REVIEW: Let Me Explain You by Annie Liontas

23492614I received an ARC of this book via NetGalley.

You know those books where you read the first few pages and you think, “Ah, I already know where this is going”? But then that’s not where it goes at all? And it’s not even a mystery or thriller and so you’re doubly surprised? Let Me Explain You was like that for me.

The plot centers on a Greek immigrant and restaurateur, Stavros Stavros. He wakes up one morning from a dream which he morbidly believes is a premonition of his death. His very impending death. Estranged from his three daughters, he contacts them in hope that he can tie up some loose ends. Alas, his daughters—three grown women with very different personalities—think he’s just a pathetic old man seeking undeserved attention. The story evolves by transporting the reader to past events that not only explain who the characters are, but also why the relationships between them are the way they are.

I admit I judged this book too quickly. The first few chapters led me to believe that Let Me Explain You was one of those “Chick-Lit”, poolside reads about a dysfunctional American family coming together. “BREAKING NEWS! Three sisters who don’t get along and their father who doesn’t understand them!” And the sky is blue and so on and so forth.

Fortunately, the author proved me wrong (please note I say this rarely and enjoy it while it lasts).

This book is raw. Emotions drive the story, no doubt about it. But not in a mushy, let’s-all-have-a-group-hug kind of way. It’s emotional because it’s realistic and evocative. To better illustrate, think about when you’ve smelled something redolent of a specific childhood memory, and you remember what you were feeling at that moment in your life. That’s what this book was like. It hits a nerve you can’t quite put a finger on.

I could be biased here because my parents are also immigrants. We’re close, but oftentimes I feel like we’re not on the same page. We don’t communicate in a way that allows us to really know who the other person is—the person beyond the Mom/Dad/Daughter role, and it’s more than just a language barrier. It’s as if the cultural difference inhibits us from fully appreciating one another. Does that make sense? Maybe not. I can never adequately explain the disparity between my parents and myself. Liontas comes pretty damn close, though.

Now, two criticisms:

1.  The author’s inconsistent writing style detracts from the book’s quality. The prose vacillates from being simple and eloquent in some parts to convoluted and distracting in others. I can’t tell whether this problem derives from the fact that I read an uncorrected proof, or from the possibility that Liontas has yet to establish her own voice. Either way, this inconsistency is the reason why I initially misjudged the book.

2.  The ending felt rushed and anti-climatic. Unless I’m missing some subtle message here, the wrap-up just didn’t seem significant or even relevant to the story. If you choose to carefully develop only a handful of characters, why dedicate one of the most important parts of a book to an underdeveloped character? That said, I could see some readers being satisfied with the conclusion given its surprise element, so maybe it’s just me.

TL;DR: I recommend Let Me Explain You to people whose parents are immigrants, to people curious about immigrant family dynamics, or to people who have no friends and just need something/someone to relate to. (Just kidding about that last bit. I’m sure you all have friends.) I probably wouldn’t recommend it to people who measure a book’s quality solely by its prose or conclusion.


REVIEW: Flow Down Like Silver: Hypatia of Alexandria by Ki Longfellow

61okzw5FABL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_First, a short introduction: Flow Down Like Silver incentivized me to create this blog. Apart from an enthusiastic following on Goodreads and similar book review websites, Ki Longfellow and her works receive scant attention. I’m sure there are reasons for this neglect, some of which might be valid. Nonetheless, it roused me to share some worthy options that exist outside of Bestsellers lists. After all, who actually reads the bajillionth review of All The Light We Cannot See (a book that, by the way, I adore to a probably unhealthy extent)? … No one raises her hand.

With that said, I’m happy to cast a little more light on less conspicuous works, beginning with Flow Down Like Silver. The novel centers around Hypatia, a Greek scholar who lived in Alexandria, Egypt at the end of the fourth century.  During this period, Christianity became the Byzantine Empire’s official religion. Hurray for Christians. Woe for everyone else (including Hypatia and her family).

The first few pages throw the reader into a chaotic scene. Byzantine soldiers and religious zealots destroy Alexandria’s acclaimed library and all that Hypatia holds dear. Fortunately, she rescues a few books and hides them away for posterity. More trouble ensues immediately—family strain, self-doubt, doomed love, betrayal and, ultimately, death.

Now that you’re thoroughly depressed, let me explain why this book is not actually depressing. What struck me was Longfellow’s use of language, which is incredibly poetic. So much so that I had some difficulty adapting to her writing style at first. I delved into the book expecting something akin to a Ken Follett novel; instead, I got a biographical novel written in free verse. My adjustment only lasted about ten pages. Then the real enjoyment began.

Longfellow writes from multiple point of views, with each chapter devoted to a different person. This technique mobilizes the plot without complicating it, as there aren’t many protagonists. Note that Flow Down Like Silver is not a plot-driven book. It may not even be a character-driven book, despite its focus on Hypatia (fellow readers might disagree with me on this one). It’s more of an ode to a time, a place, an admirable but lost vision. While reading, I felt as though Longfellow channeled Hypatia. Real emotions poured out through her words. Every paragraph seemed carefully crafted. As such, Flow Down Like Silver can’t be fully appreciated as a speed read. It’s a novel to be savored. Despite several periods where I had to force myself to slow down, I prolonged the end; not because I knew Hypatia’s brief life ended in tragedy, but because I was comfortably cocooned in the story Longfellow weaved.

And I’m not trying to be cute when I say “cocooned.” Upon finishing this book, I felt refreshingly empowered in a “YEAH, WOMEN! I’M A WOMAN! I CAN DO ALL THE THINGS!” kind of way. I basically transformed into a WonderWoman butterfly! Although Longfellow doesn’t have an obvious feminist agenda, she does portray Hypatia as a woman with more modern (or I guess “westernized”) ideals in the ancient world. It’s still a struggle to maintain modern ideals nowadays, but back then? Yikes.

Now for a caveat: if you’re searching for historical fiction in the vein of Philippa Gregory or Hilary Mantel, I don’t recommend this book.

“But it’s about a real woman in a real place during a real historical period!” you exclaim.

OK, first of all: calm down. While all this is true, the summary misleads you. The writing style and plot flow in Flow Down Like Silver are patently different from that found in Gregory’s or Mantel’s work. Secondly, facts are scattered few and far between. If you want to learn details about Alexandria during Hypatia’s time, or about Hypatia’s accomplishments, better pick up something else to avoid disappointment.

TL;DR: I recommend Flow Down Like Silver for readers who appreciate a slower-paced story with quality prose and a historical setting.

Other notable works by Ki Longfellow (noninclusive): The Secret MagdaleneChina BluesHoudini Heart