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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog The School for Good Mothers: A Novel by Jessamine Chan (@jessaminechan) (@HutchHeinemann) Not an easy read, but one that will make you think about families and social control #TheSchoolforGoodMothers #NetGalley

Hi all:

I am not a mother, but recently I have read two books that shine a pretty special light on motherhood. You might remember my review for Chouette, and this one, although totally different, I think will also stay with me for a long time. And it has a fantastic title as well.

The School for Good Mothers: A Novel by Jessamine Chan

An Instant New York Times Bestseller

A Read with Jenna Today Show Book Club Pick

In this taut and explosive debut novel, one lapse in judgement lands a young mother in a government reform program where custody of her child hangs in the balance.

Frida Liu is struggling. She doesn’t have a career worthy of her Chinese immigrant parents’ sacrifices. She can’t persuade her husband, Gust, to give up his wellness-obsessed younger mistress. Only with Harriet, their cherubic daughter, does Frida finally attain the perfection expected of her. Harriet may be all she has, but she is just enough.

Until Frida has a very bad day.

The state has its eyes on mothers like Frida. The ones who check their phones, letting their children get injured on the playground; who let their children walk home alone. Because of one moment of poor judgment, a host of government officials will now determine if Frida is a candidate for a Big Brother-like institution that measures the success or failure of a mother’s devotion.

Faced with the possibility of losing Harriet, Frida must prove that a bad mother can be redeemed. That she can learn to be good.

A searing page-turner that is also a transgressive novel of ideas about the perils of “perfect” upper-middle class parenting; the violence enacted upon women by both the state and, at times, one another; the systems that separate families; and the boundlessness of love, The School for Good Mothers introduces, in Frida, an everywoman for the ages. Using dark wit to explore the pains and joys of the deepest ties that bind us, Chan has written a modern literary classic.

 https://www.amazon.com/School-Good-Mothers-Novel-ebook/dp/B093JHS53T/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/School-Good-Mothers-Handmaids-century-ebook/dp/B09FGD85XB/

https://www.amazon.es/School-Good-Mothers-Novel-English-ebook/dp/B093JHS53T/

Author Jessamine Chan

About the author:

Jessamine Chan’s short stories have appeared in Tin House and Epoch. A former reviews editor at Publishers Weekly, she holds an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Brown University. Her work has received support from the Elizabeth George Foundation, the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, the Wurlitzer Foundation, Jentel, the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center, the Anderson Center, VCCA, and Ragdale. She lives in Chicago with her husband and daughter.

https://www.amazon.com/Jessamine-Chan/e/B092BKD9NX/

My review:

I thank NetGalley and Random House UK, Cornerstone, Hutchinson Heinemann for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.

I heard a lot of comments about this novel, was intrigued by its subject, and I can honestly say this is a book that won’t leave anybody indifferent.

The author is well-known for her short stories, but this is her first novel, and as she explains in the author’s acknowledgments at the end of the book, she had been working on it for many years before it saw the light. It seems that it started as a short story, but at the recommendation of a writing mentor at a workshop, Chan felt encouraged to develop the concept. Readers who are interested in the writing process will enjoy reading the author’s note, as it gives a good sense of what inspired her, which writers influenced her, includes a bibliography for those interested in her sources, and it also gives an account of how many people play a part in the final product, from the author and her family to the institutions providing support of all kinds.

The description of the novel gives a reasonable overview of the plot, although I am not sure everybody who has read it would agree on the way the book is characterized in the last paragraph.

We have all heard stories of neglectful parents, and/or parents doing things that seem unthinkable, like kidnapping their children, harming them, or even killing them. I have often thought that in this day and age when one can hardly do anything without having “training” and holding “a certificate” (at least in most Western societies), it is amazing that one of the most difficult things to do, raising a child, requires no qualification and there is no supervision or education provided to ensure that young people of a certain age know, at least, the very basics. As if the author had read my mind, in this book, the authorities create a School for parents (yes, for the bad mothers of the title, but there is also an equivalent school for bad fathers, although with fewer students and much more lenient), and “dystopic” doesn’t quite make it justice. The action takes place in a world that sounds exactly like ours and in the present (or at least not in a particularly distant future) in the USA, and that increases its impact, because it is not that difficult to imagine something like this happening (although perhaps some of the details are a bit fanciful and stretch credibility slightly, but only slightly).

Frida, the main protagonist, does something that is definitely bad (I am not a mother, so I cannot speak with any inside knowledge, but I think it is understandable although I cannot imagine anybody would condone it), although not, by far, the worst thing we hear about in the novel, and she is not the most sympathetic of characters. And that is, perhaps, what makes it a particularly effective but tough book to read. Because it is very easy to feel sorry for a character who is tender-hearted, kind, and nice, and feel outraged for the way s/he is treated, but here, we not only meet Frida (whose story is narrated in the third person but from her limited point of view), but also some of her peers, and none of them are people most of us would want as friends in normal circumstances, especially once we learn about what landed them at the school. But Frida gets to care for them and we do as well, and we also feel their frustration, their pain, and their desperation. Those of you who are parents, imagine if everything you did when you were with your children (and even when you were not with them) was recorded: every word, every move, every gesture, every look… and all that evidence was judged in comparison to some perfect standard impossible to achieve (and most of the time, impossible to explain by the teachers and impossible to understand by the students).

Apart from motherhood (parenthood), issues such as identity, legacy, family expectations (grandparents, relatives…), cultural differences, prejudice, desire, temptation, mental illness, privacy, mono-parental households, single mothers, the difficult (almost impossible at times) balance between profession and personal life/ work and family life, and big questions like who gets to decide what is the best for a child, and how far can laws and society go to regulate certain aspects of our lives… This is a book of big ideas, and I am sure book clubs would find plenty to discuss here, although I suspect some readers will not feel comfortable reading it and might abandon it before the end.

I enjoyed the writing style, even though I am not a fan of the use of present tense (we follow Frida’s story, chronologically, for over a year, and this is narrated in the present, although there are memories and thoughts about the past or a possible future that also make an appearance), but it suited the tempo of the story, which follows the seasons and the school programme, and it progresses at a slow pace. (I am not sure “page-turner” is a good definition, at least not if it makes us think of non-stop action and a quick pace). One of the strong points of the novel is the way it describes the thoughts of the main protagonist, her doubts, her guilt, her second-guessing herself and others, and also the way it explores her feelings, her efforts to control herself, to be seen to be doing the right thing, however hard it might be (and still failing sometimes). Although the story is poignant and very hard, there are some lighter and witty (even bitchy) comments and moments that make us smile. Yes, I’m not ashamed to confess I cheered when Harriet, Frida’s daughter, bit the horrible social worker, and although I don’t think any fragment can do justice to the novel (and if you want to get a better idea of how well the book would fit your reading taste, I recommend checking a sample of it), I thought I’d share a few brief quotes:

Here, Frida is talking about Susanna, her husband’s new girlfriend:

The girl is on a mission to nice her to death. A war of attrition.

 Perhaps, instead of being monitored, a bad mother should be thrown into a ravine.

 Harriet is wearing a gray blouse and brown leggings, like a child of the apocalypse.

 What little she knows about the lives of saints comes back to her now and she thinks, this year, she might become holy.

 “A mother is a shark,” Ms. Russo says. “You’re always moving. Always learning. Always trying to better yourself.” (You’ve probably guessed that’s one of the members of staff at the school).

 The ending… I am not sure I’d say I liked it, but I think it fits the novel perfectly, and I cannot imagine any other ending that would work better. Readers seem very divided by it, and some felt it ruined the novel for them, while others loved it. It is open to interpretation, but I like to imagine that it shows Frida has learned a lot about herself and about being a mother in the school, but not perhaps the kind of lessons they had hoped to teach her.

 In sum, I enjoyed (although it is not the right descriptor, you know what I mean) this novel, and I am sure I’ll be thinking about it for a long time. I don’t think this is the kind of book to recommend to a young mother, or to somebody struggling with motherhood or thinking about it, but anybody interested in the subject of government control, education, parenthood, and keen on dystopic narrations should check it out. And I will be keeping an eye on the author’s career. I’d love to know what she writes next.

Thanks to the author, the publisher, and NetGalley for this book, thanks to all of you for your continued support, and remember to keep on reading, smiling, and safe (as safe as we can all be these days, at least). 

 Check what the publishers did in London to celebrate the publication of the book:

 

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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog FLEURINGALA by M.K.B. Graham A delightful coming-of-age story, magical like the best fairy tales #RBRT

Hi all:

I bring you another review for one of the wonderful finds from Rosie’s Book Review Team.

Fleuringala by M.K.B. Graham

Fleuringala by M. K. B. Graham

From the author of CAIRNAERIE, a new historical fiction, set in 1939…..
Abandoned by her no-count mother in a rundown shack on the outskirts of Lauderville, Virginia, seven-year-old Ruby Glory is alone. Her only friend and sole companion is her faithful dog, Arly. Then along comes Tack, the teenage son of Lauderville’s prominent and well-heeled Pittman family. Despite a sincere desire to help Ruby, Tack learns quickly that no good deed goes unpunished. His involvement with the child of a woman of ill-repute sends his family and the citizens of Lauderville into a frenzy of rumors and gossip, presenting Tack with a dilemma. Will the uproar spell the end for the mismatched friends—or set in motion opportunities that neither Tack nor Ruby could ever have imagined?
 

https://www.amazon.com/Fleuringala-M-K-B-Graham/dp/B092411YHK/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Fleuringala-M-K-B-Graham/dp/B092411YHK/

https://www.amazon.es/Fleuringala-M-K-B-Graham/dp/B092411YHK/

Author M.K.B. Graham

About the author:
M.K.B. Graham writes literary fiction, historical fiction, and feature stories under the label McKeadlit LLC, a freelance company. Partial to the Appalachian Mountains, the author is a lifelong Virginian and part of a family whose roots to the Commonwealth run deep, stretching back to the 1700s. Graham, a graduate of Virginia Tech, has worked as a writer for two Virginia universities and as a former associate editor of Virginia Tech’s signature magazine. The author lives and writes in the beautiful and historic Shenandoah Valley. She is fascinated by old houses, earlier eras, particularly the 1930s and 1940s, and the influence of families on history, much of which informs her writing.

https://www.amazon.com/M.K.B.-Graham/e/B073GKV1B7/

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.

