Monday, February 8, 2016

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

When a novel begins with a missing daughter, you have an idea that it may deal with difficult subject matter. When the reader learns that, after a search and rescue team is sent out, her body is found in a lake, it gets harder.

Everything I Never Told You is difficult to read. It is about a family whose individual members are struggling to fit in. It's clearly not an easy thing being an interracial family in America, regardless of the strides people may have made with regards to racism. Whether we wish to believe it or not, there is still a difference in people's minds when they see a Chinese man with a white woman. Obviously, it was even harder for society to comprehend in the 1970s, when this novel was set.

Having parents who can't really accept themselves doesn't always prove positive for their children. No, mother and father can't be blamed for having internal issues caused by the external world, but daughter may have a harder time living in her own skin when her parents push her to get the best out of herself--harder even than she may be able to deal with. Obviously, Marilyn and James Lee had their daughter's best interest in mind: they didn't want her to be the girl who couldn't become a doctor because she was a girl--a Chinese girl, no less!

But maybe she didn't want to become a doctor? Maybe she didn't have the tools to excel in school that she once did? Societal pressures transmitted by the ones who want the very best for you causing a weight that you just cannot bear...

And then what happens? If someone just can't handle everything, they either ask for help or do something that they may regret in the future. Lydia Lee was forced into making a decision. She wasn't getting along with her brother who was her rock. She couldn't possibly talk to her parents. So she made a choice. 

Celeste Ng does a wonderful job illustrating such a painful reality in her fiction. Everything I Never Told You is a great, although heartbreaking, novel. I recommend it to those who have had a hard time fitting in at some point, and others who haven't--there may be a time that you will. 

It's obviously not a light read, but one that moves very quickly nonetheless. I would definitely take the time to read it if I were you. 

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Death's Head Chess Club by John Donoghue

ISBN: 9780374135706

It's impossible to put yourself in the shoes of a Jewish prisoner at Auschwitz during the Second World War. Hopefully, one will never have to endure the hardships--struggle, starvation, watching your loved ones selected for extermination--that the survivors of the camp did and the terrible memories that they must keep with them until the end of their days. Because of their disastrous days, what they were put through, you cannot judge them for their feelings toward the German people, especially, say, 12 years after the end of the war (when half of this novel takes place.)

Emil Clement was a French Jew taken to Auschwitz. He was separated from his wife, children and mother and thrown into  a concentration camp. The one thing he was able to do was survive. 

Then, an opportunity was presented. Word had gone around the ranks that Emil--also known as a the Watchmaker because of his profession in a past life--was an excellent chess player. In order to boost morale and price the German superiority over the Jews, an officer was to play and defeat Emil. Of course, Clement won. It was then that the novel's other protagonist, SS officer Paul Meissner (a higher-up at Auschwitz) gave Emil the chance to play for his peers' lives: one game won, one Jew saved. 

The pressure was immense, but the Watchmaker was forced to comply (knowing he could save lives) and was successful. 

In 1962, Clement was taking part in an international chess tournament in Holland and a priest introduced himself: it was Meissner begging for forgiveness. 

I'm not sure how I'd handle myself in such a situation, but the author did an interesting job of wrapping it up in a neat little package. 

I liked The Death's Head Chess Club. It gave a perspective in a concentration camp that I've never seen or even thought about. 

I'd give it a read if I were you. 

As a side note, I apologize for the frequency at which I am posting. It's been a pretty busy summer but I'm doing the best I can. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard

ISBN: 978-0-7710-7998-6

I've read a lot of books about the Holocaust in my life. I'm Jewish and it has been important for me to learn about what happened in Europe before, during and after World War II. The Book of Aron is a completely original take on a child living in the Warsaw ghetto and a look into the benevolence of Janusz Korczak. 

