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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog KNIGHT IN PAPER ARMOR by Nicholas Conley (@NicholasConley1) Scary, inspiring, and ultimately life-affirming #RBRT #Sci-fi

Hi all:

Today I bring you the review of a book by an author that impressed me with one of his novels a few years back:

Knight in Paper Armor by Nicholas Conley

Knight in Paper Armor by Nicholas Conley

Billy Jakobek has always been different. Born with strange and powerful psychic abilities, he has grown up in the laboratories of Thorne Century, a ruthless megacorporation that economically, socially, and politically dominates American society. Every day, Billy absorbs the emotional energies, dreams, and traumas of everyone he meets—from his grandmother’s memories of the Holocaust, to the terror his sheer existence inflicts upon his captors—and he yearns to break free, so he can use his powers to help others.

Natalia Gonzalez, a rebellious artist and daughter of Guatemalan immigrants, lives in Heaven’s Hole, an industrial town built inside a meteor crater, where the poverty-stricken population struggles to survive the nightmarish working conditions of the local Thorne Century factory. Natalia takes care of her ailing mother, her grandmother, and her two younger brothers, and while she dreams of escape, she knows she cannot leave her family behind.

When Billy is transferred to Heaven’s Hole, his chance encounter with Natalia sends shockwaves rippling across the blighted landscape. The two outsiders are pitted against the all-powerful monopoly, while Billy experiences visions of an otherworldly figure known as the Shape, which prophesizes an apocalyptic future that could decimate the world they know.

https://www.amazon.com/Knight-Paper-Armor-Nicholas-Conley-ebook/dp/B08CLSSX8Z/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Knight-Paper-Armor-Nicholas-Conley-ebook/dp/B08CLSSX8Z/

https://www.amazon.es/Knight-Paper-Armor-Nicholas-Conley-ebook/dp/B08CLSSX8Z/

Author Nicholas Conley
Author Nicholas Conley

About the author:

Nicholas Conley is an award-winning Jewish American author, journalist, playwright, and coffee vigilante. His books, such as Knight in Paper Armor, Pale Highway, Clay Tongue: A Novelette, and Intraterrestrial, merge science fiction narratives with hard-hitting examinations of social issues. Originally from California, he now lives in New Hampshire.

www.NicholasConley.com

My review:

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you are looking for reviews, check here), and I freely chose to review an ARC copy of this novel.

I read and reviewed Conley’s novel Pale Highway (you can check my review here) a while back, and it left a long-lasting impression. A book that although falling under the aegis of Science Fiction did not easily fit into any category and provided a unique reading experience.

Conley’s new novel shares some of the same characteristics. It is set in the not too-distant future, a dystopian future where the United States seems to have become more parcelled out and separate than ever —different populations are segregated into newly created states [immigrants have to live in certain areas, the Jewish population in another state, the well-to-do elsewhere…]—, where huge corporations have taken over everything, and prejudice is rampant. From that perspective, the book fits into the science-fiction genre, and there are also other elements (like Billy’s powers, the way the Thorne Corporation is trying to harness those powers…) that easily fit into that category, although, otherwise, the world depicted in it is worryingly similar to the one we live in. Although there aren’t lengthy descriptions of all aspects of the world, there are some scenes that vividly portray some parts of the town (Heaven’s Hole), and I would say the novel is best at creating a feeling or an impression of what life must be like there, rather than making us see it in detail. Somehow it is as if we had acquired some of Billy’s powers and could “sense” what the characters are going through.

I don’t want to discuss the plot in too much detail, as there is much to discover and enjoy, but the book is also, at some level, a rite of passage for the two young protagonists, who might come from very different backgrounds and traditions but have much in common (they’ve lost beloved family members to unfair treatment, discrimination, and manipulation; their grandmothers have played an important role in their lives; they are outsiders; they are strongly committed to others…), and who help each other become better versions of themselves. Although there is a romantic aspect to their relationship (it is reminiscent of “insta love” that so many readers dislike) and even a sex scene (very mild and not at all descriptive), the story of Billy and Natalia’s relationship goes beyond that. I don’t think I would class this novel as a Young Adult story, despite the ages of the protagonists (at least during most of the action), but that would depend on every reader. There is plenty of violence, death of adults and children, instances of physical abuse and serious injuries of both youths and adults, so I’d recommend caution depending on the age of the reader and their sensitivity to those types of subjects.

The book can be read as a metaphor for how the world might end up looking like if we don’t change our ways (and I thought about George Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm often as I read this novel), or as a straight Sci-Fi novel where two young people, one with special powers and one without, confront the government/a powerful tyrannous corporation to free society from their clutches (think the Hunger Games, although many other examples exist). It’s easy to draw comparisons and parallels with the present (and with other historical eras) as one reads; and the examples of bullying, abuse, extortion, threats, corruption… might differ in detail from events we know, but not in the essence. There is also emphasis on tradition, memory (the role of the two grandmothers is very important in that respect), identity (Billy’s Jewish identity, Natalia’s Guatemalan one, although she and her family have to pass for Mexicans at some point), disability, diversity, poverty, power, the role of media…

I have talked about the two main characters, who are both heroes (each one in their own way) and well-matched, and their families feature as well and play an important part in grounding them and making us see who they are (although Billy’s family features mostly through his memories of them). We also have a baddie we can hate at will (he is despicable, but I didn’t find him too impressive compared to others, and I prefer baddies with a certain level of humanity rather than a purely evil one), another baddie who is just a bigot and nasty (not much characterization there), and some others whose actions are morally wrong but whose reasons we come to understand. The circumstances of Billy and Natalia are so hard, and they have such great hearts that it is impossible not to root for them (I’m a big fan of Natalia, perhaps because she saves the day without having any special powers and she is easier to identify with than Billy, who is such a singular character), and their relatives and friends are also very relatable, but as I said, things are very black and white, and the book does not offer much room for shades of grey.