Although M. K. B. Graham had submitted her first novel to Rosie’s team a few years back, I somehow missed it then, but I’m very pleased to have discovered this gem now. What a gorgeous read!

The novel is listed under the categories of ‘historical fiction’ and ‘coming of age fiction’ and they are both appropriate. The story is set in the late 1930s and early 40s, mostly in Virginia, a setting that the author knows well and several generations of her family have grown in. The protagonists (Tack [he is called Albert, like his Dad, but from the beginning, it proved difficult to share the name, and he became known as Tack], and Ruby) live plenty of adventures, many together and some separately, but Lauderville and the rest of the settings they visit play almost as important a part as they do, and the book excels at making readers feel as if they were totally immersed in the experience, walking the streets, smelling the aromas, touching the fabrics, seeing the colours, and talking to the inhabitants of the town, and later, of Suwanalee (North Carolina), Charleston, and Fleuringala (yes, the title comes from a property and its quasi-magical gardens), and although some of those are fictional, it is evident that their creation has been inspired by real small towns and by a period of history that might feel far off, but it not as distant some things haven’t changed as much as we’d like to believe.

This is Tack’s coming of age story, although Rudy does a lot of growing as well (but she is much younger and still a child as we leave her). He graduates from high school, gets his first car, gets his first job (and that causes upset with his father, as he wanted him to carry on with the family business because he is the only boy in a family of girls, and the youngest), and eventually gets to move away from home, live independently, and takes on the responsibility of looking after another human being. I don’t want to summarise the whole novel here and leave readers with no surprises, but the story brought to my mind some of the classics in the genre, like Huckleberry Finn (mentioned in the book as well), To Kill a Mockingbird (although here, poverty, lack of social standing, and behaviours that are not considered ‘socially acceptable or in good taste’ are the cause behind much of the discrimination and suffering that ensues, rather than race, which does not feature in the book), and others like Little Women, a big favourite of mine. Tack is a young man, of course, but his selfless behaviour and the way he cares for others place the focus of the novel in characteristics other than those that tend to be more common in coming of age novels whose central characters are male, which often focus on the quest motif, adventures, and dangers. Yes, Tack experiences plenty of those as well (they come across many obstacles, moments of self-doubt, and terrible trials), but not just out of a thirst for adventure or a desire to become independent and go looking for freedom. Those things also happen but seem to be the unintended consequences of the interest he takes in Ruby and her welfare.

There are elements of the fairy tale as well (Fleuringala and its owner made me think of Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Selfish Giant,’ minus the religious symbolism), and as would be the case in a fairy tale, there are characters that play the part of fairy godmothers (several in fact), out and out villains (Ruby’s mother, Gilda, although one has to wonder at how she might have been like, had her circumstances been different; Tack’s older sister; the car man [a true monster]…), there are magical castles/gardens, animal companions and defenders (Arly is a hero), something close to a miracle transformation, happy coincidences aplenty, and yes a HEA ending as well (with a final surprise, although I had my suspicions about that). Some of the characters seem to be larger than life, as if a caricaturist had emphasised their features for laughter or to bring them to our attention, but they all (or most) have their human side. Don’t think that means this is a book that deals in light and fluffy subjects. Far from it. Even though this is not the typical story about the dark side of small America, where behind the veneer of civilization festers an underbelly of crime and corruption, we can still find child abuse and neglect, a horrific scene where Ruby is in terrible danger (well, two, but quite different in nature), plenty of prejudice, gossip (oh, those Mavens), and a good deal of suffering and disappointment. But, fear not, there are moments of comic relief (Maxine is wonderful if a bit over the top and I quite appreciate her friend Ira as well; Albert had his moments, and I loved Francine’s Beauty Parlor and the goings-on there), plenty of smiles and happy events, beautiful descriptions of places, and a gorgeous rendering of the language of the people, turns of phrases, and local sayings and idioms. And, Ruby. The little girl is a light that shines through the whole story, (almost) always optimistic, willing to think the best of people, and to give everybody a second chance. She is a transformative force, and she changes all she meets for the better.

I’ve mentioned the beautiful language and writing. The story is written in the third person, from an omniscient point of view, which, although I know some readers don’t appreciate, I felt that in this case, it worked well to bring us closer to all the characters and to make us appreciate what moves them and what they are really like. It also foreshadows what is to come, giving us hints and insights, and preparing us in advance for both good and bad news. Most of the story follows chronologically the events from the moment Tack sees Ruby for the first time, although there are some chapters where it provides background information about some of the other characters, allowing readers to get a clearer picture of where they are coming from and helping us get a clearer understanding of their reactions, their behaviours, turning it into something of a collective narrative, and not only the story of the two main characters. We might or might not like some of the people we meet, but we get to understand them a bit better.

I highlighted plenty of sentences and full paragraphs as I read, and I’ll follow my usual policy of recommending possible readers to check a sample of the book if they can, but I’ll share a couple of random examples, to give you a taste:

All Tack knew was that here in Lauderville, a little town tucked in the bumpy toe of Virginia as close to Tennessee as a blanket is to a sheet, the winters were cold, the springs and autumns were nice, and the summers could be pleasant —or hot as Hades. Like today.

Here, talking about the Maven’s behaviour at Francine’s Beauty Parlor:

They shamelessly, deliberately, and corporately encouraged Gilda the way a child is prodded to repeat a dirty word. That she could run her mouth faster and louder than an un-muffled Chevy only added to her appeal. And with her ability to spin an innuendo faster than a frog can snatch a fly, she entertained the Mavens who would not miss it for anything short of the funeral of a close relative—although not one among them would admit it. Everybody around her sat and listened, assured that their own stations in life were considerably loftier than Gilda’s.

I have mentioned the ending, and yes, I’m sure it won’t disappoint readers. I felt sad for losing sight of the characters, but the ending is pretty perfect, in the way the best fairy tales and happy novels can be, especially when the characters have gone through so much. It’s easy to imagine what their lives will be like from then on, and the outlook is excellent.

This is a wonderful novel, and I enjoyed it enormously. It is not realistic and gritty in the standard sense, but if I had to include any warnings, as I’d mentioned before there is a scene that is fairly explicit and terrifying, and another one that will cause heartache to most readers who love pets; and child abuse and neglect are important themes in the story. Of course, if one thinks of classic fairy tales, they are not mild or non-violent, can be terrifying, and often feature abuse, neglect, abandonment, cruel behaviours, and worse. I wouldn’t recommend this novel to people looking for a hard and totally realistic account of life in 1930s small-town America, but readers looking for a magical story, with wonderful characters, a strong sense of place, the nostalgic feel of an era long gone, and beautiful writing peppered with local expressions and idioms, will love this novel. I can’t wait to see what the author with delight us with, next.

Thanks to Rosie and the members of the team for their support, thanks to the author for this wonderful book, thanks to all of you for reading, sharing, commenting, liking, and remember to keep safe, keep smiling, and try and be as happy as you can!

 

 

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Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview CAPTAIN JOHN SMITH, ADVENTURER: PIRACY, POCAHONTAS AND JAMESTOWN by R E Pritchard (@penswordbooks) A no-frills account of a fascinating man and his historical period

Hi all:

I hope you’re keeping well in these difficult times. I bring you a non-fiction book full of adventures, in case you are looking for something a bit different.

Captain John Smith, Adventurer: Piracy, Pocahontas and Jamestown by R E Pritchard

Captain John Smith, Adventurer: Piracy, Pocahontas and Jamestown by R E Pritchard

Captain John Smith is best remembered for his association with Pocahontas, but this was only a small part of an extraordinary life filled with danger and adventure. As a soldier, he fought the Turks in Eastern Europe, where he beheaded three Turkish adversaries in duels. He was sold into slavery, then murdered his master to escape. He sailed under a pirate flag, was shipwrecked and marched to the gallows to be hanged, only to be reprieved at the eleventh hour. All this before he was thirty years old. He was one of the founders of the English settlement at Jamestown, where he faced considerable danger from the natives as well as from within the faction-ridden settlement itself. In fact, were it not for Smith’s leadership, the Jamestown colony would surely have failed. Yet Smith was a far more ambitious explorer and soldier of fortune than these tales suggest. This swashbuckling Elizabethan adventurer was resourceful, intelligent and outspoken, with a vision of what America could become. In this riveting book, R.E. Pritchard tells the rip-roaring story of a remarkable man who refused to give in.

https://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/Captain-John-Smith-Adventurer-Hardback/p/17659

https://www.amazon.com/Captain-John-Smith-Adventurer-Pocahontas/dp/1526773627/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Captain-John-Smith-Adventurer-Pocahontas/dp/1526773627/

https://www.amazon.es/Captain-John-Smith-Adventurer-Pocahontas/dp/1526773627/

About the author:

Born in India, R.E. Pritchard read English at Balliol College, Oxford, before becoming a lecturer at Keele University. He has published widely on a range of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century subjects, from Shakespeare’s England to the court of Charles II. He lives in West Oxfordshire.

My review:

Thanks to Rosie Croft from Pen & Sword for sending me an early hardback copy of this book, which I freely chose to review. Having studied American Literature and read early historical texts, I was familiar with some selections of Smith’s writings (from A True Relation and The General History of Virginia), and we had discussed the different versions of his adventures and the mythology surrounding him in class, but I had never read anything else about him, so I took the chance when I saw this book, and it was worth it.

The book combines Smith’s own writing (his autobiographical accounts as well as his less personal ones) with research and use of relevant sources (at the end of the book there is a section of references for each chapter and further reading for those interested in a more detailed account, and also an index) to create a clear picture of the life of this amazing character. Although he might not fit into the romanticized and fictionalised figure we’re used to seeing in stories and movies, he was a fascinating man who went farther and had a clearer vision of the future than most of his contemporaries.

