Grit-lit with heart

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Sugar Run by Mesha Maren

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

Jodi McCarty is out of jail, after having spent 18 years imprisoned for manslaughter.  She has only two things in mind – rescue her old lover’s brother, Ricky, from his abusive father and then go home to the land in West Virginia that her grandmother, Effie, left her.  As she sets out to do that, she meets and falls in love with Miranda.  Miranda has her own problems.  She’s estranged from her husband, a washed-up singer, who has taken her three sons from her.  Jodi and Miranda help each other and before long, she and now grown-up Ricky and Miranda and her three sons are living at Effie’s old home.  Jodi is determined to build a better life for them all here on her grandmother’s land.

Ms. Maren is quite an accomplished writer and immediately pulled me into this intriguing story.  A lot happens in this book and the plot covers small town bigotry, the awful destruction brought on by fracking, substance abuse, poverty, the love of land and the shifting of love.  The language can be tough at times but that’s the type of book it is – gritty and raw and earthy.  The language can also be stunningly beautiful.  I admit that I was often turned off and angered by the decisions made by these characters, especially since children were involved.  But then I’d see glimpses of the hope in Jodi’s heart and wanted things to work out for all of them.

I found this one hard to put down and am looking forward to seeing what’s next from this author.  Recommended.

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

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Poetic, majestic, absolutely stunning

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The Dictionary of Animal Languages by Heidi Sopinka

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

Ivory Frame has always been a rebellious one.  She refuses to be subdued by the nuns at the boarding school her wealthy English parents have sent her to.  She finds her way to Paris where she meets surrealists.  She has a passionate love affair with a married Russian painter and becomes an artist herself.  World War II is at its peak in Paris.  When tragedy strikes, Ivory leaves Paris and tries to rebuild her life.  She has always had an affinity with animals and sets out to record animal languages.  Now aged 90, she is still working on her dictionary of animal languages when she’s told that she has a grandchild, which stuns her since she has no children.

This book deeply touched me in a way that few books have ever done.  It was a very slow read for me as I wanted to savor each word.  It’s poetic, it’s majestic and it’s absolutely stunning.  I love how each chapter is entitled a different animal Ivory has studied and the way the author incorporates that animal and its characteristics into the chapter.  Each chapter is a work of art in and of itself.  Some of the chapters are short essays on life and love that are just gorgeous.

The book is loosely based on the life of surrealist Leonora Carrington.  The author spent several days with Ms. Carrington in her home in Mexico City and interviewed her for “The Believer”.  As soon as I finished the book, I had to read up on this artist.  There were some similarities between Leonora Carrington and Ivory Frame but also some quite significant differences.

I’m saddened to see far too many negative reviews of this wonderful book.  It’s true that it wouldn’t be for everyone and it isn’t a light read.  There isn’t always a lot happening.  But the author has a magnificent ability to get to the heart of her characters and brings Ivory’s world vividly to life in the mind of her readers.  I hope this book receives the recognition it deserves in the literary world.

This is a book that I will treasure and love and will read again.  Most highly recommended.

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

A special treat

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Elevation by Stephen King

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

Scott Carey should be more worried than he is.  He’s steadily losing weight each day no matter what he eats but he doesn’t want to go for tests to see what’s causing it because strangely enough, Scott weighs the same with his clothes on or without them.  Even if he puts something of weight in his pockets, he weighs the same.  And yup, even holding heavy weights, when he gets on the scale, he weighs the same.  He trusts Dr. Bob Ellis, a retired doctor, and confides in him.

Scott has also been having an annoying problem with his new neighbors.  A married lesbian couple have been unwittingly allowing their dogs to poop on Scott’s lawn and one of them does not take kindly to Scott’s making a point of asking them to try to prevent it.  The couple have opened a new restaurant in town but it isn’t doing well at all.  Apparently, quite a few of the people in town are prejudiced against lesbians.  Scott would love to get off to a better start with his neighbors and he has a plan.

When King writes an emotionally moving story rather than his typical horror stories, you know you’re in for a special treat.  Not only is this story a timely one dealing with prejudice, but it’s also very imaginative, touching and one of a kind.  I enjoyed every word of it.  It’s not a full-length novel but rather a short novella.  But if anyone can pack a lot into a short story, it’s Stephen King.

Most highly recommended.

Bleak but gripping apocalyptic tale

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City of Ash and Red by Hye-Young Pyun

The unnamed narrator is known for his talents as a rat killer.  The extermination company he works for has given him what many consider to be a promotion and is sent to Country C.  However, when the man gets to Country C, he finds its streets are overrun with rats and piled high with rotting garbage with horrible odors.  There’s also a deadly rampant virus going around and men walk around in hazmat suits.  When he finds out that his new job has been postponed, he thinks things can’t get any worse.  But his world completely caves in when he contacts someone from home and finds out that his ex-wife has been murdered and he’s the prime suspect.

