Just Olga and her books

I've loved books since I learned to read and now I love to read and writer books, to read about books, and although most of all I love fiction, I write other books that might tickle my fancy. I'm originally from Barcelona and I also read in Spanish and Catalan. I love movies and theatre so these are things I also love to read about.

A great debut novel for those looking for a bit of magic and hope.

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance - Ruth Emmie Lang

Thanks to NetGalley and to St. Martin’s Press for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This book is a joy. Readers need to be prepared to suspend disbelief more than usual, perhaps, but from the very beginning, you realise you are in for a ride where everything will be extraordinary. Weylyn, the protagonist, is born in circumstances that his doctor never forgets, and he grows up to be more than a bit special.

I will not repeat the description of the book, which summarises quite well the main aspects of the novel. Weylyn’s story is told, mostly, from the point of view of the characters he meets along the way, and who, somehow, are changed by his presence in their lives. The story is set in the present, with interludes where a boy who literally falls on Weylyn (who lives like a hermit in the forest, with a wolf as his only company) keeps pestering him to tell him his story, and then goes back to the past, and the story is told, always in the first person, by a number of characters. As all readers know, narrators have a way of revealing a lot about themselves when they tell somebody else’s story, and this is true here. None of the narrators are unreliable, but they tell us more of their own stories through their memories of Weylyn than they do about Weylyn himself. We get to know him by the effect he has on those around him (children, adults, some of the characters —those he is closest to— her revisits over the years) and he remains a bit of a cipher, perhaps because he does not know himself or can explain himself fully either. We hear from him towards the end of the book, also in the first person, but he is not a character who defines himself by his “powers” (if that is what they are), and he never gives his talents a name, although he allows people to think whatever they like (He even tries to hide his prowess behind a pig, Merlin, insisting that the horned pig is the one who controls the weather). Despite all these points of view, the book is easy to read as each point of view is clearly delineated and their stories and narrative styles are distinct and appropriate to the characters. The writing flows well and there is enough description to spur readers’ imagination without going overboard.

In a world where children and parents have difficulty communicating, where fitting in and appearances are more important than true generosity, where politicians are self-serving and corrupt, where people stay in relationships because they don’t know how to end them, and where the interest of big corporations always trumps the needs of the common man, Weylyn is like the energy and light he manages to harvest, a ray of hope and a breath of fresh air.

Weylyn is a great character, but so are most of the other characters in the book. Some are more memorable than others, but they are all likeable and changed for the better by their interaction with Weylyn.

Although there are magical and fantastic elements in the novel, in my opinion, it fits into the category of magic realism (as the world the characters live in is our world and that is precisely why people are touched and surprised by his skills, his “specialness”). It would also fall under literary fiction, although it is a much easier read than many books classed under that label (and I feel this is a book not exclusively for adults either. There is minimal violence, clean romance, and many young characters, all distinct and likeable in their own ways).

A story for readers who love great characters and like to let their imaginations fly, not always feeling the need to remain anchored to reality. This is one of those books that we feel sorry to reach the end of and are thankful because we know their memory will remain with us. A great debut novel.

A fun and light read recommended to lovers of fairy tales and Scottish-themed adventures

Enchanted by the Highlander (A Highland Fairytale) - Lecia Cornwall

Thanks to NetGalley and to St. Martin’s Press/Swerve, for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I love fairy tales. Although probably Beauty and the Beast is my favourite, I have a soft spot for most classics. I also love the Scottish Highlands (I’ve visited two or three times but I hope I will visit again in the future). When I saw this book, which combined a retelling of Cinderella with a setting in the Highlands, I could not resist (I also liked the cover).

This is book 4 in A Highland Fairytale series, but it can be read as a standalone (I haven’t read any of the other books in the series). The story is told in the third person from different characters points of view, but there is no head-hopping and the changes in perspective are clearly marked. The novel is set in the XVII century and tells the story of is Gillian, a young girl daughter of Donal, the laird of the MacLeod’s clan, quiet and shy, whose father and sisters think will never get married (although she is very pretty but too quiet to make herself noticed). Quiet waters and all that, because Gillian has dreams and wants to marry for love. While visiting one of the sisters, she meets an Englishman who is Captain of her brother-in-law’s men, John Erly, and although he has no fortune to his name and a terrible reputation, she discovers there is more to him than people think and falls in love with him. At a masquerade ball, they kiss (he is not wearing much of a disguise but he does not know who she is) and she loses her mask. Despite the effect she has on him, nothing happens and she goes back home. A few months later she is engaged to get married to an old nobleman (older than her father) as her family is convinced she wants a quiet life and an old husband is just the ticket for her. Somehow, John ends up escorting her to Edinburgh with a full complement of Highlanders… And the rest, well, you’ll need to read the book to know.

I don’t want to rehash the plot or reveal any spoilers. As this is a romance and a fairy tale, you can imagine how things end up from the beginning, but the beauty is in the details. Gilliam is far from the wilting violet everybody mistakes her for, and John isn’t the rogue others think either. They go through many adventures, including being assaulted by outlaws, a wedding that is ruined, numerous suitors, fights and perils, a competition to obtain Gillian’s hand in marriage, secrets, confessions, and plenty of Highland traditions, expressions, songs, whisky, and a fair amount of fun (and romance). Of course, it is a fairy tale, so it does require a deal of suspension of disbelief, but both main characters are likeable, and most of the secondary characters are great too (even if we don’t get to know them as well, they provide light relief and liven up the action).

The retelling of Cinderella is limited to the mask and the ball, as the circumstances of the character are quite different (she is beloved by her family even if they don’t understand her true feelings) and what happens later bears no resemblance to the story, but is an enjoyable romp. There is plenty of action and humour, there is violence, there are also scary moments, and a couple of erotic scenes (they are quite mild but I would have enjoyed the book more without them as I’m not a big fan. Especially the first one felt particularly unrealistic, and I know I’m talking about a sex scene in a fairy tale, but for me, it did stretch credibility more than the rest of the book). The writing is in keeping with the story, easy and fairly dynamic, at times reminding me of the serials of old, like the Perils of Pauline, where there is a never-ending amount of trouble waiting for the heroine (who luckily is pretty resourceful).

A fun and light read recommended to lovers of fairy tales and Scottish-themed stories, who enjoy adventures galore and don’t mind some violence and a bit of sex.

A book for lovers of theatre, and Elizabethan historical fiction.

Fools and Mortals - Bernard Cornwell

Thanks to NetGalley and to Harper Collins UK for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I had not read any of Bernard Cornwell’s novels before (I believe I have another one on my list and I’ll definitely check it out after this one) so I won’t be able to provide any comparison with the rest of his work. When I read some of the reviews, I noticed that some readers felt this novel was less dynamic than the rest and lacked in action. I cannot comment, although it is true that the novel is set in Elizabethan London and its events take place over a few months, rather than it being a long and sprawling narrative, ambitious in scope and detail. If anything, it is a pretty modest undertaking, as it follows the rehearsal and staging of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer’s Night Dream. The author’s note at the end clarifies much of the historical background, explaining what is based on fact and what on fancy, and also the liberties he has taken with the materials.

The story is told, in the first-person, by Richard Shakespeare, William’s younger (and prettier, as everybody reminds him) brother, who is also an actor (mostly playing women’s parts) and plays in his brother’s company, but he’s not a regular player in it. I am no expert on Shakespeare (although I know his plays, some better than others, and have read a bit about him) but checked and now know that although he had a brother called Richard, it seems he never left Strafford, whilst a younger brother called Edmund went to London to join his brother and was an actor. The Richard of the novel is no match for his brother and they do not like each other too well. Throughout the book, we learn about Richard, whose current adventures are peppered with memories of the past and his circumstances. His character lives hand-to-mouth, is always in debt, and illustrates how difficult life was at the time for youngsters without money and/or a family fortune. Although he does not dwell on the abuse he has suffered, modern readers will quickly realise that some things don’t change and children have always been preyed upon. He is a likeable enough character, and although he does some bad things (he was taught how to be a thief by a character who would have been perfectly at home in a Dickensian novel and is fairly skilled at it), there are things he will not do, and he is loyal to his brother, although sometimes it does not seem as if William deserves it. There are other interesting characters in the book (I particularly liked Sylvia, Richard’s love interest, and the priest who lives in the same house as Richard), but none are drawn in much psychological detail.