Pritchard does not allow himself any flights of fancy and sticks to documents and accounts of the period (Smith’s and others’) and to other author’s research to offer a chronological account of Smith’s life, with particular attention (and more space) dedicated to his American adventures. The style of those accounts is very factual, and it’s difficult not to imagine what somebody keen on embellishing and dramatizing the narrative could have done with the many assaults, attacks, kidnappings, dangerous situations, scary encounters, hopes and dreams, discoveries, betrayals, deaths, and disappointments. This makes for a less vibrant and exciting reading experience, but it also gives a more accurate idea of what the real man must have been like. This was not an individual keen on discussing personal matters, and he was not looking to offer readers a sensational narrative, but rather one that could convince others of the wealth and possibilities of the New World, and of the need to dedicate resources and investment to its exploration (and exploitation). He wanted his role to be recognised and his name to be remembered, for sure, but considering how his efforts were rewarded, it is far from surprising, and it seems that he deserved more credit than he ever got at the time.

The author allows the original texts (although he acknowledges some minor modernisation of the language to ensure its readability) to tell their story, rather than engaging in excessive comment, although he does provide necessary context and clarifications when required, in particular reminding us of the economic drive behind the expedition to America, which goes some way to explain some of the bizarre decisions taken by the powers that be back in England. (Let’s say common sense did not appear to be that common between those organising the expeditions and the practical side of things and any long-term goals seemed to be forgotten in favour of anything that could provide quick benefits).

If you are wondering about Pocahontas… She is mentioned quite a few times and despite the discrepancies in the accounts of her possible intervention on behalf of Smith (it seems that there are similar stories recorded by other adventurers who’d been similarly rescued by a young native girl, and it is suggested that perhaps it was some sort of ritual/performance some of the tribes used to greet/scare foreign guests), she is more than deserving of the attention she’s been given over the years.

The book also includes images from the original publications of Smith’s works, maps, illustrations, and portraits that help create a clearer picture of the period and the place in our minds.

I am not an expert on Smith or on early American History, but that is not necessary to enjoy this book. It is a good book for people interested in learning more about Smith and the early history of Jamestown, for amateur historians, and for those keen on researching the period (like writers of historical fiction) and obtaining good background information without having to read all the original accounts. I gained a good insight into the early years of Jamestown, and I think I got to know Smith much better than before. A no-frills account of a fascinating man and his historical period. Highly recommended.

Thanks to the author and the publisher for the book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, keep safe and take lots of care. 

Categories
Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett (@britrbennett) (@LittleBrownUK) Great story, memorable characters, and a subject that will make readers think #Bookreview

Hi all:

Today I bring you the review of a book that has been causing a bit of a stir.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half is an utterly mesmerising novel. It seduces with its literary flair, surprises with its breath-taking plot twists, delights with its psychological insights, and challenges us to consider the corrupting consequences of racism on different communities and individual lives. I absolutely loved this book’ Bernardine Evaristo, winner of the Booker Prize 2019

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ story lines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passingLooking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

Praise for Brit Bennett:

‘A writer to watch’ Washington Post

‘Bennett allows her characters to follow their worst impulses, and she handles provocative issues with intelligence, empathy and dark humour’ New York Times

‘A beautifully written, sad and lingering book’ Guardian on The Mothers

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B082KH5D4M/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B082KH5D4M/

https://www.amazon.es/dp/B082KH5D4M/

Author Brit Bennett

About the author:

Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. She is a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree, and her essays are featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.

https://www.amazon.com/Brit-Bennett/e/B00PZ44052/

My review:

I thank Little Brown Book, UK for providing me an ARC copy of this novel in the first place, although later I also purchased my own copy which I review here.

This is the first novel by Brit Bennett I read, although I’m aware that her first novel, The Mothers, was very well-received, and this one has been highly praised and regarded as well. And, in my opinion, it deserves it.

The description of the book provides a fairly accurate summary of the main points of the plot, and I won’t try to be too inclusive when I mention the many topics the author touches on: race is paramount (is race only skin-deep?, different types of racism, the changing attitudes over the years, the burden of internalising other people’s values and what that does to the characters’ sense of self…), identity (while one of the characters lives a lie, a trans man abandons his birth biological gender to truly become himself), domestic violence, family, LGTB, rural versus city life, the importance of education, mothers and daughters, Alzheimer’s disease, love… It is a family saga, a story of two twin sisters and their daughters and how their lives split up at some point, sending them into completely different directions.

I’ve mentioned the issue of race, and that is the main focus of the book. The little place, somewhere in Louisiana, where the sisters are born is peculiar already when it comes to race. Although all the inhabitants are African-American, they are all so light that an outsider would not be able to tell they are not white. They are proud of it and consider anybody who is a shade darker than they are their inferior.  But, of course, the local white people know, and that has terrible consequences for the girls, who lose their father due to a lynching (for an imagined crime the man had not committed). It’s not surprising that they leave the place as soon as they can, but once in New Orleans things are quite difficult, and one of the sisters, Stella, ends up passing for white to get a job. That changes everything, and the sisters’ lives end up going in totally different directions. Although from the reviews I read I realised that many readers might be unfamiliar with the concept of ‘passing’, it has appeared in novels and even movies over the years. I recommend Nella Larssen, a female author from the Harlem Renaissance, whose novels Passing and Quicksand are fascinating and deserve to be better known, but both movie versions of Imitation of Life, although in a far more melodramatic fashion, deal with the topic as well, and in the musical Showboat we have similar concerns (and talk of miscegenation and the ‘one drop of blood’ dictum), and concepts that might appear bizarre now (like quadroon, octoroon, [Alexandre Dumas Jr was an octoroon if we apply that classification, and Alexandre Dumas father a quadroon], or high yellow) but made a big difference in the past, when it came to the treatment somebody received. Some of the readers don’t feel the book goes into these issues deeply enough, but this is a novel, and realistically, it would be impossible to discuss all the aspects of it and create a fictional story readers cared for as well.

The main characters of the novel are the two sisters, Stella and Desiree, and their two daughters, Kennedy and Jude. While the two sisters are identical twins, Kennedy and Jude could not look and be more different —Kennedy is blonde, has blue eyes, has lived a life of privilege, and has always been self-centred. Jude is dark-skinned, suffered prejudice and abuse as a child and grew up without a father, is hard-working and determined, and has always cared for her family and for others— but their lives still converge and collide at times, bringing some momentous changes to their lives. There are many more characters in the story, some more important than others (Early plays an essential role in Desiree’s life, and Reese complements Jude), and there are many people they come across: friends (I particularly liked Barry, who becomes a drag queen on the weekends and is a great agony aunt), neighbours, work colleagues… The first two parts of the novel centre mostly on Desiree and her daughter, while we only get to know more about Stella and Kennedy later in the book. While the central characters are well-drawn, that is not the case for some of the others, and they are not all sympathetic, not even the protagonists, but I felt the author manages to make their actions and their emotions understandable, even if we don’t like them that much. I wasn’t totally sure about the way Reese’s experiences are dealt with in the book. We hear about his difficulties and his process as a trans man, but this at times feels like an afterthought, and some readers have questioned how his story might appear to be linked to the concept of ‘passing’, although I don’t think that was the author’s intention (he sheds his previous identity and is happy to leave it behind, with no regrets, no matter how hard the practicalities are, while Stella struggles and feels she is living a lie).

The story is narrated in the third person, mostly from the point of view of the four female protagonists, although we are also given a brief insight into some of the other characters that come into the sisters’ lives, and we hear a bit more about Early and Reese’s thoughts and experiences. The way the story is told might be problematic for many readers, as the point of view often changes within a chapter, and although the changes are not excessively difficult to follow, keeping the story straight does require a degree of attention, especially because the chronology is not linear either. We go forwards and backwards in time, from the 1950s to the 1990s, although the story moves forward overall.

The writing is lyrical and precious at times, harsh at others, and the rhythm flows and ebbs, being quite contemplative in parts (as it befits a book about memory and identity). This is not a page-turner, but I felt the pace suited the novel perfectly. I had to share a few highlights with you, although I recommend that people interested in the book check a sample to make first, to ensure it works for them.

In New Orleans, Stella split in two. She didn’t notice it at first because she’d been two people her whole life: she was herself and she was Desiree. The twins, beautiful and rare, were never called the girls, only the twins, as if it were a formal title. She’d always thought of herself as part of this pair, but in New Orleans, she splintered into a new woman altogether after she got fired from Dixie Laundry.

The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.

Sometimes you could understand why Stella passed over. Who didn’t dream of leaving herself behind and starting over as someone new? But how could she kill the people who’d loved her? How could she leave the people who still longed for her, years later, and never even look back?

The ending is perhaps a bit rushed, considering the length and depth of the novel, but it suits it and I enjoyed it. If you want to know if it’s a happy ending… Well, this is not that kind of book, but I’ll say it isn’t unhappy.

I recommend this book to people who enjoy literary fiction and novels that deal with complex and diverse topics, with a focus on female protagonists and their lives, who don’t mind a somewhat demanding and challenging writing style, and who are eager to discover talented female writers. Great story, memorable characters, and a subject that will make readers think. What else could anybody want?

Thanks to the publisher and the author for the book, thanks to all of you for reading, and if you’ve enjoyed it, remember to like, share, comment, click, and keep reading, and reviewing. And, always, keep smiling and stay safe!

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog COLLATERAL CARNAGE: MONEY. POLITICS. BIG PHARMA. WHAT COULD GO WRONG? by Chris Saper Recommended to fans of conspiracy theory novels and spy thrillers #RBRT

Hi all:

I bring you and intriguing a scary book, although it is not a horror novel. Another one from Rosie’s fabulous Book Review Team.

 

 

 

Collateral Carnage by Chris Saper
Collateral Carnage by Chris Saper 

Collateral Carnage: Money. Politics. Big Pharma. What could go wrong? by Chris Saper

Money. Politics. Big Pharma. What could go wrong? As PTSD therapist Claire Wilheit is about to learn, a whole helluva lot. A chance after-hours encounter with a fellow therapist reveals falsified patient files and thrusts Claire into a conspiracy poised to revolutionize treatment for US veterans now and for future generations, with deadly collateral damage. Trapped in an avalanche of events over which she has no control, Claire is locked into a race against time in preventing the sweeping, irreversible and fatally flawed policies that Congress is about to set into play. Collateral Carnage is Chris Saper’s debut novel, a gripping thriller set in a future near enough to be all too terrifying.

