Monthly Archives: August 2015

Truth and Consequences

CBR_Logo2A Big Enough Lie
A Novel
by Eric Bennett

John Townley is waiting for his second appearance on a popular talk show to commence. He’s ready for it, for the game to be up. He’s ready to come clean—on national TV.

John Townley is Henry Fleming. He is John Marshall. He is John Patrick Crane, who goes by his middle name. He is all of them, although in many ways none of these men exists as a full being, even if they all combine to make up one man.

So it goes in A Big Enough Lie, a story that explores the gray areas between truth and fiction, fact and fabrication, perception and reality. It uses as its backdrop war and violence, writing and storytelling, romance and relationships—all of which reside in those murky gray areas where perceptions are always changing and a-big-enough-liereality is never quite real.

A Big Enough Lie is structured as a story within a story. We first meet John Townley, a small-town boy full of naïveté and big dreams, little ambition, and even less direction, as he prepares to shed light on his story during a television appearance with an Oprah Winfrey-like celebrity host. He fancies himself a writer, even if “he referred to himself as a writer and thought often about writing but wrote little.” Most of his literary efforts are spent on crafting love letters to Emily, a slightly older girl who becomes a woman when he isn’t looking and who adores him but doesn’t really love him. He writes, destroys, and rewrites letter after letter to her, cringing at his own pomposity, his own inauthenticity, his own fakery, knowing he will never be able to write with the ease or honesty that, at least as it seems to him, Emily does.

Even so, and despite nothing to show for it, John Townley insists on thinking himself a writer. Eventually, he does write a story—a memoir—worth publishing, and it’s a doozy. But it isn’t his story, or at least it’s not really his own story to tell even if it has become palpably real to him.

Part love story, part commentary on war, part cynical look at writing and publishing, A Big Enough Lie is at its heart a look at the struggle to become who we are. John Townley is a rather pathetic character, but it’s not all that difficult to empathize with someone who is so obviously floundering, limping through life with eyes only half open. The reader can feel for John Townley, hapless as he is, because he’s somehow earnest even when he’s being deceitful. He doesn’t lie intending to hurt people; he just can’t seem to tell what truth is what it is not. When he finally works up the guts to be honest with himself (and everyone else), his mettle is tested further as those around him grapple with their own truths, making the notion of coming clean a trying one.

There is a lot going on in these pages. Author Eric Bennett has tackled a lot of issues here, and he has populated his story with a lot of people. A Big Enough Lie is a story full of misguided characters telling mistruths as they pursue their misguided dreams. It’s a complicated story, told in a nonlinear fashion by an unreliable narrator. And yet it is a fascinating story as well, a thoughtful, heartbreaking satire of love and life, even if characters go largely unredeemed, even if loose ends aren’t entirely tied up.

A Big Enough Lie is not an easy read. It twists and turns and jumps around. It requires focus and flexibility. But it’s also punctuated by some fine writing, full of feeling, evoking laughter and tears alike. It is dark and witty and biting and sad and heartfelt. It digs and it needles and it sticks. It might be ambitious, but it’s not ineffective. It might be difficult, but it’s not unrewarding. As such, it’s worth the read because it’s a good book that will make readers think, a book that will stick with them. And a book that can do that is worth the effort.

Three-Star Review

June 2015, Triquarterly Books/Northwestern University Press
Fiction
$17.95, paperback, 285 pages
ISBN: 978-0-8181-3121-7

—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen

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Becoming Who You Are

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A Desperate Fortune
A Novel
by Susanna Kearsley

Can we make ourselves into the people we want to be? Do we become the people we pretend to be?

In A Desperate Fortune, two women centuries apart learn about their true selves, one of whom during a months-long journey as part of an entourage traveling to meet an exiled king.

Published by Sourcebooks Landmark, an imprint of Naperville’s Sourcebooks, A Desperate Fortune is the latest novel from Susanna Kearsley, bestselling author of The Winter Sea and The Rose Garden. It is an engrossing read that follows the adventure of Mary Dundas, a young woman in 1730s France who finds herself pulled into the dangerous world of the Jacobites, British and Scottish loyalists to King James VIII during his exile in Rome.

DesperateFortune_FINALReaders meet Mary in the home of her aunt and uncle, who have cared for her since she was a child while her father serves with the king and her older brothers live their own lives. She spends days spinning tales for her cousins, while dreaming that adventure will find her and grieving the loss of her family who don’t appear to want her. While she yearns for adventure, she doesn’t hold out much hope for it.

