Friday, June 23, 2017

Music of the Ghosts

Title:  Music of the Ghosts
Author:  Vaddey Ratner
Publication Information:  Touchstone. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1476795789 / 978-1476795782

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Suteera wakes amidst the high grass to a tremor several meters away."

Favorite Quote:  "Truth, she believed, lies in what is said as much as in what isn't, in the same way that a melody not only is a sequence of audible notes but encompasses the spaces and pauses in between. When listening to music, you must learns to take in even the atmosphere of an echo."

As in her first book In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner returns to the atrocities and impact of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in this book, Music of the Ghosts. The Khmer Rouge came to be as a result of the Vietnam War in the late 1960s. They came to power in the 1970s as a result of a civil war in Cambodia. The years that followed were years of war, genocide, family, executions, and vast destruction. The impact of their tyrannical rule is still felt today. These books, though fiction, are a reflection of the author's own experiences of survival through this regime, making these stories intensely personal.

In the Shadow of the Banyan tells the story of survival through the eyes of a very young and innocent narrator. The book is heart breaking in its imagery, intensity, and, at the same time, innocence. Music of the Ghosts is about memories - memories of those who survived. This book brings together those who were the victims and those who would have been considered the perpetrators. It blurs the line between perpetrator and victim in highlighting the fact that some of those who joined the Khmer Rouge with the best of intentions for their homeland also became the victims of the regime's atrocities.

The book brings together different perspectives - the Old Musician who ended up on the wrong side of history and bears the scars and the guilt of lifetimes; Narunn who lost everything and yet emerged willing to try and make things better; and Suteera who found escape and a home in a new land but could never leave the memories behind.

The book blends past and present, navigating through memories and emotions and their impact on the individuals trying to live life forward. The books reads as though music and thoughts echo through the years, with the vibrations felt through all time.

As with In the Shadow of the Banyan, the imagery and the writing is visual and beautiful. At times though, this book seems to try too hard. I find myself caught up in the historical / political / philosophical point being made:
  • "... The American have officially ended their airstrikes in Cambodia. Other nations quickly condemned this denouement as irresponsible, leaving in its wake a massive refugee crisis and a government military, a supposed US ally, now far outmatched by the insurgent army. A clear indication of how the United States will treat the rest of its Asian allies, and perhaps the rest of the world. When the going gets tough, one diplomat decried, the tough abscond."
  • "Your progress was the justice I dreamt for my country. The right that would've eradicated the wrongs of my history...."
  • "When I think of the unfathomable suffering, the countless lives lost and broken, I'm left with this profound hope that someday there will exist a world where justice is not simply the exchange of a life for a life, an ideal of retribution to right a wrong, but a path one walks and lives, a way of being."
  • "This is what we all live with as a people, the painful awareness that this history - war, atrocity, genocide, whatever its name - surrounds us persistently, at times binding like a metal chain, other times incorporeal as dust. Even so, we can still move forward, with the small choices we make each day. To love , to harbor and protect, to rebuild."
The history being narrated is an important one, and the commentary on the political ramifications are timely. However, in reading fiction, I would rather be carried away by the story and being left with an understanding of the history. This book stops short of that feeling. Nevertheless, I am a fan and look forward to seeing what Vaddey Ratner writes next.


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Monday, June 19, 2017

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine

Title:  Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine
Author:  Gail Honeyman
Publication Information:  Pamela Dorman Books. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  0735220689 / 978-0735220683

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "When people ask me what I do - taxi drivers, hairdresers - I tell them I work in an office."

Favorite Quote:  "I do exist, don't I? It often feels as if I'm not here, that I'm a figment of my own imagination. There are days when I feel so lightly connected to the earth that the threads that tether me to the planet are gossamer thing, spun sugar. A strong gust of wind could dislodge me completely, and I'd life off and blow away, like one of those seeds in a dandelion clock."