The story is told in the third person, although each chapter follows the point of view of one of the characters, and this is not limited to the two protagonists, but also to Thorne, and to one of the scientists working on the project. There are also moments when we follow some of the characters into a “somewhere else”, a vision that might be a memory of the past, or sometimes a projection of something else (a possible future?, a different realm or dimension?, the collective unconscious), and these chapters are quite descriptive and have an almost hallucinatory intensity. The Shape plays a big part on some of those chapters, and it makes for a much more interesting evil character than Thorne (and it brought to my mind Lovecraft and Cthulhu). Readers must be prepared to follow the characters into these places, although the experience can be painful at times. I was touched and close to tears quite a few times while I read this book, sometimes due to sadness but others the experience was a happy one.

The book is divided up into 10 parts, each one with a Hebrew name, and as I’m not that familiar with the Jewish tradition I had to check and found out these refer to the ten nodes of the Kabbalah Tree of Life. This made me realise that the structure of the book is carefully designed and it has a significance that is not evident at first sight. That does not mean it is necessary to be conversant with this concept to read and enjoy the book, but I am sure there is more to it than meets the eye (and the Tree of Life pays and important role in the story, although I won’t say anything else to avoid spoilers). The writing is lyrical and beautiful in parts, and quite horrific and explicit when it comes to detailing violence and abuse. This is not a fast page-turner, and although there is plenty of action, there are also moments where characters talk, think, or are even suspended in non-reality, so this is not for those who are only interested in stories where the plot is king and its advancement the only justification for each and every word written. I often recommend readers to try a sample of a book before purchasing, and this is even more important for books such as this one, which are not easy to pin down or classify.

From my references to Orwell you will know that this is a book with a clear message (or several) and not “just” light entertainment, but I don’t want you to think it is all doom and gloom. Quite the opposite, in fact. The ending is positive, hopeful and life-affirming. Those who like endings where everything is resolved will love this one, and those who are looking for an inspiring novel and are happy to boldly go where no reader has gone before will be handsomely rewarded.

I had to include the quote that opens the book, because it is at the heart of it all, and because it is so relevant:

The opposite of love I not hate, it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it’s indifference. Because of indifference, one dies before one actually dies. To be in the window and watch people being sent to concentration camps or being attacked in the street and do nothing, that’s being dead. Elie Wiesel.

Thanks to the author and to Rosie and all her group for their support, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, keep smiling, and always keep safe.

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Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview A LONG PETAL OF THE SEA: A Novel by Isabel Allende (@isabelallende) (@BloomsburyBooks) Fantastic. Unforgettable.

Hi all:

I bring you a book by a favourite author of mine that I had not read for a very long time. It’s a fabulous book, although the English version won’t be available until January. It has been out in Spanish for several months, but my review is of the English version, and it’s available for preorder. Pete, I think you’d enjoy this one.

Cover of A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende
A Long Petal of the Sea by Isabel Allende, English version

A Long Petal of the Sea: A Novel by Isabel Allende

From the New York Times bestselling author of The House of the Spirits, this epic novel spanning decades and crossing continents follows two young people as they flee the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War in search of a place to call home.

In the late 1930s, civil war grips Spain. When General Franco and his Fascists succeed in overthrowing the government, hundreds of thousands are forced to flee in a treacherous journey over the mountains to the French border. Among them is Roser, a pregnant young widow, who finds her life intertwined with that of Victor Dalmau, an army doctor and the brother of her deceased love. In order to survive, the two must unite in a marriage neither of them desires.

Together with two thousand other refugees, they embark on the SS Winnipeg, a ship chartered by the poet Pablo Neruda, to Chile: “the long petal of sea and wine and snow.” As unlikely partners, they embrace exile as the rest of Europe erupts in world war. Starting over on a new continent, their trials are just beginning, and over the course of their lives, they will face trial after trial. But they will also find joy as they patiently await the day when they will be exiles no more. Through it all, their hope of returning to Spain keeps them going. Destined to witness the battle between freedom and repression as it plays out across the world, Roser and Victor will find that home might have been closer than they thought all along.

A masterful work of historical fiction about hope, exile, and belonging, A Long Petal of the Sea shows Isabel Allende at the height of her powers.

Advance praise for A Long Petal of the Sea

“Both an intimate look at the relationship between one man and one woman and an epic story of love, war, family, and the search for home, this gorgeous novel, like all the best novels, transports the reader to another time and place, and also sheds light on the way we live now. Isabel Allende is a legend and this might be her finest book yet.”—J. Courtney Sullivan, author of Saints for All Occasions

“This is a novel not just for those of us who have been Allende fans for decades, but also for those who are brand-new to her work: What a joy it must be to come upon Allende for the first time. She knows that all stories are love stories, and the greatest love stories are told by time.”—Colum McCann, National Book Award–winning author of Let the Great World Spin

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Long-Petal-Sea-Novel-ebook/dp/B07R9WKFRF/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Long-Petal-Sea-Isabel-Allende/dp/1526615908/

https://www.amazon.es/Long-Petal-Sea-Novel-ebook/dp/B07R9WKFRF/

Author Isabel Allende
Author Isabel Allende

About the author:

Born in Peru and raised in Chile, Isabel Allende is the author of eight novels, including, most recently, Zorro, Portrait in Sepia, and Daughter of Fortune. She has also written a collection of stories; three memoirs, including My Invented Country and Paula; and a trilogy of children’s novels. Her books have been translated into more than twenty-seven languages and have become bestsellers across four continents. In 2004 she was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Isabel Allende lives in California.

