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: The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand by Gregory Galloway

The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand Book Cover The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand
Gregory Galloway

Adam Strand isn't depressed. He's just bored. Disaffected. So he kills himself—39 times. No matter the method, Adam can't seem to stay dead; he wakes after each suicide alive and physically unharmed, more determined to succeed and undeterred by others' concerns. But when his self-contained, self-absorbed path is diverted, Adam is struck by the reality that life is an ever-expanding web of impact and forged connections, and that nothing—not even death—can sever those bonds.

Review: 

Have you ever heard the saying, “If at first you don’t succeed, try and try again?” Well, Adam Strand takes that message to heart: when his first attempt to end his life fails, he tries again. And again. And again. His favorite method is jumping, particularly from the bridges near his home. He’s also tried poisoning, burning, cutting, and shooting himself, but regardless of how many times he tries, he just keeps coming back to life.

The motivation behind Adam’s perpetual suicide mission is boredom, plain and simple. Existence seems pointless to him; he feels trapped and suffocated by the monotony of life, the repetition of waking up, watching the minutes tick by, going to sleep at night, and waking up again the next day to repeat the cycle. Adam’s outlook on life is summed up by this sentence: “[E]verything is moving in one meaningless mess, a merry-go-round that I never should have gotten on in the first place and every day is one turn too many.”

It’s not too difficult to see why Adam might feel this way. His parents aren’t the most fascinating people – his mother’s only occupation seems to be perpetual complaining and worrying, and his father is a loan officer who devotes himself to boring things like the most efficient way to get dressed or eat breakfast. There isn’t much to do in the Midwestern town where Adam lives, and fewer people to do it with. Many of the scenes in the book depict Adam hanging out with his so-called friends, who don’t necessarily like one another – they just put up with each other because they don’t have any other options. They spend their time drinking pilfered crème de menthe, making up silly rules and regulations, and watching dead cows decay in the river. These scenes are mind-numbingly dull to read, so I can imagine that for Adam, they’d be even duller to participate in.

Showing all of this is helpful in that it provides some explanation of why Adam might be motivated to kill himself, again and again. However, there’s a fine line between simply representing a character’s boredom and actually boring the reader as well. I became so sick of Adam, his selfishness, his dull-as-dishwater family, his asshole friends, and the whole pointless book that I felt detached and mildly annoyed.

If there had been some stimulating content thrown into the mix as well, it may have redeemed the book for me. For example, there was plenty of room to explore human emotions and relationships – a story about a suicidal boy who can’t stay dead provides ample opportunities to examine family dynamics, friendship, grief, etc. Much to my disappointment, though, Galloway never capitalizes upon this potential.

All of the emotions in the story fall flat, and I spent much of the reading experience in a state of consternation. Where was the grief? Why weren’t Adam’s friends and family angry that they didn’t mean enough to Adam to inspire him to live? And even after seeing Adam rejuvenated 39 times, how were his parents not living in constant dread that Adam might kill himself one time too many and actually stay dead?

It didn’t help that things that should have been traumatizing or shocking were treated like no big deal. There were times I wanted to stop and say, “Hold on Mr. Galloway, wait a minute. You just mentioned that Adam blew his brains out in the basement and that his dad had to clean everything up. And then you calmly moved on to a discussion about schoolwork. Don’t you think we should stop and dwell on the fact that his dad had to CLEAN UP HIS OWN CHILD’S BRAIN MATTER?”

That’s how the whole book went – stuff that should have been central to the story fell by the wayside, and the trivial, tedious stuff got page after page of description. I didn’t even get the satisfaction of having my morbid curiosity slaked, as there were practically no details about the logistics of Adam’s suicides and recoveries.

One last complaint, and then I promise to stop whining and finish this review. The blurb on the book jacket promises that eventually, “Adam is struck by the reality that life is an ever-expanding web of impact and forged connections, and that nothing—not even death—can sever those bonds.” This sentence led me to believe that there would be some sort of lesson or discovery for Adam and the reader as well, but after finishing the book I don’t feel like I really got anything from the reading experience. There was no big epiphany, no meaning or insight gained.

The overall effect of The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand was that I, as the reader, felt about as dull and jaded as Adam by the end of the novel. I thought a book about suicide, life, and death would inspire some sort of strong reaction in me, like sadness, hope, or a newfound appreciation for the sanctity of life. That wasn’t the case, and I was left disappointed.

Blog Tour and Review: Grunge Gods and Graveyards by Kimberly G. Giarratano

Grunge Gods and Graveyards Book Cover Grunge Gods and Graveyards
Kimberly G. Giarratano

Parted by death. Tethered by love.