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Collateral-Carnage-Money-Politics-Pharma-ebook/dp/B07TSL17GT/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Collateral-Carnage-Money-Politics-Pharma-ebook/dp/B07TSL17GT/

https://www.amazon.es/Collateral-Carnage-Money-Politics-Pharma-ebook/dp/B07TSL17GT/

Author Chris Saper
Author Chris Saper

About the author:

I’m lucky enough to have had three pretty diverse careers spanning forty years. But solving puzzles has been at the heart of each one.​

As a masters prepared health care administrator, I worked as a strategic planner, hospital administrator and implemented the pre-hospital/categorization program in Central Arizona.​

A bachelor’s degree in fine arts, put on the back burner for seventeen years, served me well as second career as a commissioned portrait artist. After all, what’s a blank canvas except another big puzzle to solve? To date, I’ve completed nearly 400 commissions nationwide, and authored four books and four DVDs teaching other artists about my craft – and helping them develop their own.​

As a voracious fiction reader, a relentless grammar nut, and Scrabble junkie, I love communicating clearly and with the best style I can.

And here we are! My first novel, set in the near future, about corruption and conspiracy within the government’s delivery of mental health service to PTSD patients in the VA system.​

Sound far-fetched to you? Not to me. I care about this stuff, deeply, and this is one way for me to elevate not only my own concerns, but those of so many of my fellow citizens.

https://www.amazon.com/Chris-Saper-Author/e/B07V49T25C

My review:

I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, check here if you want to get your book reviewed), and thank her and the author for the ARC copy of the book, which I freely chose to review.

Having worked in the health services (although in the UK) for a number of years, and having treated some patients suffering from PTSD (although I’m no specialist), I was intrigued by this debut novel. I was even more interested when I read the author’s biography and learned of her first-hand experience as a healthcare administrator, as that promised to bring an insider’s perspective into the topic and add complexity to the plot.

This novel is perfect for readers who love conspiracy theory plots and also spy novels. I must confess that I am not much of a reader of spy novels, because I tend to get lost in the huge number of names, where characters often swap identities, and sometimes find it difficult to tell the different players apart. There is some of that here, because we are thrown at the deep end from the beginning. There’s no gentle easing into the subject or much background information provided before we get into the nitty gritty of the story, and the fact that we don’t know what’s happening parallels the experience of the main character, Claire Wilheit.

The story is narrated in the third person, but from a variety of points of view (I’d say almost as many as characters, or at least as many as characters that have some bearing into the outcome of the novel), and although some characters appear often and we become somewhat familiar with them, there are others that only make a fleeting appearance. The point of view, although clearly signalled, can change even within a chapter, and not all readers feel comfortable with so many changes. Chapters are short, the story moves at a quick pace, and although the language is straightforward, and there are no unnecessarily long descriptions, readers need to remain alert and attentive. This is not an easy and relaxed read; the plot has many strands that might appear quite entangled and confusing at first, but if one keeps reading, the story becomes clearer and the subject is both compelling and gripping.

Personally, I felt that this is a story heavier on plot than on characters. There are quite a number of characters I liked (mostly on the “good” side, although I felt some sympathy for the motives of some of the characters on the “bad” side as well), especially Claire, who is determined, intelligent, resourceful, and has managed to overcome pretty difficult circumstances, but because there are so many characters, and they all take their turn, it is difficult to get to know most of them in depth. I think that was in part the reason why, at times, I felt like an observer of the plot and the story, rather than being fully involved and sharing in the experiences of the characters. The end of the novel hinted at the possibility of further adventures involving Claire and some of the other characters (I’m trying to avoid spoilers here), so readers might learn much more about them.

I “enjoyed” (well, it worried me, but you know what I mean), the insight into the pharmaceutical industry, the way the novel spells out the relationship between Big Pharma and politics, and the reflections on how the healthcare system works (or rather, might end up working) in the USA. One of the aspects of the novel that I found captivating was the dystopian edge of the story. I haven’t seen it listed as a dystopia, but it is set in the very near future, with a social order very similar to the current one, but with subtle differences, or perhaps one could call them “developments” that, unfortunately, fit in well with recent events and with the way things are progressing. In the book, the efforts to control costs have resulted in the privatization of ever more services —the police force in Phoenix, for instance, deals with certain kinds of crimes, but at night there is a Militia in charge, and there is a curfew in place—, including the healthcare of the veterans of the many wars that the American military has participated in, and there are large interests involved in all these services. And, of course, those can be manipulated by less than scrupulous people. The most worrying part of the story is that it feels very realistic. It does not take a big stretch of the imagination to see something like this happening, and perhaps with an end far less satisfying than that of the novel (which I liked).

In summary, this is a novel for lovers of conspiracy theories and/or fairly realistic spy thrillers, that like puzzles and complex plots and don’t shy away from hard topics. The author injects her knowledge into the story without overwhelming it and the research is well integrated into the plot. There is no graphic violence and no romance here but a dire warning of how things could end up if money continues to be the governments’ (not only that of the USA) only consideration when dealing with people’s wellbeing. The characters are not as important as the story, but I think there is room for their development in future instalments. As a note to the author, I wonder if a list of characters might help people not to get lost, especially at the beginning of the book. I know that because of the nature of the plot, it might be difficult to do that without spoiling some of the surprises, although there might be ways around it. I will keep a close watch on the author’s writing career.

Thanks to Rosie and to her team for the ongoing support, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, and review, if you’re so inclined, but always keep smiling!

 

Categories
Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog SEVEN LETTERS by J. P. Monninger (@StMartinsPress). A lyrical and romantic story set in a magical Ireland #sevenletters #bookblogtour

Hi all:

I’m very pleased to join in the book blog tour for an author I’d never read before, but I can tell you he writes beautifully!

Seven Letters by J.P. Monninger
Seven Letters by J.P. Monninger

The first letter brings her to Ireland. The next six are a test of true love…

 

SEVEN LETTERS A Novel By J.P. Monninger

From the author of The Map That Leads to You comes another sweeping, romantic novel about love, family, and what it means to build a home together, SEVEN LETTERS. 

The Blasket Islands are the heart of Ireland – once populated with some of the most famous Irish writers, they are now abandoned, filled with nothing but wind and silence. Kate Moreton, a PhD student at Dartmouth, is in Ireland to research the history of the Blaskets, not to fall in love. She has a degree to finish and a life back in New Hampshire that she is reluctant to leave.

But fall in love she does, with both the wild, windswept landscape and with Ozzie, an Irish-American fisherman with a troubled past who shares her deep, aching love for the land. Together, they begin to build a life on the rocky Irish coast. But when tragedy strikes, leading Kate on a desperate search through Europe, the limits of their love and faith in each other will be tested.

 

I noticed that the description on Amazon.com is quite different, and in fact, I think it tells too much of the story, but I thought I’d warn you, as you might find a different summary depending on where you access it.

Praise for J.P. Monninger and SEVEN LETTERS

“Monninger enchants with this lyrically written romantic love letter to Ireland and its people. Readers who appreciate love stories set against dramatic backdrops will find much to love.”

Publishers Weekly 

“A sweeping love story with intriguing characters and a well-described ending.”

—–Booklist

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Seven-Letters-J-P-Monninger-ebook/dp/B07PBMH6ND/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Seven-Letters-J-P-Monninger-ebook/dp/B07PBMH6ND/

https://www.amazon.es/Seven-Letters-J-P-Monninger-ebook/dp/B07PBMH6ND/

 

About the Author

J.P. MONNINGER, author of The Map That Leads to You, is an award-winning writer in New England and Professor of English at Plymouth State University.

 

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Griffin for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review. Because I read an early copy of the story, some of the details mentioned might not fully correspond to the final published version of the book.

I had never read any of the author’s work before, but the description of the setting, the protagonist and her reasons for visiting Ireland drew me in. I had read about the Blasket Islands in a previous book and become fascinated by what I came across, and, personally, I would love to have the opportunity to be a scholar researching the topic, in Ireland. The novel offered me the chance to vicariously live that experience through the main character, and I did enjoy it enormously. The beautiful writing, interspersed with Irish sayings, stories, and references to books were pure delight.

I am not a big reader of romance, and perhaps for that reason, the aspects of the novel that I most enjoyed were not the truly romantic ones, that I found a bit over the top. Kate, the protagonist, has a strong Irish (and Blasket Islands) connection, and she seems more than ready to fall in love —and under the spell— of Ireland, and the islands in particular. I did love the setting of the story, the description of her life at the university, her research, the people she meets there, and I would have loved to know more about some of the secondary characters (the Bicycle  Society members, for example, Gran, Seamus, Daijeet, Dr Kaufman, and even Milly although we learn more about her later). Also, and I suspect I might be in the minority here, I would have loved to have had more details of Kate’s research, for example, samples of the stories she reads and of the book she writes (she is studying women’s accounts of the life in the Blasket Islands before they were abandoned and the few inhabitants left there had to move out), although I know there are accounts published and available, but her work process, and her description of how she felt as she engaged in it resonated with me (yes, I have a PhD and re-experiencing that period was a huge bonus for me).

Of course, Kate’s experience in Ireland would not be complete without a romance, and we meet the man in question very early on, and no, readers don’t need to be avid romance consumers to spot him and know where things are headed. As I said, not being a habitual romance reader, I wasn’t too convinced by that side of things. I never felt we got to know Ozzie well, but that is reasonable in the context of the story, as Kate seems to falls in love/lust with an idea or an image in her head, more than with the real man, and neither one of them give each other much chance to know what they are getting into and who with. Because we see the story from Kate’s perspective, we are expected to see him through rose-tinted glasses, at least initially, although things (and him) don’t fit neatly into the romanticized image she has in her head. (Oh, there are sex scenes as well, but they are not explicit and are overly romantic and totally unrealistic, but hey, as I don’t like sex scenes, I was pleased they were not many and didn’t mind they were unrealistic). Theirs is the perfect embodiment of a whirlwind romance. As we all know, the course of true love never did run smooth, and there are separations, trials, and many obstacles in the way, some that go well beyond what most people would expect from a typical novel in this genre, and deal in some very serious issues (like the Mediterranean refugee crisis), so although this is a romantic novel, it is not a light and cheery read (although yes, there is the mandatory happy ending that I won’t spoil for you).

