the new world by andrew motion


  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Crown (July 14, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0804138451
  • ISBN-13: 978-0804138451
  • [Amazon Vine program]

In The New World, former British Poet Laureate Andrew Motion continues the tale begun by RL Stevenson in his novel Treasure Island, serialized in a children’s magazine between 1881 and 1882. Main characters Jim Hawkins and Natty Silver, daughter of pirate Long John Silver, wash ashore along the coast of Texas. Lone survivors following a shipwreck and subsequent attack by Indians, Jim and Natty are taken prisoner, force marched to an Indian settlement where they’re held for weeks, the threat of execution by evisceration hanging over their heads. Escaping with the mesmerizingly shiny silver necklace worn by Chief Black Cloud, the pair spend years on the run, meeting up with adventure upon adventure, each on the heels of the last.

Jim and Natty are given a romantic relationship, though one kept just shy of carnal consummation, fitting considering the period in which the original novel was written. Natty’s given a feisty nature, a strong mind of her own and characteristics worthy of her pirate ancestry. The two are strong leading characters made multi-dimensional via Motion’s vivid descriptions of their lives spent in captivity, during the months in which they feared for their lives.

For fans of adventure tales, Motion’s sequel is a great read, paced well. The characters are well developed, both the main and supporting cast. The chapters are episodic,  somewhat sing-song up and down, in nature and rhythm, reminiscent of both Stevenson’s original work as well as Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, a similar work in spirit, set in 19th Century America. Like the latter, the book has the feel of a road novel, a series of trials and tribulations experienced as the pair meet up with a widely diverse cast along the way from Texas to their eventual attempt to make it home to England by sea.

The book has a distinctly American feel, Motion capturing the spirit of the wild frontier perfectly as Natty and Jim make their way. Likewise, he balances the menacing Indian characters with more welcoming, kindly tribes, careful to present Native Americans in a fair light. More importantly, the balance isn’t forced but comes about naturally in the course of the story. Had he made political correctness his priority, the novel would have suffered for it. Fortnately, he doesn’t. Rather, he lets the story flow of its own course.

It could be considered a negative that the story’s quite predictable but that’s the nature of novels like these. You know the heroes will prevail, because they always do. To counteract this, Motion inserts a few twists in the relationship between Jim and Natty, helping mix things up a bit. The course of true love does not always run smooth. If it did, how much less interesting the tale would be. Overall, it’s a great adventure tale, ending with the clear intent Motion will continue the series.

For me, the story was a bit too formulaic, not really my sort of novel at all. I chose it to review out of curiosity, to find out how well a poet laureate could write a continuation of an iconic RL Stevenson novel. Turns out he does it quite well, more than equaling the task. It’s no strike against him this just isn’t my sort of read. Thus, the minimal animation in this review.

He did a good job; for an episodic novel it works. If this is your cuppa, you’ll find it warm and flavorful.

a replacement life by boris fishman



[ARC via Amazon Vine program]

Slava Gelman is a young writer trying to get a foothold on the slippery slope from low-ranking nobody to published writer, with a byline in Century, a high-profile magazine where he works. So far achieving little respect, his ideas largely overlooked, he’s mired in frustration. If he’s to succeed, he believes he needs to break free of his barely off the boat Russian family, moving forward into modern-day Manhattan and the new lifestyle he yearns to emulate.

Upon the death of his much-loved grandmother, his adorable grandfather – a golden-hearted man thoroughly lacking principle in all matters related to money – convinces Slava he should turn his writing skills to the family’s advantage, forging a letter of restitution for his grandmother’s suffering during the Holocaust, in order to receive money from the German government. Along with the request, Slava finds himself reeled back into the bosom of the family, adding to his conflict and misery.

What makes the whole endeavor a bit less smarmy is his grandmother just missed a legitimate opportunity to apply for restitution; she missed the letter which would have qualified her by just a few days. The implied question is: is it more immoral forging a letter to get money from a government formerly responsible for the killing of thousands of Jews, or to allow this same government to get away with not having compensated the family in any way – not that money can buy back what suffering takes.

Moral or not, Slava writes the letter. In so doing, he gets far more than he ever bargained for, which you kind of have to figure or there’d be no story, would there?

Fishman’s book takes on a very serious topic, managing to sidestep the most serious offense through use of humor, mixed with a cast of characters you can’t fail to love .  Will his treatment of forged Holocaust restitution offend some readers or make Slava heroic? Tough to say.

