


(leaning forward so my lips touch the microphone) it’s a YIKES from me! Continue reading “Review: Aurora Rising (The Aurora Cycle #1) by Jay Kristoff and Amie Kaufman”