Wow, this author surely knows how to write a gruesome story and keep her readers on edge!  Her imagination knows no limits and the world she has created in this book in a bleak, horrendous one.  I was very impressed with her book, “The Hole”, but this one is even better with a more involved plot.  The book has many layers and I think different people will read different meanings into it.  I see that “The Hole” has won the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award and I can see why.  Her work does remind me of Shirley Jackson’s plus it has that unique Korean touch that I’ve grown to admire.

Recommended.

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

 

Compassionate story of maternal love

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The Caregiver by Samuel Park

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

Ana and her little girl, Mara, take care of each other in their home in Copacabana, Brazil.   Ana works as a voice-over actress but her job brings in little money.  In desperation, she agrees to take a job posing as a citizen with information about student guerillas in an attempt to lure the violent Police Chief Lima from his post.  Ana then makes a decision that tears their lives apart.

Years later when Mara comes to America undocumented, she takes a job as a caregiver to a woman, Kathryn, who is suffering from stomach cancer.  Caring for Kathryn brings up memories of Mara’s mother and Mara struggles to come to terms with her past.

This is a beautifully written book about the relationship between a mother and daughter and what lengths a mother would be willing to go for her daughter.  The characters are very well developed and the book is full of heart and compassion.

The author, Samuel Parks, passed away from stomach cancer shortly after writing this book.  At the end of the book, his essay that was published in the New York Times is shared.  It’s called “I Had a 9 Percent Chance, Plus Hope” and it’s a must read for all.  After reading this book, I’m even more anxious to read “This Burns My Heart”.

Recommended.

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

Exquisitely written, intense and profound

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The Water Thief by Claire Hajaj

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

Nick’s father has died and it has caused him to take a hard look at his life.  He’s living in London, works as an engineer and is engaged to the lovely Kate.  Yet he decides to leave that safe life and go off to a poor village in Africa to help build a children’s hospital.  He hopes to absolve his long-time guilt over an incident involving a childhood friend.  He stays at the home of Dr. Ahmed, his wife Margaret, and their children JoJo and Nagode.  There he’s faced with a moral dilemma.  The people are dying from a lack of water.  The Governor is charging exorbitant fees for water delivery.  Nick learns that there is a solution to the village’s problem – a water well can be dug.  But the Governor won’t consider it.  Nick so desperately wants to help these people that he makes a decision that will impact all.

This book completely tore my heart open and made me take a hard look at my own life.  I so admired Nick’s determination to help these people.   He wants to do the right thing and truly doesn’t understand why those in power wouldn’t feel the same.  He’s so torn by his love for Margaret and his respect for her husband.  And JoJo, this young boy on the edge of manhood who longs to become an engineer like Nick, absolutely broke my heart.  The author does an amazing job of bringing JoJo alive and detailing his descent into hopelessness.  The characters in this book will long live in my heart and memory.  This is one of the most thought-provoking, soul searching books I’ve ever read.

This is a masterpiece of a novel, exquisitely written, intense and profound, a book that should be required reading for all.  It should be given every prestigious award for literary excellence.  I most highly recommend it.

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

Gorgeously written literary work

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Paris Echo by Sebastian Faulks

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

Hannah is an American historian who is in Paris to do some research.  She’s writing about the lives of women who were present in Paris during the German Occupation.  She listens for hours to recordings these women made detailing what living in Paris was like at that time and how these women felt about the German soldiers.  As she walks the streets of Paris, memories of her time there ten years before and the love affair she has never gotten over begin to haunt her.  She’s also haunted by the ghosts of the Paris witnesses she’s listening to.

She takes in a boarder, 19-year-old Tariq, who has run away from his home in Morocco.  Tarij isn’t sure why he came to Paris, possibly to find answers to all of the questions he’s had about his long dead mother.  Hannah and Tariq couldn’t be more different and yet they form a friendship.  Tariq is ashamed that he knows so little history and learns that many North Africans hate France for its treatment of Muslims.  One of his newly found “teachers” is a man who thinks he’s Victor Hugo, a homeless man who performs puppet shows in the subway for donations.

This is a gorgeously written literary work, a slow-moving, thought-provoking book.  There are several stories in this book, not only the stories of Hannah and Tariq but also of the women who witnessed Paris during the German Occupation, relating the atrocities committed, and real-life women such as Andree Borrel, a French heroine of World War II who was executed by the Germans.  The ghosts of the past converge with those walking the streets of Paris in the present day and Paris’ history continues to echo into the future.  This is a book that will linger long after the last page is read.

Most highly recommended.