When a book begins with a title like Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, three thoughts come to mind. First, Eleanor Oliphant is such a great name. Memorable too. Second, this book possibly joins the plethora of books in recent years about quirky but endearing characters such as Jonathan, Britt-Marie, Max, and Don Tillman. Third, my guess is that the book is probably going to be about the fact that Eleanor Oliphant is indeed not fine at all. Turns out, all three thoughts are relatively correct.

Eleanor Oliphant's name is part of her story. It is not the name she is born with, but it is the one she lives with and cherishes. Why? Well, that is part of the story.

Eleanor is indeed a quirky character. She works in an office, is a loner, and very set in her routines. She does not seem unhappy, but she does not seem happy either. She exists in her regimented world, seemingly alone except for her weekly phone calls with her mother. Those conversations seems to hold a completes story of a troubled relationship in and of themselves.

That leads to the third part of my guess. Eleanor is definitely not fine. Underlying the seeming quirkiness lies a dark and sad past, and the seeming oddities of character are actually a fragile hold on a perceived normal life. Eleanor has grown up. She has gone to the university. She holds down a steady job. She lives independently. However, does Eleanor indeed have a life or does she merely exist in her life? "These days, loneliness is the new cancer - a shameful, embarrassing thing, brought upon yourself in some obscure way. A fearful, incurable thing, so horrifying that you dare not mention it; other people don't want to hear the word spoken aloud for fear that they might too be afflicted, or that it might tempt fate into visiting a similar horror upon them." Why is Eleanor alone? Why is she the way she is? Is it a chance of nature and biology or it a matter of nurture?

Eleanor's world shifts when she meets her colleague Raymond, who has a story of his own. He manages to create a chink in Eleanor's armor, and the tragic past comes pouring out. "It takes a long time to learn to live with loss, assuming you ever manage it. After all these years, I'm still something of a work in progress in that regard."

This book drifts away from a being a light hearted story of an oddball character into a story of trauma, survival, and the courage to live again. Eleanor's approach to life is a tad annoying until her back story explains it; thus, I find the book a little difficult to get into but then I find myself completely absorbed in Eleanor and the little girl that she was. I go from annoyance at some of her behaviors to admiration for her courage. The only caveat is that the healing process in the book seems to occur rather quickly and somewhat easily, and it is most assuredly not.

Regardless, Eleanor becomes a memorable character, and her story one that will stay with me.


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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

MacArthur's Spies

Title:  MacArthur's Spies: The Soldier, the Singer, and the Spymaster Who Defied the Japanese in World War II
Author:  Peter Eisner
Publication Information:  Viking. 2017. 368 pages.
ISBN:  0525429654 / 978-0525429654

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Just hours after the surprise assault on Pearl Harbor in December 194`, Japanese planes launched a second attach 5,300 miles away, bombing and strafing U.S. military airfields surrounding Manila in the Philippine Islands."

Favorite Quote:  "... the grief and final confrontation of the truth were overwhelming."

The soldier is John Boone, who turns from soldier into rebel leader. The singer is Claire Phillips aka Claire Maybelle Snyder, Clara Fuentes, and Dorothy Fuentes; she reinvents herself as the need arises to survive and to help others survive. The spymaster is Chick Parsons, an American who pretends to be a Panamanian in the Philippines to gain information from the Japanese to help the Americans.

Three Americans from entirely differently places and with entirely different interests all play a role in support of the Allied Forces in the Philippines during World War II. Their approaches are different. Their personal goals are different. Yet, their individual efforts all manifest themselves in working for Allied success and Japanese defeat.

No one believed the War would come to Manila until it did, suddenly, shockingly, and almost unopposed. The Allied forces, the Philippine people, and the expatriates living in Manila were left dead or scrambling for their lives. Many died. Many left or were forced to leave. Some stayed and fought. Perhaps, they were not dressed as soldiers and did not carry weapons you could see, but they were soldiers in a war nevertheless.

My reason for choosing this book is that I have read many books about or set during World War II but never this particular setting or this particular history. As such, the topic and the time period intrigued me. The book does deliver on that history. I know much more now about this intriguing piece of history than I did before reading the book.

