Friday, February 17, 2017

The Refugees

Title:  The Refugees
Author:  Viet Thanh Nguyen
Publication Information:  Grove Press. 2017. 224 pages.
ISBN:  0802126391 / 978-0802126399

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

Opening Sentence:  "Fame would strike someone, usually the kind that healthy-minded people would not wish upon themselves, such as being kidnapped and kept prisoner for years, humiliated in a sex scandal, or surviving something typically fatal."

Favorite Quote:  "Almost everything looked more beautiful from a distance, the earth becoming more perfect as one ascended and came closer to seeing the world from God's eyes, man's hovels and palaces disappearing, the peaks and valleys of geography fading to become strokes of a paintbrush on a divine sphere."

Viet Thanh Nguyen won the Pulitzer Prize and numerous other literary prizes for his debut novel, The Sympathizer. So, how do you follow that? This book is a completely different literary approach; it presents a collection of eight previously published short stories.

The book is dedicated as follows:  "For all refugees, everywhere." It begins with two powerful quotes that set the tone for the entire book. The first is an author's note. "I wrote this book for the ghosts, who, because they're outside of time, are the only ones with time."  The second is from English poet James Fenton's A German Requiem. "It is not your memories which haunt you. It is not what you have written down. It is what you have forgotten, what you must forget, What you must go on forgetting all your life."

The author himself is a refugee and a child of refugees. When he was four years old, his parents left Vietnam and came as refugees to the United States. They settled in San Jose, California. Thus, in many ways, these stories are a reflection of his own experiences. In an interview, Mr. Nguyen has said that story "War Years" is indeed based on his parent's experiences and his own upbringing. It is about shopkeepers in New Saigon, who are trying to make ends meet, leave the past behind, define their identity in this mix of cultures, and raise a child who wants to fit in. This challenge of integrating where you come from with the place you now call home is one faced by all immigrant communities.

The distinction between immigrant and refugee, however, is an important one to understanding this book. Immigration is a movement towards something - opportunity and a better life perhaps. Immigration is usually by choice. Refugees, however, are looking to escape from a place or a regime in which life has become untenable. Refuge is sought for survival. At the end of the Vietnam War, many Vietnamese people sought relief from the onslaught of Communism and a lifetime of poverty. They became the "boat people." Many died; the stories told here are those who survived and made it to the United States. In the United States, they found a new home and a chance to start over. The found refuge, which the dictionary defines as "shelter or protection from danger or distress."

The first story, in fact, deals with the journey of the boat people. It deals with those who survived and the ghosts of those who did not. Another story deals with different perspectives on the history of the war - a father who was a soldier and a daughter who finds her home amidst the same country her father fought.

The story that touches my heart the most perhaps is titled "I'd Love You to Want Me." This is the story of a wife caring for her husband who suffers from either Alzheimer's or dementia or both. The diagnosis is never mentioned, but the implications are clear. The story deals with the heartache of that and compounds it with the memories of a land and a past long gone. The husband's memories reach back to a distant past in Vietnam. He calls for his love, a woman who is not his wife. He yearns for this lost love and this lost life. The reader or the wife in the story never learns what the story behind the name is except that it is a love lost. What is the wife to do? Her answer is agonizing and heartbreaking.

The one word that comes to mind through all these stories is haunting, which brings it all back to the two statements at the beginning of the book. Based on that, I will be adding The Sympathizer to my reading list.


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Tuesday, February 14, 2017

We Were the Lucky Ones

Title:  We Were the Lucky Ones
Author:  Georgia Hunter
Publication Information:  Viking. 2017. 416 pages.
ISBN:  0399563083 / 978-0399563089

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

Opening Sentence:  "It wasn't his plan to stay up all night."

Favorite Quote:  "She'd watched from then on as every basic truth of the life she once knew - her home, her family, her safety - was thrown to the wind. Now, those fragments of her past have begun to drift back down to earth, and for the first time in over half a decade she has allowed herself to believe that, with time and patience, she might just be able to stitch together a semblance of what was. It will never be the same - she's wise enough to understand that. But they are here, and for the most part, together, which has begun to feel like something of a miracle."