Aron, of course, is the aforementioned child. When his father gets a job in Warsaw, he decides to move his family from a small Polish town. Not long after, the Jews of Warsaw are forced to live in close quarters and their basic human rights are stripped from them. Aron, along with some friends, become a gang of smugglers, doing what they must to survive. Typhus and lice are factors, the quality of life is piss-poor. Ultimately, Aron loses his family to illness and the concentration camps and becomes an orphan. It is then when he meets Janusz Korczak--Pan Doktor: a man who had dedicated his life to the children of Warsaw. He takes care of Aron just like the rest of "his" children. His days are spent trying to get enough food to feed his orphanage, all the while not turning anyone away. His fate will be the death camp Treblinka, but only by choice--he refused to leave the sides of the children he had done his best to provide for. 

I don't think I've ever read desperation described like Shepard does in the form of Aron's actions. After being forced into some deplorable things, he regrets them but the reader never gets the idea that he didn't have to do what he did. He made his decisions based on survival, not profit. Also, he is just a friggin kid!

And Korczak...I really didn't know anything about the doctor before this novel, but I feel as though no one could have done a better job getting down to the soul of the man than the author. To call him a "good man" would be an insulting understatement--at least that is the picture that Shepard paints. 

I recommend The Book of Aron to anyone that likes to read. Jim Shepard has a reputation of doing his homework on the subjects that he writes about. If that's a fact, you, as a reader, can learn a great deal about an important humanitarian in a terrible time. I feel like I learned a lot about a topic that I already knew a great deal about. A different point of view of the same result: the worst time of your life and trying to get through it. 

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Heart of Hell by Alen Mattich

ISBN: 978-1-77089-437-2

I have always been interested in history and the wars that have formed and torn apart the current world. The Heart of Hell is set in Croatia in 1991--right in the thick of the Yugoslavian civil war. To be completely honest, I know very little about said war. In fact, this book may be the most detailed chronicle I have ever read (I was born in 1983 and it was never a focus in school for me, though I am now quite captivated and would like to know more.)

So the setting of the book is great. The Balkan conflict is illustrated quite well for a lay person like myself. It was definitely my favourite part of the book. 

Not that I didn't like the book. As I've stated in previous posts, the thriller genre (or more specifically in this case, political thriller) is not really something that I'm drawn to. But Mattich found a way to draw me in. The protagonist, Marko della Torre, is a former member of the Yugoslavian secret police. He is tasked by an American (presumably CIA) to find an old friend of his, Julius Strumbic, whom they believe has murdered another agent. Della Torre does not want to turn his friend in, but does want to find him and let him know. And so he dangerously embarks on a journey from Zagreb to Dubrovnik where he believes him to be. 

The story itself is a good one. The major problem I had was following, though: this book is the third in a series. As a standalone, it sort of works--there are little fill-ins that help the reader, but I feel like they work better as reminders for those who had read the previous books. I'm eventually going to find the first two novels as I would definitely appreciate The Heart of Hell more after reading them. 

As far as recommendations go, do yourselves a favour and read Zagreb Cowboy and Killing Pilgrim before reading The Heart of Hell. That way, you'll really enjoy an interesting, original series of political thrillers and you'll know more about The Montenegrin (a character that plays a crucial role in the series.)

Monday, April 27, 2015

The Only Words That Are Worth Remembering by Jeffrey Rotter

ISBN: 978-1-62779-152-6

I thought that The Only Words That Are Worth remembering would be an interesting read. It is a satirical science fictiony book--which is pretty far from my comfort zone--but I like to broaden my horizons, so why not?

The book takes place in the future, after the world has pretty much fallen apart. Rowan and his family, the Van Zandts, are a rag-tag bunch who, after several run-ins with the law, are given the option to either go to prison, or be the test-subjects in a rocket launching from Cape Cannibal, Floriday (Cape Canaveral, Florida, obviously.) They choose the latter and join another family, the Reades. Rowan falls in love with Sylvia Reade, only to lose her affection to his twin brother. Heartbroken, he accepts an offer from Bill Reade (the disturbing father) to sabotage the project and send just the Reades to Europa (one of Jupiter's moons.) Then he runs, gets addicted to Fink (some kind of drug,) and travels through what has become of the US.

TOWTAWR is a strange story. It reminded me a little of A Canticle for Liebowitz--it had the same post-apocalyptic feel, albeit a little more quirky. 