The structure and the way the story is told is quite original, as it revolves around letters, the seven letters of the title, some formal and official, some personal, and they help create the backbone of the novel, written in the first person, from Kate’s perspective. In fact, although the novel is classed as a romance (and I’ve mentioned some of the more conventional romantic aspects of the story), for me it seemed to fit better into the Bildungsroman or coming-of-age story (although the character is perhaps a bit older than most of these kinds of characters tend to be), and it is written as if it were a memoir, where the letters serve as anchors, points around which the protagonist organizes her memories of the events, because although the story is told chronologically, it is not linear and there are jumps in time, during which life has gone on and settled, but the narration is only retrieved when something of some significance to Kate’s journey and to her relationship with Ozzie takes place. (There are scenes that showed potential, for example, an archeological trip Kate gets involved in, but it ends up becoming only a setting for an encounter with Ozzie, and we are given no details as to what else might have happened during the trip). Although she is not the typical innocent-abroad of many XIX and early XX century novels, she does not know herself, her trip abroad changes things and she goes back to the USA a changed woman, although there are many more things that she must learn, not only about herself but also about others, before the end of the book. Her process of discovery felt realistic, and I empathized with her struggle between her idea of what her life should be like, what her heart wants, and her attempts to reconcile the two, if possible.  Oh, there is also a prologue including a lovely Irish story about a man falling in love with a fairy woman, although, to me, in this case Kate plays the part of the man —who cannot settle in the magical land and misses home— and Ozzie that of the fairy woman.

I agree with comments that say perhaps the story would have gained in depth and become more realistic if some part of it had been told from Ozzie’s point of view, but, considering Ozzie’s backstory, that would have been a completely different book, and one that would have taken the focus away from the romantic angle.

In sum, this is a story I enjoyed, and I don’t hesitate in recommending it to romance readers, in particular to lovers of Ireland and anything Irish. There are many elements that make the story worthy of reading even for those who are not big on romance, especially the setting, the beautiful language, and the protagonist, who although flawed and contradictory, loves books, scholarship, her friends, Ireland and has a wonderful zest for life. The descriptions, not only of Ireland, but also of New Hampshire, Italy, and other settings, take readers on a lyrical journey, and I was sorry it came to an end. Oh, and there’s a wonderful dog too.

As you know, I usually recommend readers to check a sample of the book to see if the style of writing is a good fit, but in this case, the publishers have been kind enough to send me the beginning of the book, that I share with you:

PROLOGUE

The Irish tell a story of a man who fell in love with a fairy woman and went with her to live on an island lost to time and trouble.
They lived in a thatched cottage overlooking the sea with nothing but donkeys and gulls and white chickens to keep them company. They lived in the dream of all lovers, apart from the world, entire to themselves, their bed an island to be rediscovered each night. In all seasons, they slept near a large round window and the ocean wind found them and played gently with their hair and carried the scent of open water to their nostrils. Each night he tucked himself around her and she, in turn, moved closer into his arms, and the seals sang and their songs fell to the bottom of the sea where the shells held their voices and relinquished them only in violent storms.
One day the man went away, mortal as he was; he could not resist his longing to see the loved ones he had left behind. She warned him that he would grow old the moment his foot touched the soil of the Irish mainland, so he begged her for one of the donkeys to ride back to his home for a single glance at what he had left behind. Though she knew the risk, she loved him too much to deny his wish, and so he left on a quiet night, his promise to come back to her cutting her ears with salt and bitterness. She watched him depart on a land bridge that arced to the mainland and then turned back to her cottage, knowing his fate, knowing that love must always have its own island. She raised up the fog from the ocean and she extinguished all light from the island and the chickens went mute and the donkeys brayed into the chimney smoke and the gulls called out her anguish.
After many days of travel, and through no fault of his own, he touched ground and became an old man in one breath. Even as age claimed him upon the instant of his foot striking the soil, he called to her to save him, but she could not help him any longer. In the seasons afterward, on certain full moon nights, she permitted the island to rise from the mist and to appear to him, or to any broken-hearted lover, the boil of the sea stilled for an unbearable glimpse of what had been lost so thoughtlessly. To his great age he lived for the moments when he might hear her voice rising above the sea, the call of their bed and their nights and their love, the call of his heart, the call of the gulls that held all the pain of the world. He answered on each occasion that he was here, waiting, his heart true and never wavering, his days filled with regret for breaking their spell and leaving the island. He asked her to forgive him the restlessness, which is the curse of men and the blood they cannot still, but whether she did or not, he could not say.

1

I had misgivings: it was a tourist bus. As much as I didn’t want to admit it, I had booked passage on a tourist bus. It wasn’t even a
good kind of tourist bus, if there is such a thing. It was a massive, absurd mountain of a machine, blue and white, with a front grill the size of a baseball backstop. When the tour director—a competent, harried woman named Rosie—pointed me toward it with the corner of her clipboard, I tried to imagine there was some mistake. The idea that the place I had studied for years, the Blas- ket Islands off Ireland’s southwest coast, could be approached by such a vehicle, seemed sacrilegious. The fierce Irish women in my dissertation would not have known what to say about a bus with televisions, tinted windows, air-conditioning, bathrooms, and a soundtrack playing a loop of sentimental Irish music featuring “Galway Bay” and “Danny Boy.” Especially “Danny Boy.” It was like driving through the Louvre on a motor scooter. It didn’t even seem possible that the bus could fit the small, twisty roads of Dingle.
I took a deep breath and climbed aboard. My backpack whacked against the door.
Immediately I experienced that bus moment. Anyone who has ever taken a bus has experienced it. You step up and look around and you are searching for seats, but most of them are taken, and the bus is somewhat dimmer than the outside light, and the seatbacks cover almost everything except the eyes and foreheads of the seated passengers. Most of them try to avoid your eyes because they don’t want you sitting next to them, but they are aware, also, that there are only so many seats, so if they are going to surrender the place next to them they would prefer it be to someone who looks at least marginally sane. Meanwhile, I tried to see over the seatbacks to vacant places, also assessing who might be a decent, more or less silent traveling companion, while also determining who seemed too eager to have me beside her or him. I wanted to avoid that person at all costs.
That bus moment.
I also felt exhausted. I was exhausted from the Boston–Limerick flight, tired in the way only airports and plane air can make you feel. Like old, stale bread. Like bread left out to dry itself into turkey stuffing.
I felt, too, a little like crying.
Not now, I told myself. Then I started forward.
The passengers were old. My best friend, Milly, would have said that it wasn’t a polite thing to say or think, but I couldn’t help it. With only their heads extending above the seatbacks, they looked like a field of dandelion puffs. They smiled and made small talk with one another, clearly happy to be on vacation, and often they looked up and nodded to me. I could have been their granddaughter and that was okay with them. They liked “Danny Boy.” They liked coming to Ireland; many of them had relatives here, I was certain. This was a homecoming of sorts, and I couldn’t be crabby about that, so I braced myself going down the aisle, my eyes doing the bus scan, which meant looking without staring, hoping without wishing.
Halfway down the bus, I came to an empty seat. Two empty seats. It didn’t seem possible. I stopped and tried not to swing around and hit anyone with my backpack. Rosie hadn’t boarded the bus; I could see the driver standing outside, a cup of coffee in one hand, a cigarette in the other. Two empty seats? It felt like a trap. It felt too good to be true.
“Back here, dear,” an older man called to me. “There’s a spot here. That seat is reserved. I don’t think you can sit there. At least no one has.”
I considered trying my luck, plunking down and waiting for whatever might happen. Then again, that could land me in an even more horrible situation. The older gentleman who called to me looked sane and reasonably groomed. I could do worse. I smiled and hoisted my backpack and clunked down the aisle, hammering both sides until people raised their hands to fend me away.
“Here, I’ll just store this above us,” said the old man who had offered me a seat. He had the bin open above our spot. He shoved a mushroom-colored raincoat inside it. He smiled at me. He had a moustache as wide as a Band-Aid across his top lip.
I inched my way down the aisle until I stood beside him. “Gerry,” he said, holding out his hand. “What luck for me.
I get to sit next to a beautiful, red-haired colleen. What’s your name?”
“Kate,” I said.
“That’s a good Irish name. Are you Irish?” “American, but yes. Irish ancestry.”
“So am I. I believe everyone on the bus has some connection to the old sod. I’d put money on it.”
He won a point for the first mention of the old sod that I had heard since landing in Ireland four hours before.
He helped me swing my bag up into the bin. Then I remembered I needed my books and I had to swing the backpack down again. As I dug through the bag, Gerry beside me, I felt the miles of traveling clinging to me. How strange to wake up in Boston and end up on a bus going to Dingle, the most beautiful peninsula in the world.

Thanks to NetGalley, St. Martin’s Griffin and the author for this opportunity, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review and always keep smiling!

Categories
Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead by Colson Whitehead (@LittleBrownUK). Inspiring, tough, appalling. A must read.

Hi all:

I bring you today the review of a book by an author who’s become well-known but I hadn’t managed to catch up with yet. I’m happy I have now. Extraordinary.

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead by Colson Whitehead

Author of The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead, brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in 1960s Florida.

Praise for Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad: 
‘My book of the year by some distance . . . luminous, furious, wildly inventive’ Observer
‘An engrossing and harrowing novel’ Sunday Times
‘Tells one of the most compelling stories I have ever read’ Guardian
Whitehead is a superb storyteller . . . [he] brilliantly intertwines his allegory with history . . . writing at the peak of his game’ Telegraph


Elwood Curtis has taken the words of Dr Martin Luther King to heart: he is as good as anyone. Abandoned by his parents, brought up by his loving, strict and clearsighted grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But given the time and the place, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy his future, and so Elwood arrives at The Nickel Academy, which claims to provide ‘physical, intellectual and moral training’ which will equip its inmates to become ‘honorable and honest men’.

In reality, the Nickel Academy is a chamber of horrors, where physical, emotional and sexual abuse is rife, where corrupt officials and tradesmen do a brisk trade in supplies intended for the school, and where any boy who resists is likely to disappear ‘out back’. Stunned to find himself in this vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold on to Dr King’s ringing assertion, ‘Throw us in jail, and we will still love you.’ But Elwood’s fellow inmate and new friend Turner thinks Elwood is naive and worse; the world is crooked, and the only way to survive is to emulate the cruelty and cynicism of their oppressors.