What the book does very well, in my opinion, is portray the London of the time, the political and religious intrigues (the Puritans trying to close the playhouses, the religious persecution and how an accusation could be used to implement vendettas and acquire power, the social mores of the times, the workings of taverns and inns, the river Thames as a thoroughfare, the law in and out of the walls of the city…), and particularly, the workings of a theatre company of the time. The different types of audiences and theatres, how they had to accommodate their performances to the setting and follow the indications of their patrons, the process of rehearsal, and details such as the building of a playhouse and its distribution, the staging of a play, the costumes they wore, their makeup, wigs… The book also uses fragments of Shakespeare’s plays and others of the period (and some invented too), and brings to life real actors of the era, creating a realistic feeling of what life on stage (and behind it) must have been like at the time. If you are wondering about William Shakespeare… Well, he is there, and we get to see him in action and also from his brother’s point of view. He appears as an author, an actor, a manager, and a man, but if any readers come to this book expecting new insights into Shakespeare, I’m afraid that is not what the novel is about.

There is a fair amount of telling (it is difficult to avoid in historical fiction), and plenty of historically appropriate words and expressions, although the language is easy to follow. There is also plenty of showing, and we get to share in the cold, the stink, the fear, and the pain the main character suffers. We also get to live the first performance of A Midsummer’s Night Dream, and it is glorious. In the second half of the book, things come to a head, and there are a few fights (fist fights, sword fighting, and even a pistol is discharged), romance, intrigue (although we are pretty convinced of how everything will end), and nice touches that Shakespeare lovers will appreciate (yes, there’s even a bear).

A solid historical novel, well-written, that flows well, placing us right in the middle of the late Elizabethan era, and making us exceptional witnesses of the birth of modern theatre. A must-read for lovers of theatre, especially classical theatre, Shakespeare, and historical fiction of the Elizabethan period. I will be sure to read more of Cornwell’s books in the future.

A sharp novel, both in action and in style, with fabulous dialogue and a flawed hero you’ll love

In Wolves' Clothing - Greg Levin

Thanks to Rosie Amber from Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, check here if you would like your books reviewed) and to the author for providing me with a copy of the book that I freely chose to review.

Zero Slade is the narrator of this story that packs plenty of action, violence, and darkness in under three hundred pages. He is a flawed hero or even an anti-hero. He drinks too much, he takes prescription painkillers (of course, no longer prescribed, although there’s little doubt that he is in pain); he loves his wife but lies to her and cannot share his feelings; he is good at his job but is falling into a downward spiral where he makes mistakes, often makes the wrong decisions and gets himself and others into trouble. He is a master of witty retorts (although these seem to take the form of a mental commentary rather than things he tells people, as he pretends, both for professional and for personal reasons to be calm, collected, and not easily fazed), and dark-humour and a cynical point-of-view are second-nature to him. His style of internal dialogue reminded me of noir-novels and of the voice-over narrations used by film-noir detectives of the thirties and forties. He is big, strong, and, in appearance at least, tough. And he needs to be, to do the job he does.

The book’s subject is horrific, and although the novel does not go into a lot of detail about sex trafficking, it does highlight the reality of it, the terrible statistics, and the experiences of the young girls and of those who try to help them, often with little long-term success. Doing such a job requires special qualities and takes a toll on all those involved. Zero reflects on the motley crew he works with early on in the novel and when we meet the new recruit he is supposed to train, Caleb, we wonder what he has in common with the rest and how he came to be there. He seems too together. A Buddhist who always sees the positive side of every situation. Of course, things are not always what they seem, and Zero is not the only one keeping secrets.

Coping with such extreme experiences is not easy. Zero’s first-person narration allows the reader to get inside his head and share his techniques to try and avoid getting emotionally involved and overwhelmed by what he sees. His drinking, his drug abuse, and his defence mechanisms and strategies all point to the fact that rather than being hard, tough, and unfeeling, he is trying to protect himself because otherwise, he’d crack.

We don’t get to know all of the secondary characters well (the book is short, but we do get a good sense of what Zero thinks about them, even if he is not always the best judge of character and he gets more than one surprise) but especially those on the good side are varied, interesting, sympathetic, and morally complex. We don’t know every single detail of Zero’s life either (and he spends a fair amount of time under the influence of drink, drugs, both, or in pain) but he shares enough of his memories and experiences for us to root for him. We know how he met his wife, we learn about his brother’s passing, and even about some bad things that he might or might not have done. Many unreliable narrators sometimes try to paint themselves in a positive light, but although Zero is in denial about his addictions, he is a master of understatement and skilled at putting himself down.

I have once again highlighted a lot of the book, but just a few samples of a novel that’s eminently quotable:

Whenever people say, “It could always be worse,” they’re right … unless they’re talking about what the Lost Girls have been through. That’s where worse ends.

Talking about a superheroes blockbuster movie: It’s about Lycra overcoming evil.

I hate that playing a pedophile comes more naturally to me than being myself.

The trouble is, the camera always takes five pounds off the truth.

The flight attendant returns with my refill. Saved by the bourbon.

One of the nurses helping him move tells him: “Okay, this is always the hard part.” The perfect title for my autobiography.

This is a fast novel, sharp both in action and in style, with fabulous dialogue and a quick-fire and pared-down writing that is dynamic and vibrant. It also has a big heart, deals with a very serious subject, and manages to convey the depth of feeling of a character that goes to big lengths to hide that he is a big softy. Ah, and the ending is great too.

If you don’t mind a fair amount of violence (never gratuitous, but still…), the subject matter, and like heroes down on their luck with plenty of verbal style, you are in for a treat with this novel. An author to follow closely and an important subject.

Society, freedom, the Black Death, and secrets

The Last Hours - Minette Walters

Thanks to Atlantic Books, Allen & Unwin and to NetGalley for offering me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

Although Minette Walters is a familiar name, I have not read any of her crime fiction, so I can’t really compare this historical novel to her previous work, but after reading this I’ll check them out for sure.

I was intrigued by this novel, partly because of the author, but also because I had recently read a novel set during the period of the Black Death and was curious to read more on the subject.

The author sets the novel in Develish, an estate in Dorsetshire (there is not such a village in present-day Dorset, although there is one called Dewlish that I wonder if it might have been the inspiration for the one in the book), on the brink of the arrival of the plague to England. Sir Richard is away from the estate, trying to arrange the marriage of his daughter, Lady Eleanor, and although he tries to return home when he realises people are dying, it is too late for him. His wife, Lady Anne, who was educated in a convent and knows about healing, herbs, and letters, takes control (she already was managing the estate, although always unofficially, as her husband did not know how to read or write and thought that flogging or whipping his serfs was all that was required) and isolates the estate, moving all the farmers and serfs inside the walls of Sir William’s manor house —set apart from the village houses and the fields by a moat— and ensuring that her sanitation and hygiene rules are followed. Nobody really knows how the disease spread but her measures seem to work, although not everything is well in Develish.

The story is fascinating because of the complexity of the characters, the power struggles (there are clear differences between the Norman lords and the Saxon population, with the Normans being shown as abusive stuck-up individuals whilst the Saxons do all the work, and there is much discussion about taxation, indentured conditions, education…), the social order of the era, and the added difficulties of trying to confine two hundred people in a small space, ensuring the peace is maintained, and keeping their spirits up.

Lady Anne keeps records, with the intention of leaving a written account of what happened in case they all perish, so others might learn from their experiences, but she also keeps a more personal account, and at times it is clear that what she writes is an edited version of the truth, although always for good reasons. Her sensibilities seem very modern. She does not treat people according to their birth but to their actions, her religious ideas are out of keeping with the period (she has no respect for priests and dismisses any attempts of blaming the illness on people’s lack of faith or sinful behaviour) and she does show a great deal of understanding and hindsight of how the spread of the plague will revolutionise the social situation, bringing new opportunities to the skilled workers who survive (as there won’t be enough people to do all the jobs and that scarcity will allow them to negotiate better conditions). She is one of the most interesting and important characters of the novel, together with Thaddeus Thurkell, a young man (only eight years younger than her, as she was married at fourteen) of unknown parentage whom she has taught and protected from childhood and who seems as out of place as she is. At some point in the novel, due to the murder of his half-brother, he leaves the demesne with five young boys and we follow their adventures too, learning about the fate of other estates and villages, and getting more insight into the character of Thaddeus and his young assistants.

Sir William dies early in the story, although he is much talked about through the rest of the novel. He is an evil character with no redeeming features, although we don’t realise quite how bad he really was until close to the end of the novel (but we probably suspected it). Personally, I prefer my baddies greyer rather than all black. Lady Eleanor is another one of the characters that I found problematic. She is her father’s daughter, spoilt and cruel, dismissive of serfs and with a sense of entitlement not based on any personal qualities. Again, there are no redeeming features apparent in the girl, although her behaviour made me consider some psychiatric diagnoses (borderline personality disorder seems likely) and towards the end, I felt sorry for both, her and Lady Anne, as they are boxed into a corner with no easy or satisfactory way out. There are many other secondary characters, although very few of them are given enough individual space for us to get to know them (apart from the priest, Isabella, and Giles) but the author manages to create a realistic sense of a community growing and evolving thanks to an enlightened leader, united by their faith in Lady Anne, and facing together the challenges of their difficult situation.