I appreciated the language: a lot of the names of recognizable cities have been bastardized in the future, apparently. 

I recommend this book to those who believe that the world is falling apart and want a glimpse into the messy future.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

I Saw a Man by Owen Sheers

ISBN: 978-0-385-52907-5

I Saw a Man is about morality, forgiveness and doing the right thing. Owen Sheers does a magnificent job in illustrating what not to do when you're in a tough spot. 

The book takes place in the year 2008, during the height of the conflict in Afghanistan. It tells the story of Michael, a fairly successful immersion journalists who meets and falls in love with Caroline: a journalist as well, but more of a risk-taker, always looking for a story in a war-torn country and always in danger's way. 

The two marry and settle in Wales. Soon after, Caroline tells Michael that an opportunity for an interview with a known terrorist. Thankfully, it would be in Pakistan, not Afghanistan and so there was much less risk (still a lot of risk.)

Caroline was killed by a drone missile strike manned from Nevada. 

Struck by grief, Michael moves to Back to London and meets Josh and Samatha, whom, with their two young daughters, Michael spends all of his time with. 

Michael is on the road to recovery when he starts receiving letters from the pilot that pulled the trigger that killed his wife. They are letters of apology and explanation written illegally against protocol in an attempt to be forgiven by Michael as Daniel's (the pilot) life is falling apart. 

Michael falls back into the emotional rut he was in, unable to forgive. Meanwhile, something terrible happens at Josh and Samantha's house (which I will not divulge.)

Owen Sheers is an award-winning poet and his way with words is showcased in I Saw a Man. The title of the book is made up of the words that are said just before Caroline is killed and ostensibly the cause of numerous people's lives being destroyed. 

It is a fantastic book, a page-turner. I was reminded of Woody Allen's film Match Point during parts (although there are no murders, premeditated or otherwise--no spoiler!)

I'd recommend I Saw a Man to pretty much anyone: the writing is great, the story is great and it's a bit of a social commentary which is, well, great. 

It will be available in early June--something to look forward to. 

Monday, April 20, 2015

The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer

ISBN: 978-1-4767-1045-7

I haven't read something as dense as The Children's Crusade in a long time. Dense in a good way, of course, the type of pages that are filled with content and hard work. Ann Packer surely put a lot into her novel and it most definitely paid off.

The Children's Crusade is about a family over time: the Blairs. Bill, the father, is a pediatrician--an ideal father and role model to his children. If Bill has any faults whatsoever, Packer doesn't write them into her novel. His wife, Penny, on the other hand is another story. 

Penny is very focused on her artwork: that which she has given most if not all of her attention after having four children. She even goes as far as to first move from the family house to a converted shed down the hill (that she makes a studio,) and then, once her children are all grown, move away completely to Taos, where there are likeminded individuals.

Robert is the eldest. He tries his hardest to follow in his father's footsteps: he goes to his alma mater and becomes a doctor.

Rebecca, the only daughter, is the most intelligent. She becomes a psychiatrist, focusing on her work (a trait acquired from Penny,) and only settling down in her forties. 

Ryan is the compassionate one. He was his mother's favourite. His biggest fault is being too empathetic: perhaps the kindest character in any novel. 

And then there's James. 

James--the only child whose name does not start with the letter R. The wild child, the accident, for lack of a better term, the fuck-up. James, living away from the rest of his family, comes home several years after Bill's death. He has fallen in love with a married woman and needs the money from the family home to start a new life with her. Bill had written a clause into his will: if Penny had wanted to sell the house, she needed the consent of at least one of her kids. Up until this point, James would do anything to thwart his mother's wishes--it was a relationship filled with hatred and vitriol. But now, James is desperate and is forced to join "The Dark Side" as he puts it. 

The character development was thorough and it's hard to pick a favourite. Broken down, each child has their own redeeming traits although none are quite as complex as James. 

This novel is a commitment. It isn't something you can just breeze through in a couple of days (unless that's all you're doing.) I'm certain that Packer put everything she had into it and I truly appreciated it. 

It is a very good book and I recommend it to anyone that likes reading about families.