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Birds of A Lesser Paradise – Book Review

Not everyone could live with tumbleweeds of dog hair on the steps, the night sounds of feral cats exploring the house, the raccoon rattling his cage door at two in the morning. The retrievers came to me, stuck their cold noses on my cheek. Aged and humbled, they looked like orangutans, their cinnamon-and-honey-colored coats matted, their eyes framed in white. When Gray left, the  cats came out of hiding long enough for me to name them. – from Every Vein a Tooth, page 168 –

Megan Mayhew Bergman’s amazing debut collection of short stories captured me first with its alluring book jacket, and then delighted me with its honest, funny and poignant narratives. The collection includes twelve stories which intertwine the characters’ lives with that of pets, wild animals, and the natural world. An animal lover for my entire life, I saw myself in some of the characters who find comfort in their connection with the furred and feathered beings in their lives, and find that animals have valuable lessons to teach. These characters see their lives firmly enmeshed in the natural world around them, sometimes with a surprising twist or unexpected outcome.

In Housewifely Arts, a woman mourns the death of her mother and decides to take a road trip with her young son to find her mother’s pet bird – a bird who could remarkably imitate her mother’s voice. The story reveals the ambivalent feelings between mother and daughter, and the bittersweet ache of wanting something that is unattainable.

I haven’t told Ike that we’re driving to a small roadside zoo outside of Myrtle Beach so that I can hear my mother’s voice call from the beak of a thirty-six-year-old African gray parrot, a bird I hated, a bird that could beep like a microwave, ring like a phone, and sneeze just like me. – from Housewifely Arts, page 3 –

Most of Bergman’s stories have a common theme – that of the sometimes uneasy relationship between parents and children, and the longing for unconditional love.  In The Cow That Milked Herself, a pregnant woman longs for her vet tech husband, Wood, to turn his caring from the animals he treats to her. In the animal world, sheep drop their lambs on mud covered floors, dogs fall ill with bladder infections, and jaguars in captivity are known to devour their own cubs – it is rough and sometimes sad, and scary…and there is something there which reminds us of the tenuous threads which bind one life to another.

The title story, Birds of a Lesser Paradise, and the next to the last story, The Artificial Heart, take a look at the relationship between daughters and fathers. In both stories, the fathers are aged and their health is declining. The daughters are the caregivers, strong women whose hearts are aching with memories of who their fathers used to be. In Birds of a Lesser Paradise, a theme park which runs birding trips becomes the backdrop for the spooling out of a story about the harsh reality of growing older; in The Artificial Heart, the story takes place many years in the future as the earth’s oceans have become poisoned. The protagonist’s father in this last narrative has dementia and has a newly minted relationship with an older woman whose diagnosis of Alzheimer’s Disease is robbing her of memory. Bergman skillfully weaves humor into a story about loss.

My father was ninety-one and senile but insisted he could still look for love. The dating service paired him with Susan – an octogenarian feminist who listed skee ball and container gardening as her primary hobbies. She was in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and chewed nicotine gum when she talked. They’d been dating a month and when he was lucid, Dad was smitten. – from The Artificial Heart, page 185 –

Bergman also reminds us that nature can be a dangerous and fearful thing, full of the unexpected and mysterious. In Saving Face, a young veterinarian’s momentary lapse while removing porcupine quills from a wolf hybrid, results in her life being forever changed.

She’d treated the dog with tenderness. What did I expect in return? she wondered. Gratitude?

There are no promises, no obligations between living things, she thought. Not even humans. Just raw need hidden by a game of make-believe. – from Saving Face, page 70 –

Likewise, in Night Hunting, a teenager is terrified when her mother’s cancer returns. The two of them have moved to Vermont and listen to the coyotes at night. One particular coyote, a female with pups, is becoming more confident and dangerous. She represents the relentlessness of nature, the grim reality of the perils we face in our lives.