Lainey Bloom’s high school senior year is a complete disaster. The popular clique, led by mean girl Wynter Woods, bullies her constantly. The principal threatens not to let her graduate with the class of 1997 unless she completes a major research project. And everyone blames her for the death of Wynter’s boyfriend, Danny Obregon.

Danny, a gorgeous musician, stole Lainey’s heart when he stole a kiss at a concert. But a week later, he was run down on a dangerous stretch of road. When he dies in her arms, she fears she’ll never know if he really would have broken up with Wynter to be with her.

Then his ghost shows up, begging her to solve his murder. Horrified by the dismal fate that awaits him if he never crosses over, Lainey seeks the dark truth amidst small town secrets, family strife, and divided loyalties. But every step she takes toward discovering what really happened the night Danny died pulls her further away from the beautiful boy she can never touch again.

Review

When I was a kid, I used to like hanging out in graveyards (I was a weird child – what can I say?). I would spend hours walking up and down the the rows, reading the tombstones and wondering about the people buried there. Thinking about those people and the lives they’d left behind always gave me a feeling of wistfulness; how could someone be there one day and gone the next? What business had they left unfinished? Who was remembering and missing them?

 These are some of the questions that Giarratano focuses on in Grunge Gods and Graveyards. The book tells the story of Lainey Bloom and Danny Obregon, two teenagers whose burgeoning romance is abruptly cut short when Danny is killed in a hit and run accident. After the accident, vicious rumors spread through the town, painting Danny as an arsonist and Lainey as an obsessed, love-crazed girl who literally chased Danny into the path of an oncoming car. When Danny’s restless spirit returns to Ash seeking closure, Lainey determines to help him get to the bottom of the events surrounding his death, hoping to clear both of their names and help Danny get the closure he needs to cross over and be at peace.

Grunge Gods and Graveyards can be classified as a mystery novel, but I was much more interested in watching the interactions between Lainey and Danny than I was in the whodunnit aspect. One of the tragedies of Danny’s untimely death is that he died just as he and Lainey had decided to give their relationship a shot. Their romance ended before it could truly begin, before they could discover what they might have been together.

After Danny’s ghost returns, he and Lainey attempt to pick up where they left off. As you can imagine, though, it’s no easy task to carry on a relationship where one party is alive and the other is deceased. For one thing, Lainey can’t confide in anyone, can’t talk about Danny (or to him when they’re in public) without people thinking she’s crazy. Danny wants more for Lainey than a life of isolation with no one but a ghost for company, but Lainey can’t imagine going on without him.

In addition to their emotional challenges, Danny and Lainey also have physical obstacles to their relationship. Danny hasn’t quite mastered his ghostly abilities, meaning that he and Lainey usually can’t touch one another. When they are able to touch, though, look out – these scenes are hot enough to make you sizzle!

Danny is easily the highlight of this novel. I loved everything about his character, with the exception of his poor taste in dating bitchy Wynter Woods prior to hooking up with Lainey. He seems so real, not just in the sense that his character is believable (though that is the case), but in the sense that he seems like a genuine, caring, laid-back guy who’s easy to be around and who will always make you smile.  I also appreciate that Danny stands out from the host of other popular kings-of-high-school in YA literature. He’s a musician, not a jock, and he’s Mexican, which sets him apart from the rest of his white-bread town.

As much as I enjoyed Danny’s character, I felt there were some inconsistencies in the characterization of some of the book’s other players. For example, Lainey’s father bounces back and forth between sympathetic father and ruthless dictator, and her best friend abruptly switches from Most Understanding Friend in the World to Cold, Unforgiving Jerk in the span of a few pages.

I also was a little skeptical of the number of antagonists in the novel. Just about everyone in Lainey’s life, from her family and friends to her classmates and the entire administration of her high school, seems to be conspiring against her. I understand people being turned off by her erratic behavior, but it was a bit implausible for the entire community to be out to get her.

Still, don’t let this turn you off from the book. Giarratano’s smooth writing style and Danny and Lainey’s charmingly bittersweet love story more than make up from any rough spots. Grunge Gods and Graveyards is definitely worth a read!

A free copy of this book was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

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Grunge Gods and Graveyards is available for purchase at: AmazonBarnes & NobleGoogle Play, iBooks, and Kobo.

About the AuthorPhoto of Grunge Gods and Graveyards author Kimberly G. Giarratano

Kimberly G. Giarratano, a forever Jersey girl, now lives in the woods of northeastern Pennsylvania with her husband and small children. A former teacher and YA librarian, Kimberly adores Etsy, Jon Stewart, The Afghan Whigs, ’90s nostalgia, and (of course) everything YA. She also speaks Spanish, but is woefully out of practice.

