Tag Archives: book review

Book Review: For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu

07.21.2015

By Zara D.Garcia-Alvarez / @zaraalexis/ @zaraasian

for today i am a boy

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Category: LGBTQ Fiction

Author: Kim Fu

Format: Paperback, 242 pages

Publisher: Harpercollins Publishers

ISBN: 978-1-44341-264-3

Pub Date: January 6, 2014

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For Today I Am a Boy by Kim Fu is an engrossing and readable novel about a young man named Peter Huang, the only son in a family of three sisters, a silent and stifled mother, and a Chinese patriarchal father whose ingrained attitudes about manhood are both proud and resolute.

In this lyrical debut, Fu creates a truthful portrait of a young man whose sensitive and effeminate nature delves him further into the recesses of his true desire—to fully identify himself as a woman.

The plot explores Peter’s internal and private torment, his abhorrence towards the body he was born with and the insistent desire for the kind of body he lacks. While his own genitalia repulses him, his desire for women only goes as far as his admiration for their beauty and femininity, and his wish to ultimately emanate them.

But, this tendency is often repressed, exposed first in small doses at a time within the safety of his sisters’ bedrooms and their trust; to the absence of his family while he is left to clean in the privacy of their home; to sexual exploration with BDSM with a dominant woman; to the stifling relationship with a lesbian-turned-Christian; and to the exposure to people of the LGBTQ community who encourage him to live out his fantasy if not for one day during Halloween.

While the male stereotype is often dominantly imposed by Peter’s father and his expectations of him, Peter himself is tortured with his own feelings of guilt and shame, struggling often between his compulsion and desire to live out the female identity that is his true, internal nature and the gender role, society has come to expect of him as a male. The result is a fiercely honest dialogue of identity crisis, repression, and hopefully for the reader and the main character — emancipation.

 Zara’s Rating

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About the Author:

Kim Fu. Photo from http://kimfu.ca/bio.
Kim Fu. Photo from http://kimfu.ca/bio.

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Kim Fu’s novel FOR TODAY I AM A BOY (2014) was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Prize, a New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice, and winner of the Edmund White Award for Debut Fiction. Her writing has been widely published and anthologized, including by the Atlantic, NPR, Maisonneuve, and Best Canadian Essays. Her first poetry collection HOW FESTIVE THE AMBULANCE will be published by Nightwood Editions in 2016. Fu is a graduate of the University of British Columbia’s MFA in Creative Writing. She lives in Seattle.

– From: Kim Fu’s Official website.

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Do you know anyone who is transgendered?

Aside from sex, what kind of stereotypes are most associated with gender?

Of such stereotypes, which do you think are changing? Which do you think should change?

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Book Review: Lucky Us by Amy Bloom

11.04.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis / @zara.tokiniha

lucky us

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Category: Fiction

Author: Amy Bloom

Format: Hardcover, 250 pages

Publisher: Random House

ISBN: 978-1-4000-6724-4

Pub Date: July 29, 2014

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Summary from the Publisher:

“My father’s wife died. My mother said we should drive down to his place and see what might be in it for us.”

So begins this remarkable novel by Amy Bloom, whose critically acclaimed Away was called “a literary triumph” (The New York Times). Lucky Us is a brilliantly written, deeply moving, fantastically funny novel of love, heartbreak, and luck.

Disappointed by their families, Iris, the hopeful star and Eva the sidekick, journey through 1940s America in search of fame and fortune. Iris’s ambitions take the pair across the America of Reinvention in a stolen station wagon, from small-town Ohio to an unexpected and sensuous Hollywood, and to the jazz clubs and golden mansions of Long Island.

With their friends in high and low places, Iris and Eva stumble and shine though a landscape of big dreams, scandals, betrayals, and war. Filled with gorgeous writing, memorable characters, and surprising events, Lucky Us is a thrilling and resonant novel about success and failure, good luck and bad, the creation of a family, and the pleasures and inevitable perils of family life, conventional and otherwise. From Brooklyn’s beauty parlors to London’s West End, a group of unforgettable people love, lie, cheat and survive in this story of our fragile, absurd, heroic species.

– From Chapters-Indigo website

Book Review by Zara from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

Lucky Us by Amy Bloom is a modern telling of two very different sisters from the 1940’s who must reconcile their fate with each other and the consequential hardships they encounter right from childhood into their adulthood.

It is the story of Eva Logan-Acton and her half-sister, Iris. The two who are thrown together at the loss of both their mothers, one through death, the other through abandonment, left open to the neglect and betrayal of their biological father, Edgar.

Not only is there a dichotomy between the two sisters in look, but also in temperament, the two in their personal failings, somehow find ways to survive poverty, manipulation, and loss.

Though the plot lends itself to the absurd, it’s the characters’ dilemmas and persevering spirit that makes this book at the very least an entertaining read. Is it realistic? No, not really, but it is possible and lures the reader into turning each page with interest.

The heart of the novel is wound in the realism of its characters’—especially the main characters’ personalities. Iris, the drama queen is both self-indulgent as she is tough-skinned, a survivor, and an emotional manipulator, but would be lost without her grounded sister, Eva, to anchor her down emotionally throughout the book.

Eva, self-sacrificial to the point of semi-martyrdom, while formally uneducated, finds ways in which she can survive the drama of her sister, the inconsistency and eventual illness of her father, and the short- term charity of her friend, Francisco’s sisters in the beauty salon where she dutifully sweeps floors and washes sinks. She teaches herself how to read, memorizes her father’s Little Blue Books for abridged versions of knowledge and sometimes useful or non-useful facts, and learns not only how to read Tarot cards, but how to best advise customers with news that encourages them and encourages them to return to the salon for her most-often positive advice.

But Iris and Eva are not the only characters in the novel with unique personalities and circumstances. There is Edgar, whose love for Clara, a jazz singer and closeted albino who cannot redeem him from the mistakes he’s committed in the past, nor the disease he must face in the near future; Francisco, a gay makeup artist and friend-turned-father-figure; Reenie, Iris’ focus of love and borderline obsession; Gus, the ousted husband whose relation to Reenie places him in an unbelievable and life-threatening circumstance; and Danny, the stolen orphan made to seduce and fulfill a gap in a grieving woman’s life.

Together the story unfolds into a highly unlikely plot that still seduces the reader enough to not only continue reading, but also empathize with the characters and their sentimental failings. Somehow the absurdity of the plot doesn’t deter the individuals from eventually finding some form of love and solace, and even a self-imposed, redefinition of family.

Lucky Us feels like a somewhat sarcastic title, but is able to self-prophesy on the story’s behalf by the time the novel ends. I’m just not quite sure who the title is referring to exactly—the characters themselves or the readers who get to witness a highly tumultuous story unravel itself into some form of success or the readers who are lucky enough not to suffer the same type of consequences as the characters that find redemption in their own answers?

Amy Bloom does a good job of creating interesting enough characters that will urge its readers to turn the page and come away from the story with more than an afterthought, but a sense that the injustices of the world still have a purpose even if they insist on sometimes remaining unclear.

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada for providing me with a copy of Lucky Us in exchange for an honest review.

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About the Author:

 amy bloom***

Amy Bloom is the author of Come to Me, a National Book Award finalist; A Blind Man Can See How Much I Love You, nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Love Invents Us; Normal; Away, a New York Times bestseller; and Where the God of Love Hangs Out. Her stories have appeared in The Best American Short Stories, O. Henry Prize Short Stories, The Scribner Anthology of Contemporary Short Fiction, and many other anthologies here and abroad. She has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Vogue, Slate, and Salon, among other publications, and has won a National Magazine Award. She teaches creative writing at Wesleyan University.

