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.

 

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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.

 

Unexpected joy of a book

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Theory of Bastards by Audrey Schulman

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

Francine (Frankie) is finally able to live her life the way she’d like to.  Up until now, her life has been full of pain due to an undiagnosed disease but now she’s pain free.  She’s well known for her scientific discovery, “The Theory of Bastards”, and has been given a grant to study bonobos.  When a dust storm is expected and mandatory evacuation is imposed, she makes a decision to stay and care for the bonobos, along with the man she loves.

This was an unexpected joy of a book.  It takes place in a futuristic world, full of human computer implants and driverless cars.  The story jumps back and forth from Frankie’s life when she struggles with her pain and present day.  I would have given it five stars except for the fact that there were parts of the book that I felt dragged a bit, especially when Frankie first comes to the Foundation to start work with the bonobos.  The slow parts are not completely without merit, though, as they include real-life studies of the bonobos that I found to be quite interesting.

The story really picks up when the dust storm hits.  I hadn’t realized up until that point how much I had grown to care about each of the bonobos and Frankie.  The last quarter of the book was very suspenseful and I clung to every word.  There’s quite a lesson on the dangers of a society so dependent on technology.

Ms. Schulman has given us a well-written book with true heart.  It’s a very original look at humanity and mankind’s relationship to the animal world.  Recommended.

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

 

A one-of-a-kind literary event

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Oneiron by Laura Lindstedt

Book Review:  4 out of 5 star rating

What is this strange place where seven women have unexpectedly appeared?  The women have no memory of what happened or how they came to this place.  The space they’re in is completely white with no apparent boundaries at all, under or around them or over them, and the women no longer have their body sensations.  They’ve never met each other until they arrived here.  Is this heaven or is it hell?  Or is it someplace in between?  Can they get back to where they came from?

What a fascinating literary event this book is!  I’ve never read anything like it.  I was riveted to the pages as each of the women tries to work out her last memories and tells her individual story.  I grew to care for each of these women:  Shlomith from New York, who turned her anorexia into an art form; Polina, an accountant from Moscow; Rosa Imaculada who had a heart transplant in Brazil, the French Nina who is expecting twins, Wlbgis from the Netherlands and her battle with throat cancer and the Austrian teenager Ulrike.

This author’s imagination knows no limits and I’m looking forward to whatever other worlds she invents in her literary future.  This book won the Finlandia Prize, which is Finland’s highest literary honor, and has sold more than 70,000 copies worldwide.  I don’t think it will be everyone’s cup of tea but if you sometimes long for a reading experience that takes you out of the usual realm of life and gets you thinking, this book is it.

Recommended.

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

 

Vivid portrayal of the cost of an artistic life

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The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman

Book Review:  5 out of 5 star rating

Pinch’s parents are both artists.  His mother, Natalie, is an eccentric maker of pottery and his father is the renowned painter, Bear Bavinsky.  Bear is completely self-absorbed and only cares about his art.   His son strives for his attention and praise.  When Pinch makes his own effort at being an artist, his father tells him that he, Pinch, will never be an artist and Pinch believes him.  Bears abandons Pinch and his mother in Italy and is off to America, where more wives and children await him.  Pinch dreams of writing his father’s biography one day but he becomes completely disillusioned and lost and ends up teaching Italian in London.   When Bear dies, Pinch comes up with a plan that he hopes will secure his father’s legacy.

This is such a beautifully written book, one that I became fully emerged in.  Pinch is such a conflicted soul and tries so hard to impress his father, only to fall flat due to Bear’s egocentricity.  My heart broke over and over for him and I just wanted to shake him and tell him to go live his own life.  Natalie becomes so unstable and insecure but her constant love for her son shines throughout the book.  Bear, as despicable as he can be, also has a charming side and it’s obvious why his son is so blinded by him.  This is a vivid portrayal of a man who has lived his life for someone else’s art, ignoring his own dreams.  I often wanted to Google these people to find out more about them, they were that real.

Most highly recommended.

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