For a few reasons, this book remains short of being a completely engaging book for me. First is the author's note which acknowledges that Claire Phillips' statements about her role in the War included "distortions she and some of her comrades-in-arms told after the war." In addition, a bit of research also notes that she sued the US government for restitution for the assistance she provided to the resistance efforts. These facts somewhat tarnish the image of the heroes who "defined the Japanese." Knowing what comes after makes it difficult to stay engaged with the characters during the story.

Second, the books jumps between the different fronts on which these three - soldier, singer, and spymaster - operated. The transitions from one to the other are not always smooth. As such, the flow of the story is broken. I understand that this book is history not story; however, many a history books are written in a way so as to be thorough in their facts and engaging in their stories. This one sticks more to the facts.

Third, the depth of the research presented also becomes the book's downfall. The book at times feels mired in its own details. It seems a listing of facts. This happened. Then, this happened. Then, this happened. Again, the detail is perhaps expected in a history book. However, again, the story falls prey to the writing style with the continuity and the arc of the story becoming weighed down with perhaps unnecessary facts.

I am glad for the history this book introduced me to. I just would have preferred a more concise, more story-like telling of the history.


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Saturday, June 10, 2017

Swimming Home

Title:  Swimming Home
Author:  Mary-Rose MacColl
Publication Information:  Penguin Books. 2017. 432 pages.
ISBN:  0143129961 / 978-0143129967

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "American swimmer Miss Gertrude Ederle has been taken unconscious from the icy waters of the English Channel, which have proven more than a match for even the stronger female swimmers of the world."

Favorite Quote:  "... you couldn't miss what you'd never had."

From the shores of an island off the coast of Australia to a charity clinic in London to a women's swim club in New York, this book is partly about women's swimming and the race to sponsor the first woman to swim the English Channel. More importantly, this book is about secrets - the ones we keep from those we love the most. Done out of love and a sense of protection, these secrets alter lives forever.

Catherine Quick is fifteen years old, and she swims like she breathes. Life on a small island off the shores of Australia is all she has ever known. Losing her mother at a very young age, her father and her native caretaker are the only family she has ever known. The rest of her blood-related family lives in England. Sadly, her father dies, and her aunt in London, not those Catherine considers family, is appointed guardian. The definition of family is the question. Is it the one we are born into or is it the one fostered with love.

Louisa is middle-aged, single, and a practicing surgeon in London. Her independent lifestyle makes her an anomaly in society. However, Louisa does not care and is solely focused on her women's clinic, providing care for women who cannot get it elsewhere. A child, no less a teenager half way across the world, is not in her plans. The role of women is the question whether in their personal or professional lives.

Nevertheless, Louisa does what she thinks is the right thing and brings Catherine to London in the hopes of providing a better education and a better life than she thinks Catherine could have on the island. She tries to do what she thinks is in Catherine's best interest. The definition of parenting is the question whether it is a role you choose or one you are thrust into.

Catherine does not adjust well, missing her family and the water. She longs to return to both. One Louisa cannot see happening, but the other leads them both to a successful American businessman. Manfred Lear Black wants to sponsor Catherine as a contender to become the first woman to swim the English channel - a feat that has been tried before but never successfully completed. This brings both Catherine and Louisa to New York. It is disappointing that in a book about a strong independent woman, a man still plays such an instrumental role in advancing her plans. Expected perhaps for the time and place but disappointing nevertheless.

Simmering under this surface are all kinds of secrets - Louisa's past, Catherine's family in Australia, and more. All are secrets begun and kept with the best of intentions. However, many have unintended consequences. Eventually, secrets come out, and life changes directions again.

An interesting piece of history about swimming and women's independence and a not-uncommon premise about family secrets make this book a quick and easy read. The globe-hopping story creates a seemingly quick pace, but the plot itself moves fairly slowly. Although the focus is on Catherine's swimming, this book is very much Louisa's story. For this reason, this belongs in adult fiction even though Catherine's story has a young adult flair. Either way, the book is a quick, light summer read.