The best predators, I realized, had no sympathy. – from Night Hunting, page 156 –

Taken as a whole, Bergman’s collection of stories is a stunning and beautifully wrought meditation on how our lives are connected to each other and to the world around us. Bergman writes with a finely honed knowledge of the animal world, and includes the humor, the menace, the poignancy, and the love which draw people to animals. She reminds us of how we cannot detach ourselves from our biology or from the world in which we live.

This is an exquisite collection from a fresh, new voice in fiction.

Highly recommended.

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FTC Disclosure: I purchased this book.

Readers wishing to purchase this book from an Indie Bookstore may click on the book link below to find Indie sellers. As an Indiebound Associate, I receive a small commission if readers purchase a book through this link on my blog.


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The Garden of Evening Mists – Book Review

The imminent rain in the air smelt crisp and metallic, as though it had been seared by the lightning buried in the clouds. The scent reminded me of the time in the camp, when my mind had latched onto the smallest, most inconsequential thing to distract myself: a butterfly wafting from a patch of scrub, a spiderweb tethered to twigs by strands of silk, sieving the wind for insects. – from The Garden of Evening Mists, page 100 –

Teoh Yun Ling has retired from her profession as a judge and returned to the mountains of Malaya forty years after having been imprisoned by the Japanese during WWII. On the edge of the rain forest, beneath the mists of the mountain, and beside the rolling hills of a tea plantation she writes a story before her memory fades because Yun Ling has been diagnosed with a devastating illness, primary progressive aphasia, which will steal her memories and her language. Yun Ling’s story is a complex one. It is the story of captivity at the hands of brutal soldiers and the loss of her sister. It is about her desire to honor her sister’s memory with a garden crafted by the former gardener of the Emperor of Japan, a man named Nakamura Aritomo who is dignified, talented and mysterious. It is about the year she spends with Aritomo as his apprentice, physically laboring in his amazing garden as their relationship grows more intimate. It is about the impact of war – first the war in the Pacific, and then the Malayan Emergency. But most importantly, it is about finding oneself again, teasing through memories long buried and discovering the secrets that lie just below the surface.

He turned to me, touching the side of his head lightly. At that moment it struck me that he was similar to the boulders on which we had spent the entire morning working. Only a small portion was revealed to the world, the rest was buried deep within, hidden from view.  – from The Garden of Evening Mists, page 99 –

Tan Twan Eng’s second novel is an alluring one, filled with exquisite description of the Malayan countryside against the backdrop of violence.

The days here opened from beyond one set of mountains and ended behind another, and I came to think of Yugiri as a place lodged somewhere in a crease between daybreak and sunset. – from The Garden of Evening Mists, page 109 –

Yun Ling’s inner struggle to come to terms with the trauma (both physical and emotional) which she endured at the hands of the Japanese is illuminated through a narrative which moves back and forth in time between the 1940s when Yun Ling is a child, to 1950 when she returns to Malaya as a young adult, and many years later when Yun Ling is an older woman. Yun Ling’s voice carries the reader through several important historical events:

  • The Second Sino-Japanese War (July 7, 1937 – September 2, 1945)
  • The Japanese Invasion of Malaya (also called the Battle of Kota Bharu) which began December 8, 1941 (local Malaya time), before the attack on Pearl Harbor (this is the period of time when Yun Ling is captured and held as a prisoner by the Japanese).
  • The Malayan Emergency which was a guerrilla war fought between Commonwealth armed forces and the Malayan National Liberation Army (the military arm of the Malayan Communist Party) from 1948 to 1960.

The central theme in the novel is that of memory – how memory can be healing and how it can change with time. Yun Ling’s memories of her time in captivity are ones she has worked most of her life to forget. But now she is facing the loss of all her memories, and she is struggling to remember.

I have become a collapsing star, pulling everything around it, even the light, into an ever-expanding void. – from The Garden of Evening Mists, page 33 –

Eng uses the garden with its hidden secrets and surprising twists and views, as a metaphor for memory. Aritomo uses the concept of shakkei – a way of borrowing the landscape and other elements to enhance the beauty of the garden – and Yun Ling makes the connection between this style of gardening to that of memory:

‘A garden borrows from the earth, the sky, and everything around it, but you borrow from time,’ I said slowly. ‘Your memories are a form of shakkei too. You bring them in to make your life here feel less empty. Like the mountains and the clouds over your garden, you can see them, but they will always be out of your reach.’ – from The Garden of Evening Mists, page 153 –

This idea of memory as elusive and related to the natural world permeates the novel.

