Tag: literary fiction

May 19 2015

Review: The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw

The Half Brother by Holly LeCraw follows the life and career of Charlie Garrett, a Southern transplant to the North.  The book opens with Charlie Garret’s first day in a new job.  The son of a younger widow, Charlie’s mother re-married into an elite family and she and now has young son Nick, whom Charlie dubs “The Golden Boy.”

Feeling as if he doesn’t belong within his mother’s new family, Charlie attends Harvard and is then hired at The Abbot, a prestigious Massachusetts prep school.  Even though he continues to feel out of place among his high society colleagues, Charlie finds true contentment in the classroom.

There he meets May, the headmasters young daughter, who feels as much out of place in her own family as Charlie does in his.  As May comes into her own as a woman the attraction between them grows, culminating in a romance that comes to life just as May’s father begins the end of his.

In the midst of all this, Charlie’s mother Anita hovers in the background like a specter.  At first she is the driving force that pushes him to Harvard and eventually to Abbot.  Then, she becomes the constant reminder that it is his brother, and not he, Charlie, who is the beloved son.  Her continual worry over her younger son as he begins his own teaching career first in Haiti and then in Afghanistan, drives an even further wedge between her and her older son.

Meanwhile May finds her first source of true happiness in her relationship with Charlie.  Happiness, which comes to a sudden halt when he ends their relationship almost immediately after her father’s funeral and heads west for several months.

Told entirely from the perspective of Charlie, The Half Brother is an enjoyable but not fully developed story.  The book shows initial promise, but relies too much on the prep school environment and quickly falls into predictability.

As the story progresses, we learn that each character holds secrets that all intertwine with each other’s lives.  For Charlie it is at first the feelings he harbors towards May, his student.  It then expands into his buried resentment of his younger brother who instantly charms everyone he meets.  For Nick it is the realization that despite his brilliant mind and his ability to draw people in, he can only feel alive within the chaos of a third world country.  For Anita it is the truth of her first marriage and how it has impacted her relationship with Charlie.  Finally, for May it is the longing she feels to be loved by her own mother while simultaneously pushing her away in an effort to guard herself from rejection.

Each of the character’s secrets has a ripple effect changing not only their own relationships but also the relationships of those around them in severe and life altering ways.  In the midst of this, LeCraw creates a tragic sub-plot surrounding one of the students at the school.

Lecraw’s writing style is engaging enough to keep the reader interested, but the storyline never completely finds its stride.  The primary plot twist while dramatic, comes off as somewhat contrived and unsurprising.  As a reader, I found the storyline mostly interesting, but I did find myself struggling at times to remain engaged.  The story starts out at a brisk pace and quickly draws the reader into the plot and the ending pulls the reader back into the story with a bittersweet twist and well timed pacing.  The middle section drags however, and readers may find themselves in a position where they are ready to give up.  I would encourage readers to stick it out, though admittedly skipping a few small sections in the middle have no impact on understanding the book as a whole.

The Half Brother’s characters show great potential to be interesting people.  The potential however is never quite reached as LeCraw fails to develop them to full understanding.  Charlie’s loneliness and sense of abandonment which stems from the death of the father he never knew, dances on the edge of whininess at times.

Nick, Charlie’s brother has no complexity at all.  Like Charlie he shows signs of struggling with feelings of abandonment as his own father (Charlie’s step-father) drinks himself together while he is still young.  These feelings however are expressed as one who is an egotistical and self-centered brat who never matured emotionally beyond the age of three.

Anita, Charlie and Nick’s mother hovers in the background where Charlie is concerned and is over-bearing where Nick is concerned.  Neither son has any sort of healthy relationship with her, and her presence becomes necessary only when used for a not entirely shocking plot-twist.

May is the most complex character of them all and I found myself wishing LeCraw would explore her more.  After her break up with Charlie, May travels through France and other parts of Europe.  Her strength is a testament to the fact that she can function perfectly well without either Charlie or Nick, and yet she continually pushes herself towards both.

Finally, the sub-plot becomes a driving force for the primary plot, but leaves the reader wanting something more.  The impact that it has on each of the main characters leads to a too neat resolution as if LeCraw got to the end of writing and realized she had forgotten to resolve that aspect of the book.

Fans of The Secrets of Midwives will likely enjoy The Half Brother.  Though The Secrets of Midwives centers on the lives of the three women, The Half Brother is similar in its theme of secrets and feelings of displacement within one’s own family.  Unlike The Secrets of Midwives which allows the reader to see events from each of the characters points of view, The Half Brother is told entirely from the perspective of Charlie who comes off as an unreliable narrator at best.

