Review and Giveaway: Why We Came To The City by Kristopher Jansma

Why We Came To The City Book Cover Why We Came To The City
Kristopher Jansma

A warm, funny, and heartfelt novel about a tight-knit group of twentysomethings in New York whose lives are upended by tragedy—from the widely acclaimed author of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards

December, 2008. A heavy snowstorm is blowing through Manhattan and the economy is on the brink of collapse, but none of that matters to a handful of guests at a posh holiday party. Five years after their college graduation, the fiercely devoted friends at the heart of this richly absorbing novel remain as inseparable as ever: editor and social butterfly Sara Sherman, her troubled astronomer boyfriend George Murphy, loudmouth poet Jacob Blaumann, classics major turned investment banker William Cho, and Irene Richmond, an enchanting artist with an inscrutable past.

Amid cheerful revelry and free-flowing champagne, the friends toast themselves and the new year ahead—a year that holds many surprises in store. They must navigate ever-shifting relationships with the city and with one another, determined to push onward in pursuit of their precarious dreams. And when a devastating blow brings their momentum to a halt, the group is forced to reexamine their aspirations and chart new paths through unexpected losses.

Kristopher Jansma’s award-winning debut novel, The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards, was praised for its  “wry humor” and “charmingly unreliable narrator” in The New Yorker and hailed as “F. Scott Fitzgerald meets Wes Anderson” by The Village Voice. In Why We Came to the City, Jansma offers an unforgettable exploration of friendships forged in the fires of ambition, passion, hope, and love. This glittering story of a generation coming of age is a sweeping, poignant triumph.

Review

(Actual rating: 3.5 stars)

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

During the first few chapters of Why We Came To The City, I feared this book and I weren’t going to be a good match. The sweeping, grandiose prose was too contrived, the characters too unrelatable. As I read on, however, I discovered there were two levels to this story. The lofty, contemplative level of philosophy and grandiloquence, the level at which the book started, didn’t do anything for me. The intimate level of emotions and personal insights, on the other hand, was spot-on, moving, and changed my perspective about the book.

Jansma’s novel opens with a wide view, introducing the reader to the five main characters as they hobnob at an art show. They’re positioned as five variations on the “Aspiring Young Professionals in NYC” theme, up-and-coming 20-somethings with starry eyes and big dreams. For the first few chapters, I despaired of connecting with any of them. They were so pretentious with their big-city affectations and tweed jackets, arguing the superiority of various translations of The Iliad and debating the meaning of Art, with a capital “A.” They seemed like two-dimensional representations instead of real people; they were the Free-Spirited Artist, the Go-Getter Newspaper Editor, the Gay Poet, etc., when what I really wanted were unique individuals with their own traits and fears and experiences.

A few chapters in, I got the character development I was after. One of the protagonists was diagnosed with cancer. The lens narrowed, the focus became personal, and Why We Came To The City hit its stride. The characters stopped being two-dimensional caricatures and simply became five people who were hurting and trying to figure out how to deal with that hurt in in their own personal way.

Through tiny, precise details, Jansma peeled back the layers of his characters like the layers of an onion. There was wise-cracking Jacob, trying to mask his fear with sarcasm and sass, and take-charge, hyper-organized Sarah, who tried to control the situation with medication charts and precisely timed visitation schedules. There was George, whose fraying nerves could only be soothed by a drink or 10, and William, who questioned whether he was somehow to blame for his girlfriend’s illness.

“In those dark hours with his eyes shut, he had been counting disappointments on a hundred imaginary fingers. Not things that he was disappointed by but disappointments of his own making. Things like having made more money than he deserved, doing mergers for companies with questionable ethics, being a terrible son – anything he felt the universe might be punishing him for by making the woman that he loved so sick.”

As a rule, I generally avoid “cancer books.” In fact, if I’d known that’s what I was getting in Why We Came To The City, I probably wouldn’t have requested a review copy. However, Jansma’s book isn’t really about the disease, it’s about coming to terms with the fact that life doesn’t pull its punches, no matter who you are or what you think you deserve. The five friends in this novel start out on top of the world, expectant and ready for the best life has to offer. When life dishes up tragedy instead, they must figure out how to regroup and keep moving forward.

“For she was special, and had always believed it. She was more punctual, and she was better prepared. […] Always recycling and never littering. Better behaved and never hypocritical. Harder working at the office, tipping more generously, and possessing of a thousand pardons. And yet she couldn’t save Irene just by trying hardest or being best. Because no one was immune to tragedy. No matter how respectfully Sara lived, death could not respect her in return. She, Irene, all of them were susceptible to collapse, regardless of preparations or punctuality or propriety. None of them were special.”