Here the cover of the Spanish version

My review: 

Thanks to NetGalley and to Bloomsbury Publishing for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I have long been a fan of Isabel Allende’s novels, although I haven’t read any of her recent books, despite my best intentions. I read many of her early novels, in Spanish, and I enjoyed her take on Magic Realism, which I found inspiring. When I saw this novel, which combined Allende’s writing with a historical subject close to my heart (I’m from Barcelona, like the protagonist of the novel, and some of my relatives lived experiences quite similar to those Victor goes through), I had to read it. And although it is a very different reading experience from that of The House of the Spirits, I enjoyed it enormously.

This novel is the story of Victor Dalmau, whom we meet at a very difficult moment, during the Spanish Civil War. He was studying Medicine and helps look after the wounded in battle, while his younger brother, Guillem, fights for the Republic. Told in the third person, mostly from Victor’s point of view (there is a fragment where the novel deviates from that, but there is a good reason for it), the book follows his life pretty closely and in chronological order, although not all periods of his life are shared in the same detail. We learn about his family, his parents, Roser (his brother’s girlfriend and one of the students of Victor’s father, a musician), and hear first-hand of his experiences during the war, the retreat (“la retirada”), and the problems a huge number of Spaniards who escaped to France had to face once there.

Pablo Neruda, the Chilean poet, is fundamental to the story, not only because he chartered the SS Winnipeg that took many Spaniards (around two thousand) to Chile, escaping from Franco’s regime and the French camps, but also because he personally appears in the novel and each chapter is introduced by one of his poems. In fact, the title of the book also comes from one of his poems, and it is a descriptive metaphor of the country, Chile, that welcomed the refugees with open arms. The story also follows Victor’s later adventures, his studies and work as a cardiologist, Roser’s works as a musician and her creation of an orchestra, and the historical and political upheavals they have to confront, with further displacements and persecution. What is to be an emigrant, how different people adapt to different realities and countries (Victor and Roser are pretty different in this respect), and also the invaluable contribution those very same immigrants make to the very fabric of the country that takes them in, are threads that run through the whole novel.

This is my first experience of reading Allende’s work in English, and I thought the translation was excellent. The language is both functional and beautiful, capturing the emotions of the characters, and vividly portraying their experiences, at times harrowing and at others uplifting. I was very touched by the narrative, and although that might be in part due to my personal connection to the material (not only the historical aspect, but also the experience of life in a different country) , the effect was not limited to the parts of the story I was familiar with. The adventures of Victor and Roser in Chile, Allende’s government (of course, Salvador Allende was Isabel’s uncle), and the military coup, further tested their endurance and made them start again in Venezuela. Added to the larger historical events, we have a story of love, family, and displacement, which will resonate with many readers, even if they are not familiar with the particular historical and geographical setting. Circumstances might change, but the problems are universal.

The author talks about the genesis of the book in a note at the beginning of the book and explains it in more detail in the acknowledgements at the end. Although this is a novel, it is based on real accounts, and its main character was inspired by another Victor, Victor Pey, who lived to be 103, and who experienced many of the trials and tribulations we read about. Allende creates a catalogue of varied characters, complex and credible, and mixes historical figures with fictional ones seamlessly. Victor is a quiet man, hard-working, who prefers action to idle talk, and whose mission in life seems to be to help others. He is a survivor who can be naïve about the consequences of his actions and about the motivations of others, but he always expects the best of others and hopes against hope. Roser, his wife, is a fabulous character, a strong woman who keeps going no matter what, and their relationship evolves through the book, never getting old and with plenty of surprises. There are plenty of memorable characters in the book, some that play a larger part than others, and some that keep popping up at regular intervals as time passes. I was intrigued by the Solan family, fascinated by Juana, their lifelong servant, and also appreciated the small details that add a human touch to the historical figures, Pablo Neruda in particular.

I loved the writing style, poetic and lyrical at times, despite dealing in some very harsh topics. The flow varies, and some historical periods are described in more detail than others, as happens in memoirs. I’ve read comments of readers who say there is too much telling in this novel. There is a fair amount of telling, that is true, by the very nature of the story, but it suits the personality of the protagonist, and to be honest, I cried with the story as it is. I’m not sure I would have managed to read it if it were even more emotional. (I smiled as well, and it is a hopeful story overall, but it did touch me deeply).

I have highlighted many passages, and it’s difficult to choose one or two, but I decided to give it a try.

Here Victor Dalmau observes the work of the female volunteers looking after injured soldiers in the Spanish Civil War:

Volunteer women would moisten their lips, whisper to them, and comfort them as if they were their own children, in the knowledge that somewhere else, another woman might be cradling their own son or brother.

If you are very sensitive, you might want to look away now:

This was to be his most stubborn, persistent memory of the war: that fifteen- or sixteen-year-old boy, still smooth-cheeked, filthy with the dirt of battle and dried blood, laid out on a stretcher with his heart exposed to the air.

And I had to include one from Pablo Neruda, quoted here in chapter 2.

Nothing, not even victory,

Can wipe away the terrible hole of blood.

I love this novel, which I recommend to readers of historical fiction, particularly those interested in the Spanish Civil War and/or the history of Chile, to fans of Isabel Allende, and also to those who’ve never read her before, but are looking for a compelling story, masterfully written, with a memorable cast of characters and a story with many parallels to recent events. I attended a conference about la Retirada (the retreat of around 500000 Spaniards, both military and civilians, escaping to France from Spain at the end of the Civil War, in February 1939) on its 80th anniversary earlier this year, and looking at the pictures, it gave us all pause, because if we just changed the background of the photographs and the clothes, we could have been watching the news. Like those images, this is a novel that will stay with me. I might be biased but that’s my prerogative and I can’t recommend it enough.