Memory is like patches of sunlight in an overcast valley, shifting with the movement of the clouds. Now and then the light will fall on a particular point in time, illuminating it for a moment before the wind seals up the gap, and the world is in shadows again. – from The Garden of Evening Mists, page 309 –

Other themes explored in the book are recovery from trauma, nationalism, and the impact of war on individuals.

Eng’s prose is often dreamlike and elegant. His shifts in narrative allow for the reader to discover Yun Ling’s inner journey and adds complexity to the other characters who are uncovered gradually through Yun Ling’s memories of them and the events which unfurl.

The Garden of Evening Mists is a quiet novel at times with the action being more about Yun Ling’s inner growth and dawning perceptions of Aritomo. But there are also some graphic descriptions of the violence which rocked this region. When Yun Ling takes the reader back to the years of her captivity, I found it hard to catch my breath.

Eng’s writing is gorgeous. He demonstrates a deep understanding about how events shape our lives and how the natural world is intricately enmeshed with who we are as humans. He also understands the complexity of people – the multiple layers which make up our lives and the hidden secrets we all carry.

The Garden of Evening Mists is a literary treat. Readers who love literary fiction will find themselves pulled into this introspective and exquisitely written novel.

Highly recommended.

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FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review on my blog.

One More Year – Book Review

The psychology of endurance, did such a field really exist? Had this woman named it into existence? It seemed ludicrous in a way possible only in this country, spinning your own survival instincts into a new form of expertise, peddling them as though they were something you could teach people. – from The Alternate, page 65 –

A woman moves in with an older man out of necessity, a Russian boy visits his mother in New York and the divide between America and Russia widens, a man mourns a woman he once loved and hopes for a connection with her daughter, a young woman tries to break free of a polygamous marriage, a young wife struggles to leave an abusive marriage, a man learns the truth about his beloved niece, a man turns his back on Wall Street success to return to his native country, a young woman takes an extended visit back to Russia to escape the consequences of a bad decision at work…all of these characters people the eight stories in Sana Krasikov’s award winning collection: One More Year. Krasikov weaves her tales around the central theme of immigration and the struggle to adapt to a new country while clinging to the memories and connections of the past.

In The Repatriates, this struggle is reflected through the eyes of a woman whose husband decides to leave his lucrative job on Wall Street to return to Russia and start a new business. Grisha resists adapting to his life in the United States, while his wife, Lera, wishes only to support her husband’s desires.

Lera would often see her husband off in a corner, rattling his drink and talking with someone about the morbid state of American culture, the absence of any real spirituality here. It was known to happen to such late arrivants – the ones who’d risked nothing, forsaken little, and had not even been required by the Russian government to annul their red passports. – from The Repatriates, page 154 –

When Lera rejoins Grisha back in Russia, there are secrets and betrayals waiting for her and the idealized version of her husband’s Russia brings only disappointment.

Most of the female characters in Krasikov’s stories slide between wanting their autonomy and independence, to desiring a man’s control in their lives. Often these characters are willing to set aside their own moralities to find love and acceptance from a man…only to be disappointed and alone at the end. The dream of happiness and success in America is rarely attained. It seems as though Krasikov is illuminating a misconception – that where we live has everything to do with self-actualization. And yet, all the characters in her stories are living the immigrant experience of hope, struggle, and the search for a better life by leaving behind what they know to take a risk on the unknown.

Krasikov writes with a maturity and authenticity which makes her stories believable. The reader gets the feeling that Krasikov knows her characters intimately and understands their desires, motivations and flaws. Despite the bleakness which infiltrates this collection, the stories also contain some hope and the spirit of survival. One gets the feeling that even though these characters stumble and fall, they will get back up again.