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Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Anything is Possible

Title:  Anything is Possible
Author:  Elizabeth Strout
Publication Information:  Random House. 2017. 272 pages.
ISBN:  0812989406 / 978-0812989403

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Tommy Nuptial had once owned a dairy farm, which he'd inherited from his father, and which was about two miles from the town of Amgash, Illinois."

Favorite Quote:  "IT was beyond his understanding, but it was all right. And it had been."

Elizabeth Strout's books and I have been a hit or miss combination. I loved Olive Kitteridge when I read it years ago. The Burgess Boys was not a book for me. Then came My Name is Lucy Barton, which I loved. That leads me to this book, which is supposed to be a companion / follow on to My Name is Lucy Barton. Unfortunately, for a variety of reasons, I find that Anything is Possible is not the book for me.

My Name is Lucy Barton is fiction that reads like a biography. Through a period of illness and conversations with her mother, the reader gets a picture of Lucy Barton's life - both present and the past in Amgash, Illinois that she fled. Anything is Possible picks on the other side of the story if you will. It brings the reader to Amgash and to Lucy's family and to many of the people whom Lucy Barton remembers and who remember her. Unfortunately, I don't remember the details of My Name is Lucy Barton. One because I read it a year and a half ago. Second because that story includes other people but is all about Lucy and how they touch her life. This book makes frequent references to Lucy such that I feel that I need to have read that book recently or even read them side by side to see both sides of the story. This feeling becomes stronger as the book goes on because I enjoyed My Name is Lucy Barton. I don't enjoy this one and wonder if that link is the missing piece

Anything is Possible covers a wide cast of characters; chapters wind back and forth between their stories. The common thread becomes Lucy Barton except that she is largely absent in the book. I find myself getting lost among the characters and have trouble separating what details go with which story. More than that, I really don't care for any of the characters enough to try and follow his or her story.

Even among the stories, I cannot find one to anchor the book or even to enjoy on this own. The stories include rather unpleasant details dealing with rather unsavory topics. Serious topics. Relevant even perhaps. However, for the most part, I just want to step away from the details which seem to focus on the grotesque. There seems to be no joy or hope in these stories or in this entire town.

The title of the book still puzzles me. Before reading the book, the words "Anything is Possible" symbolize hope and possibility. After reading the book, my takeaway is that many depressing and odd and disturbing are possible in this town. My parting thought becomes that if this is the life of Amgash, Illinois then I am not surprised that Lucy Barton fled the town.

I am truly disappointed because I loved My Name if Lucy Barton. The emotion and the connection of that book is lacking in this one. However, perhaps, when the next Elizabeth Strout's books comes out, I will still give it a try for it may be a gem.


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Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Girl In Between

Title:  The Girl In Between
Author:  Sarah Carroll
Publication Information:  Kathy Dawson Books. 2017. 256 pages.
ISBN:  0735228604 / 978-0735228603

Book Source:  I received this book through the Penguin First to Read program free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "I'm invisible."

Favorite Quote:  "Ghosts can't exist without people. Without people and their pasts and their memories."

The word homeless has a very short definition in the dictionary. As an adjective, the word means "without a home." As a noun, it means "person or persons who lack permanent housing." Some dictionaries expand this a little further to state that the implication is that the person or persons typically live on the street.

Such a short definition for such a complex, thought provoking, emotional subject. The Girl In Between presents a view of the tragedy of homeless life through the eyes of a young girl. She and her mother live in the Castle, at least that is what Ma tells the girl. To stay safe, the girl must not leave the Castle and must certainly stay out of sight of the Authorities for they may take her away from Ma. In the eyes of child, this seems to make sense, and, after all, the Castle is big and all their own.

Translated through an adult readers eyes, this mother and child live in an abandoned building. The mother creates a story to allay the little one's fears and to perhaps provide some semblance of stability.