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What do you think is the best thing about having a sister?  What do you think is the worst?

How far would you go on getting what you want? Lies? Murder?

What is your definition of family?

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Book Review: Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey

07.15.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

 elizabeth is missing***

Category: Literary Fiction

Author: Emma Healey

Format: Hardcover, 284 pages

Publisher: Knopf Canada

ISBN: 978-0-3458-0830-1

Pub Date: June 10, 2014

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Summary from Publisher:

An internationally heralded debut novel of extraordinary warmth, insight and humanity that will appeal to readers who loved The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry and Still Alice: Elizabeth Is Missing is at once a page-turning mystery that takes us from post-war Britain to the present day and a piercingly honest portrait of love and memory, families and aging through the lens of an unforgettable protagonist who will seize your heart–an elderly woman descending into forgetfulness, as she embarks alone on a quest to find the best friend she believes has disappeared.


Maud, an aging grandmother, is slowly losing her memory–and her grip on everyday life. Notes fill her pockets and dot the walls of her home, increasingly crucial reminders of the immediate world. Most crucial is the fact that she can’t find her only friend–Elizabeth has disappeared: she isn’t answering the phone and doesn’t seem to be at her house. Maud, convinced Elizabeth is in terrible danger, refuses to forget her even if her frustrated daughter, Helen, her carer, Carla, and the police won’t listen and won’t help. Armed with an overwhelming feeling that Elizabeth desperately needs her help, Maud sets out to find her. And, unexpectedly, her search triggers an old and powerful memory of another unsolved disappearance–that of her sister, Sukey, who vanished more than 50 years ago, shortly after the Second World War.

     As long-ago memories emerge, Maud begins to uncover forgotten clues to her sister’s disappearance and to piece together the mystery that has haunted her family for decades, discovering new momentum in her search for her friend. Could the mystery of Sukey’s disappearance hold the key to finding Elizabeth?

– From Goodreads

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Book Review by Zara

from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

Elizabeth Is Missing by Emma Healey is an extraordinary novel spoken through the stark narrative of Maud, now an elderly woman whose battle with Alzheimer’s has over time, disconnected her memories, misplacing them throughout a wavering timeline, one that Maud desperately yearns to grasp and recollect.

It is truly an evocative book, one that perceptively showcases the incessant self-doubt and self-questioning that takes place during the internal dialogue of someone who suffers memory loss and the ramifications of how disruptive such a loss can be in daily life.

But, the narrative is not by any means demeaning, nor arbitrary. Maud is a fully realized character, one with complex emotions and intelligence, which is how well this novel was written. The narrative not only gives the reader a microscopic view of what it can mean to be elderly, but what it can mean to be held hostage by one’s own mind.

But, Maud is not alone on her narrative journey. There are those in the novel who must, out of love, and others necessity, move to surround her with as much care and routine as can be afforded.

Carla, one of her carers, while paid to make her a daily sandwich or boil her a kettle of water for tea, also provides some empathetic humour.

Helen, her daughter, while not without the frustration that accompanies taking care of an elderly parent, must for most of the novel, not only be the primary caregiver for her mother and her daily affairs, but also bear witness to the bewildering rate in which her mother’s mental capacity and daily, independent functioning, slowly, but certainly diminishes over time.

Katy, Maud’s granddaughter, is wonderfully understanding as the youth can sometimes be, treating her grandmother’s illness more as an interesting quirk, rather than a lifelong detriment and burden to Maud herself or to the family.

What is wonderful about this book aside from how surprising and almost unbelievable it is that it’s a debut novel because of how well it is written, is how brilliant the writer, Emma Healey is, in conjuring not only a story from a collection of what first appears to be disjointed memories—into a hybrid of parallel stories that gently, yet powerfully weave themselves quite naturally into a gorgeous tapestry of true events and a detailed mapping of Maud’s thought process.

The reader is not only able to piece together the fragments of Maud’s version of events into a fairly cohesive plot and form of understanding, but also decode a subtle movement and pacing of events that divulge themselves seamlessly into the mystery that is the foundation of the novel.

The disconnect between memories also act as a transformative time loop in the story where the narrator, Maud, flows in thought from her present to her past quite fluidly, unaware that her mind has unconsciously shifted from a present moment to a historical one. This ever-present narrative accentuates not only the severity of the character’s illness, but emphasizes the strong, emotional reality these memories pose for the character, and the direct intimacy readers are invited in to witness firsthand through its traumatic drama and first-person narrative.

As readers are consistently bewildered by the disorientation and anxiety felt by Maud as she desperately tries to retrace her thoughts into some kind of cohesive understanding and certainty, the loss of her memory is the battle that dictates and demands the constant disruption of her daily life and those she affects by her perpetuated wanderings, her verbal errors, her uprooting of plants, and painful memories.

But, Maud’s lamentations aren’t without logic. They make perfect sense to her. And it’s often revealed to the reader that the characters who support her also do a great job in misinterpreting what she means when she speaks. If only her internal dialogue would voice itself out loud, rather than betray her by remaining silent, which could essentially give others a better understanding of how one of her thoughts leads to another especially to those who dismiss her mind as one that is hopelessly broken.

Her memory of the past is often intricately detailed that the reader may wonder how the true nature of Alzheimer’s actually works. Maud’s recollection of her past without her awareness of it, propels the reality and trauma of it to the forefront of the story, regardless of whether or not her supporting cast is aware of it.

And what reaches the present is a revealing history indeed. One in which the reader is introduced to Maud’s tolerant, yet heartbroken parents, who at the trauma of the sudden disappearance of her older sister, Sukey, overwhelms the dynamic of their relationship to one another.

There is Douglas, their young lodger whose friendship with Sukey rivals Sukey’s passionate and shady husband, Frank. Between the two characters, Maud is young and coy enough at the time to keep a close eye on both of them in relation to her sister’s disappearance during post-war Britain. But, Maud’s recollection, though vividly haunting, shift randomly into questionable half-truths partly because of her perception and adamant personality—partly because of her diminishing memory.

Added to this cast of real characters, is the woman in black, better known as the Mad Woman, whose restless wandering, peeking into windows, and picking at bushes with nothing more than her babbling and black umbrella (according to Maud), is the intriguing and mysterious woman who greatly resembles Maud herself in future tense.

Together these characters spell out for Maud, a traceable line to the traumatic events that haunt her—the disappearance of her sister, Sukey, and her close friend, Elizabeth, for which this novel is named.

The narrative and Maud’s internal dialogue is an enlightening, yet haunting stream of consciousness that rushes out at the trigger of a thought and flows and ebbs as a tide does in returning and leaving its shore, a mental diadem that seduces its reader to not only care about this character and her plight, but to also easily navigate through the story’s clues, much like the scraps of paper Maud must collect for herself as written clues that propagate her next, vital step. The result? Content that is beautiful, endearing, and literary.

The pacing of the novel is perfectly timed, a story that lays down its foundation in the richness of Maud’s narrative and displacement, and then easily moves into a depth that uncovers more truth about Maud’s story surrounding the disappearance of her sister, Sukey, and her close friend, Elizabeth, even while Maud’s own memory dissipates and her condition worsens. It is as if the story must climax and come full-circle as does Maud’s mind needs to completely unravel.