The story is told in the third person but each chapter or fragment of the story is told from one of the characters’ point of view. This is not confusing and serves the story well, helping give the readers a sense of control (and also increasing the tension, as at times we believe we know the truth because we know more than some of the characters, but we do not realise we are missing important pieces of information). The book recreates the historical period without being too heavy on descriptions. We learn more about how society worked than about every little detail of clothing and food (but there should be enough information for fans of historical fiction to enjoy it, although I am not an expert in the era and not all reviewers agree).There are some funny moments (like when they see a cat for the first time and believe it is a monster), some battles, fights, scary moments, secrets galore, and plenty of intrigues, but it is not a fast page-turner and there is a fair amount of time dedicated to the politics and social mores of the era (that, for me, was one of the most enjoyable aspects of the story). I felt the novel progressed at a good pace, but I would not recommend it to readers looking for a story full of action and adventures.

I enjoyed the novel, in particular the historical background, the psychological portrayal of the characters (the bad characters are just bad, while the good characters are fairly complex and not all good, and there is plenty of room for further development) although I did have doubts as to how in keeping with the historical period some of the attitudes and the ideas expressed were, but my main issue was the ending. As many people have commented on their reviews, it is never mentioned that this is book one and not a full-story and then the book ends up with a to be continued. After so many pages, the ending of the novel felt rushed, and although the story stops at an inflection point, there are many questions to be answered and I suspect most readers will feel disappointed.

 An interesting incursion into the historical fiction genre by the author, and one that will make readers wonder about what freedom really means, the nature of power, and how much (or how little) life has changed since.

If you love Austen, Regency-period novels, and bad boys, you must read this

Dangerous to Know: Jane Austen's Rakes & Gentlemen Rogues - Joana Starnes, Amy D'Orazio, Katie Oliver, Karen M Cox, Jenetta James, Beau North, J. Marie Croft, Christina Morland, Lona Manning, Brooke West

Thanks to Rosie Amber from Rosie’s Book Review Team for alerting me to this opportunity and to the editor Christina Boyd for providing me with an early ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

After reading many great reviews of The Darcy Monologues, when I had the opportunity to sign up for this blog tour I could not resist. My fondness for Jane Austen’s novels cannot compare to that of the authors of this anthology, but rest assure that you don’t need to have read several times all of Austen’s novels to enjoy this collection (although I don’t doubt you might enjoy it even more if you have).

Each story centers on one of the rakes or gentlemen rogues in one of Jane Austen’s novels (sometimes several from the same novel). As the editor explains in her note, after The Darcy Monologues she and some of the authors started looking for another project and noticed that there are many characters that are fundamental to Austen’s novels, but we don’t get to know much about, and on many occasions we are left wondering how they got to be how they are, and what happens to them later. All the stories retain the historical period of the novels, sometimes going back to give us information about the background of the characters, to their childhood, early youth, and on occasion we follow them for many years, getting a good sense of who they become when they exit the novel.

Each one of the stories is prefaced by a little snippet about the character chosen, and by one or several quotations (sometimes spread throughout the story) taken directly from Austen’s novel, where the character is mentioned. I must say the authors remain very faithful to Austen’s words although they use their imagination to build upon those snippets, always remaining faithful to the language and the spirit of the period, although the modern sensibility is evident in the stories.

We have stories with happy endings, stories that are dark and sad, stories of broken hearts, funny stories (sometimes thanks to the wit of the characters involved, others thanks to the wit of the writers who follow in Austen’s footsteps and poke fun at the most preposterous individuals), and some touching ones. There are very clean stories and some steamier ones (as it seems only appropriate to these “gentlemen”), but the editor includes a very detailed classification of the degree of heat of each one of the stories, and apart from one of the stories A Wicked Game, the rest are not scandalous (even by Regency standards).

Many of the stories are told in the first person, and that helps us share and understand better the characters (however much we might like them or not), but the few told in the third person also work well, especially as they tend to centre on characters that are perhaps particularly insightless and more preoccupied with appearances than by the truth.

I imagine each reader will have his or her favourite stories. I was a bit surprised because I thought I’d enjoy more the stories featuring characters of the novels I was more familiar with, but that was not always the case. (OK, I truly loved Fitzwilliam’s Folly about Colonel Fitzwilliam from Pride and Prejudice, but not only because of the novel, but because the character is wonderful, witty, yes, Darcy makes an appearance so we get to see him from somebody else’s point of view and someone who knows him well at that, and I loved the female character in the story too). Some writers managed to create a sense of a small society, as it must have felt at the time, where characters from several novels kept meeting or just missing each other but are all connected or know of each other. I know this was a book about the gentlemen, but I was very taken by some of the female characters, that on many occasions were the perfect match for the men.

If you are curious to know which of the characters are featured, here is the list: John Willoughby (Willoughby’s Crossroads by Joanna Starnes), George Wickham (A Wicked Game by Katie Oliver. This is the hottest one and there are some similarities to the previous story but, if you’re a fan of the character, I think you’ll enjoy this one), Colonel Fitzwilliam (Fitzwilliam’s Folly by Beau North. I’ve already mentioned this one. I love Calliope Campbell too. Well, love everything about this story and the style and the repartee reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s plays), Thomas Bertram (The Address of a French Woman by Lona Manning. How blind can one be, or perhaps not!), Henry Crawford (Last Letter to Mansfield by Brooke West), Frank Churchill (An Honest Man by Karen M Cox. One of these characters enamoured of himself who tries to do the right thing but only if it is convenient and at little personal cost. I suffered for poor Miss Fairfax), Sir Walter Elliot (One Fair Claim by Christina Morland. This is one of the stories told in the third person that do follow the character for a long time. The song “You’re So Vain” might as well have been written about him. I really enjoyed this one, first because the comments about the character were funny, later, because the tone changes and I liked his wife, who, of course, loves to read), William Elliot (The Lost Chapter in the Life of William Elliot by Jenetta James. This somewhat related to the previous story but is quite different and particularly interesting for the comments about life in the theatre), General Tilney (As Much As He Can by Sophia Rose. This story, that uses both third and first person, I found particularly touching. Appearances can be deceptive, indeed), John Thorpe (The Art of Sinking by J. Marie Croft. This is a farce, the character a buffoon and the story really funny, especially because the character is the butt of all jokes but remains full of his own importance), and Captain Frederick Tilney (For Mischief’s Sake by Amy D’Orazio. Another great story. The main character justifies his actions insisting that he is helping other men avoid mistakes, but eventually learns to see things from a female perspective. A great female character too, Miss Gibbs).

I highlighted many passages and lines, but I don’t want to make this a never-ending review. I’ll just say the language is perfectly in keeping with the period and the stories and I’ll be exploring the books of all these writers. (There is information included about each one of them after their respective stories).

I did not cry with any of the stories (although some were quite touching), but I did laugh out loud with quite a few. I recommend this book to readers of historical romance and romance of any kind, those who enjoy short-stories with fully-fledged character, and I’m sure anybody interested in Regency novels and Jane Austen’s, in particular, will love this book.

For lovers of clever and witty dialogue, geeks, sci-fi, popular culture and Oscar Wilde. A great YA story.

Not Now, Not Ever - Lily Anderson

I read and reviewed Lily Anderson’s first book The Only Thing Worse than Me Is You (you can check my review here) last year. I loved it and I mentioned that I would be watching out for more of the author’s books. When a publicist from St. Martin’s Press got in touch with me offering me to take part in the blog tour for the author’s next book, I had to check it out. When I read that this time the author’s inspiration was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest I knew I’d fight tooth-and-nail to take part if necessary. Thankfully, it didn’t come to that, but it would have been worth it.

Elliot/Ever (if you know Wilde’s play, you’ll know that there are several people using false identities for a variety of reasons, mostly to live a different kind of life away from prying eyes) is a seventeen year old African-American girl, who lives in California, with a somewhat complicated family background (the Lawrence, on her mother’s side, have a long tradition of joining the Air Force, and her mother, in fact, teaches at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, while she lives with her father, a lawyer of French descent. Her step-Mom, Beth, is an estate agent, white, and an amateur actress, and she has a half-brother, Ethan). Her mother and all of her mother’s family expect her to join the Air Force, while her father wants her to do anything but that (mostly go to College somewhere nearby). And Elliot… Well, she wants to study Science-Fiction Literature. She is a geek. Her step-mother is about to play Gwendoline for the sixth time in an amateur production of The Importance of Being Earnest (that Elliot knows by heart from so many performances and rehearsals) and she decides to take control of her life and avoid another farcical summer. She lies to everybody around her, creates a fake identity (inspired by Wilde’s play), and after passing a genius exam to enter a summer programme (to win a fantastic scholarship to the college of her dreams, mostly because they have an amazing sci-fi collection in the library and they offer a degree in Science-Fiction Literature) she sets off to Oregon, determined to win no matter what.