They were the lucky ones. Not because something wonderful happened. Rather because something unimaginable happened, and they persevered. Though published as a novel, this book is the story of one family and their experiences through World War II and the Holocaust. According to the author's acknowledgements, the book is based on oral histories. "The book began as a simple promise to record my family's story, something I need to do for myself, for the Kurcs, for my son, and for his children and their great-grandchildren and so on."

This is the story of the Kurc family. Polish and Jewish, they lived a simple life in the town of Radom. The story begins in 1939. Sol and Nechuma Kurc run their shop and are surrounded by the love of their adult children - Genek, Mila, Addy, Jakob and Halina. Halina is the youngest, twenty-two at the start of the war. Each of the five is pursuing jobs, careers, relationships, and all that life has to offer. Addy, the author's grandfather, is in Paris. The rest still live in and around Radom, Poland.

The war and its atrocities arrives. The family scatters, and over the course of the war, their lives take different directions. The story goes back and forth between each of their perspectives. The eyes of this one family capture so many different facets of what people endured - ghettos, constraints, near starvation, work camps, army life, pogroms, arrests, killings .... The list goes on an on. A family trying to live its life is thrust into war with no chance of escape.  No one family member knows the fate of the other. Hope and courage is all that holds them together. They endure.

 At first, as a reader, it is challenging to remember who is who and who is experiencing what. With seven immediate family members, spouses, children, and friends, the book has a lot of characters. A family tree or a list of characters and relationship would be helpful for the beginning of the book. However, then, the experience of each is unique and so very sad in its own way, that soon the movement between the different perspectives ceases to present a challenge. Individually, I begin to follow each story, and together, they form not only a horrific image of the war but also a beautiful picture of family, love, and tenacity.

What sets this book apart from other books I have read about the Holocaust is its simultaneously narrow and expansive scope. Amazingly, this is the story of one family. Yet, it reaches across Poland, Siberia, France, Northern Africa, Italy, South America, and even the United States of America. This is a story of survival in war. It is also a refugee story. "The idea of leaving behind all that was once theirs - their home, their street, the shop, their friends - is nearly impossible to conceive. But ... those things are the things of the past. Of a life that no longer exists." Their destinations:  Italy and the United States of America for these places offer hope beyond the devastation. This is a remarkable story of survival.


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Sunday, February 12, 2017

A Harvest of Thorns

Title:  A Harvest of Thorns
Author:  Corban Addison
Publication Information:  Thomas Nelson. 2016. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0718042387 / 978-0718042387

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

Opening Sentence:  "The sparks danced life fireflies in the semi-dark of the storeroom."

Favorite Quote:  "The hardest stories are like the people who tell them ... You have to given them room to breathe."

"Supply chains" sounds like a dry, uninteresting business term. Why would you want to read a book about that? When you go shopping, do you look at where things are made - America, Bangladesh,  Malaysia, Jordan, and virtually all over the world. Do you ever wonder why? Or how? Or by whom? If you have ever asked that question, you have asked about the supply chain - where an idea for a product originates to where it is made to where it is finally sold to you, the consumer.

As a consumer, should you know where the things you buy come from? Should you care? Do you know? These are some of the questions this story tackles. Yes, the story is a dramatic fictional story, but the issues are documented and very real. Corbin Addison's first book A Walk Across the Sun tackled the issue of human trafficking and the sex trade. This book applies that same level of research and intensity to the abuse of workers in the pursuit of manufacturing profits. In particular, the book looks are the manufacture of clothing for American brands in Bangladesh, Malaysia, and Jordan.

The book does not present the story through the eyes of the victims but rather through two different American perspectives - an industry insider and a journalist. Cameron Alexander is an attorney for Presto Omnishops Corporation, one of America' s largest retailers. The company prides itself on bringing reasonably priced, good quality merchandise to the middle class consumers. Joshua Griswold is an award winning journalist who lost his journalism career to one mistake. Cameron's job is to protect his company. Joshua wants to seek the truth and find redemption in the eyes of his family and his colleagues.

