An unnerving tale of the unreliability of memory

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Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Book Review:  4 out of 5 stars

Dustin is a psychologist who struggles with his own past. His mother, father, aunt and uncle were all killed one summer when he was a young boy.  His adopted brother, Rusty, was arrested for the crime and has spent 30 years in prison but is now being released based on new DNA results.  Dustin had testified against Rusty at his trial telling of a satanic cult ritual.  To complicate things further for Dustin, his wife, Jill, has cancer, his youngest son, Aaron, is becoming a drug addict and his oldest son, Dennis, is drifting away from them all.  Plus Dustin is becoming pulled in more and more by one of his patient’s obsession that there is a link to the drownings of college boys.

This is one of the most unnerving books I’ve read in a long time. The author is very skilled at giving his reader chills.  His use of the different plot lines kept me unsettled and never knowing what to expect.  He gave the main character, Dustin, a quirk of often not finishing his thoughts.  At first I found it distracting but once I got used to it, it made the book seem very realistic and amplified Dustin’s confusion.  He also sometimes would tell his story from different perspectives which he would place into short columns on the page, which I found to be very effective in keeping me glued to these pages.

This is not only an excellent psychological thriller but is also a complex exploration of the unreliability of memory, self-delusion and self-destructive behavior. The sections dealing with Jill’s cancer and Aaron’s drug addiction are very insightful and moving. But don’t expect a neat ending.  The reader is left to figure out some things on their own but I thought it was pretty clear as to what had happened in the past and the present.  This is an above-average thriller that kept me completely engrossed throughout.  This author is now on a list of “must read past books” for me.

Recommended for those who enjoy a complex psychological thriller that will send chills up your spine.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

A literary event

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The Last Bell by Johannes Urzidil

Book Review:  4 out of 5 stars

Johannes Urzidil belonged to the literary circle in Prague that included both Franz Kafka, Franz Werfel and Max Brod. When Czechoslovakia was occupied by Nazi Germany in 1939, he came to the United States.  He was living in the US in the 50’s and 60’s when these short stories were written.  He was awarded quite a few literary prizes during his career.  The asteroid 70679 Urzidil was named after him.  Although his books were published in many other countries, his work has been overlooked here.  This is the first publication of The Last Bell in the United States so it’s quite a literary event.  The stories are mostly about the outcome of ordinary events when something unexpected happens.

 

“The Last Bell”

Marska is a fortunate maid. Her Jewish master and mistress have fled the Nazis and have left all of their belongings and money to her.  However, her fortune takes a turn when she invites her sister Joska to live with her and her fortune becomes a hinderance.  This tale is the saddest in the book, although it’s written in a light manner and humorous manner.  The author’s humor makes the horror of this story all that more real.

 

“The Duchess of Albanera”

This is a fantastical story of the theft of a painting and the precarious slip of his sanity as the thief falls in love with the painting.

 

“Siegelmann’s Journey”

This is a moralistic tale of a travel agent who has never traveled himself but can spin a complicated web of lies that he gets tangled in.

 

“Borderland”

Ottilie is a gifted young girl who finds it difficult to conform to ordinary life. She witnesses an event that plunges her into despair.  This magical tale is my favorite in the book.

 

“Where the Valley Ends”

A tale of how discord among neighbors over a stolen cheesecake can lead to war. Such a small incident grows completely out of proportion.

 

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Disappointing

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Cooking For Picasso by Camille Aubray

Book Review:  2 out of 5 stars

 

This book is a complete imagining of what might have transpired during a short period of Picasso’s life.  It’s true that Picasso took some time away from society in Paris in the spring of 1936.  He anonymously rented a villa in the French Riviera.  He was going through some nasty marital problems (having a mistress didn’t help there) and he hadn’t been able to paint for months but that spring he was able to paint again.  Most of Picasso’s paintings referenced in the book are real except for one.

I had so believed that I would love this book.  I find the art world a fascinating one and love to read about France.  And French cooking – what’s not to love?  But I should have known better.  I know the reputation Picasso has and feel rather dumb for thinking this would be a charming book actually about cooking for Picasso.  Sure, the main character, Ondine, did cook for him but their relationship didn’t stop there.  He was 54 and she was only 17.  I felt so let down when the story took this turn.  It felt far too obvious to me and I had hoped that this would be a different type of book.  Apparently, cooking for Picasso = modeling for Picasso = sleeping with Picasso.  What else is a young girl to do being around such a great artist?  Ho hum.

Of course, there’s much more to the story than that.  There’s also the story of Ondine’s granddaughter, Celine, who, when she learns that her grandmother once cooked for Picasso, decides to visit the place where Picasso and Ondine met, sort out a fight for an inheritance and search for a possibly missing painting.  And there are lovely descriptions of France and its cooking.  But although parts of the book were in fact as charming as I had thought they would be, it wasn’t enough to save this one for me.

I did enjoy looking at the photos on the author’s website at http://www.camilleaubray.com of the places that inspired some of the locations in her book.

This audio book was given to me by the publisher through Blogging for Books in return for an honest review.