Elliot/Ever soon discovers that you cannot outrun Wilde and that there’s nothing more farcical than a camp for geniuses. She has a few surprises (she’s not the only one to use a fake identity or lie), meets wonderful people (and some not quite so wonderful), finds love, and discovers what’s really important.

Like in Anderson’s previous novel, we have a first-person narration, this time by Elliot, who is a clever, witty, and determined girl. In this case she was not aware she was a genius (another member of the family was always considered the clever one), but the summer camp is not that dissimilar to the high school in the previous novel, although in this case everybody, apart from the college students who facilitate the camp, are new to the place, they don’t know each other and are thrown together in pretty stressful circumstances. We have, again, many pop culture and bigger Culture references (some, I must admit went over my head, but I didn’t mind that), a diverse group of students, but all clever, studious, dedicated, nerdy, and quirky. I loved Leigh, Elliot’s roommate, Brandon (a guy who carries a typewriter around. Come on, I’m a writer too. Who would not love him), and most of the characters. The dialogue sparkles and the quotes from Wilde’s play, that keep popping up into Elliot’s head, are sometimes humorous (I particularly like the ‘A tree!’ ‘A handbag!’ comparison) but sometimes the author chooses quotes that reflect the serious matters at hand. Although at first, it seems the furthest possible setting for such a play, the summer camp works well, as we have many restrictions, a lockdown, rules that can be broken and people hiding secrets, overhearing things they shouldn’t, and getting into all kinds of problems.

There is cheating, friendships, betrayals, bizarre but vividly portrayed contests (Star Wars based fights to the death, The Breakfast Club themed memory tests…) and young romance.

I don’t know if it was because of the build-up and the identity changes but it took me a bit longer to get into the story than it did the previous novel, but once at the camp and when I got used to Elliot/Ever’s voice and her accurate descriptions of people and things, I felt as if I was there and could not put the book down.

The ending… Well, you’ll have to read it. It’s probably not what you expect but it’s good.

Once again I’ve highlighted many bits. A few random ones:

And he was wearing loafers. I couldn’t get my swoon on for a guy who didn’t wear socks.

Two narrow pressboard wardrobes that were less Narnia, more IKEA.

She sounded as though she really meant it, but that could have been because everything she said sounded vaguely like it was licensed by Disney.

He was cute and presumably very smart and, unlike so many other white dudes, he’d never told me how much hip-hop meant to him like my melanin made me a rap ambassador.

Another great YA novel that I’d recommend to people who enjoy sci-fi and pop culture references, people who love books and libraries, and who appreciate young female characters that have interests beyond school balls and boyfriends. And of course, if you love witty dialogue, farcical plots, and are a fan of Oscar Wilde, you are in for a treat. I’ll for sure be waiting for Anderson’s next novel.

Thanks to Wednesday Books (St. Martin’s Press) and to NetGalley for providing me an ARC copy of the novel that I freely chose to review.

A Young Adult novel for all ages about family, friends, and life with a positive and inspiring message.

Silhouettes - E. L. Tenenbaum

I write this review of behalf of Rosie’s Book Review Team. Thanks to Rosie Amber from Rosie’s Book Review Team (if you are an author and want your book reviewed, check here) and to the author for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

Brooke is an 18 year-old-girl who is popular (although not as popular as cheerleaders are), the captain of the dance group, a volunteer at her local hospital (in the children’s ward), a good student, a beloved daughter and sister (to her 14 year-old brother, Aaron), who has very clear plans for the future and a lot of life ahead of her, until she is killed in a car crash. She discovers then that although she is now dead, she is still hanging around, and can follow her friends and family, visit the familiar places where she used to spend her time, but she cannot interact with anybody or make herself known to the living. She meets other silhouettes (as they look like somewhat less solid and more transparent versions of themselves), but they don’t seem to have much in common with her until she meets a young boy her age, Tyler, who used to go to the same school but didn’t cross paths with her. While he knew who she was, she had never noticed him. As there is little to do other than wander around, and neither has any idea of why they are still there, they spend time together and discover things about each other, and also about themselves.

The story is narrated in the first-person from Brooke’s point of view. Although she is angry and devastated to begin with, she is also very concerned about her family and friends and tries to help but does not know how. Her memories of those around her are heart-warming and feel real. What she remembers are the little moments, not the big occasions, and she talks about her friends and family in a loving way. Although she is shocked by some of the things she discovers about others, she also gains an understanding of what is really important. She realises that she was living in a bubble and there were aspects of the town and of its people’s lives she’d never noticed. The language is beautiful and lyrical at times, without being overly complex. Tyler played the guitar and composed songs with his friend Dylan, and the lyrics of these songs are like poems, that give us a moment of pause and sometimes encapsulate and sometimes enhance the rest of the text. Although the interaction between the two characters feels true, and they remain psychologically consistent, they are both fully aware that what they are experiencing is not the same as they did when they were alive, and there is a new sense of detachment and perspective that they have been granted by their situation. Being granted time and distance to think without the pressure of trying to conform to other’s expectations is illuminating.

The relationship between Brooke and Tyler develops slowly and it is clear that they are there to help each other, even if the details are only revealed at the end. Like with some of the other secrets we discover throughout the book, I was not surprised by the revelation, but what is really important is the characters’ reaction to the revelation and that is both understandable and perfect. Although it might seem strange to talk about happy endings in a novel that centres on dead characters, I think most readers enjoy the ending and feel inspired by it.

I highlighted many sentences and paragraphs, as the novel manages to capture many of the questions we all wonder about and provides insights and inspiration without ever becoming preachy or adhering to a particular faith or religion. But here come a few one to give you an idea:

Diamonds hide in a lump of coal.

Here Brooke is talking to Tyler, trying to convince him they should go to school.

“What else are you gonna do?” I asked. “No one will see you anyway. You’re safe. They’ll walk right through you.”

“Great. Just like when I was alive.”

Brooke observes: Words like that should never have reason to be said at all.

“You don’t need to do some momentous thing that changes the world or say things that everyone puts on wooden signs to have made a difference. It’s doing things in your way, the way you laughed, and cried, and hung out, and lived, and just were, that’s what your mark is, even if you can only find it in ten people instead of ten thousand.”

A YA novel that can be read by people of any age (there is no use of swear words, violence or sex), that makes us think (yes, and tear up too) about family, friendship, memories, and life. A positive and inspiring read I’d recommend everybody. I know many readers are wary of reading books about children’s deaths, especially those who have been touched personally by it. Although I cannot offer my personal perspective on the matter, I’d suggest trying a sample of the book before making a decision. The novel put me in mind of The Lovely Bones and I would recommend it to readers who loved Sebold’s novel but were perturbed by the most gruesome aspects of the plot. E. L. Tenenbaum is an author I didn’t know but I’ll be watching closely from now on.

 

A clean romance, where fate, faith, and history come together.

By Light of Hidden Candles - Daniella Levy

Thanks to NetGalley, to Rosie Amber (from Rosie’s Book Review Team. If you’re an author looking for reviews, check here) and to the author for providing me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

This novel fits into several genres. It is a romance (a clean or sweet romance. I’m not sure if the same that there are Christian books, there is also a category for Jewish books, but if there is, it would fall into that as well), where fate seems to conspire to unite the two protagonists whilst their faith separates them (Alma, the young American woman is an Orthodox Sephardic Jew, while Manuel, the Spanish young man is not only Catholic but he is considering priesthood). It is also a historical novel. Both protagonists have always wondered about their past, their genealogy and family histories, and are fascinated by some stories about their ancestors that have been passed down for generations although with little in the way of evidence to confirm them. They end up joining a project to do some family research in the historical archives in Madrid and they pair up as a team. Whilst we follow their research and investigation, with alternating chapters in the first-person, told from each one of the protagonists points of view, we also have some chapters set in the XV century in Spain (1492), told in the third person, from the point of view of Miriam, a Jewish young woman whose father’s dealings with conversos (Jews who had converted to Catholicism) gets him into trouble with the Spanish Inquisition (yes, Monty Python get a mention, don’t worry). The book is also a book about religious and personal identity and faith, and it goes into a fair amount of detail about the Jewish faith, not only about customs but also about points of faith and doctrine. For both, Alma and Manuel, their faiths are fundamental parts of who they are and they are both determined not to allow their friendship to cross boundaries and develop into something that is impossible if they are to remain faithful to their beliefs. I think you probably can guess where this is going.