As I’ve already mentioned, Jansma’s attention to detail and ability to paint an intimate picture of the characters’ experiences are what really won me over to Why We Came To The City. At times, Jansma would move away from this personal focus, broadening the book’s gaze to a more abstract, contemplative view. During these sections I would find myself losing interest and feeling the distance growing between the characters and myself.

Eventually, the lens would narrow again and there would be a poignant, penetrating line that socked me in the chest and actually brought tears to my eyes. There would be a moment when one of the friends would try his hardest to give up a vice, to make a deal with God that if he could just be good enough his friend would recover. Or another moment when another friend would look back at their collective lives and wonder how they’d become the people they currently were:

“Now it seemed undeniable to him that, whereas his New York family had indeed been happy in the way that all groups of young dreamers are happy before they’ve given up, they were all quite unhappy now, each in their own special ways. That was what made it all the more miserable: they couldn’t even be unhappy together.”

It’s these small but important insights that Jansma does exceptionally well. They resonated with me and affected me deeply. [START SPOILER] When Jacob revealed his last words to Irene, I had to put the book down and walk away until I’d calmed down enough to read again. [END SPOILER] They’re also what taught me the lesson of this book: Life may not care about our dreams, but that doesn’t mean we should stop dreaming. As Jacob aptly points out:

“You’ve got to entrust yourself to the waves, lash yourself to the mast, pray the gods are on your side, and rely on cunning to survive the rest. The seas are full of forgotten monsters, yes, but they’re full of forgotten glories too. And the people who stay home and sit out the war never get to see them.”

Giveaway

Viking/Penguin has graciously offered to host a giveaway of Why We Came To The City! This is a U.S.-only giveaway, and it ends at midnight on May 12, 2016. To enter for a chance to win, please fill out the Rafflecopter form below.

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Review: The Silver Kiss by Annette Curtis Klause

The Silver Kiss Book Cover The Silver Kiss
Annette Curtis Klause

Zoe is wary when, in the dead of night, the beautiful yet frightening Simon comes to her house. Simon seems to understand the pain of loneliness and death and Zoe's brooding thoughts of her dying mother.

Simon is one of the undead, a vampire, seeking revenge for the gruesome death of his mother three hundred years before. Does Simon dare ask Zoe to help free him from this lifeless chase and its insufferable loneliness?

Review:

Whatever you do, please, please, please don’t write off The Silver Kiss as a paranormal romance. The cover and synopsis make this book seem like a vampire love story, and while there’s nothing wrong with such novels – I personally am a big Twilight fan – this isn’t an accurate reflection of what The Silver Kiss is about. There is desire between Simon and Zoe, and vampires do play a huge part in this book, but this story is NOT about a vampire and human falling in love.

In a way, The Silver Kiss reminds me a lot of Patrick Ness’s A Monster Calls in that it uses supernatural beings as a lens to examine death, grief, and loss. Zoe, the protagonist, is a 16-year-old whose mother is dying of cancer. Zoe’s best friend doesn’t know how to deal with Zoe’s grief, and her father is forever at the hospital, leaving Zoe to provide for her own needs, both practical and emotional. On the rare occasions when Zoe is permitted to visit her mother it’s only for a short time, and she’s limited to exchanging pleasantries and small talk, unable to confide in her mother for fear of upsetting her. In short, at a time when Zoe desperately needs someone to lean on, she is left completely alone.

When walking in the park one night, Zoe stumbles upon Simon, a vampire who has spent the past several centuries lonely and adrift. Although he flees from the park before they can speak, Simon can’t help but be entranced by Zoe’s misery. Her aura of desolation and fear is like a beacon, calling to him like nothing else has for centuries. Simon is just as isolated as Zoe, albeit in a different way. Everyone he’s ever loved is dead and gone, and he’s cut off from the living, doomed to forever wander the earth alone:

“Like a shadow he could only live on the edge of people’s lives, never touched or touching except to bring a cold shiver like a cloud over the sun, like a shroud over the corpse. The only time he touched, it was death, yet that was the only thing that proved he existed at all.”

Simon is clearly not human, clearly other, and – as he himself laments – unnatural:

“‘I am at odds with nature […] and the whole natural world tries to remind me of this. The sun burns me; and when I cross running water, I can feel it trying to heave me off the face of the earth. It makes me sick to my stomach.’”

Zoe’s despair makes her the first kindred spirit Simon’s come upon in ages, and he soon becomes obsessed with her. He begins following her, watching her, and at one point even marks his territory by urinating near her house:

“He went to her helplessly, drawn by her fear. He couldn’t help but touch her to taste it.”

This sounds a little creepy…because it is. After 300 years of existence, Simon is so far from the human being he used to be that he doesn’t recognize his behavior as disturbing. He’s a provocative character, chilling while also beguiling, haunting yet poetic, savage as well as vulnerable. The fact that Simon is so unbalanced fits with the theme of this book: the inevitability of death. Simon has cheated death for centuries, but at great cost to his sanity. The irony of eternal life is that such an existence isn’t actually life at all.