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Author Bio


 

 

Powerful, mesmerizing and will break your heart in two

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The Color of Our Sky by Amita Trasi

Book Review:  5 out of 5 stars

In India in 1986, Mukta is only 10 years old when she is coerced into dedicating her life to the Goddess, Yellamma, little knowing that she is pledging herself to be a temple prostitute.  But she is rescued from this nightmare and settles into a life with a family in Mumbai, where she becomes fast friends with an 8-year-old girl, Tara.  Mukta is treated as a servant but she feels very lucky to have escaped her fate.  But then she’s kidnapped and disappears.  Eleven years have passed and Tara has turned away from her new life in America and has returned to India to search for her long-lost friend.

This is a devastatingly brutal book about sex trafficking.  The author pulls little Mukta into your heart and completely brings her to life so all that happens to her is bound to move you.  This debut author brought me to tears several times in this book.  I think the thing that struck me the most was how resigned Mukta was to her fate.  Her mother and her grandmother were both temple prostitutes so Mukta never felt she had a chance at anything better, although she longed to go to school and maybe marry one day.  So few were willing to help these young girls, not even the police who were often paid off to turn their heads. 

The beauty of the book comes from the strength of the friendship of Mukta and Tara.  The tie between them survived betrayals and secrets.  Though one had a privileged, easy life and the other had such an unimaginably hard life, they were true sisters of the heart.  Their bond was such a pleasure to read about.

This is a very talented author who writes so beautifully.  Her descriptions are so vivid and realistic.  The subject matter of the book is one that’s close to her heart.  The character of Mukta is loosely based on the daughter of a family servant, Shaku, who Ms. Trasi as a young girl tried to teach how to read.  Learn more about the author and this brilliant book on her website at Author Website.

Highly recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.


 

 

Had me looking over my shoulder!

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I See You by Clare Mackintosh

Book Review:  4 out of 5 stars

Zoe Walker is shocked to see her photo in a newspaper advertisement in the section where escort/dating services advertise. She certainly didn’t put it there.  But wait, she sees other women appearing in these ads – and these women are involved in crimes, sometimes fatal ones.  Is someone watching their every move?  Will she be next?

I found this book to be a suspenseful, interesting read. I can’t imagine how I would react if I were in Zoe’s shoes.   I felt quite a connection with Zoe and all that she’s going through.  The book alternates between Zoe’s first person telling of her situation and the third person telling centering on Kelly, the police officer investigating these crimes.  The book also goes into the background of these two main characters, which brings another level to the book.

Lots of red herrings, suspects and twists kept me racing through the pages. I thought sure I was narrowing  down “who done it” towards the end, but nope, the author did quite a good job of surprising me.  Believable?  Maybe not completely.  But that’s OK – it was a fun and thrilling book.

Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

The emotional impact of leaving earth behind

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The Wanderers by Meg Howrey

Book Review:  4 out of 5 stars

Helen Kane, Sergei Kuznetsov and Yoshihiro Tanaka have been chosen by Prime Space to possibly be the first astronauts to land on Mars. But first they have to prove themselves by submitting to a closely studied simulation of the flight, which will take 17 months.  They don’t have a minute’s privacy as they’re constantly watched by employees of Prime Space.  The simulation is so realistic that it’s sometimes hard for the astronauts to believe they’re not really on their way to Mars.  Meanwhile, their families await the return of the astronauts as they deal with their own issues.

The spotlight in this book isn’t so much on space travel as it is on the effect of that travel on those who venture out into the unknown. The author takes a close look at the hearts and minds of the three astronauts who so long to see what has never been seen before – their fears, their hopes and also their guilt for leaving their families so often.  This is a beautiful character study with great insight told in a poetic and sometimes humorous manner.  I wasn’t surprised to read that the author had been a ballerina as she has the heart of an artist.    This engrossing book brought back all the excitement and wonder of the 1960’s space travel to the moon and reminded me of what a special time in history that was.

Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Politics and romance in S. Korea

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Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

The two main characters are quite different women. Jisun has had a privileged life, although not much of a loving family life.  In rebellion against her father, she joins an underground activist group.  Her best friend, Namin, comes from a poor, hard-working family and is struggling through college at the Seoul National University in the hope that she will be able to offer her family a better life.  The two main male characters are Sunam, a student trying to join the prestigious Circle, and Juno, Jisun’s conniving brother.

The story takes place in the 70’s and the author does a very good job of describing the hopes and fears of the young generation in South Korea at that time. There were those who rebelled and protested the harsh working conditions and there were those who strived to make the right connections so they could move upward.  The living conditions for many made it very difficult to break out of their dismal prospects.  While politics play a big part in the book, it’s not heavy handed and the author smoothly blends it into the story.  I became engrossed in the story of these young people, their loves, their families and their friendships.  The author offers excellent insight into the moral dilemmas faced by her characters and the choices that each makes.  I felt the ending sort of petered out but I did enjoy this book as a whole and recommend it.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.

