Other Fiction Reviews
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Santa Lucia, Book 1 • By Michelle Damiani • ★★★★★
Santa Lucia is a wonderful, sprawling, satisfying novel.
Set in an idyllic fictional small Umbrian town, Santa Lucia explores the lives of some of the townspeople. Elements of mystery, romance, and drama, as well as a splash of magical realism, give the book a feel of a telenovela, although without the over-the-top drama.
Multiple interconnected character arcs, when done poorly, are confusing or forced. These arcs, however, are managed expertly. The plot propelled me forward deeper into the book, and the main characters are all well-rounded.
I was reminded at various points of other novels I've enjoyed. The city is almost its own character in Santa Lucia, much like the circus in Erin Morgenstern's wonderful debut novel The Night Circus—and like Morgenstern, Damiani crafts some gorgeous turns of phrase and beautiful scenes. The construction of the plot and the intersection of all the characters is reminiscent of J.K Rowling's The Casual Vacancy (although thankfully the characters are much easier to root for in Santa Lucia). And the way the city influences the lives, the loves, and the losses of the townspeople reminds me of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude.
I loved the characters, really feeling the emotions of a few of them, and I especially loved the way the city as a character is interwoven throughout. This was my favorite novel of 2017.
—Paul Austin Ardoin
The Silent Madonna
Santa Lucia, Book 2 • By Michelle Damiani • ★★★★★
A sequel to Santa Lucia—a novel I called "my favorite novel of 2017"—The Silent Madonna continues the themes of magic and light, follows characters old and new, and wraps together all the crazy, disparate threads in an enormously satisfying ending.
After the disaster that the town experienced at the end of Santa Lucia, the townspeople begin to recover. And they eagerly await the arrival of an American, last heir to the castle on the hilltop that has cast its long shadow over the the town. Soon, Santa Lucia begins to transform the American, much to the consternation of his deliciously narcissistic wife—and much to the confusion (and sometimes joy) of the local woman who captures his heart.
Ah, but it wouldn't be a Damiani novel without multiple interconnected character arcs, and she deftly weaves in everything from an estranged wife's pregnancy to an homage-laden reshaping of Pride and Prejudice. Throw in a nasty ex-husband, a little girl hungry for familial bonds, and bird attacks that would make Hitchcock proud, and it's clear that Damiani has written a book that transcends genre. I haven't read a book this delightful and satisfying in a long, long time.
As much as I enjoyed Santa Lucia, Damiani's outdone herself with The Silent Madonna. I know it's only March, but The Silent Madonna sets the bar unrealistically high for my choice for Book of the Year. Highly recommended—I wish I could award a sixth star.
—Paul Austin Ardoin
Back to Reality
By Mark Stay & Mark Oliver • ★★★★
One of the first chapters of Back to Reality is a marvelously written scene where our heroine, a forty-two-year-old working mother named Jo, nursing a gin-powered buzz, gets up on stage at a karaoke bar and stuns the crowd with her command performance. It's an electric scene, satisfying, dizzyingly wonderful, encapsulating perfectly the adrenaline high of music performance—and the buzzkill of reality's aftermath. It's such a spectacular scene—it's impossible for the rest of the book to be as good as that early chapter.
Oh, but Stay and Oliver come pretty close. As Jo—and her alternate-universe self, Yohanna—become enmeshed in a time-space-yoga continuum fever dream (or is it a nightmare?), Stay and Oliver keep the accelerator all the way to the floor.
The writers give us a few pockets where we can breathe, but the stakes are high and the action is non-stop. The high-concept setup provides a lot of opportunities for absurdity; it's clear that Douglas Adams is a big influence to the authors. But while Adams often veered off in absurdity to its own end, Stay and Oliver keep the emotions of Jo/Yohanna front and center, as well as their goal of fixing everything that went wrong. And the mother/daughter dynamics may give readers a bit of a tearjerking moment or two.
The morass of characters can be a bit difficult to keep track of. Jo's husband, for example, disappears for the entire story except the bookends, and it's hard to believe Jo's actions toward him near the end of the book. In addition, for those of you who found the book as I did by listening to the writers' The Bestseller Experiment podcast, there are several meta moments which took me out of the story. But overall, the book hits the right notes—and it's an enjoyable journey.
It's a satisfying read, and it's a hard book to put down.
—Paul Austin Ardoin