The tension between Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision which will have decades-long repercussions.

Based on the history of a real reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped and destroyed the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative by a great American novelist whose work is essential to understanding the current reality of the United States.

 

https://www.amazon.com/Nickel-Boys-Pulitzer-Prize-winning-Underground-ebook/dp/B07K23HGTW/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Nickel-Boys-Pulitzer-Prize-winning-Underground-ebook/dp/B07K23HGTW/

https://www.amazon.es/Nickel-Boys-Pulitzer-Prize-winning-Underground-ebook/dp/B07K23HGTW/

Editorial Reviews

An Amazon Best Book of July 2019: Based on a real school for boys that closed in Florida in 2011 after more than one hundred years in existence, Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Academy is the kind of institution that purports to rebrand bad boys into good young men. So in theory it should be a good place for Elwood, a young black man who, although he had planned to attend a nearby college, was caught unknowingly riding in a stolen car. But what happens inside Nickel Academy does not match its public image, and Elwood is about to learn that, no matter how idealistic or optimistic he is, his life is taking a very bad turn. He is lucky to meet Turner, who does not share Elwood’s idealism and who helps him to survive Nickel Academy. But what Elwood experiences there will never leave him. Set in the 1960s during Jim Crow, The Nickel Boys is both an enjoyable read and a powerful portrayal of racism and inequality that acts as a lever to pry against our own willingness to ignore it. —Chris Schluep, Amazon Book Review

Review

“Haunting and haunted…devastating…The book feels like a mission, and it’s an essential one…he pulls off a brilliant sleight of hand that elevates the mere act of resurrecting Elwood’s buried story into at once a miracle and a tragedy.”—Frank Rich, The New York Times Book Review (cover)

“Stellar…heartbreaking…a beautiful, unforgettable young hero who walks right off the page and into your heart…If you have been thinking you should read Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys is the perfect place to start.”– Newsday
 
“America’s Storyteller. A book that will further cement his place in the pantheon of influential American writers.”  — Time Magazine

The Nickel Boys is a chilling, masterful novel that explores the depths of evil and the resilience of the human spirit. Whitehead’s prose is dazzling, and the narrative’s nimble twist is a swift kick to the solar plexus.”—The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
 
“Propulsive and gorgeous and completely devastating.”—LitHub.com

“THE NICKEL BOYS is in conversation with works by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and especially Martin Luther King…. It shreds our easy confidence in the triumph of goodness and leaves in its place a hard and bitter truth about the ongoing American experiment.”  — Ron Charles, The Washington Post

“A tense, nervy performance, even more rigorously controlled than its predecessor.  The narration is disciplined and the sentences plain and sturdy, oars cutting into the water.  Every chapter hits its marks.”— Parul Seghal, The New York Times

Author Colson Whitehead

About the author:

Colson Whitehead is the author of the novels Zone One; Sag Harbor; The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award; John Henry Days, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN Oakland Award. He has also written a book of essays about his home town, The Colossus of New York, and a non-fiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker called The Noble Hustle. A recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship, he lives in New York City.

His latest, the #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad, is just out in paperback. It received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal, the Heartland Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Hurston-Wright Award, and was longlisted for the Booker Prize.

https://www.amazon.com/Colson-Whitehead/e/B001IZ1GHW/

My review:

I thank NetGalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK for providing me an ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.

In brief, this is an extraordinary book. Beautifully written, haunting, it vividly portrays and era and a place (the early 1960s in Florida), and illustrates the very best and the very worst of human beings and their behaviour. Although everybody should know about the true story this book is inspired by, my only hesitation in recommending this book to all is that it is a tough read, and one that could upset people who have experienced abuse or violence or prefer not to read graphic accounts of those topics. (It is not extreme, in any way, in its depiction of violence and abuse, and much is left to the imagination of the reader rather than being unnecessarily and openly graphic, but then, my level of tolerance is quite high, so it might not be an indication of other readers’ opinion. On the other hand, it is emotionally harrowing, as it should be).

I had not read any of Whitehead’s books before but had heard and read many comments about his recent success with The Underground Railroad, and was keen to see what he would write next. Although I can’t compare the two, based on how much I have enjoyed this story and the style of writing, I am eager to catch up on the author’s previous novels.

I went into this book not having read reviews or detailed comments about it, other than the short description on NetGalley, and I was quickly drawn into the story. After the brief prologue, that sets up the scene and introduces what will become the main setting (and a protagonist in its own right) of the story, The Nickel Academy (previously, The Florida Industrial School for Boys, created in 1899, a reform school in serious need of reforms), we get to meet the two protagonists, first Elwood Curtis, an upstanding boy, determined to make his grandmother proud, a firm believer in Martin Luther King’s philosophy and speeches, a hard student and worker, and later Jack Turner, a boy with a more difficult background whom we meet during his second stay at Nickel. The interaction between the boys, the differences between them, the unlikely friendship that develops, and the ways their lives influence each other, not always evident as we read it, form the backbone of this novel, whose action is set mostly in a momentous era, the 1960s, and with the background of the Civil Rights Movement at its heart. Elwood’s determination to follow King’s dictates is sorely put to the test at Nickel, but he does learn much about himself and about the world there, including some things that should never happen to anybody, no matter their age or colour. Turner, a survivor who has been exposed to a much harsher reality than Elwood from the beginning, learns a new set of values and much more.

As I mentioned above, the story, narrated in the third person but mostly from the point of view of the two main characters (the novel is divided into different parts, and it is clearly indicated which point of view we are sharing), is beautifully written. It lyrically captures the nuances of the period and the place, using a richly descriptive style of writing that makes us feel as if we were there, experiencing the oppressive heat, the excitement of being a young boy going on his first adventure, the thrill of joining a heartfelt protest, the fear of Nickel, the dashed hopes… And later, we also touch base with the main character’s life at different points after Nickel, including the present, when he hears about the unearthing of the story, and we realise that, for him, it’s never gone away; it’s never become the past. The author intersperses the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, of James Baldwin’s stories, and, as he explains in the Acknowledgements’ section at the end, he also quotes from real life accounts from survivors of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, whose story inspired the setting and much of the story this book narrates. Although I didn’t know the story was based on a real place, I kept wondering about it as I read —it felt true, for sure—, and I was not surprised when my suspicions were unfortunately confirmed at the end. (The author provides plenty of links and information about the real story of Dozier and also includes a bibliography of the other sources he has used, which will prove invaluable to researchers and readers eager to find out more). The author’s use of quotes adds to the true feel of the novel while establishing a clear connection between this story and the troubled history of race (and to a slightly lesser extent class) relations in the USA. Although based on a real reform school, Nickel is a microcosm, a metaphor for the abuse and corruption that has marred not only the United States but many other countries, and a reminder that we must remain vigilant, as some things and behaviours refuse to remain buried and keep rearing their ugly heads in more ways than one. I, for one, will not hear talk about the White House and not think about quite a different place from now on.

The characters are compelling, easy to empathise with, and one can’t help but root for these young men who find themselves in impossible circumstances. Some are complicit in the abuse, some mere victims, but most are just trying to survive. As for the perpetrators… There’s no attempt at explaining why or how it happened. This is not their story. Their story has been the official History for far too long.

Apart from all I’ve said, there’s quite a twist towards the end of the story, which casts a new light on some of the events and on the relationship between the two boys, clarifying some questions that are left answered as the story progresses. This is not a mystery or a thriller as such, but the twist introduces an element of surprise that, at least for me, increased the power of the narrative and the overall effect of the story. The compelling plot of the novel is perfectly matched by the masterly way it is told.

I highlighted a lot of passages from the novel, but I thought I’d share the opening, and another paragraph from the preamble, to give you a taster. (As I mentioned, mine is an ARC copy, so there might be some changes to the final published version).

Even in death the boys were trouble. (A fantastic opening line that will become one of my favourites from now on).

When they found the secret graveyard, he knew he’d have to return. The clutch of cedars over the TV reporter’s shoulder brought back the heat on his skin, the screech of the dry flies. It wasn’t far off at all. Never will be.

A great novel, inspiring, appalling, tough, lyrical, fitting homage to the victims of a corrupt, merciless, and racist institution, and an indictment of the society that allowed it to exist.  Highly recommended, with the only reservations mentioned above about the subject matter.

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

Categories
Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog A WOMAN OF VALOR by Gary Corbin (@garycorbin) A solid police-procedural with an inspiring female protagonist #RBRT

Hi all:

I repeat today with another book by an author I read last year.

Cover of A Woman of Valor
A Woman of Valor by Gary Corbin

A Woman of Valor by Gary Corbin.

In A Woman of Valor, Jack Reacher meets Tracy Crosswhite as #metoo victims find a heroine who will fight back for them – with a vengeance.

A rookie policewoman, who was molested as a young girl, pursues a serial child molester, and struggles to control the emotions his misdeeds awake in her.

Valorie Dawes carries a serious emotional scar from being molested in her youth by a family “friend,” a tragedy referred to by family members only as “The Incident.” Her namesake uncle, a well-known Clayton, CT police detective, learned of her ordeal only days before being gunned down in the line of duty. Resolving to continue in his footsteps, she becomes a Clayton policewoman at the age of 22.

But Val’s self-doubts emerge and multiply when she encounters bullying and chauvinism from many of the seasoned male cops in her department. Only her partner, Gil, manages to crack through her veneer of mistrust of men by showing patience, kindness, and confidence in her. Under Gil’s tutelage, Val shows promise as a talented, thoughtful, and quick-thinking street cop, earning praise from her superiors–and continued resistance from old-school line cops, jealous of her quick rise.

Despite Gil’s support, Val becomes increasingly isolated within the department and vilified in the public eye as reckless and incompetent. Complicating matters, a blogger, Paul Peterson, somehow gains inside knowledge about her and is quick to sensationalize her mistakes on his trashy “police-accountability” website.

One of Val’s early mistakes involves getting overpowered in a domestic abuse encounter with a serial child abuser, Richard Harkins, who proves to be both elusive and cruel. His escape haunts her and she spends an increasing amount of her time and energy trying to track him down before he strikes again and subjects any more young girls to the fate Val encountered in her own youth.