Beautiful writing contrasts sharply with rough, violent story

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The Weight of This World by David Joy

Book Review:  3 out of 5 stars

The weight of this world has weighed heavily on the shoulders of the three main characters. Thad is back from a tour in Afghanistan and can’t come to terms with the horrific event that happened there.  His mother, April, has her own secrets and violent past that she’s battling to get out from under.  And Aidan watched his father kill himself and Aidan’s mother when he was a child.  There’s no honest work to be found so Thad and Aidan find some dishonest work and both turn to alcohol and drugs to get through their days.  When their drug dealer violently dies, his drugs and money are theirs but only if they can stay away from the meth long enough to figure out what to do with it.

Doesn’t sound too cheery, does it? This is a very dark book but that isn’t what bothered me about this one.   We each have our own demons to bear and while some people’s demons may be worse than others, we all have choices to make in life.  We can choose to blame our rotten luck and we can blame our stupid choices on others.  But in the end, those choices are ours to make and we really only have ourselves to blame for them.  This author didn’t seem to see it that way.

In reading the glowing reviews of this book, I expected to feel great compassion for these characters. They certainly had been through a lot and I tried to feel compassionate for them.  But while I felt sympathy for them, I also felt turned off by them and their choices (and their choices didn’t just include drugs and alcohol).  Plus the mother’s reason for not loving her son was completely unacceptable.   I now read those glowing reviews and wonder how the writers of those reviews could have read the same book as I did.  At one point Aidan says, “Perhaps God just had it out for certain folks and he’d been borne one of the unlucky ones.”  That’s pretty much the theme of the whole book.

So why am I giving it even 3 stars? The writing is really beautiful.  Here’s one random example taken from an Advanced Reading Copy so the wording may change in the final edition:

“They crawled along the edges of great cairns, stones the size of houses balanced with an unfathomable gravity as if they’d been set just so by the hands of some watchmaker god.”

The beauty of the language the author uses in some places contrasts sharply with the rough, coarse language used elsewhere. If these characters could have looked around them at the beauty that the author was describing instead of wallowing in their miserable pasts, their spirits would have lifted.  While I found the book unpleasant to read, it really is a brilliant lesson on why you shouldn’t let the weight of the world weigh you down.

Self-pity is our worst enemy and if we yield to it, we can never do anything wise in this world.  ~ Helen Keller

Haunting and unforgettable story

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The Fortunate Ones by Ellen Umansky

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

 

This book tells the story of the Zimmer family, a Jewish family living in Vienna in the late 1930’s, and the parents’ decision to send little Rose and her brother to England on a kinder transport to keep them safe from the oncoming war. The children are devastated to be sent off to different households in England.  They are told that it will only be for six months but of course the horrendous war lasts much longer.

The Zimmer family possess a valuable painting by Chaim Soutere of a bellhop, which the mother has a particular love of. After the war when Rose is trying to deal with the grievous losses she has endured, she fixates on trying to find the painting and other family belongings that were lost or stolen by the Nazis.

The missing painting finds its way to the Goldstein family in America. However, the painting is subsequently stolen during a party thrown by teenager Lizzie.  Lizzie carries the guilt of that theft and likewise is searching for the painting.  The loss and search for this painting forge a friendship between Lizzie and Rose and reveal painful family secrets.

This is a haunting and unforgettable story of loss, love and forgiveness and the “fortunate ones” who survived the war but bear the scars. Recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher through Edelweiss in return for an honest review.

 

Very impressive author!

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All That’s Left to Tell by Daniel Lowe

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

Marc has been kidnapped in Pakistan. Two men take turns guarding him.  Whenever the interrogator comes into the room, Marc is blindfolded.  The interrogator is a woman who says he can call her Josephine.  At first, Josephine tries to learn how they can collect the ten million dollar ransom.  But then she starts to question him about his severed relationship with his daughter, Claire, who recently was murdered.  She asks Marc to tell her stories about Claire, which Marc reluctantly and painfully does.  Then Josephine starts to tell Marc imaginary stories about Claire’s future if she hadn’t died.  In Josephine’s story, Claire is on her way to visit her dying father, who she hasn’t seen in 15 years.  She is now married with a child but is traveling alone.  She picks up a hitchhiker, Genevieve, who has her own stories to tell.  Genevieve tells Claire stories of the life that Marc may have led during her absence.

Marc’s reality is distorted by the blindfold and he finds comfort in hearing the stories of the life Claire went on to live and can almost believe them to be true. Likewise, the reader’s reality is distorted and sometimes it can be difficult to keep in mind which story is “true”.  But then again, it really doesn’t matter which story is true.  I became completely engulfed in each story.  The author moves smoothly from Marc in prison to the imagined Claire on her way to see her dying father to the imagined Marc who has remarried.  That may sound a bit complicated but the author writes in such a way that it’s all very clear.  I felt like I was dreaming as I read these stories.  What power the written word has, even to bring the dead alive again.  It was almost as though the power of these stories could re-arrange reality itself.

I couldn’t be more impressed by this author. It’s hard to believe that this is his debut novel though I do see that he’s a writing teacher and that his stories and poems have been published in literary magazines.  His is a name to watch out for.  This is a literary work of art, unlike anything I’ve ever read before.  Most highly recommended.

This book was given to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.