Sana Krasikov was recognized for the 5 Under 35 Award (administered by the National Book Foundation) for this debut collection of short stories, and it is easy to see why. Full of empathy, passion and a deep understanding of the struggle of immigrants, One More Year is a beautiful and insightful work of fiction.

Highly recommended for those who love literary fiction in the form of the short story.

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FTC Disclosure: I purchased this book.

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The Gods of Gotham – Book Review

I hadn’t been a copper star before. But I was then, I think, with Bird shivering so hard in m arms that she could scarcely breathe. And I am now. For if not for us, who would have ever found them? – from the ARE of The Gods of Gotham –

It is 1845 and New York City has formed its first police force. Timothy Wilde, a former bartender who has dreams of making a life with a woman he has known since childhood, finds himself scarred and destitute after a devastating fire. When Timothy’s brother, Valentine, gets him a position on the new police force, Timothy at first resists. But then, one night while doing rounds, Timothy runs head on into a ten year old Irish girl named Bird who is covered in blood. Impulsively, he takes Bird home with him instead of to the House of Refuge and, when questioned, Bird reveals a shocking tale of a man in a dark hood who has been murdering children and burying them in a forest in the City. The case is complicated by political unrest, religious differences, and the influx of Irish immigrants into New York, not to mention the ambiguous feelings between Timothy and Valentine – a man whose drug addiction, political aspirations, and ruthless view of life stir up more questions than answers.

The Gods of Gotham is a thrilling and compelling historical mystery which kept me glued to the pages. Lyndsay Faye sets the stage for her novel with spot-on descriptions of New York City in the mid-nineteenth century. Timothy Wilde makes the perfect narrator as a man struggling to survive after losing it all. He is a character with plenty of heart and a penchant for crime solving. Timothy’s relationship with his brother is a blend of resentment and begrudging love and provides a good deal of tension. The reader is kept guessing about Valentine who is a character with dark secrets and is, at times, difficult to like.

The Gods of Gotham has a twisty and surprising plot. Just when I thought I had it figured out, Faye took the novel in an entirely different direction. I don’t want to say much else about the plot for fear of ruining it for others…but suffice it to say that it was one of the strengths of the book.

Faye did a great deal of research for this book and weaves into the novel some true historical facts including a case of infanticide in New York’s Five Points area, the civic unrest which led to the formation of New York City’s first police force, a playhouse founded by a group of ragtag newsboys, and the birth of nonfiction urban sensationalism. She also includes the historical figure of George Washington Matsell who was known for his publication titled The Secret Language of Crime: Vocabulum, or, the Rogue’s Lexicon (1859).

It should be mentioned that the novel incorporates “flash” dialogue – a type of slang used in working class neighborhoods of New York City which gave birth to a permanent shift in the English language. Faye includes a helpful dictionary of terms for reference, but I found it was unnecessary as the language is seated artfully in context and was easy to interpret.

I loved this book for its historical setting and characters, and for its unpredictable plot. Readers who enjoy historical fiction as well as mysteries will not want to miss The Gods of Gotham.

Highly recommended.

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FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher as a participant in BOOK CLUB (an on line book club group).

Discussion for this book will take place on Devourer of Books on April 3rd, 2012.

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A Good American – Book Review

We are all immigrants, a glorious confection of races and beliefs, united by the rock that we live on. As the years wash over us and new generations march into the future, family histories are subsumed into this greater narrative. We become, simply, Americans. – from an ARE of A Good American –

Frederick and Jette Meisenheimer board a ship from Germany to America one day in 1904. They are escaping Jette’s family who do not approve of the couple marrying, and they are moving toward a new life on the other side of the world. By chance, they end up docking in New Orleans, and then fate brings them to the small town of Beatrice, Missouri where they settle down to raise their family. For Frederick, America is a land of dreams and opportunity and he soon opens his own restaurant. Jette mourns the loss of her home in Germany and struggles to adjust to her new country. As the years pass, children are born, grow up and start families of their own. Loved ones die and life goes on through the tumultuous years of WWI, Prohibition, WWII, the Great Depression, and even the assassination of JFK. Narrated by James Meisenheimer, the grandson of Jette and Frederick, A Good American reveals the evolution of one immigrant family over a span of one hundred years.

