Powerful Russian saga

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Zuleikha by Guzel Yakhina

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star review

Zuleikha lives with her abusive husband, Murtaza, and her mother-in-law (whom she thinks of as the Vampire Hag) in Soviet Russia in 1930.  Her life with them is a very hard one.  When communist soldiers come to take over their farm, her husband is killed and she’s sent to Siberia.  It takes them many difficult months on a train to get there, with many dying along the way.  The other survivors include a painter, a mind sickened doctor and the man who killed her husband, Commander Ignatov.  Together they begin to build a new life for themselves.

This is a powerful Russian saga, giving an immense overview of life under communist rule.  It covers such a wide range of political and religious issues.  This author is a master at painting an image of the world as it was then in Russia for dekukalized peasants.  I felt like I was watching a movie on a huge screen as I read this book.  The author is also a filmmaker so that may well be why the book has such a cinematic feel to it.  She doesn’t hold back on how brutal their lives were and there are some scenes that are horrific.  The only reason that I’m not giving this book a full 5 stars is that there were times when it dragged a bit for me and at times when the plot seemed to be a bit contrived.  But overall, it’s a wonderful read.  The characters were deeply portrayed and Zuleikha’s life is a heart wrenching one.

Recommended.

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

 

Exquisite, poetical and utterly unique

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The White Book by Han Kang

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

The narrator of this book doesn’t have a name in the book, although it’s no secret that this is an autobiographical work by this author and is a love letter to her long deceased older sister.  The book starts with a list of white items, including swaddling bands, newborn gown, snow, ice and shroud.  This book is a series of very short chapters consisting of meditation-like bursts of thoughts.  Running through these thoughts is the story of the author’s young mother whose first child died only a couple of hours after birth.  Throughout the years, the author has often thought of her sister and the grief that has never ended for her family.

The author not only writes about her sister’s death and the subsequent grief that death imposed upon her family but also writes in such beautiful detail of her sister’s two hours of life.  I think one of the most touching parts of the book is when the author speaks directly to her sister, telling her how much she would have loved having a big sister.

This book has been short listed for the 2018 Man Booker International Prize and I can certainly understand why.  Ms. Kang never fails to impress with the uniqueness of her work.  “The Vegetarian” and “Human Acts” are both books that I will never forget and wrench my heart just thinking about them.  I know that her newest book will be one that I will pick up again and will open randomly just to enjoy reading one of these lovely ruminations.   I read a review that referred to the author’s short chapters as prayers and I think that is totally appropriate.

Most highly recommended.

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

Mesmerizing historical novel revealing the layered life of Hedy Lamarr

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The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star review

Hedwig Kiesler is a young wealthy Jewish girl living in Vienna.  She longs to be a famous actress but also is interested in science.  Her father encourages her to pursue both.  She is just gaining respect as an actress when she meets her biggest fan, Fritz Mandl.  Mandl has quite a reputation with women and as an Austrian arms dealer.  But Hedwig’s parents are concerned about the developing hatred for Jews and believes a marriage between Hedwig and Fritz will save them all.  Once Hedwig marries Fritz, she realizes she made a terrible mistake and is imprisoned and abused by her controlling husband.  She begins to listen in on conversations at their dinner parties and learns military secrets that she passes on to her husband, hoping to use those secrets to escape from him.  Those secrets lead her to become an inventor of a unique radio-communication devise that may help win the war.

I was completely riveted by this book and found it fascinating.  I well remember the actress Hedy Lamarr, having watched many of her old movies on TV when I was young.  I also knew that this beautiful actress was also the inventor of a radio guidance system that was eventually used in the development of Bluetooth and Wi-fi.  But this book opened up her world to me in such a mesmerizing way.  The author has a talent for bringing her characters to life.  Parts of this book read like a suspenseful thriller and I couldn’t put it down.  Most impressive was the focus the author gave to the difficulties Hedy encountered when she presented her invention to the navy and it was refused simply because they said it would be hard for them to sell their soldiers and sailors on a weapons system created by a woman and that they weren’t even going to try.  And this was decided when they had a faulty torpedo system in place.  She was told that she would do better selling war bonds.  I was so glad to read in a postscript that many years later, in the 1990’s, she was finally given recognition and awards for her invention.

Most highly recommended.

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

Powerful, emotional read with a shaky start

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School of Velocity by Eric Beck Rubin

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

Jan and Dirk are teenage boys when they meet in the Netherlands.  Jan is studying the piano and dreams of a musical career.  Dirk has already had a career as a child actor.  Jan is a quiet boy, while Dirk is flamboyant and outgoing.  Jan soon is obsessed with Dirk and follows him everywhere.  To his surprise, Dirk seems to want to be with him and they soon become fast friends, with sleepovers where they watch porn.  They lose touch when Dirk goes to America to find his way to stardom and Jan stays in the Netherlands to go to music school.  They don’t see each other again until Jan becomes ill and reaches out to Dirk.

OK, I have to admit that I was turned off by the beginning of this book.  Dirk’s language and topics of conversation were sometimes a bit offensive and while young boys may think of only one thing – sex – it isn’t my preferred reading material.  Dirk’s character seemed to go quite a bit over board with his rebellious spirit although the adults unbelievably took it all in stride.  But I’m very glad I stuck with this book.  It really turned around after they each went off to pursue their adult lives and I became engrossed in the book.  It’s a beautifully written story about male friendship and quite sad.  I also enjoyed the author’s description of a musician’s life and the total absorption in the music.  The book leaves open quite a few questions and that’s fine with me.  I didn’t need this type of book wrapped up nicely.  It’s a powerful, emotional read and I don’t even want to start another book yet as I want to give this one some more thought for a while.