Though I am not Jewish, I am a human being whose heart hurt reading Slava’s invented stories. Not having read other reviews of the book, I can’t say how he fared with other readers. I was borderline, finding a few more gruesome details a little too graphic for comfort. But then, as is always the case in reading fiction written by a writer representing a culture foreign to the reader, I feel a bit reluctant speaking out against his treatment. I have no notion how it feels to have been savaged at the hands of the Nazis. What I know comes from history books, films and other literature I read. My heart breaks on their behalf but I will always be an outsider.

For the most part, I found Fishman’s balance between horror and humor even. The specter of very real suffering was in the background throughout the book; it isn’t as if he moved from funny to savage with no segue. His own Russian Jewish heritage came through strongly, his heart clearly affected by the story he chose to tell.

A Replacement Life reads similarly to the books of Gary Shteyngart, funny by use of understated, ironic humor. There’s a good chance if you enjoy one, you’ll enjoy the other writer.

Russian Jewish humor has a distinctly unique inflection. Plots often verge on the madcap, heavily using old word vs. new world contrast to create distinct generational separation in characters, lending itself well to this type of humor. Older family members groan and hold their heads over new world changes in the young, invoking guilt in an attempt to bring the younger generation back to the old ways. Of course, they generally fail. Once having achieved freedom, who wants to trade it back?

Loved the book. Highly recommend.


From Acknowledgments:

“My first thanks is to my grandmother. She really was better than all of us.

Then to my grandfather. A friend once said, “You’re smarter than him, you’re more enlightened than him. But both of us can fit inside his left nut.” Hard to Argue.”



  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (January 20, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062287885
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062287885




Adeline by Norah Vincent


  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (April 7, 2015)
  • Language: English
  • $ 23.00


The degree of difficulty involved in writing Adeline must have been great. I can’t imagine how long Vincent spent reading bios about Woolf, her letters and diaries. I’m deeply impressed by the breadth of scholarship involved. In her notes, she cites her sources, which are extensive, if not complete. Then again, a complete bibliography of books about Woolf is a life’s worth of reading, much less time spent interpreting all the facts, forming them into a work of fiction. Or “faction,” maybe. Has anyone used that term to refer to fiction disguised as fact? Let’s say they haven’t and that I’m breaking new ground. No one else will care but I like the thought I’ve CREATED SOMETHING, unlikely as it is.

[I won’t tell if you won’t. And I’m pretty sure you don’t care either way.]

What Vincent has done in Adeline (The title is Virginia Woolf’s actual first name. She went by her middle name.) is take Woolf’s life, novel by novel, breaking it into acts as if in a play. Starting in 1925 with her inspiration for To the Lighthouse, triggered by time spent soaking in the bath (I really don’t know if this is accurate), the author expands the story to include what was going on in Woolf’s life, and within her circle of friends, at the time she was writing each book. Vincent pays much attention to Virginia’s relationship with her husband, Leonard Woolf, using his point of view to explore the mental illness she suffered – presumed to have been bipolar disorder or manic depression. In Virginia’s shoes I believe Leonard’s actions would have felt annoying. They show how much he cares but his occasional coddling, as depicted in this novel, would have driven me absolutely bonkers. Was he this protective? I never got the impression he was so overbearing. And was he so overly-dramatic? He dealt with this for a very long time. It’s not as if any of this was new to him. After a while, even the most unusual of situations will become “normal.”

He was always watchful, always on the lookout for her inevitable tumbles into depression. Knowing the signs her extreme downturns were returning, he needed to be certain she got what was considered appropriate care. Of course, what was considered appropriate then is far from modern-day treatment, using a combination of drugs to control the chemical imbalances in the brain. Anti-depressants, anti-anxiety meds and anti-psychotics, regulated by a psychiatrist, are often used in a “cocktail” to keep the mood – and racing mind – on an even keel. Drugs, paired with talk therapy, can go a long way toward controlling bipolar disorder. For Woolf, taking away all stimulants was her “rest cure.” Because mania brought on her obsessive writing, she was kept away from it. Likewise, reading, very closely associated, needless to say. It must have been a living hell for her. No wonder she dreaded the inevitability of  it.