Alex George’s debut novel introduces readers to a charming cast of characters: a music teacher with an eye for young boys, a terrifying dwarf lawyer, a black musician from New Orleans who comes to Beatrice looking for work and then stays, an Evangelical minister who believes a young boy is the second coming of Christ, and a town hero who won’t stop growing. At its core, A Good American is about the ties which bind families together within the bigger context of a community.

Music plays a large role in the Meisenheimer family from page one when Frederick serenades Jette to win her heart, and later Frederick’s son, Joseph (whose voice is silenced by the fear of performing in public), creates a one-family musical group with his quartet of sons. The jazz age comes to Beatrice with Lomax, a gregarious and big-hearted black man who wins over the Meisenheimers with his kindness.

Amy Einhorn Books is known for its heartwarming novels filled with somewhat quirky characters, and George’s story fits comfortably next to books such as The Weird Sisters and The Postmistress. Along with a great cast of characters, the novel is a poignant and funny travel through history on the coattails of one family.  A Good American strikes that difficult balance between humor and sadness, reality and imagination.

Towards the end of the novel, there is an interesting plot twist when James uncovers a well-kept family secret that stuns him and has him questioning all he thinks he knows about his family. It is a revelation which helps define the central theme of the novel: how do we define family, and how does our family shape who we become?

Alex George has written a sentimental and refreshing first novel which will appeal to readers who love historical fiction and family sagas. This is a universal novel about what it means to part of a community and family. Get ready to be swept into a story which is truly a delight.

Recommended.

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FTC Disclosure: This novel was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

Readers wishing to purchase this book from an Indie Bookstore may click on the book link below to find Indie sellers. As an Indiebound Associate, I receive a small commission if readers purchase a book through this link on my blog.


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11/22/63 – Book Review

I knew where I was; Lisbon Falls, Maine, deep in the heart of Androscoggin County. The real question was when I was. – from 11/22/63, page 31 –

Jake Epping is thirty-five years old, a high school teacher living in Maine in the year 2011. Jake makes a little extra money teaching GED classes and he meets a janitor named Harry – a soft-spoken man whose essay about the murder of his mother and siblings in 1958 blows Jake away. So when Al, a friend of Jake’s who owns a local restaurant, reveals a “rabbit hole” to the past, Jake takes it. What unfolds is travel back in time to the late 1950’s, just over four years before JFK is assassinated. Jake has the power to change the past, but will it make the future better, or worse?

Stephen King’s latest novel, 11/22/63, is a sprawling doorstopper filled with realistic characters and plenty of “what-ifs.” He takes the reader back to a time in history when gas was cheap, racism was rampant, women’s rights were just beginning to be glimpsed, and people left their doors unlocked. There is no Internet, no terrorists, no hyped up airport security. As Jake navigates this world from the past, he must live two lives – one as an affable school teacher and another as a man from the future who plans on changing history forever.

In true King fashion, readers will recognize characters from previous novels. Jake spends a bit of time in Derry, Maine – the town where It was set – and the “clown murders” are still being talked about there. Derry is still not quite right with the stench of industry and the dark Barrens where the sewers empty.

But the focus of the book actually takes place in Dallas and just outside of that city. King spends a lot of time creating Jake’s alternate life there, introducing dozens of characters and intertwining their stories. Sadie, a school librarian, becomes a central character in the story, a twist that makes the plot less predictable.

Thematically, King explores the idea of history repeating itself, the sense that things happen for a reason, and the danger of trying to change history. The Butterfly Effect, the idea that small change at one place in a nonlinear system can result in large differences to a later state, becomes a major theme in the novel.

It was clear to me that King spent a lot of time researching for this book – the history, politics, and sociology of the times is staggering in its detail. That detail allows the reader to become fully immersed in the story and transports her back in time.