As eloquent as the writing is, it’s the plot that will beguile its readers into misdirection as much as perhaps does Maud’s own memory pathway that diverges into a fringe of intimacy and vividness, yet skepticism. But, by the end of the novel, the mystery of Sukey, of Elizabeth, of each character’s role in the mystery surrounding their absence, will compel readers to applaud Emma Healey’s deft pen and ingenuity.

Elizabeth Is Missing is a masterful elegy to beloved victims, to the fascinating myriad of the mind, and the ruthless power of the gain and loss of autonomy—and memory. This book is absolutely riveting, a novel literary enthusiasts will not want to miss, nor forget.

***

Characters: 5 stars

Plot: 5 stars

Language/Narrative: 5 stars

Dialogue: 5 stars

Pacing: 5 stars

Cover Design: 3.5 stars

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada on behalf of Knopf Canada for providing me with a copy of Elizabeth Is Missing Swimming in exchange for an honest review.

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About the Author:

emma healey***

Emma Healey grew up in London, England, where she completed her first degree in bookbinding (learning how to put books together before learning how to write them), which she followed with an MA in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. She now lives in Norwich. Elizabeth Is Missing is her first novel.

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Links:

You can find more information on Emma on her official website.

You can connect with Emma on Twitter.

You can be her fan on Goodreads.

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Do you know someone who is affected with or by Alzheimer’s?

How do you think you would feel if you started to lose your memory?

Is memory a fundamental part of our identity? Without it, do we then lose our identity?

What do you think is the most frightening thing about losing your memory?

If you have not yet read, Elizabeth Is Missing, by Emma Healey, what do do you think happened to Elizabeth?

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Book Review: Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch

07.07.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

 summer house with swimming pool***

Category: Literary Fiction

Author: Herman Koch

Format: Hardcover, 394 pages

Publisher: Hogarth

ISBN: 978-0-8041-3881-9

Pub Date: June 3, 2014

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Summary from Publisher:

When a medical procedure goes horribly wrong and famous actor Ralph Meier winds up dead, Dr. Marc Schlosser needs to come up with some answers. After all, reputation is everything in this business. Personally, he’s not exactly upset that Ralph is gone, but as a high-profile doctor to the stars, Marc can’t hide from the truth forever.

It all started the previous summer. Marc, his wife, and their two beautiful teenage daughters agreed to spend a week at the Meier’s extravagant summer home on the Mediterranean. Joined by Ralph and his striking wife Judith, her mother, and film director Stanley Forbes and his much younger girlfriend, the large group settles in for days of sunshine, wine tasting, and trips to the beach. But when a violent incident disrupts the idyll, darker motivations are revealed, and suddenly no one can be trusted. As the ultimate holiday soon turns into a nightmare, the circumstances surrounding Ralph’s later death begin to reveal the disturbing reality behind that summer’s tragedy.

– From Chapters-Indigo website

Book Review by Zara

from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

Summer House with Swimming Pool by Herman Koch is a dark, family drama that centers its story around the events that take place during a hesitant, yet preplanned family vacation between Dr. Marc Schlosser, his striking wife, Caroline, and their two lovely daughters, Julia and Lisa, with newly made friends: a famous actor, Ralph Meier, and his attractive wife, Judith, a successful film director, Stanley Forbes, and his young and pretty girlfriend, Emmanuelle, at the Meier’s summer home on the Mediterranean.

The strength of this novel is largely based on the pessimistic realism voiced in the first-person narrative by its main character, Marc Schlosser, who in his brutal honesty entices the reader into a relationship of interest and trust, as well as infuse the novel with a dark humour and a surprising psychological insight into the thoughts of a general male practitioner in the medical field. While doctors are held accountable by the Hippocratic Oath they take as healthcare professionals, what’s eerily disturbing about the reader’s discovery while delving deeper into the novel is the nature in which Dr. Marc Schlosser’s logic and discernment stems from a complete lack of integrity for the oath which he and other doctors are bound to by ethical and moral standards. While this seems on the surface, uncomfortably funny, the underside of this kind of psychology is quite terrifying. It begs the fearful question posed by vulnerable patients—“Is this what my doctor really thinks about?”

While the novel isn’t as largely character-driven as other books, readers get enough of a glimpse of personality through the book’s plot and dialogue. The characters themselves aren’t nearly as substantial as I would like as a reader, but the dialogue in the book is excellently convincing, which helps to make the book extremely readable.

Characters like Caroline, Marc’s trusting wife, is a camping enthusiast, the obvious worrier between both parents, and deemed the more natural disciplinarian towards their two young daughters, Julia and Lisa. Caroline is also physically attractive, enough to unintentionally claim the voyeuristic attention of the famous actor and new friend, Ralph Meier.

Judith, on the other hand, Ralph’s wife, while seemingly more uptight in the way she believes her household should be run, or how her husband and children should act, is surprisingly more open when it comes to her beliefs on monogamy.

And while Ralph is the most gregarious character in the novel, a man who doesn’t shy away from openly objectifying women, he is sexually confident and open as he is considered naturally extroverted and charming.

Stanley, a well-known film director is overly confident about his influential power and is able to easily woo a young girl nearly 35 years his junior into being his partner. His confidence, too, reveals his tendency for aggression, hypocrisy, and perversion when faced with getting what he desires.

Like most of Koch’s work, his characters usually appear to be quite different than they actually are and reveal themselves to be deeply flawed when faced with serious conflict.

While the plot is not as harsh or as controversial as his previous novel, The Dinner, its internal dialogue reveals a dark and disturbing truth, one that explores the lengths in which someone is willing to go in harming another person in retribution. Koch’s works are compelling in that his plots together with his dialogue and narrative, work together to provoke his readers into shock, even repulsion at the lack of at least one of his character’s empathy and ethical compass.

And while readers may tend to judge one character over another, in Koch’s work, the true culprit is usually the one readers believe to be the least guilty.

And what is most surprising about the plot is the cause of one of the character’s call to violence when readers may be led to believe the source to be quite different. This is what makes this novel not only readable, but interesting.

But, the novel does not only question the ethical motives of its characters, it also in its intelligent way, undermines the presumptions of its readers and poses even broader questions:

  • What is worse—the doctor with a poor bedside manner, but ethical standards who cares deeply about the welfare of his/her patients?
  • Or the doctor who is superficially social and understanding, yet a hypocrite, and could care less about the health and care of his/her patients?
  • Who is worse—the man who openly and lustfully looks at a woman and/or a number of different women, or the man who commits adultery?
  • Who’s more at fault when a sexual conflict arises? The sexual predator or the seducer?
  • Who is worse—the rapist or the murderer?
  • What are the boundaries of family? Friendship? Forgiveness? Revenge?

Summer House with Swimming Pool is a book that exemplifies how the judgement of another can be made far worse when a sobering look at oneself is dismissed entirely, and how a bad and misinformed attitude can only lead to even worse choices—ones that can undoubtedly, if unchecked, bring about the most harm.

This book at most is a testimony to passion running amuck and pride racing itself to dangerous power, one that escalates into violence and deception—a vacation most parties would rather blot out of their itinerary altogether.

Its dark humour will bring you at odds with your own presumptions. The calculated, immoral precision of one of its characters will terrify you—and may warn you against the danger of how taking one small step in the wrong direction can lead you quite quickly into a number of steps that delve you right into the quicksand of immorality.

And unfortunately, there is no such doctor, nor prescription that can save anyone that suffers that affliction. At least, not in this novel anyway.