Thanks very much to Netgalley, the publisher, the author and translator for this fabulous book, thanks to all of you for reading, and if you’ve enjoyed it, share it around, but whatever you think, always keep smiling. 

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Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview GODDESS OF THE RAINBOW by Patrick Brigham. A multitude of stories that make up a feel-good novel in an extraordinary setting.

Hi all:

I’ve finally got around to reading this book, and I am pleased I have.

Goddess of the Rainbow by Patrick Brigham
Goddess of the Rainbow by Patrick Brigham

GODDESS OF THE RAINBOW by Patrick Brigham.

Goddess of The Rainbow is a very Greek story involving the rain, and how flooding changes us, moves the finger of fate, and causes us to reflect on our lives. A series of short stories, they all happen in the Greek town of Orestiada. Stories which simultaneously interlink and become a part of the whole, center around Iris – the local DHL courier – who in Greek mythology is not only Goddess of The Rainbow, but also the Messenger of The Gods, thereby connecting the individual tales of this 16 Chapter book. In it there is a murderous estate agent, and his equally murderous wife, an aspiring artist looking for recognition in Athens, an estranged couple separated by time who rekindle their love, a Greek- Australian who is from Melbourne, and a visiting bus load of Russian women from Moscow. They have been invited by the mayor, in order that some of the winging local bachelors might find a suitable wife. There is an illegal Syrian immigrant, a disgruntled typically Greek mother who doesn’t want her son to marry at all, and a Greek Orthodox Priest who has lost his faith. All that and more; stories which come so beautifully together in the last chapter –fascinating and enchanting – which can be read and enjoyed individually, but put together, serve to make the whole novel greater than its component parts.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/1980983720/

https://www.amazon.com/Goddess-Rainbow-Patrick-Brigham-ebook/dp/B07CS2DWDV/

Author Patrick Brigham
Author Patrick Brigham

About the author:

The author Patrick Brigham writes good mystery books, many of which are set at the very end of the Cold War and Communism. Featuring fictional police detective Chief Inspector Michael Lambert, he is often faced with political intrigue, and in order to solve his cases – which frequently take place in Eastern Europe and the Balkans – he needs to understand how an old Communist thinks, during the course of his investigations.
There are few good books on the subject of international crime, especially mystery stories which delve into the shady side of Balkan politics, neither are there many novelists who are prepared to address Mystery Crime Fiction, like the author.
Patrick Brigham was the Editor in Chief of the first English Language news magazine in Bulgaria between 1995 and 2000. As a journalist, he witnessed the changes in this once hard core Communist Country and personally knew most of the political players. Traditionally a hotbed of intrigue and the natural home of the conspiracy theory, Bulgaria proved to be quite a challenge and for many the transition into democracy was painful.
Despite this, he personally managed to survive these changes and now lives peacefully in Northern Greece. These days Patrick has branched out into contemporary literary fiction, and his newest novel, Goddess of The Rainbow, is about Greece and the Greeks.
https://www.amazon.com/Patrick-Brigham/e/B00BGZTKFE/

My review:

I received a paperback ARC copy of this review and that has in no way affected the content of my feedback.

This novel (because yes, although it is composed of what appear to be separate vignettes all taking place in the same period of time and in the same location, it does amount to more than its parts, as the description correctly points out) chronicles a Greek town, Orestiada, and its inhabitants’ adventures at a point of crisis. It has been raining for weeks, the river is growing, and things are coming to a head, and I am not only talking about the weather and the flood.

The author cleverly weaves all the seemingly separate strands, first setting up the multiple characters and their circumstances (we do have a varied catalogue of mostly adult and middle-aged characters, many locals, but also a British man who has lived most of his life abroad [as an unofficial spy now turned writer], a Syrian illegal immigrant, a busload of Russian women, another busload of Israeli women, and people from all walks of small-town Greek life, from farmers to mayors, from factory directors to artists), and then wrenching up the tension, as if the weather was having an effect on the whole population, and things that had been bubbling up under the surface were now ready to explode. And although in some cases the actual resolution is not as spectacular as we might have expected (after all, we have attempted murders, personal threats, cars plunging into a river, racial slurs, a group of Russian women coming to meet the single men of the town in a collective dating experiment, old flames meeting again…) there is a silver lining after the storm and readers leave the town with a warm and hopeful feeling.

What did I like? The story made me think of the best soap operas centred in a community, where over a period of time we get to know the characters, and we care for them. It shows the writer’s great skill that despite the episodic nature of the story, we feel quite close to the characters (some more than others, but still, they are all distinctive and feel real in their everyday preoccupations and lives) and care what happens to them. Iris, in some ways the central character, as she is the goddess of the rainbow in Greek mythology, is the messenger of the town, and no matter what her personal circumstances are she keeps delivering parcels, messages, and bringing her upbeat outlook and optimism to all she meet. She is a favourite of mine, and I was happy things worked out so well for her. But I became fond of most of the characters, even the less likeable ones, as we are offered enough information about them to understand them, and the good-will of the town and its people is contagious. The story is narrated in the third person but each chapter is told from the perspective of the main character it talks about, and that means we get to see them not only as others see them but as they truly are.