Can Valorie overcome the trauma she suffered as a child and stop Harkins from hurting others like her–or will her bottled-up anger lead her to take reckless risks that put the people she loves in greater danger?

https://www.amazon.com/Woman-Valor-Gary-Corbin-ebook/dp/B07R4G617Z/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Woman-Valor-Gary-Corbin-ebook/dp/B07R4G617Z/

https://www.amazon.es/Woman-Valor-Gary-Corbin-ebook/dp/B07R4G617Z/

Author Gary Corbin
Author Gary Corbin

About the author:

Gary Corbin is a writer, editor, and playwright in Camas, WA, a suburb of Portland, OR. Lying in Judgment, his Amazon.com best-selling legal thriller, was selected as Bookworks.com “Book of the Week” for July 11-18, 2016, and was the feature novel on Literary Lightbox’s “Indie Spotlight” in February 2017. The long-awaited sequel to Lying in Judgment, Lying in Vengeance, was released in September, 2017.

Gary’s second novel, The Mountain Man’s Dog, came out in June 2016, kicking off the Mountain Man Mysteries series. The sequel, The Mountain Man’s Bride, was released Feb. 8, 2017. The third book in the series, The Mountain Man’s Badge, was just released in June, 2018.

All of these mysteries are available in hardcover, paperback, and ebook forms.

New: Lying in Judgment and Lying in Vengeance now available in audiobook format! The Mountain Man Mysteries will be available on video later in 2019.

Join Gary’s mailing list (http://garycorbinwriting.com/about-gary-corbin/contact/) and be the first to be notified of free preview editions, 99 cent specials, free book promotions, and exclusive content such as deleted chapters and early-draft excerpts of upcoming novels.

Gary’s plays have enjoyed critical acclaim and have enjoyed several productions in regional and community theaters. His writer’s reference, Write Better Right Now: A Dozen Mistakes Good Writers Make-And How to Fix Them, is available exclusively on Kindle.

Gary is a member of the Willamette Writers Group, Northwest Editors Guild, 9 Bridges Writers Group, PDX Playwrights, the Portland Area Theater Alliance, and the Bar Noir Writers Workshop, and participates in workshops and conferences in the Portland, Oregon area.

A homebrewer and coffee roaster, Gary loves to ski, cook, and watch his beloved Red Sox and Patriots. He hopes to someday train his dogs to obey. And when that doesn’t work, he escapes to the Oregon coast with his sweetheart.

Author’s website: http://garycorbinwriting.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/garycorbin1

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/garycorbin

https://www.amazon.com/Gary-Corbin/e/B01BT8SPLW/

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 reviewed another one of this author’s books (The Mountain Man’s Badge, the third book in the Mountain Man’s Mysteries series, you can check my review here), enjoyed it and was pleased when I was given the chance to review this book, as I always feel slightly uneasy when I start reading a series in the middle, because I am aware that I am missing on the background and the development of the characters throughout the previous books, and my review will not be able to reflect that aspect of the story. Here, we have a stand-alone novel (after reading the book and getting to the end of it, it seems that there is a second novel with the same protagonist, Valorie Dawes, due for publication in the spring of 2020, so you won’t have to say goodbye forever to the characters if you get attached to them) and therefore we get an opportunity to meet the characters and become familiar with the setting from the start.

This novel combines the police procedural (a rookie policewoman following in the footsteps of her uncle, who was more of a father and hero figure for her than her own father, joins the local police force, learns the difference between the books and the streets, and tries to catch a criminal that brings back memories she’d rather forget) with subjects and themes more common in women’s fiction (the protagonist was sexually abused as a child and despite her best efforts is still affected by the experience; she has to confront plenty of prejudice and sexism in the police force, has a difficult relationship with her father, and can’t help compare herself to her best friend, who seems to have a much easier and happier life than hers). The author manages to make the mix of the two genres work well, providing plenty of details of how the local police force works that felt quite realistic (and the language and descriptions of the characters, narrated in the third-person —mostly from the point of view of the protagonist— seem straight out of a police report), and demonstrates a good insight into the mind-set of a young woman who has survived such trauma and finds herself confronted by sexist, abusive, and old-fashioned attitudes. (There are small fragments of the book told from some of the other characters’ point of view, also in the third-person, but those are brief, and other than giving us an outsider’s perspective on the main character, I didn’t feel they added much to the plot). Her fight to overcome her difficulties, to take other people into her confidence, and to make meaningful connections, is inspirational and will also feel familiar to readers of literary fiction or women’s fiction.

As mentioned in the description, this book feels, unfortunately, very current, not only because of the abuse (even if the story was originally developed well before #metoo shone some light into the scale of the problem), but also because of the prejudiced attitude of the police towards ethnic minorities (racial profiling is evident throughout the plot), and the way social media can spread falsehoods and fake news, ruining somebody’s reputation only to gain a bit of notoriety. There are plenty of action scenes, chases, and violence (although not extreme) but there are also the slow moments when we see the characters patrolling the streets, making connections with the local gang, or interacting with the locals, and that also felt more realistic than the non-stop frantic rhythm of some thrillers, that seem to never pause for characters to have some breathing space. It shows the work of the police in its various forms, not always running after criminals, but there are also the quiet moments (waiting around, doing research, manning the phones), and when there are actions scenes, these are also followed by consequences that some novels brush over (filling up forms, reporting to Internal Affairs and having a psychological evaluation after a lethal shooting). Although it is mostly set in a chronological order from the moment Val joins the police force, there are chapters where something makes her remember what happened ten years ago, and we get a flashback from her perspective as a 13 y. o. girl. These interludes are clearly marked in the book, and rather than causing confusion, help us understand what Val is going through and why she reacts as she does to her experiences. She is very closed off, she is insecure, finds it difficult to trust people, men in particular, and struggles to maintain her professionalism when confronted with certain types of criminals. There is much discussion in the book about different types of policemen (I’ll leave you to read about those yourself), and she fights hard to be deserving of her uncle’s memory.

The author is skilled at managing a large cast of diverse characters: Val’s friend, Beth; her father, who is on a slippery-slope of self-destruction; Gil, her partner, a sympathetic and likeable character; the other policemen in the team, including her superiors (more enlightened than most of the other men), the other women in the force (and there are wonderful scenes of sisterhood between the women), her brother, sister-in-law and her cute little niece (obsessed with becoming a policewoman like her aunt), the members of an African-American gang (who although tough and engaged in criminal activities, live by their own code of honour), a blogger with inside information who is happy to distort the truth… and of course, the nasty criminal, who has no redeeming features. Even those who play a small part are realistically portrayed and add to the atmosphere and the realism of the novel. This is not one of those books that take place in a city but feel as if only four or five people were living there. We see neighbours, the owners of businesses, and we also have a good sense of the connections between the local police force and the others in the same county and state.

On reading the author notes after the novel, I felt quite touched by the story behind it, and understood why it feels so personal, despite this being a novel with a main female character written by a male author. In the acknowledgements, the author thanks several members of law enforcement for their expertise and advice, which he has incorporated well into the novel, and the book contains a list of questions that should prove particularly useful for book clubs.

In my opinion, this is a novel that includes a solid plot, with a main bad character (who is truly bad) all readers will hate, some lesser unlikeable characters (the blogger, many of the other policemen Val comes across), some intrigue (who is feeding inside distorted information to the blogger?, what really happened to Val’s uncle?), a hint of romance (don’t worry, honestly. This is not a romantic novel), sympathetic characters easy to engage with and root for, even if we might have very little in common with them, particularly Val and Gil, and a more than satisfying ending.

As I said, I read an early ARC copy of the book, so there might be some minor changes in the final version. This is a book that contains some violence, shootings, and sexual abuse of young girls (and although not extremely explicit, I am aware this could be a trigger for some readers).

Thanks to Rosie and to all the members of her team, thanks to the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and if you’ve enjoyed it, remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and always keep smiling!

Photo by Jamie Street on Unsplash

Oh, and I’ll be away for a little while (until the end of August), in a place where I won’t have regular access to e-mail and/or internet. It is a break/holiday sort of. Well, you know what they say about a change being as good as a break, don’t you? I have left some reviews programmed, in case you need any extra reads for the holidays, and I won’t close the comments, but I’ll only be able to reply to them when I can connect. I just wanted to let you know so you don’t worry if you don’t hear from me or you don’t see me around as often as you’re used to. Have a lovely summer!

 

 

Categories
Book review Book reviews

#TuesdayBookBlog #Bookreview SON OF A PREACHER MAN by Karen M. Cox (@KarenMCox1932) A #coming of age story full of atmosphere and a nostalgic look at a more innocent era#giveaway and guest post.

Hi all:

I’m repeating author today and I bring you a book that’s definitely not of this time although the book was just published. I became aware of this book thanks to Rosie Amber and her fantastic Book Team Review (you must check her out if you haven’t yet, here). Karen M. Cox has kindly offered readers the opportunity to enter a giveaway (and note, this is an international giveaway, readers, so not excuse not to have a go) and after reading her book I was pretty intrigued by how she felt about writing from a male perspective, and she has sent me a guest post that will be of interest to readers and writers alike. But first, let me tell you about the book:

Cover reveal Son of a Preacher Man by Karen M. Cox
Son of a Preacher Man by Karen M. Cox

Son Of A Preacher Man by Karen M Cox

“I forget that you’re a fella sometimes.”

“Gee, thanks.”

I never forgot that she was a girl. Not for one second…

  1. The long, hot Southern summer gently bakes the small town of Orchard Hill. Billy Ray Davenport, aspiring physician and only son of an indomitable traveling minister, is a young man with a plan. Handsome, principled, and keenly observant, he arrives in town to lodge with a local family. He never bargained for Lizzie Quinlan—a complex, kindred spirit who is beautiful, compassionate, and scorned by the townsfolk. Could a girl with a reputation be different than she seems? With her quirky wisdom and a spine of steel hidden beneath an effortless sensuality, Lizzie is about to change Billy Ray’s life—and his heart—forever.

A realistic look at first love, told by an idealist, Son of a Preacher Man is a heartwarming coming of age tale set in a simpler time.

Links:

Son of a Preacher Man is available in Kindle, Apple, Barnes&Noble, Kobo versions, and from other ebook distributors. Print version will be out soon.