King is truly a master storyteller. It has been a long time since I have read one of his novels – but I was instantly reminded why I have always loved his books. The characters leap from the pages, fully formed and believable. Despite this being a time-travel book, something which is clearly outside reality, I found myself firmly believing the premise. And this is what King does best – he engages his audience, takes them places where they might not travel themselves, and convinces them this could happen.

My only criticism is that I think the novel could have been edited down by about 200 pages. But, this is Stephen King, not only a master storyteller, but the king of the chunkster…and so, this minor quibble should not deter anyone from picking up a copy of 11/22/63. Despite its heft, the novel is intriguing enough to keep even the most distracted reader turning the pages.

Readers of horror, historical fiction, and time travel novels, as well as those who have loved Stephen King’s work in the past, will not want to miss 11/22/63.

Highly recommended.

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Have you read and reviewed this book? Consider linking your review up for the Chunky Book Club here. Discussion of this book will begin on The Chunkster blog on March 13, 2012 – I hope you’ll join us!

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FTC Disclosure: I purchased this book.

Stephen King fans – have you seen the Stephen King Project? Check it out!

 

Blue Monday – Book Review

She had exposed dreams and fragments of memories, or images that felt like memories, likenesses. Because that was what she did, that was her currency: the things that happened inside people’s heads, the things that made people happy or unhappy or afraid, the connections that they made for themselves between separate events that could lead them through chaos and fear. – from Blue Monday –

Frieda Klein is a reticent woman, a psychotherapist living in London who helps others work through their inner turmoils while she is reluctant to open up in her personal life. She has trouble sleeping, walking the streets of the city at night where she feels most comfortable. When a troubled and anxious man named Alan comes to her for help, Frieda at first approaches the case as any other. But when a young boy named Matthew Farraday goes missing, Frieda recognizes something disturbing: Alan’s dreamlike expressions about wanting a child are uncannily similar to Matthew’s disappearance, and Matthew looks like he could be Alan’s son with his red hair and freckles. Frieda takes her worries to chief inspector Karlsson, a surly man who reluctantly listens to her. As the case unfolds, disturbing questions arise: Who is Alan and is he capable of stealing a child? And is Matthew’s disappearance related to another child abduction from 25 years ago?

Blue Monday is the first in a new series featuring Frieda Klein, and it is a suspenseful and twisty psychological thriller. Frieda is a complex character who at first left me a bit cold with her reserved and careful demeanor. But as the novel progressed, I found myself empathizing with her character and wanting to understand her psychological underpinnings. People seem to move in and out of Frieda’s life – an immigrant who literally falls in front of her, a colleague on the verge of professional collapse, a lover who no longer wants to live in London, and her dysfunctional sister and troubled niece. Frieda is the unflinching and constant influence in all these people’s lives, and yet she seems almost untouched by them.

Perhaps the most interesting part of this novel is how the connections are revealed between characters. Nothing is really as it first appears. There is a terrific twist about half way through the book which I didn’t see coming and which adds another layer to the mystery.

If I have any complaints with the book, it was with the latter half which felt a little slow to me. Some of the plot turns at the end were a bit predictable as well. That said, I did enjoy this novel for its psychological depth and because of Frieda who, despite her short comings (and maybe because of them), is a strong enough character to carry a series.

Readers who love psychological suspense will want to read this book. Atmospheric with strong characterization, Blue Monday is the type of book that will appeal to readers who like their novels dark and mysterious. I will undoubtedly be looking for the second book in the series when it is eventually released.

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Would you like to win a copy of this book? Visit THIS POST to read a Q&A by the authors and to enter to win Blue Monday (contest open to US and Canada and closes on March 4, 2012).