The novel creates a good sense of what the place and the homes of the characters are like, without going into long descriptions. Those that are included capture more the mood rather than the detail, and are, like the rest of the book, pretty humorous (with a touch of irony but fairly affectionate). Here Maria, the local artist, who has to produce work that she does not like but is to the taste of the local market, is reflecting upon what the houses of the citizens who came to the exhibitions of her work every year would look like:

Afterwards, these stalwarts would return to their homes —inevitably filled with expensive vulgar baubles, nick-nacks, coloured glass from Venice, and a blue-faced woman enigmatically smiling from the sitting room wall like some demented oriental Mona Lisa.

Together with a collection of pissing dog prints, their overcrowded living rooms were neve complete without a large china bust of Socrates. A translated set of the Encyclopaedia Britannica —carefully secreted an unopened on a half-hidden bookshelf— and their illusion of sophistication was complete.

The humour can be dark at times, especially when it comes to a couple who want to get rid of each other and will not stop at anything to make sure they achieve their goal. Here one of their business associates is thinking about one of his men:

The assassin liked Dragomire because he didn’t mind shooting people when he carried out a bank robbery, which in his view was very professional and to be admired.

I guess we all have our standards and rules of conduct. (By the way, I’d advise law-abiding Bulgarians to keep away from this book, as it does not paint a great image of its people, but the overgeneralisations seem in keeping with the view neighbouring countries might have of each other, not always flattering).

Was there anything I didn’t like? As I said, I enjoyed the atmosphere, the character’s and their stories. I received a copy of the book, in paperback, a long while ago but hadn’t had a chance to read it. Therefore, it might be that the book has undergone revisions and transformations since, so my objections might well be unjustified now. The paperback had some formatting issues (no page numbers, some empty pages and strange distribution of text), there was the odd typo here and there (nothing too jarring even for an early copy), and then there were some peculiarities in the way the story was told. As a non-native English speaker, I am always wary of commenting on style. In this case, I wondered if some of the grammatical structures that sounded slightly odd to me might be an attempt at adopting the rhythm of conversations and speech in Greece, and I soon became accustomed to it and got to like it, but I’d advise readers to read a sample of the book first, to check for themselves.

A feel-good book about a rather wonderful place, one of these towns that, although far from ideal, end up earning a place in our hearts.

Thanks to the author for the opportunity, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review and always keep reading and smiling!

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Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview THE LEAVERS by Lisa Ko (@iamlisako) A book about mothers, sons, emigrations, and how to survive when you’ve lost a part of yourself #TheLeavers #emigration

Hi all:

I don’t usually blog on Thursdays, but when I was invited to participate in this blog tour, I know you would not mind getting an extra post. And here it is:

Review of the Leaver by Lisa Ko
The Leavers by Lisa Ko

The Leavers: Winner of the PEN/Bellweather Prize for Fiction by Lisa Ko

‘A vivid fictional exploration of what it means to belong and what it feels like when you don’t’Oprah Magazine – Favourite Books of 2017

Finalist for the National Book Award 2017

Winner of the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Fiction

‘There was a time I would have called Lisa Ko’s novel beautifully written, ambitious, and moving, and all of that is true, but it’s more than that now: if you want to understand a forgotten and essential part of the world we live inThe Leavers is required reading’ – Ann Patchett

‘Ambitious . . . Lisa Ko has taken the headlines and has reminded us that beyond them lie messy, brave, extraordinary, ordinary lives’ New York Times Book Review

*****

Ko’s novel is a moving story of how a boy comes into his own when everything he loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past.

One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, an undocumented Chinese immigrant, goes to her job at a nail salon – and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her. With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left mystified and bereft. Eventually adopted by a pair of well-meaning white professors, Deming is moved from the Bronx to a small town upstate and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. But far from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his adoptive parents’ desire that he assimilate with his memories of his mother and the community he left behind.

Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid examination of borders and belonging. It’s a moving story of how a boy comes into his own when everything he loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past.

https://www.amazon.com/Leavers-Winner-Bellweather-Prize-Fiction-ebook/dp/B077MTG7T1/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Leavers-Winner-Bellweather-Prize-Fiction-ebook/dp/B077MTG7T1/

Press Release

‘Imperative reading’ Oprah’s Book Club DIALOGUE BOOKS’ LAUNCH TITLE  WINNER OF THE 2016 PEN/BELLWETHER PRIZE FOR FICTION FINALIST FOR THE NATIONAL BOOK AWARDS 2017

One morning, Deming Guo’s mother, Polly, goes to her job at a nail salon – and never comes home. No one can find any trace of her.

With his mother gone, eleven-year-old Deming is left mystified and bereft. Eventually adopted by a pair of well-meaning white professors, Deming is moved from the Bronx to a small town upstate and renamed Daniel Wilkinson. But far from all he’s ever known, Daniel struggles to reconcile his adoptive parents’ desire that he assimilate, with his memories of his mother and the community he left behind.

Told from the perspective of both Daniel – as he grows into a directionless young man – and Polly, Ko’s novel gives us one of fiction’s most singular mothers. Loving and selfish, determined and frightened, Polly is forced to make one heart-wrenching choice after another.

Set in New York and China, The Leavers is a vivid examination of borders and belonging. Of identity. It’s a moving story of how a boy comes into his own, when everything he loves is taken away, and how a mother learns to live with the mistakes of the past.

Author Lisa Ko
Author Lisa Ko

About the Author:

Lisas Ko is the author of The Leavers, a novel which was a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction and won the 2016 PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2016, The New York Times, Brooklyn Review, and extensively elsewhere. Lisa has been awarded fellowships and residencies from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council, the MacDowell Colony, the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation, Writers OMI at Ledig House, the Jerome Foundation, Blue Mountain Center, the Van Lier Foundation, Hawthornden Castle, the I-Park Foundation, the Anderson Center, the Constance Saltonstall Foundation, and the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center. Born in Queens and raised in Jersey, she lives in Brooklyn.