As for me, I’m best reminded to mind who I decide to become friends with, which vacation I should or should not plan nor participate in—and when visiting my family physician for a serious ailment, ensure I’m wise enough to get a second opinion.

 

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Characters: 3.5 stars

Plot: 3.5 stars

Language/Narrative: 4 stars

Dialogue: 4 stars

Pacing: 3.5 stars

Cover Design: 3.5 stars

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada on behalf of Hogarth for providing me with a copy of Summer House with Swimming Pool  in exchange for an honest review.

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About the Author:

From: http://sprakeloosverhalen.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/het-diner-herman-koch/
From: http://sprakeloosverhalen.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/het-diner-herman-koch/

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Herman Koch is the author of eight novels and three collections of short stories. The Dinner, his sixth novel, has been published in 25 countries and was an international bestseller. He currently lives in Amsterdam.

– From bio found in novel.

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Links:

You can learn more about Herman Koch on Wikipedia.

You can become Herman Koch’s fan on Goodreads.

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Have you read any of Herman Koch’s novels? If so, what do you enjoy the most about them?

How wise is it, do you think, a family should go on vacation with newly made friends?

Do you ever wonder what your own family physician really thinks when you visit him or her?

How far do you think people should go in protecting their family?

Is revenge ever the right answer? If so, when? And who decides?

Answer one of the questions I provided in my review.

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Book Review: Ruby by Cynthia Bond

06.03.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

ruby

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Category: Literary Fiction

Author: Cynthia Bond

Format: Hardcover, 344 pages

Publisher: Hogarth

ISBN: 978-0-8041-3909-0

Pub Date: April 29, 2014

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Summary from Publisher:

Ephram Jennings has never forgotten the beautiful girl with the long braids running through the piney woods of Liberty, their small East Texas town. Young Ruby, “the kind of pretty it hurt to look at,” has suffered beyond imagining, so as soon as she can, she flees suffocating Liberty for the bright pull of 1950s New York. Ruby quickly winds her way into the ripe center of the city–the darkened piano bars and hidden alleyways of the Village–all the while hoping for a glimpse of the red hair and green eyes of her mother. When a telegram from her cousin forces her to return home, thirty-year-old Ruby Bell finds herself reliving the devastating violence of her girlhood. With the terrifying realization that she might not be strong enough to fight her way back out again, Ruby struggles to survive her memories of the town’s dark past. Meanwhile, Ephram must choose between loyalty to the sister who raised him and the chance for a life with the woman he has loved since he was a boy.

Full of life, exquisitely written, and suffused with the pastoral beauty of the rural South, Ruby is a transcendent novel of passion and courage. This wondrous page-turner rushes through the red dust and gossip of Main Street, to the pit fire where men swill bootleg outside Bloom’s Juke, to Celia Jennings’s kitchen where a cake is being made, yolk by yolk, that Ephram will use to try to begin again with Ruby. Utterly transfixing, with unforgettable characters, riveting suspense, and breathtaking, luminous prose, Ruby offers an unflinching portrait of man’s dark acts and the promise of the redemptive power of love.

– From Chapters Indigo website

Book Review by Zara

from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

Ruby by Cynthia Bond is a devastatingly rich, provocative, and beautifully written, haunting novel about the secret darkness that can envelop not only an individual, but infect an entire town in a story centered around two powerful characters: Ephram Jennings and Ruby Bell.

Locked together in the desolation of poverty, a dark and traumatic childhood, and the fervour of malicious gossip, Ephram and Ruby must both battle a litany of demonic forces in their lives in a small southern town called Liberty. But, liberty isn’t what they find in the struggles they come against, their histories a dark and throbbing suffering that affects their thoughts and inhibitions.

The book’s narrative is so strong and true that its testimony to realism gives the reader not only the imagination to hear the characters, but to also see and vividly imagine who they are as if in the narrative itself. The language is as beautiful as it is sharp in its edges, its poetic cadences as pastoral as the land it describes, and its heartache, and suffering as palpable as wounds themselves:

“Them lawman drag her out to that hill past Marion Lake. It musta been then they slide on they white hoods. The moon, is was nearly full and bright. From up there Neva musta been able to see her daddy’s land. All them fresh-harvested acres. Maybe that’s where she fix her eyes while Klux keep her out there for hours—doin’ what God ain’t got the muscle to look at.

Then, when they was done, out there on that hilltop, time stretch itself out like molasses. Crickets slow they crik. Owl drag her ‘hoo’s’ That’s when Sheriff Levy click the safety off that Remington Sport rifle of his—the one he brag on so, its barrel catching a piece of moon. Then each every man take his firearm to his shoulder and aim at that child. What they see through them deluxe ta’get sights they think need shootin’? Only Neva Annetta Bell. Eighteen and a half year old. Knees on the dirt. Her hope broke like water round the edges of her skirt. But them the kind use to firing into gentle things.” – p.68

Bond creates a myriad of powerful characters whose private sufferings not only adds more substance and interest to the novel, but also creates a deeper complexity to the characters themselves where judgement by the reader is not so readily made since the experiences and hardships suffered by these characters cannot entirely justify their failings, but help reiterate a better understanding of them instead.

Characters like Gubber Samuels, a man whose long history with Ephram, affords him a sentimental loyalty, yet an equally soft spine when faced with pressure from the mob of the Liberty township.

The self-taught toughness of Maggie Wilkins, protective friend of young Ruby Bell, whose tomboy haughtiness, hot-tempered anger, and fearless brawling all create and call a protective net over Ruby’s life for a time, but also danger and eventually death for Maggie, herself.

The self-entitlement, ego, and lust of Chauncy Rankin, lead him down the dark path of immorality since he was reared by example to believe that true strength can only stem from violence.

The overbearing manipulation and control of Ephram by his older, unmarried sister, Celia Jennings, whose severe self-righteousness and maternal domesticity stems from the trauma of losing, first, her father to death by the Klu Klux Klan, and then her brother who she raised as a son, to another woman against her wishes.

Reverend Jennings, whose pastoral charisma first charms Otha Daniels into a quick and deceptive marriage, sours into an unimaginable, patriarchal tyrant, a violent leader who paralyzes Otha and Ephram into distrustful subservience, frustrated fear, and further self-deprecatory introversion, only to reveal an even darker past and hypocrisy.

Ruby Bell, in which the novel is named, is Liberty’s isolated and misunderstood beauty, the granddaughter of Papa Bell, a thriving cotton farmer until the demise of his strawberry blonde daughter, Ruby’s aunt, Neva Annetta Bell, whose exceptional beauty unintentionally seduced Peter Leech, not only the Viceroy of the First National Bank, but a white man, whose physical obsession compelled him to want to leave his wife and children—and led Neva onto a hill and her eventual death after unnameable torture by 11 men of the Klu Klux Klan.

Ruby inherited the tragedy of her bloodline, its sexual violence, and corruption seeded from men’s lust for possession and power. Along with that, a maddening gift of sight that opens the door between this and the spiritual world of haints, gris-gris, and the Dybou.

And lastly, Ephram Jennings, a man of gentleness and quiet goodness, whose suffered childhood trauma does not deter him from moral strength and understanding. Though considered having castrated his manhood to the whims of his domineering sister, he is able to finally bring enough courage to walk past the emotional memory associated with the Dearing State Mental Hospital, the social degradation and hopelessness of Bloom’s Juke, to the secrets of Marion Lake and the forest on Bell Land, to finally make it to the Chinaberry Tree outside of Ruby Bell’s house filled with the filthy squalor of neglect from the hallucinatory suffering and anguish of old haunts.