Through their eyes, the reader sees Presto's supply chain and all the issues that underlie the goal of good quality and low cost merchandise. The book introduces three of the victims. Sonia is a teenager, who jumps out of a workroom window to escape a factory fire in Bangladesh. She survives but with life altering permanent injuries. Jashel leaves his native Bangladesh for Malaysia based on the dream of work and financial security sold by a recruiter; he finds himself a virtual slave. Alya, leaves Bangladesh for Jordan and works tirelessly to be able to support her family back home; sadly, her "work" extends to suffering sexual abuse by supervisors. In other words, a supply chain is not a thing; it is made up of people.

The huge question at the heart of this book is the responsibility of the American brand. Are they responsible for the way in which their clothes are made? Do they even know how? Should they? The answer given is a resounding yes. It is the responsibility of the consumer, the brand, the manufacturer, and on down the line. Putting this conversation in a fictional setting allows that message to be conveyed in a dramatic, emotional way and to a much wider audience than a nonfiction book on the topic might. If it gets one reader to pay attention the next time he or she buys a piece of clothing, then it succeeds in its mission. I know that I will remember the names of the characters and their stories.


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Thursday, February 9, 2017

City of Saints and Thieves

Title:  City of Saints and Thieves
Author:  Natalie C. Anderson
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers. 2017. 432 pages.
ISBN:  0399547584 / 978-0399547584

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

Opening Sentence:  "If you're going to be a thief, the first thing you need to know is that you don't exist"

Favorite Quote:  "Question:  What is worth more than diamonds and gold? What is the most stable currency? What thing, when stolen, becomes most dangerous and precious of all? Answer:  a secret."

The city of saints and thieves is the fictional Sangui City set in Kenya. The author's note describes it "for those who know Kenya, you can imagine Sangui City as a mix of Mombasa's coastal beauty and Nairobi's hustle." The setting is my primary reason for reading this book. I love books that take me to place I have never been and perhaps may never go. I have never been to Kenya; nor have a I read much about the country.

Interestingly, this book is as much a story of the Democratic Republic of Congo for this is a refugee story. Some of the main characters are those who escape the human rights atrocities in the Congo for the hope of a different life elsewhere. The victims of many of these human rights violations are women. Kenya has become home to many of these refugees; it provides a haven where the refugees can seek safety, peace, and a new beginning. This is not a conflict about which much is written in the Western press. This is my other reason for reading this book.

The beauty of Africa against the troubling acts of humans makes for an interesting contrast. Into this midst is the set the story of Tina or Tiny Girl. She is intelligent, courageous, and fierce. She survives on the streets as a thief, one of the best. She aligns with a local gang called the Goondas, who follow their own code and have their own agenda. Yet, she is very much a loner, not willing to trust or to accept friendship.

What drives Tina is revenge. She wants to avenge the murder of her mother. She believes Roland Greyhill, her mother's former employer, is responsible. When a job for the Goondas brings her back to the Greyhill estate, Tina believes it is her opportunity for vengeance.

As you might suspect, things are not quite as they seem. People are not who they seem. The ensuing drama of Tina, the Goondas, and the Greyhills weaves in past and present to bring in the history, to solve the mystery, and to complete Tina's coming-of-age story.

Given the age of the main characters, this book has very much of a young adult feel. The issues it deals with though involve murder and violence against women. So, parents beware. Determine the appropriateness for your teen. For me, this book is definitely on the older side of young adult.

The two challenges I find in this book is that at times, it is a slow read. This is surprising because the book seems centered around action. The center portion of the book particularly seems drawn out and too long. The beginning third and the final third are enough to surmise the entire plot.

The other challenge is the ending. It wraps everything up too neatly with no loose ends. Life is not that neat, and in a place torn apart by civil war and violence, life is definitely not that neat.

These two factors keep this book from a higher rating, but given that it is the author's debut novel, it promises good things to come.


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Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Nemesis

Title:  Nemesis
Author:  Brendan Reichs
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons Books for Young Readers. 2017. 464 pages.
ISBN:  0399544933 / 978-0399544934

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 swore to myself I wouldn't die that day."