Visit Lisa on her site: lisa-ko.com or on Twitter: @iamlisako #TheLeavers

https://www.amazon.com/Lisa-Ko/e/B01I8ML74E/

 

Praise for The Leavers

‘There was a time I would have called Lisa Ko’s novel beautifully written, ambitious and moving, and all of that is true, but it’s more than that now: if you want to understand a forgotten and essential part of the world we live in, The Leavers is required reading’—ANN PATCHETT

‘[The Leavers] uses the voices of both [a] boy and his birth mother to tell a story that unfolds in graceful, realistic fashion and defies expectations. Though it won last year’s PEN/Bellwether Award for Socially Engaged Fiction, Ko’s book is more far-reaching than that’—THE NEW YORK TIMES

‘Courageous, sensitive, and perfectly of this moment’—BARBARA KINGSOLVER

‘[A] dazzling debut… Filled with exquisite, heartrending details, Ko’s exploration of the often-brutal immigrant experience in America is a moving tale of family and belonging’—PEOPLE

‘A sweeping examination of family…. Ko’s stunning tale of love and loyalty—to family, to country— is a fresh and moving look at the immigrant experience in America, and is as timely as ever’  —PUBLISHERS WEEKLY (STARRED REVIEW)

‘What Ko seeks to do with The Leavers is illuminate the consequence of [deportation] facilities, and of the deportation machine as a whole, on individual lives. Ko’s book arrives at a time when it is most needed; its success will be measured in its ability to move its readership along the continuum between complacency and advocacy’ —THE LOS ANGELES REVIEW OF BOOKS

‘Ko’s unforgettable narrative voice is a credit to the moving stories of immigration, loss, recovery, and acceptance that feel particularly suited for our times’—NYLON

‘[E]ngaging and highly topical… Ko deftly segues between the intertwined stories of the separated mother and son and conveys both the struggles of those caught in the net of immigration authorities and the pain of dislocation’ —THE NATIONAL BOOK REVIEW

‘Skillfully written… Those who are interested in closely observed, character-driven fiction will want to leave room for The Leavers on their shelves’—BOOKLIST

‘[A]n impressive literary debut…. Ko does a wonderful job of crafting sympathetic characters. The Leavers is never sentimental or cloying’—SOUTH CHINA MORNING POST

‘This timely novel depicts the heart- and spirit-breaking difficulties faced by illegal immigrants with meticulous specificity’—KIRKUS REVIEWS

‘The Leavers is also about the very concept of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ — about belonging, and who we are when we lose the people who make us, well, ourselves. It’s about immigration and cultural barriers, the promise of the American dream and the less talked about way it can devolve into an American nightmare’—REFINERY29

‘The Leavers has already won the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction, an honor it surely deserves for its depiction of the tribulations of undocumented immigrants in the United States. Beyond that, and perhaps even more admirable, it is an exceptionally well written, fully realized work of art portraying the circumstances and inner worlds — the motives and emotional weather — of its two central characters. Ko is so psychologically penetrating, so acute in her passing observations and deft in the quick views she affords of her characters’ inner lives and surroundings, that her skill and empathy give real joy’ —KATHERINE POWERS, BARNES AND NOBLE REVIEW

‘Ko tells the heart-breaking story of a Chinese mother and her American-born son, who is adopted by a white couple after she disappears without warning and fails to return for several months. Ko is part of an active subgenre shining a light on an ugly truth about our country—that it is possible to come to America and be worse off as a result’ —THE LOS ANGELES TIMES

‘Vividly written and moving, The Leavers is an engrossing story of one young boy struggling to adjust to his new life without his mother and community’—BUZZFEED

‘One of 2017’s most anticipated fiction debuts… The Leavers feels as relevant as ever as the future of immigrants in America hangs in the balance’—TIME

‘A must-read’—MARIE CLAIRE US

‘Beautifully written and deeply affecting, combining the emotional insight of a great novel with the integrity of long-form journalism, The Leavers is a timely meditation on immigration, adoption, and the meaning of family’—THE VILLAGE VOICE

‘A dazzling international parade of the intrigue and dark shadows of motherhood, The Leavers will leave every reader craving more. This is one of the most ambitious novels of 2017, and it delivers’—REDBOOK

‘Touching upon themes such as identity, determination, addiction, and loyalty, the author clearly shows readers that she is an emerging writer to watch. Ko’s writing is strong, and her characters, whether major or minor, are skilfully developed’—LIBRARY JOURNAL (STARRED REVIEW)

‘A rich and sensitive portrait of lives lived across borders, cultures, and languages … One of the most engaging, deeply probing, and beautiful books I have read this year’ —LAILA LALAMI, AUTHOR OF THE MOOR’S ACCOUNT

‘The year’s powerful debut you won’t want to miss. The Leavers expertly weaves a tale of the conflicts between love and loyalty, personal identity and familial obligation, and the growing divide between freedom and social justice. An affecting novel that details the gut-wrenching realities facing illegal immigrants and their families in modern America’—BUSTLE

‘Heart-wrenching literary debut’—ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY

‘There is something incredibly timely about this book, and something invaluable in Ko’s ability to fully humanize people who are far too often relegated to the position of symbols and far too rarely seen as fully realized beings. The Leavers is more than just a gorgeously written and perfectly constructed novel; it’s a book that means something – maybe even more than its author intended’—PORTLAND BOOK REVIEW

My review:

Thanks to Little Brown UK for providing me an ARC copy of this book and for inviting me to participate in the blog tour on the occasion of the UK book’s launch.