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

Haunting, touching psychological drama

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The Boy at the Keyhole by Stephen Giles

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star review

Nine-year-old Samuel misses his mother.  She’s left him alone with the housekeeper Ruth.  Ruth as told Samuel that his mother had to go to America to try to save the family business.  She didn’t even say goodbye and left in the middle of the night while he was sleeping.  But she’s been gone months and he begins to suspect that something has happened to her.  He begins to believe that Ruth has murdered his mother.

The comparisons of this book to the work of Shirley Jackson and Daphne Du Maurier convinced me that it was a must read.  I believe the book is closer to the work of Jackson than Du Maurier.  The author has created a very tense, suspenseful atmosphere.  At points in the book, you think you know where it’s headed but then the author turns it around, again and again, until you’re really not sure what to expect.  My heart was touched by the anguished plight of young Samuel.  It’s quite a sad story, either way the author decided to go.  I had a hard time putting it down and found it to be a very satisfying read.

Recommended.

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

 

The first of a series from a well-loved author

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The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Book Review:  3 out of 5 star rating

The Church believes that God has sent The Black Death amongst the people of England as punishment.  It’s 1348 and no one understands how this plague kills so quickly.  Fear is rampant.  But Lady Anne of Develesh has some knowledge of sanitation and the spread of disease and she decides to quickly bring in all of the serfs inside her manor house which is protected by a moat.  When her husband, the brutish Sir Richard, returns home from visiting a prospective husband for his daughter, Lady Anne refuses to let him and his men back in, fearing that they have been infected.  As time goes by, a new fear arises – the fear of starvation as food supplies dwindle. A serf, Thaddeus Thurkell, leads a band of ill-equipped young men into the unknown to see if any other villagers are still alive and also in a quest for food.

Do be aware that this is the first of a series and leaves much of the plot hanging.  I have been a long time reader of Minette Walters’ crime novels and she has always been a favorite author of mine.  I was thrilled to learn of this new book since she hasn’t published a full length novel in the last ten years.  This is quite a departure from Ms. Walters’ prior books, though it does contain a murder and has quite a suspenseful plot.  I enjoyed this story and would love to see it being done on Masterpiece Theater.   Lady Anne is an admirable character though I’m unsure if such a knowledgeable person would have existed in 1348.   This is quite an in depth study of the reactions of people faced with a terrible plague such as this, with some growing into stronger people and others only caring about themselves.  It also has a contemporary component involving class inequality.

On the negative side, I did begin to lose interest about half way through.  There are parts of the book that dragged on too long.  It’s quite a long book, being 544 pages, and I found myself just wanting to get to the end.  I had been completely unaware that this was the first of a series and when I saw the words “to be continued”, I felt cheated but I also felt that I didn’t really want to read another book in this series.  So for that reason, I can’t give this wonderful author more than 3 stars for her newest endeavor.

While it wasn’t entirely for me, I would recommend it for those who enjoy historical fiction.

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

Amazingly creative look at life’s mysteries

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The Aviator by Eugene Vodolazkin

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star review

A bewildered man wakes up in the hospital and has no memory of past events or even his name.  His doctor tells him his name is Innokenty Petrovich Platonov.  The doctor urges Innokenty to write down all of his thoughts and feelings.  Those writings release a story of a young boy living in Russia in the early 1900’s, traveling through the Russian Revolution.  Some of these memories are blurry and he wonders if they’re real, especially since he starts to see signs of now being in 1999.

The above is a very bare bones description of the beginning of this complex book.  I hesitate to talk too much about plot as I don’t want to spoil this masterpiece in any way for anyone.  This book has so many layers and I read it slowly to absorb as much as I could.  I know I’ll want to read it again someday to find other layers that I may have missed in the first reading.  It’s a book that will make you think about whatever stands out for you.  Possibly it will be thinking about memory and how memories can be different between different people and how events stop being real immediately after happening but live on in people’s memories.  Perhaps it will have you thinking about getting older and the witnesses to your life dying so you begin to lose parts of your history.   The meaning of retribution is explored in a mind opening way.  It will definitely get you thinking about the importance of the written word and how it preserves history and memories.

Regardless of what this book gets you thinking about, it’s a powerful, moving story in and of itself.  It touched my heart in so many ways.  The life of Innokenty Platonov is one that I will never forget.  I’m not a talented enough writer to do justice to a book like this.  All I can say is that it profoundly affected me.

I have long loved Russian novelists and read all of the old Russian classics like “Crime and Punishment” by Dostoevsky and “War and Peace” by Tolstoy.  There was a period of my younger life when that was about all I read.  Now I have another beloved Russian novelist to look forward to and will be reading his book “Laurus” as soon as I can.

Most highly recommended.

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