When her brother, Nicholas, sends for her, she thinks she’s finally being brought “home,” that is, reunited with her family. Instead, however, she learns that she’s being asked to serve as a companion to a man trying to reach the king, along with his Scottish bodyguard and another woman. Mary’s role is to complement the man’s disguises and manufactured backstories by acting as his wife or sister to help him avoid the attention of the English who are hunting for him.

During her travels, Mary keeps an encrypted journal, preserving her story yet hiding it in plain sight. Those travels quickly turn out to be far more dangerous than Mary’s brother would have imagined, and Mary is forced to determine who she trusts, how fast she can think, and what risks she is willing to take.

Mary’s story unfolds along with a parallel narrative, that of Englishwoman Sara Thomas, who is skilled at solving puzzles and cracking codes. Through acquaintances of her cousin, Jacqui, Sara is hired to decipher Mary’s diary while she stays in the home of the diary’s present-day owner in France.

Sara offers a perspective not found often in novels, that of a woman with Asperger’s. In a time when so many people are or know someone on the autism spectrum, it is refreshing to look through Sara’s eyes and feel her emotions, even if she is a fictional character. Sara’s story may dispel some myths along the way, and it reminds us that each person is unique.

sourcebooks landmarkSara believes her challenges because of autism will mean lasting love will elude her. Like Mary, she believes her future will hold only unrealized dreams. Sara is close to her cousin, Jacqui, who has been a lifelong friend and was the first person to truly understand how to help Sara navigate through social situations. Jacqui advises Sara to pretend she’s an alien observing another universe, one who must assimilate to learn.

Centuries before, Mary Dundas uses a form of bravado in order to be liked. Believing people preferred wit over intellect and “vivacity and merriness” above shyness, she forced herself assimilate by flirting, joking, and acting much more confident than she truly felt inside.

By the end of the novel, each woman is learning what she really is, and how she can be the person she wants to be.

Although a work of fiction, the notes at the end of the book explain how Kearsley used memoirs, news publications, and other documents to create realistic details that enrich the story. Some of the characters are indeed based on actual people from the time. The attention to detail certainly adds to a well-crafted adventure that’s well worth the read.

Four-Star Review

April 2015, Sourcebooks Landmark
Fiction
$16.99, softcover, 495 pages
ISBN: 978-1-4936-0202-6

—Reviewed by Paige Fumo Fox

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Much More Than Half

CBR_Logo2Meet Me Halfway:
Milwaukee Stories
by Jennifer Morales

When Johnquell, a  seventeen-year-old African-American with a college scholarship, passes away after a gruesome accident in his white neighbor’s home, his community must find ways to bridge the gaps between races, ages, and orientations in their neighborhood. In nine linked short stories, Jennifer Morales untangles the complicated relationships among African-American and Puerto Rican teens and their white classmates and teachers, Vietnam vets, Latino landlords, former Black Panthers, and all their sprawling families as they search for common ground.meet me halfway

Morales’s collection is truly masterful, diving deep into her characters and layering them one on top of another to weave the vibrant tapestry of the Rust Belt neighborhood. Each of the nine stories highlights a different member of the community, and the author fully develops each, inhabiting the unique and believable voices of a grade school girl, an elderly racist neighbor, a sexually confused middle-aged woman, and many others. Morales’s thorough fearlessness extends beyond the voices of the characters; she penetrates the contemporary culture of racism and bigotry in a way that elicits empathy and demands respect from even the most detached of readers.

But Meet Me Halfway accomplishes something that many race stories don’t: This collection doesn’t divide good from evil, but paints the community in endless shades of gray. In the first chapter, readers are introduced to an elderly woman who cannot fathom why her best friend would go out of her way to cook dinner for her black neighbors. Later on, though, Morales tells this woman’s own story, and we see her as a widow rattling around in a too-large house, struggling to come to terms with her age as her family pressures her to move into an assisted-living facility. In no way does Morales excuse or undermine the bigotry her book addresses; rather, she villainizes the behavior while portraying its perpetrators as complex, multidimensional human beings. In this way, because no one “antagonist” is beyond repair, there is hope for a better future.

Meet Me Halfway has already been chosen as the Common Reading Experience for the incoming class at University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, and this is a title that truly deserves that recognition. Morales, who lives in Wisconsin, tells a Wisconsin story—a Midwest story—using one of the country’s most segregated cities as a backdrop. But the fact is that her message is evergreen and universally relevant, and her approach is gentle and insistent, preaching a vision of the future that makes room for every voice and every creed.

Four-Star Review

April 2015, Terrace Books/University of Wisconsin Press
Fiction/Short Stories
$19.95, paperback, 192 pages
ISBN: 978-0299303648

—Reviewed by Sarah Weber

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