Thursday, March 15, 2018

Dangerous Crossing

Title:  Dangerous Crossing
Author:  Rachel Rhys
Publication Information:  Atria Books. 2018. 368 pages.
ISBN:  1501162721 / 978-1501162725

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

Opening Sentence:  "Sandwiched between two policemen, the woman descends the gangplank of the ship."

Favorite Quote:  "I only wanted to tell you that you will survive this, even though you might think that you cannot. You just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, one step at a time."

On the eve of World War II, a young woman leaves her home and her family to travel half way across the world to begin a new life in Australia. Lily Shepard leaves behind the secrets of her past and looks to begin again. This sounds like a story of adventure, courage, and history coming to life.

Unfortunately, the book becomes the story of the ocean voyage itself - a view on to a fish bowl, if you will. It is a snapshot of a diverse group that come together in close quarters for a finite period of time. The only commonality that draws these individuals together is the fact that they are on this journey together. Max and his wife Eliza. Edward and his sister Helena. A Jewish refugee named Maria. A fascist named George. And, of course, Lily.

They represent different economic, social, religious, and cultural backgrounds. This is the nod to the history underlying the book. The ship in the book is the SS Orontes, an actual ocean liner that ran the England to Australia route during the 1930s until it was commandeered as a troops ship in 1940.

However, the book is not really about the history. It is about the stories of these individuals - the pasts they leave behind and the secrets they hide. Unfortunately, this devolves into a story of who is chasing who, who likes someone, who does not. In other words, this is a story of relationships, the socially acceptable ones and the ones considered taboo at the time. The stereotypes and social norms of the time become the motivating point for the characters.

The book description puts forth the mystery of two deaths during this voyage. However, the mystery is not much of one since the events do not occur until well into the book. The majority of this book is about the relationships and the characters.

As such, most of the book feels slow and often repetitious. Sea sickness. On again, off again flirtations. An occasional nod to the political background of the time. The "cultural" aspect of a new port thrown in for good measure. The story bounces along until the big secret finally emerges. At the end, I am left questioning. I read over 350 pages for that?

Plot aside, a book can create a great reading experience through a compelling character. Again, the book description sets up Lily Shepard as a young woman independent enough and courageous enough to take on this journey away from everything she has ever known. There are hints at a sadness in Lily's past that compels her to take this journey. That, however, is not really developed in the book.

Unfortunately, the character envisioned by the description does not come to life within the story itself. Lily seems more buffeted around by the events and the characters around her. Her story on board this ship unfortunately turns into one about a man rather than one about an independent woman standing on her own. The other characters actually have the more interesting stories, but the book's focus is Lily. Sadly, both the plot and the main character make this not the book for me.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Monday, March 12, 2018

The Boat People

Title:  The Boat People
Author:  Sharon Bala
Publication Information:  Doubleday. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0385542291 / 978-0385542296

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

Opening Sentence:  "Mahindan was flat on his back when the screaming began, one arm right-angled over his eyes."

Favorite Quote:  "You have come to a good place. There is room for you here."

Civil war in Sri Lanka turned thousands into refugees. Fiction such as The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam and Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera described this harrowing war and reinforce the fact that in war, the victims are on all sides.

This book picks up on an actual historical event that resulted from the Sri Lankan civil war. In August, 2010, the Thai cargo ship MV Sun Sea brought almost five hundred Sri Lankan refugees to British Columbia, Canada. The ship had been tracked since June and was finally intercepted by Canadian authorities. The refugees were placed in a detention facility, and a lengthy process began to determine admissibility into Canada. The arguments waged on all sides. These were families seeking to escape violence and destruction; these were insurgent seeking to bring illicit activities and instability into Canada. Both arguments likely had merit depending on the case. The question was how to separate one from the other. Two years passed. The majority of the refugees were released; some were deported. Some investigations continued.

This book brings to life this heated conversation through fiction. If I have one criticism, it is that the book tries too hard to cover every angle of this refugee conversation:
  • Refugees who face "exhaustion where he thought of the future; terror when he remembered the past"
  • Attorneys and organizations who work to provide help
  • Politicians on either side of the conversation - "Canada is not in the business of turning refugees away. If we err, let it be on the side of compassion." versus "... a brown man with a beard begging for asylum? ... Not on my watch."
  • Immigrants - "third-culture people who slipped in and out of identities like shoes" - who are completely a part of their adopted homeland and yet straddle between the culture they call home and the culture they call heritage
  • Immigrants who are completely a part of their adopted homeland and find no immediate connection with the people or culture of their heritage
  • Survivors of the Japanese internment during World War II to draw a comparison between the two situations (This is the piece that feels like a stretch to include in this story.)
The book does, however, successfully bring to life the hopes and the fears on all sides. The most emotional of the stories is that of Mahindan and his young son. Mahindan is one of the refugees. He lost his wife in childbirth; he makes this journey with his young son. At the detention center, he is separated from his son for the men's accommodations provide no place for children.