The characters are likeable, quirky (especially Alma. Manuel seemed too good to be true at times, but then, male characters in romances sometimes are, and this is not a story full of rogues), and easy to empathise with. Alma’s family and her interaction with them feel real and give the reader a good sense of the joys and the struggles of trying to keep the tradition alive despite the pressures of the modern world. Manuel’s mother is very peculiar, although everything is explained later, and he does not have other contacts or close family, so his chapters focus mostly on his doubts about his faith and on his relationship with Alma. Their interaction is sometimes funny (rather than Romeo and Juliet this is more like Much Ado About Nothing), sometimes poignant, and sometimes deep and reflective. They can be at times naïve (they have both lived what appear to be quite sheltered lives, despite their very different backgrounds and circumstances), unaware, and blinkered (there is much made of the prejudice in Spain, both in the past and now, but they don’t seem aware of any issues on that respect in the USA), but they are devoted to their families and their projects, they are well-liked by all they come in contact with, and meet interesting people whose stories illustrate multiple aspects of living according to a religious faith.

The novel travels with the characters, providing a wonderful background for the story (New York, Granada, Madrid, Lorca, Cartagena), without long and tiresome descriptions, just enough detail to fire up the imagination and transport the readers there.

There is mystery (well, there are several mysteries) and coincidences, luck, and fate play a huge part in the story. I don’t think many readers will be surprised by what happens, although, like in many romances, the beauty is in the detail, the process, and in how seeing how things will come together in the end. And yes, the ending is satisfying.

I would recommend this novel to readers who love romances with a big dose of both fate and faith, who like clean novels (no swear words, no sex), are interested in the Jewish faith and its history, and enjoy the company of warm-hearted characters who deserve the best of luck.

 

 

A sobering picture of the Victorian era and a must read for those interested in social history

Childhood and Death in Victorian England - Sarah Seaton

Thanks to Alex from Pen & Sword for providing me with a review paperback copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

After working as a forensic psychiatrist for a number of years, I guess death and what brings it about is something I’ve given a fair amount of thought to. I have always been more interested in social history, and the everyday lives of people in other historical periods than I am about battles, war, etc. (I am intrigued by some of the people who get to make the decisions and fight in the battles, but not so much by the actual specifics). Old records being what they are, the adage about the two things that are certain in life, death and taxes, comes to mind. And although the subject of the book might appear particularly morbid, examining death records and other information about the deaths, in particular of children, tells us a great deal about what society was like at the time. Because what more important for the future of a nation than its children?

I live in quite an old village and one can find gravestones from three or four centuries back and I could not help but notice that many of those buried in the Victorian period were babies and very young children. Sometimes there were families who lost quite a number of children in quick succession. And although I had read about poor sanitation, deaths at birth, and illnesses of the period, and I knew that life for poor children was harder at the time, I had never spent much time reading about it. When I saw this book I felt perhaps it was time I did.

In the introduction, the author explains that she had a similar experience to mine. While researching newspapers and archives for another book, she came across many items about dead children and thought they deserved to have their stories told.

Although the book is respectful and tries to bring to light what the conditions were like, the nature of the material can make for a hard reading. I won’t go into details, but if you are very sensitive you might want to look away now or stop reading.

Seaton divides her book into five chapters.

Chapter one: Industrial Mishaps and Misdemeanours, brings home how hard life what for poor children, especially (but not only) orphans, children who ended up in the workhouse, and who were working from as young as four. And we’re not talking about easy jobs. They went to sea, working in fishing boats (yes, many drowned or were severely abused, beaten up and killed), the mines (opening and closing air shaft for hours on end, and quite a few died when there was flooding, some not far from where I live), textile factories (crushed by the machines), chimney sweeps (yes, no Mary Poppins romanticism here. Small kids could go up the chimneys easily and sometimes burn inside too)… The author notes that the laws changed, first increasing the age at what children were allowed to start working (the Ten Hour Bill in 1832 stated that no child under 9 could work and those under 18 should not work for longer than 10 hours per day and only 8 on Saturdays), and later insisting that all children should have access to education, and that helped avoid the worse of the abuse (that was not considered abuse at the time).

Chapter two: Accidents. It is strange to read this chapter and imagine a time when mothers might go out or go to work and leave their children under the care of another child, only a few years older than his or her charges, when children would play in a room with a live fire and no protection (there are a large number of deaths by fire), or would go out and play by a river and drown, or be run over.

Chapter three: Poverty, Paupers and Health, centres on matters of health, illnesses, poor diets, and also the fact that many illegitimate children were sent away to women who usually would take many children for money, feed them little or nothing, and keep what were called ‘baby farms’. At the time it was common to give children laudanum if they felt unwell, and many of them died of opium overdoses. As the author notes, while nowadays there are many services and programmes offering information and help to new mothers on how to bring up a child, and there is support in place, charities, welfare services, doctors and midwives who offer practical advice and support, that was not the case at the time, and even children from well-off families could die in circumstances that seem incredible to us now.

Chapter four: Manslaughter, Murder and Circumstantial Evidence, is a particularly hard one to read. The author notes that some of these crimes remind us that some things don’t change much and there are incidents that are remarkably similar to recent ones, but the chapter includes from murders where the criminal was clearly mentally disturbed, to others that caused outrage for their cruelty. At that point in history the police were becoming a better organised and official body and they were starting to use techniques that would allow them to trace evidence and use it to catch the criminals (newspapers used to wrap body parts with names or addresses on it feature prominently). This is a horrific chapter, but one that would be of interest to mystery writers considering setting their novels in this historical period.

 Chapter five: Newborn and Early Infant Deaths. Many of these are the result of illegitimate births, with young mothers who usually had hidden their pregnancy and at the moment of birth got desperate, out of options and with no support. But there are also cases of women who offered their services ‘adopting’ children only to neglect them or actively kill them. It is of note that although newborn and infant deaths were very high at the time, very few of these were reported as homicides.

The author concludes that although at the beginning she talks about modern children having little freedom compared to their Victorian counterparts, we must acknowledge that the circumstances have changed for the better and now society puts a lot of emphasis on protecting children. There is the welfare state, better transportation, many of the illnesses that decimated children have disappeared or can be cured…  (Of course, the book looks at the subject in Victorian England, and the comparisons are to current circumstances in the UK. We all know not all societies are respectful of children’s lives even today).

This is a hard book to read. It does paint a sobering picture of the Victorian era, as it centres mostly on those whose stories were not important enough to make it into the big chronicles and the Historic books in capital letters. The author uses newspaper articles to illustrate the specific cases she chooses, but also archival materials. The book offers detailed accounts of the events, and reflects the opinion of the time, leaving most of the personal comments or interpretations to the beginning or end of the chapters, although she mostly lets the facts speak for themselves. We read witness testimonies, coroner’s reports, inquests, all fairly objectively reported, but the nature of the material makes it poignant.

The paperback version contains pictures, mostly illustrations from newspapers, but also photographs of the period and some modern ones of some of the locations, in black and white.

This is a well-researched book that would be of interest to people researching the social history of the Victorian period, particularly as it pertains to the treatment of children, to writers looking for background on the period, but it is not a light read or a standard history book of the era. It goes to show that truth can, and it often is, more terrifying than fiction.

Not only for tennis lovers. A gripping story, of single-mindedness, determination, hard-work and love for the game.

Unstoppable: My Life So Far - Maria Sharapova

Thanks to NetGalley and to Penguin UK for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

I am not a big tennis fan. I was when I was much younger, for a number of years, but then most of the players I followed moved on, I was busy with other things, and although I’ve watched the odd match here and there, I don’t follow it closely any longer. When NetGalley suggested this book and I read the comments I was intrigued. And, from my reading experience, I’d say you don’t need to be a big tennis fan to enjoy this book, although I suspect it might be quite a different experience for those who love tennis more than I do.

Maria (Masha) Sharapova’s autobiography is the story of her rise to success (not quite a rag to riches story, but not far from it either), and one that stresses the importance of hard-work, determination, and single-mindedness. And yes, she does talk about the doping and the ban too. In fact, the book starts briefly with that and then goes back to the very beginning, when she started hitting balls with her father, Yuri, when she was four. The way she talks about hitting a ball and how it makes her feel calm and in control reminded me of meditation techniques. The adventures of little Maria (nobody could pronounce her Russian name in the USA) and her father once he decides she must train in the United States to become the best in the world are horrifying at times and they seem to have often been lucky coming across people who helped them for no reason at all (although perhaps seeing a little girl and her strange father lost in America might have moved people to offer some assistance).