Favorite Quote:  "I was going to fight for what I believed in, no matter the consequences. I was going to do something."

I get to the point in the book with twenty pages still left on my page count. I end a chapter and think I can't wait to see what happens next. I turn the page, and I see the words "acknowledgements." No!!! That's not how this ends. I want to know what happens next. I flip back and realize that the title of the chapter I just read is "epilogue." No!!! This is how this ends. I don't know if Nemesis is the beginning to a series, but I hope so. I want to find out what happens next.

Picture this scenario. Every two years on your birthday, a man in a black suit and shiny sunglasses kills you. Every two years, you come back to life unharmed. It starts when you are eight and hasn't stopped, not even nearly a decade later. People think you have mental health issues; some days, so do you. You have been under psychiatrist's care ever since the first incident. Eventually, you get smart and stop telling people what happens. Occasionally though, you wonder. Are you crazy? This is Melinda Julliard Wilder's real life in the tiny secluded town of Fire Lake set high in the Bitterroot Mountains in Idaho.

Now picture this scenario. You discover that everything you know, or think you know about your life,  is a lie. You discover that you are indeed not crazy, and that there are others like you. Your entire life is a part of a master plan that goes beyond anything you can imagine. This becomes Melinda Julliard Wilder's life.

What a fun adventure of friendship, high school rivalries, the government, secret projects, and, the possible end of the world. The book is full of twists and turns with the biggest one coming right at the end. I did not see that ending coming, and I loved it. It does seem a cliffhanger; so, I hope there are more books coming in Project Nemesis.

The other thing I appreciate about this book is that I enjoy it as an adult, and I can share it with my teenagers. The main characters are high school age, so teenagers can relate. For the most part, the characters are stereotypes - the bully, the rebel, the rich kid, the cheerleader, the jocks.
There are relationships in the book, but the book stays focused on the adventure and friendship, not any romantic inclinations. In other words, the book keeps it "clean." Also, this story is about the plot more than the characters so it works.

The book is fast-paced and adventurous to keep them reading. The story also has some familiar tones - a small town, a government administration from far away, a young woman and two young men, a struggle for survival. All these elements sound familiar from other young adult novels, but this book gives them its own spin.

Bottom line, I enjoy the story. Even more so, when I find a book that works for me and my teenagers, it gets high marks from me.


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Saturday, February 4, 2017

Dust Bowl Girls

Title:  Dust Bowl Girls
Author:  Lydia Reeder
Publication Information:  Algonquin Books. 2017. 304 pages.
ISBN:  1616204664 / 978-1616204662

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

Opening Sentence:  "Doll Harris crouched in ready position, took a deep breath, and focused on the basketball now in enemy territory."

Favorite Quote:  "Basketball passing, flow, and creativity. Wait and see how the play unfolds, and then react without expectations. In other words, let the plays develop w while meeting your opponents head on. It takes a lot of heart, and that's how we'll win."

In the 1930s, faced with drought and depression, people needed hope and a story. This is such a story. From the back farms of Dust Bowl Oklahoma came young women who formed an unlikely basketball team. A dream team, if you will. They do not seem so at the beginning, but they go on to have the dream season. The classic underdog wins big.

Have you ever heard of Sam Babb? I have not. Sam Babb is the man behind this story. The author, Lydia Reeder, is his grandniece. Having heard her uncle's story, she spend two years researching this book. Sam Babb was the Oklahoma Presbyterian College (OPC) Cardinals women's basketball team. He recruited his talent from the local schools and the local families. He promised a scholarship for a college education if the girl came and played for the Cardinals. This was a gift for many, who could never dream of college otherwise because of family and financial reasons.

This book captures a moment - a season - in history in great detail. Every portion of the book shows the research done. It incorporates Sam Babb's life and history, a history of Oklahoma and the school, and the time of the Depression. It captures the sport of basketball, from the rigorous practice schedule to the rules to the rivalries to the games. Fans of basketball will find a lot about the sport in the book. People with an interest in Oklahoma history will certainly find that.