The Leavers comes highly recommended (winner of the PEN/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction) and it feels particularly relevant to the historical times we live in. The plight of emigrants, issues of ethnic and national identity, transnational adoptions, alternative family structures and mother and son relationships. There is plenty of talk and official discourses about laws, building walls, and placing the blame on Others for the problems of a country these days, but this is nothing new. As I read the book, I could not help but think that the situation is a cyclical one, and perhaps the countries the immigrants come from, go to, or their circumstances change over time, but people keep moving. Sometimes they are met with open arms and others, not so much.

This novel is divided into four parts, and it is narrated by two characters. Peilan (Polly) is a young Chinese woman who initially leaves her fishing village for the city (to have access to better opportunities) and eventually takes on huge debt to move to America, already pregnant. She narrates her story in different time-frames (she recalls past events back in China, the difficult time when she had the baby and could not work in New York, her hard decision to send her child to live with her father in China, and the boy’s return after her father’s death), in the first person, first in America, and later, in present-day China. Deming (Daniel), her son, is born in America, shipped back to China, then back to America, and eventually ends up being adopted by a white American family. His story is told in the third person, and we follow him from age 11 (and some earlier memories) all the way to his early twenties. This is the story of two character’s growth, their struggle to discover (or rediscover) who they are and to make sense of their complex history.

The book is beautifully written, with enthralling descriptions of places, sounds, and emotions. If water and nature are particularly significant for Peilan, music makes life meaningful for Daniel and gives him an identity beyond nation and ethnic origin. Like our memories, the book is contemplative and meandering, and the thoughts of both characters reflect well how our minds work, as a smell, a sound, or a glimpsed figure can conjure up an image or a flood of emotions linked to a particular moment in time.

There is a mystery at the centre of the story. Polly leaves her son and nobody knows why. The alternating points of view put the readers in both roles and make us feel lost and abandoned on the one side, and on the other feel puzzled, as we clearly see that Polly loves her son, although she might have felt desperate and done extreme things at times. The explanation, when it eventually comes, is heart-wrenching and particularly poignant in view of some of the policies being enforced and implemented by some countries. Although it is not a traditional mystery novel, and it does not lose its power even if the readers get a clear idea of what had happened, I will try and avoid spoilers.

Both characters feel real, understandable and easy to empathise with, although not necessarily always likeable or immediately sympathetic. Deming is no star pupil, studious and well-behaved, and he makes many mistakes and has a talent for doing the wrong thing and upsetting almost everybody around him. Polly keeps her emotions under wraps; she works hard and puts up with incredibly hard situations until she suddenly does something that comes as a big surprise to everyone who knows her. They are not the perfect Norman Rockwell family by any stretch of the imagination, but that is what makes them more poignant and gives the novels its strength. It is easy to accept and sympathise with those we like and we feel are exceptional cases, but every case is unique and exceptional. The secondary characters are well-drawn and not simple fillers for the main story, their circumstances and personalities are interesting and believable, and the subject of the Deming’s adoption is afforded the nuance and complexity it deserves. The book deals with those issues from a personal perspective, but it is impossible to read it and not think about the effect that policies and politics have on the lives of so many people.

I highlighted many fragments of the book and it is difficult to select some that don’t reveal much of the plot, but I will try.

Instead of friends, Kay and Peter had books they read in bed at night. (Kay and Peter are Daniel’s adoptive parents).

He counted the heartbeats during that little catch between songs, savoring the delicious itch as the needle dropped and the melody snuck its toe out from behind a curtain.

A record was to be treasured, its circle scratches a mysterious language, a furtive tattoo.

“And that is it?” you said. “You forgot me?” “I didn’t forget. I just survived.”

Everyone had stories they told themselves to get through the days.

This novel reminded me of two of the books nominated for the Booker Prize I read last year, one of the finalists, Exist West by Mohsin Hamid (which explores emigration in a very novel way. You can check my review here), and the other one Home Fire by Kamila Shamsie (which also deals with identity and displacement, but it was the character of the brother and his descriptions of music that brought the book to my mind. You can read it here). I recommend it to readers who enjoyed those two books, and also readers interested in memory, identity, emigration, adoption (especially across ethnic and national boundaries) or anybody keen to discover a new writer who can paint images, emotions, and sounds with her words.

Thanks very much to NetGalley, to Grace Vincent from Little Brown UK, to all of you for reading and don’t forget to like, share, comment, click, REVIEW and keep smiling!

Categories
Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview BEHOLD THE DREAMERS: A NOVEL by Imbolo Mbue. Beautifully written story of a lost in translation version of the American Dream

Hi all:

This is the last review for this week, but plenty more to come. And although the material says the novel is long-listed for the Pen/Faulkner Award, it is now officially one of the finalists (read an article in the Washington Post about it here). So, remember, you heard it here first!

 

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue
Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

Behold the Dreamers: A Novel by Imbolo Mbue

Longlisted for a PEN Open Book Award • A compulsively readable debut novel about marriage, immigration, class, race, and the trapdoors in the American Dream—the unforgettable story of a young Cameroonian couple making a new life in New York just as the Great Recession upends the economy

NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY
The New York Times • The Washington Post • Kirkus • NPR • San Francisco Chronicle • The Guardian • St. Louis Dispatch

Jende Jonga, a Cameroonian immigrant living in Harlem, has come to the United States to provide a better life for himself, his wife, Neni, and their six-year-old son. In the fall of 2007, Jende can hardly believe his luck when he lands a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a senior executive at Lehman Brothers. Clark demands punctuality, discretion, and loyalty—and Jende is eager to please. Clark’s wife, Cindy, even offers Neni temporary work at the Edwardses’ summer home in the Hamptons. With these opportunities, Jende and Neni can at last gain a foothold in America and imagine a brighter future.