FTC Disclosure: A copy of this book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

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The Brothers – Book Review

Nowadays, a woman’s honour is neither here not there, if it ever was. When there are no men of honour, there can be no women of honour. Men charge round in a woman’s life like mad bulls, and the wisest thing to do would be to sit quietly in a dimly lit corner. But what can you do when there is blood in your veins? That blood will surge and make its demand. And then you have a thirst that is not quenched by drinking. – from The Brothers, page 23 –

The Finnish war, fought between Sweden and the Russian Empire from the winter of 1808 until the autumn of 1809, has come to its conclusion and Henrik, once a soldier fighting for Russia, has now come home to the family farm in Finland. He comes in the night, leaving footprints in the snow, and no one is happy to see him. Henrik’s brother, Erik, fought with the Swedes during the war. He also married Anna, a woman who first turned Henrik’s head. There are old grudges and family secrets. The brothers’ mother worries about what will come of things, and she harbors her own dark secret.

I sensed that motherhood was terrible, perhaps sweet at times, but above all terrible. Not because one human child would be more horrendous than another, nor is it so that offspring cannot bring joy when little and be useful when grown up, but because motherhood makes it possible for future generations to be rocked by dark tragedies. – from The Brothers, page 46 –

There are other characters, too, in this story of betrayal and family saga – the farmhand who is observant and smart, the housemaid who may be more than what she seems, and a cousin named Mauri who bides his time and waits for opportunity to turn his life around. The brothers, Henrik and Erik, have a turbulent history which informs the novella with a brittle tension as the other characters weave through the narrative like dancers on a stage.

The Brothers is a multi-layered and rich piece of literature where pieces of the characters lives come together like an intricate puzzle. As the story unfolds, there is an undercurrent of violence and a sense of apprehension begins to build. Asko Sahlberg shifts the narrative back and forth between the different and unique voices of the characters – a technique which allows the reader to gain a deeper understanding of what exactly has happened between these people who are mostly unlikeable and damaged. Many pieces of the story are introduced by one character, and then further elaborated by another. Although this might seem confusing, I found it to be highly effective in maintaining the pace of the novella.

Many historical novels need hundreds of pages to do what Sahlberg does in a novella with just over one hundred pages. With writing which is tight, taut, and artfully drawn, Sahlberg reels the reader into a family drama set against the backdrop of post-war Finland in the dead of winter.

I read this book in just over two hours, eagerly turning the pages to unravel this family’s secrets. The novella is a translation from the Finnish, and it is beautifully rendered.

This latest installment from Peirene Press is sure to delight readers who enjoy works in translation, but it will also appeal to those who love well-written literary fiction. Sahlberg is considered one of the best writers to have come out of Finland, and it is easy to see why. Based on its size The Brothers might seem like a nibble of literature, but it will surprise readers with its enormous depth and skillfully drawn characters.

Highly recommended.

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FTC Disclosure: This book was sent to me by the publisher for review on my blog.

No Mark Upon Her – Book Review

Beneath the surface, tendrils of dark hair moved like moss, and white fingers, slightly curled, drifted back and forth as if waving, signaling for help. – from No Mark Upon Her, page 45 –

Rebecca ‘Becca’ Meredith is a high-ranking detective with the Met in London. She is also an Olympic caliber rower who has decided to follow her dreams for a gold medal. So when her body is discovered in the Thames by two canine search and rescue teams, it is hard to imagine who would have wanted to do her harm. When one of the canine teams – Kieran Connolly and his black lab, Finn – come under attack, the mystery deepens. Duncan Kincaid is assigned the case and he immediately finds himself embroiled in much more than a murder investigation. Although  Becca’s ex-husband, Freddie, appears to be the most obvious suspect, the evidence begins to suggest that the real killer may be closer to the investigation than originally thought.

Deborah Crombie has crafted an intriguing and twisty suspense-thriller set in England. Filled with interesting characters, including canine handler Tavie and her German Shepherd, Tosh, as well as Kincaid’s feisty wife, Gemma, the novel is well paced and offers a mystery which keeps the reader guessing until the end. Crombie lives in Texas, but she deftly weaves a believable story set firmly in London and its surrounding countryside.

Although it is the mystery of Becca’s death which drives the narrative, Crombie complicates the story with underlying secrets and the prestigious world of rowing clubs and posh schools.