The plot is as powerful as the characters who must navigate through it, with its eloquent hardship, its thoughtful realism and detail, its graphic history, and unsettling surprises and interconnectedness. It’s complexity is as rich as its lyrical narrative, traumatic obstacles, and spiritual drama. Its pacing, too, is perfect—a gradual ease into the lives of these characters, who in time come to reveal the makeup of their sordid pasts and cumulative sufferings that subsequently drive them into the darkness of themselves.

It is an exceedingly creative, abrasive, yet beautiful book, one that renders its light on the wonder and dark of the mystical, the infestation of racial hatred and crime, the audacity of sexual perversion and power, the true identity of evil and madness, and the strength of vulnerability, perseverance, and love. Ruby by Cynthia Bond is truly a magnificent book, one that will move you to contempt—and compassion.

***

Characters: 5 stars

Plot: 5 stars

Language/Narrative: 5 stars

Dialogue: 5 stars

Pacing: 5 stars

Cover Design: 2.5 stars

***

Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada on behalf of Hogarth for providing me with a copy of Ruby in exchange for an honest review.

***

About the Author:

cynthia bond

***

Cynthia Bond has taught writing to homeless and at-risk youth throughout Los Angeles for more than fifteen years. She attended Northwester University’s Medill School of Journalism, then moved to New York and attended the American academy of Dramatic Arts. A PEN/Rosenthal Fellow, Bond founded the Blackbird Writing Collective in 2011. At present, Bond works as a writing consultant and teaches therapeutic writing at Paradigm Malibu Adolescent Treatment Center.  A native of East Texas, she lives in Lose Angeles with her daughter.

-From novel, Ruby

***

Links:

Connect with Cynthia through her Official Website.

***

What do you think it really means to be righteous?

Have you read the novel, “Ruby?” Who is your favourite, most compelling character and why?

Do you believe in spirits? Why or why not?

Do you believe in mystical, occult practices?

What do you think the “Dybou” is?

***

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Book Review: The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman

 

04.04.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

light between oceans ***

Category: Fiction

Author: M.L. Stedman

Format: Trade Paperback, 346 pages

Publisher: Scribner

ISBN: 978-1-4767-3808-6

Pub Date: March 5, 2013

***

Summary from Publisher:

This exquisitely written debut novel sweeps you into the lives of Tom and Isabel Sherbourne. After WWI, Tom returns to Australia very much alone and deeply marked by what he has seen and done. It comes as a shock when the beautiful Isabel finds him attractive. A proper courtship ensues and before long it is Isabel herself who boldly declares her love for Tom. She willingly leaves her comfortable life to join him on the remote island of Janus Rock in Western Australia where he takes up the post of lighthouse keeper.

Her only wish — and his too — is to have lots of children with whom to share their love. But life does not unfold as it should. Isabel experiences a series of miscarriages and most cruelly — a full-term stillborn. She is devastated and inconsolable.

And then, a small miracle: a half-destroyed boat is washed ashore carrying a dead man and a softly crying infant. Tom, ever the serious and honorable professional, wants to immediately report the shipwreck but Isabel convinces him that this was meant to be — that likely the baby’s mother has drowned and with the father dead, the baby is truly an orphan.

Reluctantly Tom acquiesces and they declare to their friends and family back home that finally they have borne a child. Baby Lucy lights up their world and they shower her with the love they so longed to give.

And then… the lie of Lucy’s birth begins to unravel and Isabel and Tom are forced to deal with moral choices that no parent should ever have to make.

– From Chapters-Indigo website

Book Review by Zara

from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

 

The Light Between Oceans by M. L. Stedman is an emotionally rich and fully engaged story about a couple’s post and isolation on the island Janus Rock in keeping and maintaining the much aged and beloved lighthouse of the small town of Partagueuse.

But the idyllic life of lightkeeping and the idealism between Tom Sherbourne, and his new wife, Isabel Graysmark, in their marriage, quickly disintegrates into devastation and madness with the number of consecutive miscarriages that befall them.

With each miscarriage, Isabel Graysmark, now Mrs. Sherbourne, mourns the deaths of her infants, internalizes her incessant biological failure, and becomes absolutely focused and obsessed with the compulsion of motherhood, which has adamantly eluded her.

Then with the unexpected arrival of a boat that washes up on shore with a dead man and a wailing baby, the Sherbournes stretch the line between morality and immorality with a life-altering decision that not only determines the fate of their family, but greatly deceives and disrupts the whole of the Patagueuse community.

Though the setting is in the 1920’s, the writing is not written with a heavy pen as usually expected in stories of that time, but rather an ease that showcases the depth of a character-driven novel and a story, which will not fail to grip its readers to it’s every word, if not every page.

The dialogue brings the book alive with its accurate-sounding accents and idioms especially from the characters, Ralph Addicott and Bluey, the men who steer the store boat, the Windward Spirit, out to the ocean periodically to provide the Sherbourne family with food, supplies, and current news from town.

But, the heart of the novel is not only its characters: Tom Sherbourne, Isabel Graysmark, Bill and Violet Graysmark, Septimus Potts, Hannah and Frank Roennfeldt, and Lucy-Grace, Ralph and Hilda Addicott, and Bluey—it’s the moral injustice in the book that will drive readers to vehemence and outrage.

I was so personally affected by the reading of the book, so greatly disenchanted by Tom Sherbourne’s yielding submission to his wife, and Isabel’s unreasonable demands and delusions that I simply seethed with hatred for her character and had at many times dropped and/or threw the book down in contempt, needing to turn away from its unfair implications.

I was so moved to anger by this novel, I had at times almost decided not to finish it—but, my curiosity, my yearning for justice, truth, and reconciliation was so severe due to the devastation of the novel, that I was, in the end, glad I had decided to change my mind.

I also found the lyrical prose about the interrelationship between the stars, the ocean, the lighthouse, and the biology, and isolation of Janus Rock, sentimental and beautiful.

Though imperfect, the conclusion of the novel moved me to tears. Though the reading of the book was emotionally gruelling while I struggled to reconcile with the maddening choices made by the desperation of a woman obsessed with her own loss, the novel does well in exploring the internalized conscience, the magnitude of the rippling effect of one’s choices, and a re-examining of the definition of true motherhood and family.

Regardless of your response to this novel, a strong one will be required of you. Either from the vehemence towards one character, disappointment in another, or love and compassion towards its victims. The Light Between Oceans will not only signal the danger of poor choices, the desperation that can be associated with loss and even love, it will prove to be a shining light that bridges the gap between right and wrong, and those drowning in its current.

 

***

 Characters: 4 stars

Plot: 3.5 stars

Language/Narrative: 3.5 stars

Dialogue: 4 stars

Pacing: 4 stars

Cover Design: 4 stars

***

Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Simon & Schuster Canada on behalf of Scribner for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

***

About the Author:

ML Stedman

M.L. Stedman was born and raised in Western Australia and now lives in London. The Light Between Oceans is her first novel.

– From Goodreads Author Page

***

Sometimes desperation can have terrifying consequences. How far should one go in fulfilling one’s own desires before it becomes an unhealthy form of obsession or a question of immorality?

Have you ever felt this kind of desperation before?

If you’ve read the book, who do you think Lucy-Grace should have stayed with? Belonged to?