However, the world of great power and privilege conceals troubling secrets, and soon Jende and Neni notice cracks in their employers’ façades.

When the financial world is rocked by the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the Jongas are desperate to keep Jende’s job—even as their marriage threatens to fall apart. As all four lives are dramatically upended, Jende and Neni are forced to make an impossible choice.

Praise for Behold the Dreamers

“A debut novel by a young woman from Cameroon that illuminates the immigrant experience in America with the tenderhearted wisdom so lacking in our political discourse . . . Mbue is a bright and captivating storyteller.”The Washington Post

“Mbue writes with great confidence and warmth. . . . A capacious, big-hearted novel.”The New York Times Book Review

“Behold the Dreamers’ heart . . . belongs to the struggles and small triumphs of the Jongas, which Mbue traces in clean, quick-moving paragraphs.”Entertainment Weekly

“Mbue’s writing is warm and captivating.”People (book of the week)

“[Mbue’s] book isn’t the first work of fiction to grapple with the global financial crisis of 2007–2008, but it’s surely one of the best. . . . It’s a novel that depicts a country both blessed and doomed, on top of the world, but always at risk of losing its balance. It is, in other words, quintessentially American.”—NPR

“Imbolo Mbue’s masterful debut about an immigrant family struggling to obtain the elusive American Dream in Harlem will have you feeling for each character from the moment you crack it open.”In Style

“This story is one that needs to be told.”Bust 

Behold the Dreamers challenges us all to consider what it takes to make us genuinely content, and how long is too long to live with our dreams deferred.”O: The Oprah Magazine

“[A] beautiful, empathetic novel.”The Boston Globe

“A witty, compassionate, swiftly paced novel that takes on race, immigration, family and the dangers of capitalist excess.”St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Mbue [is] a deft, often lyrical observer. . . . [Her] meticulous storytelling announces a writer in command of her gifts.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Behold-Dreamers-Novel-Imbolo-Mbue/dp/0812998480/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Behold-Dreamers-Imbolo-MBUE-ebook/dp/B015I52K7W/

About the author:

Author Imbolo Mbue
Author Imbolo Mbue

Imbolo Mbue is a native of Limbe, Cameroon. She holds a B.S. from Rutgers University and an M.A. from Columbia University. A resident of the United States for over a decade, she lives in New York City.

https://www.amazon.com/Imbolo-Mbue/e/B013PDCN94/

 

 

Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to Harper Collings UK, 4th State for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I voluntarily review.

This novel, written by an author hailing from Cameroon, like her characters, tells us the story of the Jongas, a family of emigrants trying to make a go of life in the USA, more specifically in New York. Jende strikes it lucky at the beginning and gets a job as a chauffeur for Clark Edwards, a big executive for Lehman Brothers. That seems to open many opportunities for Jende and his family, paving the way for all their dreams to come true. Unfortunately, the undoing of Lehman, some personal issues in the Edwards family and the pressure of their unclear immigration status (Jende arrived with a 3 months’ busy that he’s overstayed, his wife has a student visa but they might not have enough money to finance her studies to become a pharmacist and their son would have to go back if the father does) change all that.

The story, written in the third person alternating the points of view of Jende and his wife, Neni, is full of details of the subjective experience of the characters, from the worries about their immigration status, the variety of connections with people from home (from parties, to disinterested advice, emotional support…), their feelings about New York (their favourite places, the cultural shock of confronting new rules, prices, weather, standards and extremes of poverty and richness), their initial shock and later better understanding of the Edwards lifestyle, the educational opportunities and the effect of the stress of their situation on their personal lives.

Both characters are credible, engaging and easy to empathise with, even when we might not agree with their actions and/or decisions. They also have dreams and wishes for their future and their family. To begin with, they both think the USA will change their lives and open up avenues they’d never be able to pursue back home. Jende couldn’t even marry Neni back home and his wife had to live with her parents and had no chance to study. Everything seems possible in the USA, but slowly it becomes clear that things aren’t as straightforward as they thought at first, that being white and rich in America doesn’t equal happiness, and that not everyone is prepared to give them a chance.

There are funny moments and also very sad ones (especially when the couple disagrees and their relationship becomes difficult) and one can’t help but become invested in the story and the future of the couple and their children, who become ersatz members of our family. If at times the Jongas appear as victims of circumstances and a system that they don’t understand, at others they take things into their own hands, and, whatever we might think about what they do, they act. The book is beautifully written and offers an insight into lives that might be different to ours but we can easily share in.

On a personal note, I was a bit disappointed by the ending, not so much by what happens but by how it comes about, and I wasn’t so sure the reactions of the main characters towards the end of the book were totally consistent with the personality they’d shown so far, although it might be possible to see it as a result of the extreme pressures they experience. What that would suggest of the likelihood that their Cameroonian dream will end up becoming a reality is the crux of the matter but something left to the imagination of the readers. The scene towards the end of the book between Clark Edwards and Jende Jonga where they share their future plans (both of them moving on to a future more in keeping with family values and less with work), makes us think of how differently the women of the book see things compared to their men. Gender relations are one of the most interesting and troubling aspects of the novel.

A solid book with great characters that deals with important issues (domestic violence, family relations, cultural differences, immigration, asylum seeking, race relations, the Lehman Brothers and the economic crisis following its fall, the American Dream…), is a joy to read and it will make you consider many of those topics from a different point of view.

Thanks so much to NetGalley, the publishers and the author for this book (anecdotally, I was reading it in Paris when I was visiting my friend Iman, and I kept telling her the story when we went running and she found it very interesting too) and thanks to you all for reading. Please, like, share, comment and CLICK!

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