Maria’s writing style is very matter-of-fact and she does not delve on feelings or personal matters too much. (Yes, she does talk about her life, she talks about her mother trying to get to America, and mention that she would talk to her on the phone once a week, but she does not elaborate on how she felt spending years away from her, other than to say how much better she felt when she finally joined them and reflection on the fact that you don’t realise how much you’ve missed somebody until you are reunited with them. Interestingly enough, in her acknowledgments, she thanks her mother first). She mentions friends every so often, but she’s very clear that she’s never wanted to make friends with anybody in the tennis circuit as that would have interfered with her performance when she faced them on the court. This seems to have been her attitude from very early on, and she reflects on how even when she was a pupil at a tennis academy she knew these girls would end up being her opponents in the future. She finds it impossible to believe that other players might have real friends in the tennis world, and it is difficult to know if she cannot believe anybody could see things differently, or perhaps she closed off her emotions to protect herself from a very young age and although it has helped her get where she wanted, there was a price to be paid. (She does write about being the odd one out in the tennis academy, having nothing, living hand-to-mouth and also about her wonder and amazement when she was invited to a big house for the first time. Yes, she talks about a tough life and it is not surprising she wanted to win and make things better).

There isn’t a lot of gossip either. She does talk about other tennis players, but mostly about the characteristics of their game and what that meant for her. Some of her descriptions are funny, bordering on the unkind, and she is very observant, at least when it comes to tennis. She does talk about a couple of boyfriends and some early crushes, but you won’t learn much about her romantic life from this book (it seems she’s been far too busy with her career, and she makes some interesting comments about genre and men finding it difficult to not be the most important thing in a woman’s life, that are hardly surprising but help give an insight into the life of female elite athletes). And then, she talks about Serena Williams. I’ve read quite a few reviews that comment on her attitude towards Serena. As mentioned above, I wonder if she sometimes ascribes to other people her own motivations. I am sure Serena was surprised and upset when she beat her at Wimbledon when she was only seventeen, but their record since has been pretty impressive for Serena (she’s won 17 out of the 19 matches they have played) and I’m sure Maria must have thought about this long and hard. I suspect if you’re a big fan of Serena Williams you might take issue with this book, but I think she’s trying to make sense of the results of their confrontations and to find some justification that does not involve only their respective playing styles.

The book is very good at illustrating what it takes to get to the top, even if you have the talent, how hard it is, and also, how difficult it is to remain there. As these elite athletes must start at a very young age, it is not only the individuals who work hard but also their parents. What effect that has on the child is a good question, and one without an easy answer. The writing style is conversational and one gets the feeling that this is probably how Maria writes and talks (she does quote from her diary at times). A word of warning. There are some swear words scattered around the pages, although I did not find it excessive (but I’ve read reviews mentioning it, so I guess I’m not as shockable as others).

I found it a compelling read, especially the early part of the book, and very difficult to put down. A fascinating story that makes for a great read, even if you’re not big tennis fans, and an intriguing woman I’m sure we’ll keep hearing about.

Some quotes from the book. (No spoiler, but the last one is the ending of the book).

Anyone can be composed and cool while winning, when everything is going according to plan. But how do you deal with a losing streak? That’s the big question —that’s what separates the professionals from the cautionary tales.

Because no one can be great every day. Can you get it done on the ugly days, when you feel like garbage and the tank is empty? That’s the question.

That’s how it has to be when you get a little older. You need to go twice as hard to look half as natural. You need to double your effort to get the same result. In other words, practice is everything.

Before all this happened I was thinking only about the finish line. How it would end, how I would make my exit. But I don’t think about that anymore. Now I think only about playing. As long as I can. As hard as I can. Until they take down the nets. Until they burn my rackets. Until they stop me…

From checking some of the reviews I’m aware the paper copies of the book include some pictures, but the ARC copy I got didn’t, so I can’t comment on those. Ah, I almost forgot, she believes in retail therapy as the answer to upsets and problems. Just in case you were wondering.

 

A Western, a Civil War novel, and a love story whose narrator you won’t forget.

Days Without End - Sebastian Barry

I had not read any books by Sebastian Barry before, and when I read some of the reviews of this book I realised that the author has been chronicling, in some of his novels, the story of two Irish families. One of the protagonists of this story, and its narrator, Thomas McNulty, is a descendant of one of these families. Rest assured that you don’t need to have read Barry’s other novels to enjoy this one (I didn’t find out about this until I had finished reading it) but now that I know I confess I’d like to see how they all relate to each other.

Thomas is a young boy who ends up in America fleeing the Irish famine and we follow him through his many adventures. Very early on he meets a slightly older boy, John Cole, and they are inseparable throughout the story, or almost. In XIX century America they live through many experiences: they take to the stage dressed as girls to entertain miners (who have no women around); when they are old enough they join the army and fight in the Indian Wars. They later go back to the stage, this time with Thomas playing the girl (a part he enjoys), John her suitor and an Indian girl they’ve adopted, Winona, as their side act. As times get harder, they go back to the army, this time fighting for the North in the Civil War. And… it goes on.

The book is narrated in the first person by Thomas, who has a very peculiar voice, full of expressions appropriate to the historical era, some Irish terms, colloquialisms, witty and humorous saying, poetic passages and amateur philosophical reflexions. In some ways it reminded me of novels narrated by tricksters or other adventurers (I’ve seen people mention Huckleberry Finn, although the characters and the plot are quite different and so is the language used), but although Thomas is somebody determined to survive and easy-going, he never wishes anybody harm and seems warm and kind-hearted, even if he sometimes ends up doing things he lives to regret. I know some readers don’t enjoy first-person narrations. Whilst it can put you right inside the skin of the character, it also makes it more difficult to get to know other characters and if you don’t like the way a character talks, well, that’s it. Although I really enjoyed Thomas and the use of language, I know it won’t be for everybody, so I recommend checking it out first. Some reviews say that he is too articulate, but although we don’t know all the details of the character’s background, he is clearly literate and corresponds and talks to people from all walks of life through the book (poets, actors, priests, the major and his wife). And he is clearly clever, quick, and a good observer.

Although the story is set in America in mid-XIX century and recounts a number of historical events, these are told from a very special perspective (this is not History with a capital H, but rather an account of what somebody who had to live through and endure situations he had no saying on felt about the events), and I this is not a book I would recommend to readers looking for a historical treatise. Yes, Thomas and John Cole love each other and have a relationship through the whole book and Thomas wears a dress often. There is little made of this and Thomas is better at talking about events and other people than at discussing his own feelings (and that, perhaps, makes the snippets he offers us all the more touching). Although perhaps the historical accuracy of some parts of the story (mostly about the characters’ relationship) stretches the imagination, the descriptions of the battles of the Indian Wars and the Civil War, and especially the way those involved in them felt, are powerful and evocative, horrible and heart-wrenching. There are no true heroes or villains, just people who play their parts as cogs in machines they don’t understand. (There are funny moments like when quite a racist character discovers that he’s fighting in the pro-abolition side. His reason for fighting is because the major he’d fought under in the Indian Wars asked him to. He never thought to ask what the war was about). Thomas reflects at times upon the similarities between what is happening there and what had happened in Ireland and does not miss the irony of the situation.

I had problems choosing some quotations from the book as I’d highlighted quite a lot of it, but here go:

If you had all your limbs they took you. If you were a one-eyed boy they might take you too even so. The only pay worse than the worst pay in America was army pay.

We were two wood-shavings of humanity in a rough world.

The bottom was always falling out of something in America far as I could see.

Every little thing she says has grammar in it, she sounds like a bishop.

Things just go on. Lot of life is just like that. I look back over fifty years of life and wonder where the years went. I guess they went like that, without me noticing much. A man’s memory might have only a hundred clear days in it and he has lived thousands. Can’t do much about that.

There’s no soldier don’t have a queer little spot in his wretched heart for his enemy, that’s just a fact. Maybe only on account of him being alive in the same place and at the same time and we are all just customers of the same three-card trickster. Well, who knows the truth of it all.

He is as dapper as a mackerel.

How we going to count all the souls to be lost in this war?

Men so sick they are dying of death. Strong men to start that are hard to kill.

Killing hurts the heart and soils the soul.

I loved the story and the characters and I hope to read more novels by Barry in the future. I recommend it to readers who enjoy historical fiction and westerns, with a big pinch of salt, those who love narrators with a distinctive voice, and fans of Barry. From now on I count myself among them.

Thanks to Faber and Faber and to NetGalley for offering me an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

That rare thing. A strong second-book in a trilogy.

Lindisfarne (Project Renova Book 2) - Terry Tyler

When I read (and reviewed) Tipping Point, the first novel in the Project Renova series, I guessed that setting the next story in Lindisfarne would bring things to the boil. If the first book introduced us to the main characters and set up the background of the story (how the population of the world had been decimated by a virus, the conspiracy that was behind what had happened, and a group of survivors set on creating a new life for themselves), the second one moves on from there and places a number of characters, with their personal crises, their problems, and their different origins and values, together in a very restricted environment. Lindisfarne is a wonderful place, but as I had observed before, is it not easy to hide there, and emotions are bound to ride high when people who would not normally have chosen to live together are thrown in close proximity to each other with no easy way out.