I find myself looking for the people. The connection I do not find in the book is with the young women themselves. By the end, I know the history, but I don't know the individuals. Sadly, in writing this review, I find myself flipping through the book to remind myself of the names of the young women.

As such, the book becomes a somewhat dry retelling of history rather than the powerful narrative of these young women, who are away from home for the first time and for the opportunity of a lifetime. The book attempts to set up a rivalry as the "drama" for the book, but truly that rival is more the ideal these young women were striving to achieve. Told differently, their journey from farm to school to a team to a national championship is a dramatic enough story. Equally as powerful could be Sam Babb's own history; the book gives a glimpse of his journey but then shifts back to a retelling of this moment in history.

The marketing for the book compares it to The Boys in the Boat. That book anchored its story to one main character, building the well researched history but providing the reader an anchor for the narrative. This book fails to do the same. The attempt is there. Sam Babb's back story is given as is, to some extent, the story of Doll Harris, one of the players. However, I never find that connection with either one that kept me riveted in The Boys in the Boat. This one leaves with with an interesting bit of history I did not know about, but not a memorable book that will stay with me.


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Monday, January 30, 2017

Pretty Little World

Title:  Pretty Little World
Author:  Melissa DePino and Elizabeth LaBan
Publication Information:  Lake Union Publishing. 2017. 320 pages.
ISBN:  1503941027 / 978-1503941021

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

Opening Sentence:  "If Celia had been paying attention, she might have notices the signs - the pipes clanging much too loudly when she turned on the shower, the water pressure dropping off just enough to prevent her from completing rinsing the conditioner out of her long blond hair, the dirty water that had backed up into the utility sink in the laundry room."

Favorite Quote:  "You are so hard on everyone ... So black and white. Don't you think that in the course of a, say, fifty-year marriage, and that's if you're really lucky, that there's going to be a lot of gray? That things are going to happen that you didn't expect, that you never factored in? Things that you are just going to have to accept, somehow, and get past?"

The premise of this book - a modern day commune - is intriguing. Three couples - Celia and Mark, Hope and Leo, and Stephanie and Chris - are close friends. They live in adjoining row houses on a residential street. The book begins with the assumption that their closeness extends to being together every night, raising their kids together, and essentially doing most things together.

One couple makes the difficult decision that they need more space in a home and need to move away. A water leak in one houses break through one of the walls between two houses. This gives birth to the idea of joining homes. The three families will share an open first floor living space that encompasses all three houses. The upstairs will remain private to each. They will share home duties, from the care of the kids to the shopping to the cooking to the cleaning. They will all contribute to a shared household account.

Oh, and they will also share the secret. They decide that they will tell no one about this living arrangement because of a fear of what people may say to them or their children. That, to me, is a hole in this story. Why keep it a secret? And how? They turn down play dates for they children and other friendships to keep their secret. Neighbors question, but they turn them away with explanations. Also, practically, they manage to convert three houses into one with no one finding out about the construction. If this is the right choice for them, why the secrecy?

I am still intrigued enough to see how they make the living arrangements work and the impact it has on the adults and the children. The impact on the children is not really dealt with at all. Perhaps, it is because the children depicted are rather young, but they do seem as placeholders in the parent's stories. The children are depicted in highlighting parenting and co-parenting issues rather than as unique characters in and of themselves.

The impact on the adults touches on some deep issues. How do you measure contribution to a household - money, household chores, etc? Is it necessary to measure and equalize that contribution? How does the relationship between a husband and wife change when they are continuously surrounded by others? How do you keep the priority on your relationship when always functioning in a group? In a crisis, do you differentiate between those who are your actual family versus the broader constructed family? What is the boundary of friendship and responsibility for a friend's marital issues?

The book touches on these issues but does not develop them in depth. The plot also pursues some of these questions in story lines about sexual fantasies and pursuits and those not necessarily between spouses. This focus seems to come to the forefront, and, for me, detracts from the book. Marital issues exists in and out of communal living; I would rather the focus had stayed with the story lines centered around the shared living experience.


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