Recommended.

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

 

Intelligent and profound

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The Dependents by Katharine Dion

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

Gene and his wife Maida and Ed and his wife Gayle have been close friends since college.   They raised their children together and took vacations at Ed and Gayle’s beach house.  When Maida dies, Gene re-lives their marriage and fears that it was not all that he had thought it was.  He has never been very close to his daughter Dary and now they seem even further apart.  He begins to doubt all of their relationships and a horrible suspicion begins to take root in his mind.  Things are further complicated when his daughter convinces him to hire a caretaker whom he’s drawn to.

The characters in this book quickly found a place in my heart.  This is a slow burning, deeply thought provoking, intelligently written book.  This author is a fearless one, ready to take on issues such as how well we know our loved ones, where does our happiness come from, how to deal with the loss of a loved one, how well we remember the past.   She uses great tact and caring in each sentence.   This author is a force to be reckoned with and I have great hopes for her future in the literary field with such an auspicious debut.

Most highly recommended.

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

An engrossing political fairy tale

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The Melody by Jim Crace

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

Alfred Busi is better known in his town as Mister Al, the singer/pianist.  But his venues aren’t as large as they once were and he’s in mourning for his much beloved wife.  He’s not keeping up his home very well and it’s getting a bit worn down.  He’s often awakened in the night by animals raiding the garbage cans in his courtyard.  One night upon hearing the noises in the courtyard, he ventures down to set things right.  He’s suddenly attacked – scratched and bitten – and he’s sure it wasn’t an animal but had the sense that it was a naked wild boy.  The report of the attack sets off a series of rumors of what’s living in the nearby woods and ignites fear and discord throughout the town.

This is a beautifully written tale of love and age and grief and reputation.  It’s slow moving but very compelling and unusual and poetic in nature.  It’s almost like a fairy tale or a dream that just carried me along in its flow.  For all its poetry, it’s also political and makes a strong statement against the prejudices that many of those who are more fortunate have against the homeless and poor.  The author is a past winner of the Man Booker Prize and I had read that he had retired from writing but then came out with this book.  I’m glad he did and am looking forward to reading more of his work.  This one will long remain in my memory due to its distinctiveness.

Recommended.

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

Perfection

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Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

Oh how Lu Rile longs to make her mark in the photography world.  She has struggled so hard and her art means everything to her.  During a series of self-portraits, she inadvertently captures the fatal fall of a young boy past her window.  The resulting photograph is her masterpiece, the work that her artistic life has centered on achieving.  But there’s a problem.  She’s become friends with, possibly even has fallen a bit in love with, the young boy’s mother, Kate, and she can’t bring herself to tell Kate about this photo.  And another problem has arisen – the young boy, Max, is haunting Lu, appearing outside of the window that he fell past on his way to his death.

I’m finding it difficult to believe that this is a debut novel by this author.  I think she may have been a student of Joyce Carol Oates, one of my favorite authors, since she went to Princeton where Ms. Oates teaches and Ms. Oates wrote a glowing blurb for the book.  That blurb is what drew me to this book.  This novel had everything I could ask for.  I didn’t just read this book – I lived this book.  I lived in the dilapidated warehouse along with Lu and the other illegal tenants.  I walked the Brooklyn streets with Lu as she took her photos and went to her three jobs.  I stayed with her and her father when he underwent eye surgery.  And I sweated over her dilemma of what to do with her controversial photo right along with her.  I could hardly bear to read the last pages of this book.  I was so invested in the story that it felt personal.

I won’t tell any more about the plot of this book than the publisher has chosen to.  I leave it to the author to tell her story, which she does to perfection.

Most, most highly recommended.

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

 

A quiet book with a powerful message

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Sweet Bean Paste by Durian Sukegawa

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

Sentaro feels like such a failure.  He’s working in a little confectionary shop when all he wants to do is become a writer.  He drinks too much and the shadow of his time in prison hangs over him.  He spends his days making mediocre dorayaki, a sweet composed of two little pancakes filled with sweet bean paste.  One day he has a visit from an elderly woman, Tokue, who wants to work for him.  When he tastes her dorayaki, he knows he must learn her sweet bean paste secrets.  Their friendship grows until society’s prejudice cause their lives to change.

This is a slow, beautiful book that I absolutely loved.  It touched my heart in so many ways.  A part of the book explores a chapter of Japanese history that was so dark and sad but the book really isn’t a dark, sad book but rather is very uplifting and inspiring.  This a profound story about the meaning of everyday life that brought me to tears but with a smile on my face.  Gorgeous book that I’d love to read again one day.  I’m going to see if I can get my hands on a copy of the movie, which is called “Sweet Bean”, as I would love to see it.

Oneworld Publication is fast becoming one of my favorite publishers.  There was a list of some of their books on the last page of this ebook and I realized that the list included some of my best-loved books of 2017, including “They Know Not What They Do” by Jussi Valtonen, “The Temptation To Be Happy” by Lorenzo Marone, “The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman” and “The Postman’s Fiancé” by Denis Theriault.  Now I can add this book to that list from a publisher who has a knack for finding unique, one-of-a-kind authors.

Most highly recommended.

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