Kimberly always dreamed of being a published author. Her other dream is to live in Key West, Florida where she can write in a small studio, just like Hemingway.

You can visit her blog at kimberlyggiarratano.com or tweet her @KGGiarratano.

Visit Other Stops on the Grunge Gods and Graveyards Tour:

7/7 ZigZag Timeline

7/10 The Caffeinated Diva

7/10 Big Al’s Books & Pals

7/12 Cubicle Blindness Book Reviews

7/14 The Gal in the Blue Mask

7/15 The Gal in the Blue Mask

7/16 Big Al’s Books & Pals

7/16 Pandora’s Books

7/17 Laurie’s Thoughts & Reviews

7/17 The Story Goes…

7/18 Observation Desk

7/20 Mama’s Reading Break

7/20 Elizabeth Corrigan, Author

7/20  The IndieView

7/21 The Story Goes…

7/22 Book Lovers Life

7/23 Wag the Fox

7/25 Manuscripts Burn

7/25 KBoards

Review: The Wrap-up List by Steven Arntson

The Wrap-up List Book Cover The Wrap-up List
Steven Arntson

Sixteen-year-old Gabriela has just received a very disturbing letter. It was sent by a Death – an eight-foot-tall shimmering gray creature with gills. The letter is short and to the point: Gabriela has a week left to live, and next Wednesday her Death, Hercule, will show up to escort her into the afterlife whether she’s ready or not. Gabriela is devastated. Dying is bad, sure, but dying without ever having kissed the dreamy Sylvester Hale is even worse. 

Gabriela isn’t the only one in need of a first kiss – three of her friends would love theirs too. She’s determined to put their romantic affairs in order before her time runs out. There is one last hope, though: Gabriela’s Death has a secret weakness. If Gabriela can figure it out, she might be able to trick him into letting her go…

It’s a week of firsts for best friends, but Gabriela has to play it smart. Otherwise, this week will be her last.

Review:

(Actual rating: 2.5 stars)

The Wrap-Up List is a weird combination of slapstick humor and the weighty subjects of death, war, and racism. Arntson’s endeavor to write a story that’s both funny and touching is an admirable one, but it’s not entirely successful.

I think the story would have been worked better if it committed to being either comedy or drama instead of trying to be both. Individually, the scenes are great – the funny moments literally made me laugh out loud, and the serious parts moved me to tears. However, looking at these scenes in aggregate, I felt a bit confused as to which emotion I was supposed to be left with at the end of the book.

Contributing to the confusion is the fact that Arntson expects the reader to just go with the strange events of the book without offering any background. The story is set in the United States in what seems to be present day, yet there are two noticeable differences between the world I’m used to and the world in The Wrap-Up List. The first is that the U.S. is on the verge of war with an unnamed African country, a situation so dire that the draft has been reinstituted. Arntson never explains what the war is about and makes only a minor connection between it and the rest of the story. It’s bewildering.

The second difference between “my” world and Gabriela’s is the concept of “departure.” In Gabriela’s world, people die from the usual causes: sickness, accidents, war, murder, etc. However, people also die by “departing.” A person selected to depart from the living world receives a letter from one of the Deaths, tall, gray Grim Reaper types who escort people out of this life. After receiving their letter, the person scheduled for departure has a limited amount of time to complete items on his or her wrap-up list, which is basically a bucket list. Once his or her allotted time is up, the person departs, simply walking out of the living world, never to be seen again.

If these events occurred in a fantasy world I could accept them with few to no problems, but the fact that the story is set in the modern-day U.S. makes it hard for me to suspend my disbelief. There’s no explanation of why the rules of life and death are different in the otherwise normal world of The Wrap-Up List, no mention of when, why, or how the Death-guided departures started happening. Readers are expected to blindly accept the new rules and just go with them, which was hard for me to do.

Despite my complaints, there are aspects of The Wrap-Up List that I enjoyed. As I mentioned, the comical scenes are hilarious, and the touching scenes toward the end of the book had me scurrying around my house in search of tissues. I also liked how unpredictable a lot of the story’s events are. There are a few attention-worthy twists and turns, some important to the plot and others less so, yet still satisfying.

Another great thing about the book is how well written the sub-plots and minor characters are. Gabriela’s friends, crush, parents, and grandparents all play relatively small parts in the novel, yet they are all given such depth that I found myself wanting to read more about them. Their individual stories are so thoughtfully developed that they are the main reason I bumped The Wrap-Up List from two stars up to two and a half.