I thoroughly enjoyed this thriller, and not just because it involved search and rescue dogs and their handlers. Crombie writes well with a good command of her story and a knack for maintaining the mystery up until the last pages. The novel is absorbing and suspenseful – the perfect book to read on a wintery day.

Readers should know that Crombie has written thirteen previous books in the Duncan Kincaid/Gemma James series, although it is not necessary to have read the first books to appreciate this one which stood alone just fine for me. That said, I think I may need to go back and catch up on Crombie’s earlier works.

No Mark Upon Her is highly recommended for readers who enjoy thrillers, mysteries, or anything with an English flavor.

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FTC Disclosure: I received this book from the publisher for review on my blog.

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Lord of the Flies – Book Review

Some were naked and carrying their clothes; others half-naked, or more or less dressed, in school uniforms, grey, blue, fawn, jacketed, or jerseyed. There were badges, mottoes even, stripes of color in stockings and pullovers. Their heads clustered above the trunks in the green shade; heads brown, fair, black, chestnut, sandy, mouse-colored, heads muttering, whispering, heads full of eyes that watched Ralph and speculated. Something was being done. – from Lord of the Flies, page 13 –

A plane crashes on a deserted island, leaving in its wake children – the only survivors. These children are British school boys, civilized kids with manners and well-versed in respect for authority. There are very small children – the “littluns” who don’t seem to understand the enormity of what has happened. And there are older kids, boys who quickly recognize the need for a leader, a chief of sorts. A new society is forming, and before long survival demands a return to one’s baser instincts.

Lord of the Flies is a classic. Penned in 1954 by Nobel Laureate William Golding, it is a novel which asks deep moral questions and examines what happens when the civilized world is stripped away and individuals are left to create their own society.

Two main characters emerge early on. Ralph is a sandy-haired boy who is quickly chosen to be the “chief” and who focuses on building shelter and maintaining a fire to attract rescue. He holds “assemblies,” where participants are called to participate with a blow from a conch and are designed to maintain order. Jack is a charismatic boy, the leader of a choir of boys, who quickly establishes himself as the hunter, tracking down the wild pigs on the island with a sharpened stick as a spear. Before long, Jack and Ralph are in a competition for leadership with Ralph being the voice of reason, and Jack appealing to the more savage aspects of the boys’ personalities.

Another character, Piggy, emerges as the philosopher and the scapegoat. Piggy is obese, bespectacled, afflicted with asthma, and a bit of a know-it-all. Despite his wisdom (or maybe because of it), he is bullied.

There had grown up tacitly among the biguns the opinion that Piggy was an outsider, not only by accent, which did not matter, but by fat, and ass-mar, and specs, and a certain disinclination for manual labor. – from Lord of the Flies, page 60 –

There is also a fourth character, Simon, who plays an important role in the novel. Simon is a loner, but he is also reasonable and practical and gifted with an insight which the others lack. When talk of a beast begins, it is Simon who refuses to acknowledge a physical beast and instead recognizes that the beast is the fear within them.

These four characters – Jack, Ralph, Simon and Piggy – take center stage in a novel about the disintegration of morals and the descent into savagery.

I first read this novel in high school…and my memory of it is inexact. Of course, I remembered Piggy for his victimization, but in terms of theme, my memory was lacking. During this re-read, the story returned to me and I found it so much more compelling from my adult point of view. Classic literature is defined as something which stands the test of time…and there is no doubt that The Lord of the Flies meets that definition with its memorable characters, shocking twists of plot and ruminations on what it means to be human. Written in the 1950s, it could easily have been penned today.

Lord of the Flies is a novel which will generate great discussion in book groups and in the classroom. It is not an “enjoyable” read, and yet it is an engaging one. There is a good deal of violence in this slim book and I found myself anxious as the plot unfurls and it becomes obvious that things are going very, very wrong.

This is a classic, dysptopian-type novel about good vs. evil, but it also forces the reader to look within and to examine his or her role as part of a larger society.

Highly recommended.

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FTC Disclosure: I purchased this book.

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