Ma herself is an intriguing character and, at times, an infuriating one. Alcohol and drugs are involved. Unsavory characters who may wish them harm are involved. A caring grandmother and a home exist, but Ma has left them far behind. On the other hand, the young girl gives the impression of being cared for and being loved. Ma's story is never told in the book. How and why did she end up on the streets with her little girl?

The story is told from the perspective of this young girl. The writing style captures well the innocence of her age and the lack of understanding that is appropriate for her age. As an adult reader, I can see so much of what she does not, and I can understand why she does not. As a parent, I want to reach out and protect this defenseless child from a life on the streets, from the unsavory men in her mother's life, and sometimes from her mother herself. Again, the writing of the book does a beautiful job of eliciting that emotion and that protective instinct.

I do guess the twist in the book relatively early in the book but think that because all the clues that seem clear to me point that way, the book will surprise me and go in a different direction. It does not. However, the emotion of the ending still gets to me, and the lack of surprise does not matter.

This book is the kind of story that stays with you. The young main character and the protective emotions the writing elicits make it memorable. The fact that it takes on the very serious issues of addiction and homelessness in a unique way makes the book memorable. The fact that the book stresses the universality of this story by not naming its characters beyond an identifier such as Ma and the Caretaker makes it memorable. The fact of a seemingly abrupt ending pushes further the message of a harsh truth. The reminder that this fiction represents the reality of so many makes the book memorable. Read it and then think how each one of us can be part of the solution.


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Friday, June 2, 2017

Grief Cottage

Title:  Grief Cottage
Author:  Gail Godwin
Publication Information:  Bloomsbury USA. 2017. 336 pages.
ISBN:  1632867044 / 978-1632867049

Book Source:  I received this book as a publisher's galley through NetGalley free of cost in exchange for an honest review.

Opening Sentence:  "Once there was a boy who lost his mother."

Favorite Quote:  "Funny how the same person can be an entirely different entity to various people."

A single mother goes out to get a pizza dinner and is killed in a car accident. Eleven year old Marcus is left orphaned. Charlotte, his eccentric older aunt, is left as the boy's guardian. The young boy finds himself grief stricken and removed from the only life he has ever known. A self-proclaimed loner finds herself having to take charge of a child. All of this takes place on the lovely coast of South Carolina.

Add to the mix a decrepit old beach cottage with a ghost story attached to it. A family - parents and a child who were on holiday - was lost to a hurricane. No bodies were ever discovered. Due to the tragedy, the cottage became known as Grief Cottage. Now, it sits abandoned and gradually crumbling into the sand.

In Marcus's life, the cottage becomes a focal point out of his own loss and grief. The idea of the cottage and and the mystery of the family's disappearance provides an an anchor as he drifts into his new life and his new home. The possibility of the boy's ghost still being in the cottage captures his imagination. The liberty to explore and this interest provides an outlet for his emotions. A ghost story to think about is much preferable to dwelling on the loss of home and even worse, the loss of his mother and the traumas of his childhood.

Charlotte has own baggage of loss and grief from the past. Marcus's arrival alters the seclusion she encases herself in. She is forced to face things she has long buried.

In this way, this book becomes a family story as, damaged and scarred, Marcus and Charlotte create their own family story line. The book also becomes a reflection on death, grief, and growing up.  An actual ghost story gives added dimension to this reflection.

The premise and build of the story works. Somewhere along the way, it loses me. The pace, especially the first two-thirds of the book, is very slow. For a while, it works. Then, it seems repetitive. Charlotte likes being alone. Marcus leaves her alone, disappearing to inspect the cottage and approach the ghost boy ever closer. Repeat the next day. And the next. And the next.

Then, towards the end, the fast forwards and tries to bring a closure to all the components of the story. The mystery of the cottage and the vanished child develops into an actual story rather than remaining a means to Marcus's healing. The book rushes to find a conclusion.

For some reason, the characters and the book doesn't quite ring true and does not quite connect. I find myself reading a little and then putting it away to read something else. I did finish but without any real connection or conviction about how it should end. That is surprising considering the story is about such a sympathetic main character - an eleven year old orphaned child who has had thing pretty tough in life.


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