Readers looking for a strong book about family and the impact of long kept secrets would do better to turn to The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy or Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler.  Each handles intense and controversial topics with a deftness that LeCraw tries for but never actually reaches.

Jun 17 2014

Review: The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope by Rhonda Riley opens in 1944 when Evelyn Roe is seventeen.  The U.S. involvement in World War II is at its peak, and Evelyn has recently graduated from high school when Evelyn’s great aunt Eva dies suddenly.  As all of Eva’s sons are off fighting, and Evelyn’s only brother is a bit too young, Evelyn is tasked with taking over the family farm.

One night during a bad rain storm, Evelyn discovers a figure buried in the mud.  Assuming that a wounded soldier has stumbled back from the war, Evelyn brings the figure into the house where she discovers that it is not exactly human but not entirely alien either.  Within a few days, Evelyn’s charge has transformed into a tall, red-headed woman: the near identical twin of Evelyn.  When a local boy is injured on Evelyn’s farm, she is forced to quickly invent a backstory for her new companion’s sudden appearance.  The unnamed figure suddenly becomes Addie, Evelyn’s long lost cousin and the daughter of her father’s estranged half-sister.

Addie’s strange vocalizations and shape-shifting elements draw Evelyn in, and they become sexually involved almost instantly.  After a couple of years, however, Evelyn finds herself longing for a husband and children.  Sensing this, Addie seduces a passing stranger and takes on his likeness.  Thus Adam Hope is born.  Adam’s vocalizations have a calm, soothing effect, and he is quickly accepted by Evelyn’s family and small town.  Several years go by and tragedy strikes, resulting not only in the emotional estrangement of Evelyn and Adam but also in the risk of Adam’s secret being revealed.  What follows is the tale of how they attempt to make their way back to Adam being perceived as human and to the former closeness in their relationship.

Most critics have compared The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope to The Time Travelers Wife due to the common element of an intense romance filled with unexplainable events and secrets kept from everyone else.  I found however, that it reminded me far more of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.  Though Gaiman’s book does not posess the romantic storyline that The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope does, it does have the otherworldly aspect.  As with Gaiman’s novel, ordinary life is punctuated by elements that can not be easily explained.  In addition, both books are told from the perspective of a person who finds themselves in the minority by being a normal human.

Readers of The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope may also be reminded of the 1984 film Starman.  While Riley’s book and the film both involve shape-shifting aliens, I found the differences from Riley’s novel to outweigh the similarities.  In Starman, it is made clear from the start that the storyline centers around an alien being, and he is in fact concious of his extra-terrestrial origins.  In The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope, Addie/Adam have no knowledge of their origins, and the alien aspect becomes secondary to the main plot.

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope is an adult novel.  The descriptions of alien/human sex, while not as strange as the reader might imagine, are detailed.  In addition, the novel does not shy away from loss, and character death is dealt with in a very frank and realistic manner.

The opening historical setting of the book was in my mind an excellent choice by Riley.  Too much earlier in history, and the appearance of a shape shifter would have fallen prey to superstition and hostility.  Too much later in history, and the author would have been forced to deal with the complications of a society that is dependent on a paper or electronic trail.  In choosing a mid-World War II setting, Riley has picked just the right middle ground.  Developments of the bomb and the rumors of German and Japanese advanced technology create a bit of believable leeway for an alien visitor.  In addition, the element of the war created an environment where one could easily pass off the sudden appearance of new person as a returning soldier or a long lost relative.

Riley has created relatable characters that the reader will be able to easily recognize.  The depictions of a small town in which the residents are suspect of everyone outside – and are not completely sure of those inside – are spot on.  The reactions of the residents when confronted with evidence that Adam is different are precisely the attitudes one would expect to find in a small town.  The polite but obvious distancing, the thinly veiled derision, and the secret gossiping are all written in such a way that it is clear Riley has drawn from personal experience.

I thoroughly enjoyed The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope and found that the book was not at all what I expected.  At first glance, I was uncertain and admittedly skeptical.  A historical, science-fiction romance sounded far too absurd for the author to pull of in a believable manner; however, Riley manages to achieve exactly that.  My primary criticism of the book is that the plot was a little slow in developing.  It is clear once the book is finished that the early plot development is necessary to establish the foundation, but I did find myself wishing the pace would pick up a little.  On the other hand, I did read this book in nearly one setting.  I would encourage the reader to stick with the first several chapters as I found that, just as I was at the point where I was ready to give up, the pace picked up dramatically and from that point was a quick read.

The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope seems an unlikely candidate for a book that will stick with you long after the cover is closed, but I found myself repeatedly thinking about the characters and their choices.  The Enchanted Life of Adam Hope is Rhonda Riley’s first novel, and I look forward to reading more of her works in the future.

 

 

 

 

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