What do you think is the true definition of motherhood and/or parenting? Is it biological? Relational? One or the other? Both?

The lifestyle of a lightkeeper is a unique one. Could you see yourself as a lightkeeper? Why or why not? What about its lifestyle would you find most interesting/enjoyable? Most difficult?

***

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Book Review: The Age by Nancy Lee

03.20.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

the age

***

Category: Contemporary Fiction

Author: Nancy Lee

Format: Trade Paperback,  281 pages

Publisher: McClelland & Stewart

ISBN: 978-0-7710-5252-1

Pub Date: March 11, 2014

***

Summary from Publisher:

Set in Vancouver in 1984 as Soviet warships swarm the Atlantic, The Age tells the story of Gerry, a troubled teenager whose life is suddenly and strangely catapulted into adulthood.

Confronted by her mother’s newest relationship, confusion about her father’s abandonment, and anxieties about a looming nuclear incident, Gerry finds a kind of belonging with a group of misfits planning a subversive protest at the city’s upcoming peace march, but her fascination with their leader and her struggle with sexual identity create a rift between Gerry and her best friend, Ian. Bolstered by her grandfather, an eccentric news anchor in the throes of a bitter divorce, Gerry tries to put herself at the centre of the group’s violent plot. As the days leading up to the rally accelerate, Gerry finds herself escaping into a post-nuclear dystopia of her own creation.  Her real life and fantasy life alternate until a collision of events and consequences forces her towards life or death decisions in both worlds.

At the heart of the novel is Gerry’s combative yet tender relationship with the older Ian, as she both yearns for and rejects his protectiveness towards her until it’s too late. Stubborn, tough, and unaware of her vulnerability until tragedy occurs, Gerry navigates a razor’s edge of emotion and events.

– From Chapters-Indigo website

Book Review by Zara

from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

The Age by Nancy Lee is a gritty storytelling of hardened angst and the impending doom of the apocalypse. The both combined is a harsh, but vivid awakening to the grief and anger that simmers not only in our teenagers, but in a world suffocating from the ongoing battle against political and social injustice in its fervor and fight toward some form of equilibrium.

This is a story about Geraldine, referred to as Gerry, an angry and fiercely troubled teenager, an adrogynous-looking girl who de-feminizes her physicality to look and act more like a boy, a kid roughened up perhaps to subconsciously toughen herself up against the pain of her upbringing—or rather in this case, her lack of one—the physical and emotional abandonment of her father.

In response, Gerry attaches herself to an older and exclusive group, one that is more than a bunch of misfits, but a group whose ideology is both dangerous and highly politicized—activists whose plans to participate in a Peace March is more than succumbing to spectatorship, but rather a direct involvement in misguided terrorism.

But, amidst the extremity of the book is a saving grace in a few of the unexpected characters, from Gerry’s grandfather, Henry, a news reporter whose divorce to his third wife plummets him into emotional and financial bankruptcy, yet a reserved kindness to a granddaughter whose life has hardened her to attachment and kindness itself.

Then there is Ian, Gerry’s long-time friend whose poor history has not hindered him from taking on the disguised role of parent and provocator, their relationship magnetic, yet openly combative and antagonistic. For all his social failings, his concern for her welfare reveals itself in his passionate arguments and ultimately, his self-sacrifice.

Randy, her mother’s unkempt boyfriend, while resented by Gerry because he isn’t her father, but the next man in the string of failed relationships her mother has readily entertained, is unexpectedly decent, frustrated as an outsider, ungroomed in his social breeding, but sincere in his quasi-parental efforts and loyal in his attempt to care.

And Clem, a veteran to political angst and an ex-con for crimes that has scarred him into mental degradation, reverts to a child-like demeanor unable to function on his own without the help and care of his daughter, Megan, the leader of Gerry’s misfit “friends,” whose subtlety in manipulation, control, and rage against authority and the mythology of war, instigates paranoia and action during the city’s Peace March.

While the narrative and plot is shockingly gritty, hard, and absolute in its angst and devastation, there is also a parallel narrative that is beautifully lyrical, dreamlike in its apocalyptic imagining between a young man and an older woman in the midst of society that regresses into the terror of savagery because of environmental and societal cruelty and darkness.

The anger, pain, and fear in this book is wonderfully palpable, graphically vivid, and grotesque—and difficult to read because of the strong emotions it evokes. I cried—and not a few mystical afterthoughts of a tear or two, but rather a cry so deep from the bowls of empathy and terror. I was moved.

The teenage recklessness and pain of this novel is indicative of the rumbling fears we hold toward the future, the collective and growing mistrust and angst against a world system spiralling out of control, and the heavy burden of terrorism we sometimes choose to internalize from the devastation of our own minds and lives.

***

Characters: 4 stars

Pacing: 4 stars

Cover Design: 3.5 stars

Plot: 4.5 stars

***

Zara’s Rating

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***

A special thanks to Random House of Canada on behalf of McClelland & Stewart for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

***

About the Author:

nancy lee
From inside jacket. (c) Anthony Hatley / Millenium Images, UK.

***

Author of the critically acclaimed Dead Girls, Nancy Lee is an assistant professor at the University of British Columbia Creative Writing Program. She lives in Vancouver B.C., with her husband, writer John Vigna.

– From inside jacket

Links:

Find information on Nancy Lee on Wikipedia.

***

The Apocalypse in our minds can take many forms. What is your greatest fear for the future?

How far would you go in a call to action against war? If you read the book, do you think Gerry goes too far in her emotional response to the tragedies in her life?

If you read the book, who is your favourite character in the novel?

Who do you think has the most hope in redemption in the book—or are all the characters so devastated that nothing is left for them except angst, fear, and pain for the future?

***

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Book Review: All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu

03.15.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

all our names***

Category: Literary Fiction

Author: Dinaw Mengestu

Format: Hardcover, 266 pages

Publisher: Bond Street Books

ISBN: 978-0-385-67977-0

Pub Date: March 4, 2014

***

Summary from Publisher:

 All Our Names is the story of a young man who comes of age during an African revolution, drawn from the hushed halls of his university into the intensifying clamour of the streets outside. But as the line between idealism and violence becomes increasingly blurred, and the path of revolution leads to almost certain destruction, he leaves behind his country and friends for America. There, pretending to be an exchange student, he falls in love with a social worker and settles into the routines of small-town life. Yet this idyll is inescapably darkened by the secrets of his past: the acts he committed and the work he left unfinished. Most of all, he is haunted by the charismatic leader who first guided him to revolution and then sacrificed everything to ensure his freedom.

– From Chapters-Indigo

Book Review by Zara

from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

All Our Names by Dinaw Mengestu is a sombre look at the uprising during an African revolution from the eyes of a nameless and yet, multi-named man.

It is a story of two men whose friendship and love travel through the turmoil of civil unrest until the fight against government becomes so dangerous as to infiltrate their consciousness, blurring the lines between fighting for freedom and the journey toward moral corruption.

While the fight festers on, the two companions, Langston and Isaac, delve deeper and further apart—one into the crux of leadership and the pain of betrayal, the other into the safety of anonymity and the arms of a woman whose ignorance of his past keeps their relationship both at arm’s length.

The point of view interchanges between Helen and Isaac, a world recollected by sparse memory and another world of sanitized unknowing. There is conflict: political, geographical, racial, and a tone that readily maintains the mystery in the book.

While the details of the characters’ lives are not dwelt upon, the characters themselves resonate truth by the natural and revealing nuances of their narrative. The tone of the narrative is coded, bilingual in what is said and what cannot be spoken. And the tension in the novel, as well as its plot, resigns to its deep emotion.