Universal Link: https://books2read.com/links/ubl/bwYdqe

Amazon Link: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B07DNHH1N1

Son of a Preacher Man Book Launch Giveaway

Enter for a chance to win an ebook copy of one of my backlist titles (1932, Find Wonder in All Things, Undeceived, I Could Write a Book, or The Journey Home(novella) AND a $10 Amazon Gift Card. Three winners will be randomly selected on 7/25/18. This giveaway is international.

Giveaway Link: https://kingsumo.com/g/f6jjaf/son-of-a-preacher-man-launch-giveaway

Author Karen M. Cox
Author Karen M. Cox

About the author:

Karen M Cox is an award-winning author of four full-length novels accented with romance and history: “1932”, “Find Wonder in All Things”, “Undeceived”, and “I Could Write a Book”, and an e-book companion novella to “1932” called “The Journey Home”. She has also contributed stories to three anthologies: “Northanger Revisited 2015”, in “Sun-Kissed: Effusions of Summer”; “I, Darcy”, in “The Darcy Monologues”, and “An Honest Man” in “Dangerous to Know: Jane Austen’s Rakes and Gentlemen Rogues”. She has two upcoming releases: “Son of a Preacher Man” in July, 2018, and a contribution to the anthology “Rational Creatures” (Fall, 2018).
Karen was born in Everett WA, which was the result of coming into the world as the daughter of a United States Air Force Officer. She had a nomadic childhood, with stints in North Dakota, Tennessee and New York State before finally settling in her family’s home state of Kentucky at the age of eleven. She lives in a quiet little town with her husband, where she works as a pediatric speech pathologist, encourages her children, and spoils her granddaughter.
Channeling Jane Austen’s Emma, Karen has let a plethora of interests lead her to begin many hobbies and projects she doesn’t quite finish, but she aspires to be a great reader and an excellent walker – like Elizabeth Bennet.
Connect with Karen:

www.karenmcox.com

www.karenmcoxauthor.wordpress.com

https://www.instagram.com/karenmcox1932/

https://twitter.com/KarenMCox1932

https://www.facebook.com/karenmcox1932

https://karenmcox.tumblr.com/

https://www.pinterest.com/karenmc1932/

My review:

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

Recently, I read and reviewed one of Karen M. Cox’s novels I Could Write a Book (you can read the review here) and as she was one of the authors who’d also taken part in one of my favourite recent anthologies (Dangerous to Know: Jane Austen’s Rakes & Gentlemen Rogues, check that review here), when I heard she was going to publish a new book and read the description, I had to check it out.

In contrast with the other two books, this book is not a Regency novel (it takes place in the South of the USA in the late 1950s –early 1960s), and it is not related to Jane Austen (although, like her novels, is excellent at reflecting the social mores of the place and the era). It is the story, narrated in the first person, of Billy Ray Davenport, a young man with a tragedy in his past (he lost his mother to a terrible accident), whose father is a travelling preacher. He used to spend his summers travelling with him (he went to school and stayed at his aunt’s the rest of the year), but when we meet him, just before he goes to medical school, he is due to spend a few weeks with a doctor, friend of the family. He hopes to gain medical knowledge and get a taste of what his future will be like. This summer will prove momentous for Billy Ray, who will learn much more about the world, small-town society, girls, and himself than he had known until then. What he experiences there will make him question some of his strong-held beliefs and what he is truly made of.

This novel captures beautifully the everyday life in a small-town, where rumours and whispers can destroy somebody’s reputation (especially a young girl’s), where everybody knows everybody else and there is nothing private and nowhere to hide.  Marlene, the daughter of the doctor Billy Ray is working with, takes a shine to him and proves to be very spiteful, badmouthing and spreading rumours about another girl, Lizzie. Lizzie is like a modern scarlet woman, and her behaviour repels and attracts Billy Ray in equal measure, putting his beliefs about proper behaviour and relationships between men and women to the test.

Lizzie is a great character. Although she does not always behave consistently, and at times she manages to make things more difficult for herself, we get to understand her and root for her. She has had to make herself strong and mistrusts everybody for very good reasons. She is different to the rest of the characters in the novel and in Orchard Hill, and it is not surprising that Billy Ray sets his eyes on her. She is a modern woman who knows her own mind and is prepared to do whatever it takes to make her dreams come true.

Billy Ray feels very old-fashioned, perhaps even more because he falls for Lizzie, and the contrast between the opinions and behaviours of the two could not be more extreme, at least at first sight. Billy Ray is the preacher’s son of the title, and although we might be familiar with stories about the children of preachers rebelling against their strict religious upbringing (Footloose, for instance), he is a chip off the old block. I wondered if Billy Ray is not, in fact, even more morally upright and a stricter follower of the spirit of the Bible than his father is. He is a thoroughly good man (he struggles at times and is not perfect, but he is one of the genuinely good guys), and although he is young and naïve at the beginning of the story, he has the heart in the right place and tries very hard to live up to Christian moral standards. He is a thinking man and the roller-coaster of his emotions and his doubts and hesitations reflect well his age. The roles between the two main characters challenge the standard stereotypes, and we have the good and innocent young man and the experienced woman who tempts him trying to send him down the wrong path, rather than the rogue going trying to steal the virtue of an innocent young woman. Of course, things are not that simple, and the relationship between the two main characters has many nuances, ups and downs, and despite what they might think, they need each other to become better versions of themselves.

The rest of the characters are given less space (this is a coming of age story, after all, and adults are not the centre of the book, although the relationship between Billy Ray and his father is beautifully rendered) but even the characters we don’t get to know that well (the rest of Lizzie’s family, the doctor, the midwife) are convincing and engaging. There are parallels between Billy Ray and Lizzie and some of the older characters as if they embodied what would have happened to them if they hadn’t found each other. It is evident that Billy Ray is focused on telling the story of his relationship with Lizzie and the book reflects the single-mindedness of his protagonist, as the affairs of society and the world at large only rarely get mentioned.

The rhythm of the novel is paused and contemplative and it feels like the summer months felt when we were young: eternal and full of possibilities. The turn of phrase and the voices of the different characters are distinct and help recreate the Southern atmosphere, adding a vivid local feel, and some humorous touches. After the summer we follow the character’s first few years at university and we see him become a man. I don’t want to go into detail, but I can tell you I really enjoyed the ending of the book, which is in keeping with the rest of the novel.

Although religion and the character’s beliefs are very important to the story’s plot (I am not an expert, so I cannot comment if this novel would fit into the category of Christian books, or if it would be considered too daring, although there is no explicit sex and I cannot recall any serious swearing), and the main character might appear old-fashioned and not a typical young man, for me, that is one of its assets. It does not feel like a modernised recreation of the past, but as if it truly had been written by somebody who was recording the important aspects of his long-gone youth.  I recommend it to readers keen on books full of atmosphere and centred on characters and relationships that differ from the norm. It is also a great book for people looking to recreate the feeling of the late 1950s and early 60s in a Southern small town.

And now, a few words from the author herself, about her experience writing from a male character’s point of view:

Hi, Olga!

Thanks so much for the invitation to guest blog with you and your readers! When you contacted me after reading Son of a Preacher Man, you mentioned being curious about the challenges of a woman author writing from a man’s point of view (Son of a Preacher Man is written in the first-person point of view of the hero, Billy Ray Davenport.)

It was a struggle at times. The first two-thirds of the story were a breeze; I was typing along, not worried about too much, and then as I was trying to resolve the conflict in the story, just tell the entire world what Lizzie was REALLY thinking, I realized. I can’t DO that! I know her whole story, but Billy Ray doesn’t, and I’m inside his head. I can only write what he knows, even though I know what she knows.

You know?

I worked through that conundrum, and in some ways, I think that made the story stronger, because readers are left to extrapolate some pieces of Lizzie’s story for themselves, and that helps them maps themselves onto her experiences and perhaps identify and empathize more with her.

A second challenge came up during the editing process. I became concerned that some of Billy Ray’s thoughts and words, well—sometimes Billy Ray didn’t really sound too much like a guy. For example, he probably wouldn’t label the color of a woman’s dress with something like “azure blue” or “mauve” (although he might notice how the dress fit her.) Or he wouldn’t say things in quite those words—girly words—’cause I’m a girl, and I often write like a girl (which I mean in the very best of ways.)

Some of this issue I solved by making Billy Ray an unusual young man: unusually empathetic, unusually observant, unusually sheltered. By making more stereotypical feminine traits part of his personality and giving him a profession focused on nurturing others’ well-being (he’s an aspiring physician), I created a character who could tread that line a little more credibly. At least, I hoped so. I also self-edited his lines with a more and more critical eye as I went through the manuscript.

In general, here are 5 tips that helped me get through writing in male POV:

  1. Be an observer of men. I think I do this a lot already. I mean, I like men J and the “otherness” of them interests me. There are wonderful men in my life too: my husband, my son, my dad, my male friends. And I’ve met men that weren’t quite so wonderful over the years as well. They all helped me write Billy Ray.
  2. Don’t be concerned about writing something you don’t understand or agree with. Men don’t see things like I do all the time. Sometimes they say things I think are insensitive, or rude, or misogynistic, or just plain wrong. And sometimes words and actions like that are part of the story, and if I’m in that man’s head, speaking for him, I have to accept I’m not going to personally cheer for everything he says and does.
  3. Remember the humanity in mankind. In the end, men and women are human beings, and there are a lot of experiences we share, even if we don’t always share them with each other.
  4. Let a man read it. My male beta reader told me a few times, “Yeah, a man wouldn’t say that.” Point taken.
  5. Make something about your male character like yourself – so you can empathize with him. Billy Ray wants to help people. I do too. He wants to be a doctor; I’m a speech therapist. He’s easily embarrassed by discussing personal matters; I am too. Because we share those traits, I can better interpret situations from his point of view.

So, while writing from a male point of view is a challenge, I don’t think it’s an impossible task. I considered writing Son of a Preacher Man from dual points of view—the story is definitely as much about Lizzie as it is Billy Ray. But after all was said and done, I decided he was really the troubadour. He had to be the one to tell the tale.

Thanks to Rosie and her team, thanks to the author, thanks to you for reading and remember to like, share, comment, click, REVIEW and keep smiling!

 

Categories
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!

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