The author does a great job, again, of creating and developing characters that are real, with complex motivations (not all black or white), and whom we get to care about (well, some we get to truly dislike). The story is told the points of view of several characters. Some of the accounts are in the first person. Vicky, the woman who was the main character of the first book is still the central character here, but she shares her first-person narration with her daughter Lottie (who just becomes more and more fabulous as she grows, and she talks and thinks like a girl her age, even if a very strong and determined one) and Heath, the man she loves (but whom she has difficulty committing to). Some are in the third person. We are given a privileged insight into Wedge’s twisted mind (he is a biker who escaped prison in the first book and he reaches the island looking for revenge, and well, yes, he finds it), and the story of Doyle (a guy who was a data analyst and was involved in the running of the Renova project at a worker-bee level) who wanders alone most of the time until he stumbles across the next stage of project Renova is also included, although he is not part of the community. The stories of those two, Wedge and Doyle, are told in the third person, perhaps because they are the characters that are more closed-off and we are less likely to identify with (although we still see things from their points of view, not always pleasant, I might add). Doyle’s character also allows us to get a glimpse into what is going on in the world at large and what the forces pulling the strings are planning next. There is a chapter, a particularly dramatic one, where several points of view are used, for very good reason, but in the rest, it is clear who is talking, and there is no head hopping. The different points of view help give readers a better sense of the characters thanks to the varied perspectives and also provide us with some privileged information that makes us be less surprised by what happens than some of the characters are.

Vicky, who matured during the first book, continues to get stronger, but she goes through quite a few harrowing experiences in this book, she still finds it difficult to make decisions (she always thinks about everybody else’s needs first) and is sometimes two steps forward and one step back. When she comes face to face with the man she thought she could not live without again, she makes an understandable choice, but not one we’ll like. Later on, things take a turn for the better, but… The rest of the characters… I’ve mentioned Lottie. She’s great and I loved the chapters from her point of view. And we have an official psychopath baddie, but, well, let’s say he’s not the worst one of the lot. (To be truthful, I prefer an all-out ‘honest’ baddie to somebody who pretends to be good and do everything for others when he’s a lying, good-for-nothing… Well, you catch my drift).

I don’t want to give you too many details about the plot, but let’s say that we discover quite a few secrets, we come to meet characters we’d only heard about before and see them in all their glory (or not), there are strange alliances, issues of law and order, cheating, fights, and even murders. And we get a scary peep into what the future holds.

As I had said in my review for the first one, due to the care and attention given to the characters, and to the way the small community is configured (we get to know everybody and it is a bit like soap opera but in a post-apocalyptic environment), this book will be enjoyed also by people who don’t usually read this genre of novels. There is a fabulous sense of place and the author manages to use the island (its history, its landscape, and its location) to its utmost advantage. The books need to be read in order to truly understand the story, the development of the characters, and their motivation. If you haven’t read Tipping Point, I recommend you start with that one and keep reading.

I know there is a book of short-stories being published later in the year and the third novel next year. I can’t wait to see what will happen next after the epilogue (and what Dex will be up to next). A great series and one that makes us question what makes us human, what do we really need to survive, and what makes us civilised (if we are).

I was provided an ARC copy of the novel that I freely chose to review.

Magic realism in the heart of darkness. A must read.

Sing, Unburied, Sing: A Novel - Jesmyn Ward

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

Sometimes, I’d try to write them down, but they were just bad poems, limping down the page: Training a horse. The next line. Cut with the knees.

It stays with me, a bruise in the memory that hurts when I touch it.

I would throw up everything. All of it: food and bile and stomach and intestines and esophagus, organs all, bones and muscle, until all that was left was skin. And then maybe that could turn inside out, and I wouldn’t be nothing no more. Not this…

“Because we don’t walk no straight lines. It’s all happening at once. All of it. We are all here at once. My mama and daddy and they mamas and daddies.” Mam looks to the wall, closes her eyes. “My son.”

Both of us bow together as Richie goes darker and darker, until he’s a black hole in the middle of the yard, like he done sucked all the light and darkness over them miles, over them years, into him, until he’s burning black, and then he isn’t. There…

“Let’s go,” I say. Knowing that tree is there makes the skin on my back burn, like hundreds of ants are crawling up my spine, seeking tenderness between the bones to bit. I know the boy is there, watching, waving like grass in water.

I decided to start with some quotes (and I would happily quote the whole book, but there would be no point) because I know I could not make its language justice. This is a book about a family, three generations of an African-American family in the South and it has been compared to works by Morrison and Faulkner, and that was what made me request the book as they are among my favourite authors. And then, I kept reading about it and, well, in my opinion, they are not wrong. We have incredible descriptions of life in the South for this rural family (smells, touch, sound, sight, taste, and even the sixth sense too), we have a nightmarish road trip to a prison, with some detours, we have characters that we get to know intimately in their beauty and ugliness, and we have their story and that of many others whose lives have been touched by them.

There are two main narrators, Leonie, a young woman, mother of two children, whose life seems to be on a downward spiral. Her white partner is in prison for cooking Amphetamines, she does drugs as often as she can and lives with her parents, who look after her children, and seems to live denying her true nature and her feelings. Her son, Jojo, is a teenager who has become the main support of the family, looking after his kid sister, Michaela, or Kayla, helping his grandfather and grandmother, rebellious and more grown-up and responsible than his mother and father. Oh, and he hears and understands what animals say, and later on, can also see and communicate with ghosts. His grandmother is also a healer and knows things, although she is riddled with cancer, and his baby sister also seems to have the gift. The third narrator is one of the ghosts, Richie, who before he makes his physical (ghostly?) appearance has been the subject of a story Jojo’s grandfather has been telling him, without ever quite finishing it, seemingly waiting for the right moment to tell him what really happened. When we get to that point, the story is devastating, but so are most of the stories in the novel. Fathers who physically fight with their sons because they love an African-American woman, young men killed because it was not right that a black man win a bet, men imprisoned for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and for being the wrong race… The stories pile up and even the ghosts fight with each other to try and gain a sense of self, to try to belong.

This is magic realism at its best. As I said, the descriptions of the characters, the locations, and the family relationships are compelling and detailed. But there are elements that break the boundaries of realism (yes, the ghosts, and the style of the narration, where we follow interrupted stories, stream of consciousness, and where the living and those who are not really there are given equal weight), and that might make the novel not suitable for everybody. As beautiful as the language is, it is also harsh and raw at times, and incredibly moving.

Although it is short and, for me at least, a page turner, this is not a light read and I’d recommend approaching it with caution if you are particularly sensitive to abuse, violence, drug use, or if you prefer your stories straight, with no otherworldly interferences. Otherwise, check a sample, and do yourselves a favour. Read it. I hadn’t read any of this author’s books before, but I’ll be on the lookout and I’ll try and catch up on her previous work. She is going places.  

 

An emotional journey into a disintegrating mind and its effects

Disease: When Life takes an Unexpected Turn - Hans M. Hirschi

I have read quite a few books by Hans Hirschi (not all, but I might get there given time) and have enjoyed them, no matter what the genre. The author is not somebody who writes thinking about the market or the latest trend. He writes stories he cares about, and beyond interesting plots and fully-fledged characters, he always pushes us to think about some of the big questions: prejudice, ecology, poverty, child abuse, families, laws, gender, identity… If all of his stories are personal, however fictional, this novel is perhaps even more personal than the rest.

As a psychiatrist, I’ve diagnosed patients with dementia (Alzheimer’s disease or other types), I’ve assessed and looked after patients with dementia in hospital, and I have seen, second-hand, what the illness does to the relatives and friends, and also to the patients, but as an observer, from outside. I’ve known some people who have suffered from the condition but not close enough to be able to give a personal account.

The novel tries to do something quite difficult: to give us the insight into what somebody suffering from Alzheimer’s feels, what they think, and how they experience the process of losing their own memories and themselves. The book is written in a diary format, in the first person, by Hunter, a man in his forties who, after some episodes of forgetfulness, goes to the doctors and is diagnosed with early Alzheimer’s. He writes articles for a living, is married to Ethan, who is a high-school teacher, and they have a five-year-old daughter, Amy (born of a surrogate mother, and Ethan’s biological daughter). They live in Michigan, where they moved to from California, and therefore they are not legally married, as that was not an option at the time. To the worry of his illness and how this will affect him (Hunter’s mother also died of the condition, so he is fully aware of its effects on its sufferers), are added the worries about practicalities, about Amy’s care, about financial stability, about his own care, as they are not a couple with equal rights in the eyes of the law.

Hunter’s diary is framed by Ethan’s narration. Ethan finds the file of the diary a couple of years after Hunter’s passing and decides to publish it, mostly letting Hunter’s words speak for themselves, but at times he clarifies if something Hunter narrates truly happened or not, or gives us his own version of events (for instance, when Hunter gets lost). Although the story is mostly written by Hunter and told from the point of view of the sufferer, Ethan’s brief contributions are poignant and heart-wrenching, precisely because we do get the sense that he is trying so hard to be strong, fair, and to focus on his daughter. He accepts things as they are and is not bitter, but the heavy toll the illness has taken is clear.