Though the joy in the book seems muted, the story is rich and deep in feeling, even if the feelings resort to violence, deceit, self-preservation. But, the vulnerability in all main characters: Langston, Isaac, and Helen, is what bonds these characters together, as well as the strength of the book.

While its subject matter is rooted in unrest, be it political, social, or simply emotional, the story is as tender as some of its characters are naive. Or perhaps the naivety of its characters is simply a coping mechanism and/or mask to the horrors of political and social injustice, and a way in which characters may not only stay afloat, but begin again and start anew—if not with rigor, but with optimism.

Dinaw Mengestu’s Uganda is torn apart, but honoured in its epitaph of memory and for the main characters in his novel, the resounding grace and resurrection of love. Be it rich, poor, rebel, authoritarian, Ugandan, American, black, white, lover, or friend, it is at its heart a book, not necessarily about all our names—but the names we are given and the ones we choose to take.

Still, in reading this novel, Dinaw Mengestu and his richly evocative characters, by whatever names they are called, are names you will not soon forget.

***

Characters: 4 stars

Pacing: 3.5 stars

Cover Design: 2.5 stars

Plot: 3.5 stars

***

Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada on behalf of Bond Street Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

***

About the Author:

WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 17: Dinaw Mengestu poses for a portrait on Monday, September 17, 2012 at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. (Photo by Eli Meir Kaplan/Getty Images for Home Front Communications)
WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 17: Dinaw Mengestu poses for a portrait on Monday, September 17, 2012 at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. (Photo by Eli Meir Kaplan/Getty Images for Home Front Communications)

***

Dinaw Mengestu is an award-winning Ethiopian-American novelist and writer. In addition to two novels, he has written forRolling Stone on the war in Darfur, and for Jane Magazine on the conflict in northern Uganda. His writing has also appeared inHarper’sThe Wall Street Journal, and numerous other publications. He is Lannan Chair of Poetics at Georgetown University. Since his first book was published in 2007, he has received numerous literary awards, and was selected as a MacArthur Fellow in 2012.

– From Wikipedia

***

Have you ever had a friend that while being so different in nature or opinion from you, was still a person who greatly influenced you and inspired you to action?

Do you believe that strong bonds in relationship can surpass time?

Do you feel you need to know someone really well in order to love him/her? Or are secrets from the past best to be left alone?

The immigrant experience can be a daunting one. As an immigrant, or one who can imagine him/herself as being one, what do you think is the most difficult about being an immigrant?

What is/are your name(s)?

If you could be named something else, what name would you choose?

***

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Book Review: The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman

03.06.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

the museum of extraordinary things

***

Category: Fiction, Magical Realism

Author: Alice Hoffman

Format: Advanced Reading Copy (ARC), 372 pages

Publisher: Scribner

ISBN: 978-1-4516-9356-0

Pub Date: February 18, 2014

***

Summary from the Publisher:

Mesmerizing and illuminating, Alice Hoffman’s The Museum of Extraordinary Things is the story of an electric and impassioned love between two vastly different souls in New York during the volatile first decades of the twentieth century.

Coralie Sardie is the daughter of the sinister impresario behind The Museum of Extraordinary Things, a Coney Island boardwalk freak show that thrills the masses. An exceptional swimmer, Coralie appears as the Mermaid in her father’s “museum,” alongside performers like the Wolfman, the Butterfly Girl, and a one-hundred-year-old turtle. One night Coralie stumbles upon a striking young man taking pictures of moonlit trees in the woods off the Hudson River.

The dashing photographer is Eddie Cohen, a Russian immigrant who has run away from his father’s Lower East Side Orthodox community and his job as a tailor’s apprentice. When Eddie photographs the devastation on the streets of New York following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, he becomes embroiled in the suspicious mystery behind a young woman’s disappearance and ignites the heart of Coralie.

With its colorful crowds of bootleggers, heiresses, thugs, and idealists, New York itself becomes a riveting character as Hoffman weaves her trademark magic, romance, and masterful storytelling to unite Coralie and Eddie in a sizzling, tender, and moving story of young love in tumultuous times. The Museum of Extraordinary Things is Alice Hoffman at her most spellbinding.

– From Chapters-Indigo website

Book Review by Zara

from The Bibliotaphe Closet:

The Museum of Extraordinary Things by Alice Hoffman is as extraordinary as the contents of the museum it speaks of. And I don’t mean that as a pun. It’s a legitimate assessment. There’s enough in this book to draw from that will enrich any readers’ experience in reading it.

It is a dual story of Coralie Sardie, gifted swimmer and daughter of The Professor, ex-magician and current curator of the museum that showcases oddities and special wonders; and of (Ezekial) Eddie Cohen, former tailor and later errand boy of the streets, now a professional and passionate photographer.

The plot of the book is as intricate and intriguing as the number of people with gifts who are employed by the museum. While it is primarily a story of Coralie’s eventual rebellion and empowerment beyond the borders of her father’s ambitious and sinister control, as well as Eddie’s reconciliation with his Jewish Orthodox roots, poverty, the dichotomy between the working class and the wealthy, the death of his mother, and his strained relationship with his father—there is an underlining and haunting plot of search and rescue that stems from a fight towards work equality, and the advocacy against political and economical crime and injustice.

The narrative is richly engaging while able to stay real and genuine, even lyrical, which is usually expected with Hoffman’s wonderfully stylistic work. The depth in which Hoffman goes into revealing her characters’ histories and feelings, bridge a real connection, empathy, and likability between readers and the characters themselves. In reading this novel, Coralie and Eddie feel very much like personal friends even though they remain fictional ones.

Coralie Sardie, a young beauty, raised in isolation, is both a natural and gifted swimmer, drawn by circumstance and personal calling to the water, who becomes both by her father’s intentions and her own emotional landscape, almost a mystical creature of the Hudson River. While she has a predisposition to naive innocence, she slowly learns her own emancipation through her own, private rebellion, and the revelation of secrets behind the closed doors of her father’s study and workshop within the museum of extraordinary and sometimes frighteningly absurd things.

Eddie Cohen, an only son to an Orthodox Jewish elder, raised by a single father, to emotional grief and loss, hard labour, and an imbalance of work politics, becomes hardened by disappointment and the dichotomy between rich and poor, right and wrong. His emotional buoy is found in his discovery and fascination with the light and dark of photography. He inherits this vocation through Moses Levy, who becomes his mentor and his father-figure.

As the story unfurls, so does its mysteries: Eddie Cohen takes on an investigative role, a searcher for people and things lost. In doing so, he reveals the mystery of his own personal story, reconciling himself to his past, to his relationships, and to his faith, discovering, too, a chance at redemptive, romantic love.

The characters are as varied in the book as they are, interesting, even dual in nature, often misinterpreted or misunderstood.

The Professor, a shrewd businessman is also an illusionist driven by his compulsion to discover, recreate, and collect strange artifacts and even “stranger” people. His focus on deceiving his public as much as his focus to succeed financially and socially in the entertainment district, drives him to severe controlling tendencies and habits, irrational decisions, even unethical and immoral acts. The spiral in which The Professor travels downward, rapidly engulfs him in atrocious acts and a fervor that decapitates his mental stability, edging him further toward the path of madness.

Maureen, the obedient, but not docile mother-figure unravels a few secrets of her own, in the history of her facial scars to the irreplaceable bond she has with Coralie Sardie.