Bipolar disorder is thought to be a dormant condition in many, brought out by a triggering event. So, not everyone predisposed toward bipolar will exhibit symptoms. There are also two different forms: Bipolar I and Bipolar II. Not being a psychiatrist, going by what I know to be true, I think it’s more probably the latter that afflicted Virginia Woolf. Bipolar I is the almost solely depressive form. Manic stages are present but greatly muted, in comparison to Bipolar II. Mostly, Bipolar I is a deep funk, often tending toward suicidal impulse. Bipolar II, however, is the one most people identify as the “true” form, usually unaware it’s not the only possibility. People with this condition exhibit incredible highs, during which they are manically productive and feel indestructible, then fall very far into depression, often needing to be hospitalized to keep them from harming themselves.

In Woolf’s case, we can fairly safely presume the event which released her bipolar was the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her half brother, George Duckworth.  I wanted to slam the book down when Vincent wrote dialogue between Virginia and Leonard, in which Virginia so casually mentions the abuse. The way the two referred to it was wooden and unnatural, even taking into account Leonard was well aware of her past. It was a lazy shortcut device used to inform the reader of the horrors Virginia underwent.Trying to recall how Woolf referred to the events with Duckworth, I don’t remember her speaking of it casually. It’s a struggle to recall her talking about it at all, even in her diaries, and letters to her beloved sister Vanessa, much less while she’s watching Leonard weeding the garden. After that section I read with a very guarded disposition, no longer completely trusting the author. For the record, this wasn’t all that far into the book.

Beyond that, I have issues with Vincent’s stylistic choices, her tendency to stay too much within Virginia’s head. There’s too much potential for misinterpretation, for creating thoughts she never had, leading the reader to believe she was a far different person than she was in reality. I’ll admit, I tend to feel protective of Woolf, sensitive to how she’s portrayed. Already feeling distrustful certainly didn’t help.

It’s also an annoyance that the language used is so formal, the prose over-written. It would have been better pared down to minimalism, in my opinion. It would have made for a much better book without prose verging on, sometimes crossing into,”purple” territory. Never mind the high intellects found in the real-life players of this drama; it would have been perfectly excusable to skirt that, opting for s more simple style, focusing on the story and not so much overly flamboyant conversations. It needs less blow by blow, more showing and less telling. As written, it was difficult keeping focus. Every few paragraphs something would sound “off” to me, reminding me I’m reading a book and not immersed in the lives of the Bloomsbury Group. This is the opposite of what you want to find in a novel, any disconnection from what’s happening in the book. Novels should be as seamless as possible. It’s crucial the reader lose herself in the story, not wander off to think about shopping lists or what’s for dinner. Fiction is an alternate reality, with emphasis on the real. Even in the case of fantasy and science fiction, a story  needs to feel real, as in possible. If I’m reading a work of horror, I need to feel frightened. If it’s a dystopia, I should feel unnerved and worried, uncomfortable. I never lost myself in Adeline.

There may be a narrow readership for Adeline: those with a casual curiosity about Woolf who aren’t interested in more than a surface grasp of her life, as well as an introduction to the major figures in her peer group. What’s less fortunate is these readers may feel as though they’re doing a bit of wading to get to the meat of it, that the characters have personalities so big and overbearing it’s overwhelming. Using such a loud style does no favors to readers unfamiliar with Virginia Woolf. Rather, it’s off-putting.

There are so many nonfiction books out there about Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group, if a reader wants to get a sketch of her life. Hermione Lee’s is definitive but too long for the casual reader. Instead, Nigel Nicholson’s short Penguin Lives edition, titled simply Virginia Woolf, would be my recommendation. Nigel Nicholson was the son of Virginia’s one-time lesbian lover, Vita Sackville-West and uses:


” … family archives and first-hand experience for his brisk, dutiful biography. For the young Nicolson, Woolf first appeared as a lively and amusing visitor. Not yet famous, to Nicolson she was like “a favourite aunt who brightened our simple lives with unexpected questions.”

– Publishers Weekly




Overall, the effort gets points for the idea but loses most of its value in the areas of stylistic choice and execution, which, well doesn’t leave it with much. Try as I did, I could not abide Adeline. Perhaps I’m too predisposed to finding fiction based on the life of Woolf to be irritating (it took two times for me to grow to love Michael Cunningham’s The Hours, not that I’m comparing the magnitude of two books). I cannot recommend the book.


[Free Review Copy: Amazon Vine program]