The novel ends with a letter written by Amy. Although brief, we get another perspective on how the illness affects families, and through her eyes we get to know more about how Ethan is truly feeling. A deeply moving letter that rings true.

The characters are well drawn, and even when the progression of the illness means that some of the episodes Hunter describes might not be true, they still give us a good insight into his thoughts, his illusions, and his worries. He writes compellingly and beautifully (although there are is evidence of paranoia, ramblings, and some disconnected writing towards the end), and the fact that his writing remains articulate (although the gaps between entries increase as the book progresses and he even stops writing when he misplaces the file) fit in with research about preservation of those skills we have used the most and are more ingrained. Hunter pours into his diary his thoughts and experiences, some that he has never shared in detail with anybody (like being trapped at a hotel in Mumbai during a terrorist attack), and others that seem to be flights of fancy or wishful thinking. He shares his own opinions (his dislike of nursing homes, his horror at the thought of being looked after by somebody he doesn’t know, his worries about the future, his memories of the past…) and is at times humorous, at times nasty, at others indignant and righteous. He is not a cardboard cut-out, and neither are any of the other characters.

Apart from the personal story of the characters, we have intrusions of the real world, including news, court decisions, that ground the events in the here and now, however universal they might be, but wherever you live and whoever you are, it is impossible not to put yourself in the place of the characters and wonder what you would do, and how much more difficult things are for them because they are not a “normal” family.

This is an extraordinary book, a book that made me think about patients I had known with similar diagnosis, about the difficulties they and their families face (there are not that many nursing homes that accommodate early dementia, and most of those for elderly patients are not suited to the needs of younger patients), about end of life care, and about what I would do faced with a similar situation. The book does not shy away from asking the difficult questions, and although it is impossible to read it and not feel emotional, it tells the story with the same dignity it affords its main character.

Although there is a certain degree of intrigue from the beginning (we do not find the exact circumstances of Hunter’s death until very close to the end) that will, perhaps, contribute to reading it even faster, this book is for readers who are interested in dementia and Alzheimer’s (although it is not an easy read), who love well-drawn characters, deep psychological portrayals, and stories about families and their ties. A great and important book I thoroughly recommend and another first-rate addition to Mr. Hirschi’s oeuvre.

I received an ARC copy of this book and I freely decided to review it. Thanks to the author and the publisher for this opportunity.

Four stories of the man as a young artist. For lovers of experimental literary fiction and New York.

4 3 2 1 - Paul Auster

Thanks to NetGalley and to Faber & Faber for providing me with an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I’ve been following with interest the Man-Booker Prize this year and realised I had quite a few of the books on my list to be read and decided to try and read in a timely manner and see how my opinion compared to that of the judges. When the shortlist was announced, only one of the books I had read so far had made it, Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a book I really enjoyed. And then I got the chance to read 4 3 2 1 by Paul Auster, another one of the novels shortlisted, and I could not resist.

I had read a novel by Paul Auster years back, The Book of Illusions and although I remember I enjoyed it, I had never read another one of his books until now. It wasn’t a conscious decision, and I had always kept in mind that at some point I should pick up another one of his books but that day hadn’t arrived.

I hadn’t read anything about this novel before I started reading it, other than it had been shortlisted for the Man-Booker, and therefore I was a bit surprised and confused, to begin with.

First, as happens with e-books, I had no idea how long it was. It’s around the 900 pages mark. Second, I didn’t realise it was a fairly experimental novel, or, at least its structure was not standard. The novel starts as if it was going to be a family saga, with the story of a Jewish immigrant arriving in New York, and we follow his story and that of his family for a couple of generations until we get to the birth of a boy, Archibald Ferguson. He doesn’t like his first name that much and for the rest of the novel he is referred to as Ferguson. When things start getting weird is when at some point you become aware that you are reading four different versions of his life. These are narrated in the third person, although always from the point of view of the character, and yes, they are numbered.  So the first chapter (or part), you would have 1.1, 1.2, 1.3, 1.4 and then, the next part would be 2.1… and so on. The story (stories) are told chronologically but chopped up into bits. Some of the reviewers have commented that you need to be a member of MENSA to remember and differentiate the various stories, because yes, there are differences (fate seems to play a big part, as sometimes due to incidents that happen to his family, financial difficulties, relationship issues… the story takes a different turn and deviates from the other versions), but these are not huge, and it is difficult to keep in your mind which one of the versions is which one (at times I would have been reading for a while before I could remember how this version was different to the one I had just been reading). Because the differences are not major (yes, in one version he ends up going to a university and in another to a different one, in one he works at a newspaper and in another starts writing books, in one he goes out with a girl and in another they are only friends…), and the characters are pretty much the same in all versions (although sometimes their behaviour is quite different) it makes the stories very similar. Added to that, all versions of the character are also very similar as if the different circumstances were not earth-shattering and had not affected that much the development of his boy (in the debate of nature, nurture, it’s safe to say Auster supports nature). The devil seems to be in the detail, or perhaps the point is that we might strongly believe that there are moments when our decisions could have sent us down one path or a completely different one (Sliding Doors anyone?), but the truth is that of all the infinite possibilities (and that makes me think of a book I read very recently, Do You Realize?) only one is conducive to life as we know it (the Goldilocks theory of life. Neither too hot nor too cold, just right) and our life was meant to be as it if.

Ferguson loves films and is a bit of a film buff (there are lengthy digressions about Laurel & Hardy, the French New Wave, American Films…), he also loves books and writing, and some versions of the story include his translations of French poets, or his own stories (that sometimes end up being exactly the same as the story we are reading, and others are either full stories or fragments of the books he is writing), and sports, mostly baseball, although also basketball.

Towards the end of the book (well, it’s a long book, so let’s say from the time the characters goes to college), we get much more detailed information about politics and historical events in America. There are lengthy descriptions of reactions to the murders of J.F.K, Martin Luther King, Robert Kennedy, race riots, the Black Power Movement, the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement, the Columbia University demonstrations and student political organisations, and also about New York and Paris (more New York than Paris) in the 1960s and early 70s. Although in one of the versions Ferguson is attending Columbia, he is a reporter and even when he is physically there, he narrates the events as an observer rather than as if he was personally involved. His engagement seems to be intellectual above all, no matter what version of Ferguson we read, although the reasons for his attitude might be different.

I don’t want to end up with a review as long as the book itself, and after checking other reviews of the book, I thought I’d share a couple I particularly liked, so you can have a look.

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1909935118?book_show_action=true&from_review_page=1

https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/01/30/paul-austers-novel-of-chance

What I thought the book did very well, in all its versions, was to capture the feelings and the thoughts of a teenager and young man (although, as I’m a woman, I might be completely wrong). Although the emphasis is slightly different in each version, that is fairly consistent and rings true. As a writer and film lover, I enjoyed the comments about books and movies, although these could be frustrating to some readers. I also enjoyed the works in progress of the various Fergusons (some more than others) but this could again be annoying to readers who prefer to follow a story and not wander and float in flights of fancy. I agree with some of the comments I’ve read that the latter part of the book is slowed down even more by the endless description of incidents at Columbia that, no matter the version of the story we read, are analytically reported rather than brought to life.

My main problem with the book is that I did not connect that much with the main character. Considering the amount of time readers get to spend with the different versions of Ferguson, we get to know him, but I did not feel for him. Strangely enough, sometimes I felt more connected to some of the other characters in the story (his mother in some versions, some of his friends, a teacher…) than I did to him. I’m not sure if it was because it all felt very artificial, or because none of the versions completely gelled for me. I admired his intellect but did not connect at an emotional level and I did not care for him. I’m aware that readers who know Auster’s oeuvre better have commented on the biographical similarities with his own life, and I’m aware that he has denied it is (or are) his story. There are, for sure, many points of contact. Some readers have compared it to books that have used a somewhat similar format to tell their stories, but as I haven’t read any, I will not comment on that. The ending, metafictional as was to be expected, will probably satisfy more those who enjoy formal literary experiments than those looking for a good story. I do not think many people will find it surprising, but I don’t think that was the author’s goal. The writing is good, sometimes deep and challenging, others more perfunctory. And yes, I still intend to read other Auster’s books in the future.

In sum, a fascinating exercise in writing, that will be of interest primarily to followers of Auster’s career, to those who love experimental literary fiction, particularly those interested also in films, literature, the writing process, sports, and New York. Not a book I’d recommend to those who love dynamic stories with exciting plots, or those who prefer to emotionally engage with characters. Ah, and it requires a reasonable memory and a serious investment of time.

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