Mr. Raymond Morris, The Wolfman, while wild in physique, is highly educated in literature and the arts, and a gentleman of decorum and tenderness.

The Liveryman, ex-convict-turned-driver, has but a surprising decency and a natural love and gravitation to the language of birds.

Jacob Van der Beck, an abrasive Dutchman living on the outskirts of the city, a frustrated hermit, an avid fisherman and lover of the water, is wiser and kinder than his city folk counterparts, a witness, and an unexpected friend, able to consider and tame a wild wolf.

Mitts, a happy and loyal Pitbull, eager for friendship, trusting of strangers, and a hearty, good dog.

The theme of duplicity, of appearance demystifying expectations and stereotypes run throughout the novel from the roles the characters are expected to play to the people they really are, and the complexity of those lines, which often become blurred.

This book has not a little of everything, but a lot. While the characters are fully realized, the variety and complexity of who they are and their plight is highly creative and endearing. Though this novel reveals a sinister cruelty in its active and mysterious plot, the story at its heart is filled with drama, reconciliation, spiritual awakening, emancipation, and the conquest of love. Aside from its contextual richness, it really is a beautifully written novel.

The Museum of Extraordinary Things is continual proof of Alice Hoffman’s unique gift for magical and complex storytelling.

***

Characters: 5 stars

Pacing: 5 stars

Cover Design: 3.5 stars

Plot: 5 stars

***

Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Simon & Schuster Canada on behalf of  Scribner for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

***

About the Author:

alice hoffman

To find more about Alice, you can read her biography here.

Links:

You can visit Alice’s Official Website.

You can like Alice on Facebook.

You can be a fan of Alice on Goodreads.

***

If you were to be included in a Museum of Extraordinary Things, what kind of special gift do you think you’d like to have?

If you’ve read the book, who is your favourite character and why?

Even though The Professor is a flawed character, do you as a reader, feel any sympathy or empathy towards him? Why or why not?

Have you ever visited a type of “Museum of Extraordinary Things?” What did you think?

Book Review: The Book of Jonah by Joshua Max Feldman

02.21.2014

By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez / @ZaraAlexis

Book of Jonah

***

Category: Contemporary Fiction

Author: Joshua Max Feldman

Format: Hardcover, 342 pages

Publisher: Bond Street Books

ISBN: 978-0-385-67959-6

Pub Date: February 4, 2014

***

Summary from the Publisher:

The modern-day Jonah at the center of Joshua Max Feldman’s brilliantly conceived retelling of The Book of Jonah is a young Manhattan lawyer named Jonah Jacobstein. He’s a lucky man: healthy and handsome, he has two beautiful women ready to spend the rest of their lives with him, and an enormously successful career that gets more promising by the minute.

He’s celebrating a deal that will surely make him partner when a bizarre, unexpected Biblical vision at a party changes everything.

Hard as he tries to forget what he saw, this disturbing sign is only the first of many Jonah will witness, and before long his life is unrecognizable.

Though this perhaps divine intervention will be responsible for more than one irreversible loss in Jonah’s life, it will also cross his path with that of Judith Bulbrook, an intense, breathtakingly intelligent woman who’s no stranger to loss herself.

As this funny and bold novel moves to Amsterdam and then Las Vegas, Feldman examines the way we live now while asking an age-old question: how do you know if you’re chosen?

– From Chapters-Indigo website

Book Review by Zara from

The Bibliotaphe Closet

The Book of Jonah, the debut novel by Joshua Max Feldman, is a richly provocative story about the disassembling of one’s life security and agenda, its accumulation of success in various forms, and the inevitable question and role of morality, and the power of faith and change when the two, polar beliefs collide, conflict, and agitate until life itself almost dissolves.

Those who are familiar with the original book of Jonah in the Bible will recognize not only its title, but the thematic similarities between Jonah Jacobstein’s predicament and resistance in this modern, contemporary version and the original text.

The book is wonderfully character-driven filled with fully realized characters that engage the reader in visualizing their superficial and/or naive sensibilities, the magnitude of their personal failings, even their loss.

And because Feldman writes with intelligence and articulate precision, the voice of his characters, especially that of its main character, Jonah Jacobstein, is clear, realistic, and very male in his ambition, rhetoric, denial, and self-doubt.

While Jonah’s life as he recognizes it dissolves into a series of unexplainable visions and bouts of harried panic, Jonah faces the inadequacy of his relationship with the brisk snobbery and self-entitled coldness of his tycoon girlfriend, Sylvia, and the emotionally unstable drama of his long-time love and mistress, Zoey. While both women differ as much as polar opposites do, their extremities pull Jonah in a dishonest and destructive duality, one that is inevitably immoral, exhausting, and unhealthy.

His position as corporate lawyer for a prestigious firm, coerce him to participate in less-than-moral actions when agreeing to take on a case on behalf of the BBEC in a lawsuit against a much smaller, independent business, with the promise of a promotion from “associate” to “partner” should he succeed.

Parallel to this, Judith Bulbrook, raised in the cocoon of privilege and the belief that fulfilment comes from the care and stability of two, loving parents, industrious diligence, and commitment to the power of prestigious academia; she spirals into a harsh darkness of self-destruction in the form of promiscuity and emotional manipulation in answer to dull the horror of her personal loss.

Together they form the requirements of a specially ordained quest, one that moves them to a renewal of some kind of faith; neither devout, nor indifferent, but one that points to introspection, quiet forgiveness, and subtle, conceding acceptance.

The narrative is articulate, tough, and unwavering, as is the theme in the book. And the plot, while well-paced, will readily move the reader along to enjoy the suspenseful outcome of its sporadic visions.

While the narrative surrounding Judith Bulbrook is manic and can successfully bring the reader to its level of wallowing depression, the severity of Jonah’s revelations also cause important and sober retrospection. But, as is the purpose of all spiritual journeys, there is hope of redemptive power, however large or small for both these characters, and potentially some of the other characters in the book.

After all, the honour of hearing God’s message carries with it a burden of testing, which Jonah Jacobstein and Judith Bulbrook both face—and that we all face, no matter our religious or non-religious affiliation.

In The Book of Jonah, the “whale” must have its fill in order that Jonah gets “spat out” to fully realize its life lesson. And we as readers, in coming away from this novel, may also be privileged enough to reconsider and re-learn our own.

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Characters: 4 stars

Pacing: 3.5 stars

Cover Design: 3.5 stars

Plot: 3.5 stars

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Zara’s Rating

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A special thanks to Random House of Canada on behalf of Bond Street Books for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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About the Author:

joshua max feldman

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Joshua Max Feldman is a writer of fiction and plays. Born and raised in Amherst, Massachusetts, he has lived in England, New York, and Switzerland. He currently resides in south Florida. The Book of Jonah, his first novel, will be published February 4th, 2014.

– From Goodreads

Links:

You can visit Joshua’s official website.

You can like Joshua on Facebook.

You can follow Joshua on Twitter.

You can be Joshua’s fan on Goodreads.

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How do you think you would react if you received a direct message or vision from God?

If you’ve read the novel, “The Book of Jonah” by Joshua Max Feldman, which was your favourite part? Your favourite character?

Who do you think you most resemble of the fictional characters in “The Book of Jonah?” Jonah, Sylvia, Zoey, Danny, Max, The Colonel, Judith?

How far are you personally willing to go in order to do what’s right? (A good hint at answering this is considering what you would most likely do when no one is looking.)

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