Simon’s circumstance is compelling in juxtaposition with Zoe’s, who must find a way to come to terms with her mother’s illness and inevitable death. The relationship between Simon and Zoe is wonderfully allegorical, and this makes it a little easier to accept some of the strangeness of their interactions. For example, one of the things that originally bothered me for much of The Silver Kiss was how easily Zoe’s initial fear and skepticism towards Simon were overridden. Her mother’s dying, her life is falling apart, yet she starts keeping company with a deadly, unhinged 300-year-old vampire? It struck me as a little crazy. Once I reached the end of the book, though, I saw that Zoe and Simon’s situation was symbolic. Because of my appreciation for the message that was being conveyed through this symbol, I was able to overlook some of the blips in the delivery. Klause’s elegant writing style helped with this as well – I luxuriated in every word:

You could rush into your death unknowing, inviting, enjoying the ecstasy of it, burned up in bright light like a moth.”

“Motionless, yet taut with energy, he was like a dancer a breath before movement.”

Even if you’re not typically a fan of vampire novels, I strongly suggest you give The Silver Kiss a chance. It’s got so many layers of hidden meaning, gorgeous prose, and an ending that is powerful, moving, and right. I loved it, and I suspect that you will too.

Review: A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls Book Cover A Monster Calls
Patrick Ness

The monster showed up after midnight. As they do. But it isn’t the monster Conor’s been expecting. He’s been expecting the one from his nightmare, the nightmare he’s had nearly every night since his mother started her treatments, the one with the darkness and the wind and the screaming…

This monster, though, is something different. Something ancient, something wild. And it wants the most dangerous thing of all from Conor.

It wants the truth.

Review:

At first glance, Conor O’Malley appears to be a mature, self-sufficient young man. Despite being only 13 years old, he accepts the hardships in his life – his father’s desertion to start a new life and a new family overseas, his mother’s rapidly deteriorating health – with a brave face. He prepares his own meals, cleans the house without being told, and patiently helps his mother through her bouts of radiation-induced vomiting. He is bullied at school but takes it stoically, without cowering or tattling. He gives every impression of being a boy who is dealing with an unfortunate situation with admirable grace and composure.

Until, one night, he hears a monster whispering his name.

The monster is a wild, fearsome thing, made of branches and thorns and night: “‘Who am I?’ the monster repeated, still roaring. ‘I am the spine that the mountains hang upon! I am the tears that the rivers cry! I am the lungs that breathe the wind! […]’ It brought Conor up close to its eye. ‘I am this wild earth, come for you, Conor O’Malley.’” 

The monster claims he’s been called by Conor himself, to assist in a matter of life and death. He announces that over the next few days he will tell Conor three stories.  When he has finished these stories, Conor must tell a story as well. And not just any story – Connor must tell a true story, the one that he is most afraid of.

The stories the monster tells are marvelous, full of witches and healers, princes and farmers. There is a magic to them, and the power and importance of stories is one of the themes of the book. As the monster explains Connor, “Stories are the wildest things of all. Stories chase and bite and hunt.” I loved this line, as well as many others throughout A Monster Calls. It’s brimming with memorable quotes full of mind-blowing insight, especially in the monster’s tales. Here are just a couple:

“‘You do not write your life with words…You write it with actions. What you think is not important. It is only important what you do.’”

And:

“‘…[I]t does not matter what you think, because your mind will contradict itself a hundred times each day…Your mind will believe comforting lies while also knowing the painful truths that make those lies necessary. And your mind will punish you for believing both.’”

As the days go by and the monster continues to visit Conor and tell him stories, the boy’s carefully maintained composure begins to crack. He grows farther and farther away from everyone around him, until only the monster seems real. It soon becomes clear that Conor’s world is falling apart, and so is he.

Ness has written a dark, intense, powerful novel that shows how isolating and destructive loss can be, especially for a child. A Monster Calls isn’t a book, it’s a force, and it impacted me on a conceptual, intellectual level rather than a personal, emotional one. For this reason I’m not able to say, like many other bloggers have said, that I was shattered by this book, or that I was moved to tears or felt an intimate connection to it. Instead, I appreciated it as a work of art, both in terms of the gorgeous writing and the stunning, shadowy illustrations that creep along the margins of the pages.

I had a hard time assigning a rating to A Monster Calls; it’s like no other story I’ve ever read and defies all attempts at classification. In the end, though, this distinctiveness is what prompted me to grant it five stars. I appreciate any book that can show me something new or make me look at a subject in a way I never have before, and A Monster Calls does both of these things. This, combined with Ness’ exceptionally wise, beautiful prose, make for a book you don’t want to miss.