Mahidan's story is of the refugees hearings in Canada. Chapters also reach back into the past to his childhood, his loving marriage, the losses he faced, and the impossible decisions he made to get to this point. "Did she now know what it was like to have so little agency? To be faced with such cruel options it was as if there was no choice at all?"

The difficult but very real thing about this book is that it gives no answers and no absolutes.
Even the ending is not neatly wrapped into a package. I actually turned the page looking for more and am surprise when there is not. As a reader of fiction, I want an ending. In this book, for some, there is an ending. For some, there is a beginning. For some, there is neither; the story seems to stop in the middle of their journey. However, that is the reality of this very emotional situation. There are no easy answers, only a hope for peace and compassion and an appreciation for any meaningful effort to keep the conversation going.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Immortalists

Title:  The Immortalists
Author:  Chloe Benjamim
Publication Information:  G.P. Putnam's Sons. 2018. 352 pages.
ISBN:  0735213186 / 978-0735213180

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

Opening Sentence:  "Varya is thirteen."

Favorite Quote:  "She knew that stories did have the power to change things:  the past and the future, even the present ... the power of words. They weaseled under door cracks and through keyholes. They hooked into individuals and wormed through generations."

If you knew the day you were going to die, how differently would you live your life? Does your belief or lack of belief in that piece of information determine your choices? Is it your choices that make the prophecy come true, or was it predestined anyways? If you are given this information, does your belief or lack of belief even matter? Is the knowledge alone enough to influence your choices?

These are the questions this book grapples with. The story is told through the eyes of the four Gold siblings - Varya, Simon, Klara, and Daniel. It is the summer of 1969 in New York's Lower East Side. Varya is 13, Daniel is 11, Klara is 9 and Simon is 7. The Gold children hear of a woman with the ability to tell your future. In particular, the psychic claims the ability to tell anyone the day they are going to die.

They latch on to the idea and find the woman. Individually, they meet with her and then go running. What starts out as a harmless adventure rattles all of them. The question remains. Is it the knowledge that leads to the path or was the path pre-determined? Regardless, the information causes irrevocable changes in their lives.

The book then continues the story in what feels like four connected novellas - one for each of the siblings. The book begins with Varya's voice in that fateful summer. Simon's story goes from 1978-1982. Klara's story picks up the thread in 1982 and continues through 1991. Daniel's story joins in 1991 and continues through 2006. Finally, the book ends again with Varya's story.

The stories, particularly Simon's, also picks up on the social history of the times. Mind you, the stories are not always easy reading. The characters are not always likable. However, what remains is that throughout the lives of these individuals, I see peeking through the children that they were when given the burden of knowledge. In that way, the book reminds of The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.  The stories have the qualities of a train wreck - terrible things happen and catastrophic decisions are made; yet, as a reader, I cannot look away. Regardless of the bad choices, I care about these children and what happens to them. I want things to work out for them.

The book begins with what is the most compelling of the stories - Simon's. It is heartbreaking and terrible to watch what happens to this young man even when much of it happens by his own choices. The least engaging and perhaps most unbelievable of the stories is Daniel's. Perhaps, that is by intent for Daniel refuses to acknowledge a belief in the prophecy. Yet, his decisions belie that statements. He sets out to make things right, but his choice leads to something completely different. It leads back to the question of choice or destiny.

As expected, the book also makes some strong statements about life and belief. Some of the ones I find memorable:
  • "Nobody picks their life. I sure didn't ... Here's what happens:  you make choices, and then they make choices. You choices makes choices."
  • "Most adults claim not to believe in magic, but Klara knows better. Why else would anyone play at permanence - fall in love, have children, buy a house - in the face of all evidence there's no such thing? The trick is not the convert them. The trick is to get them to admit it."
  • "Life isn't just about defying death ... It's also about defying yourself, about insisting on transformation. As long as you can transform, my friends, you cannot die. What does Clark Kent have in common with the chameleon? Right when they're on the brink of destruction, they change. Where have they gone? Nowhere we can see. The chameleon has become a branch. Clark Kent has become Superman."
A memorable book that leaves me with the firm belief that I do not ever wish to pursue the knowledge given to these children. True or not, believed or not, it changes lives. Words matter, and thoughts matter.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Tell Me More

Title:  Tell Me More
Author:  Kelly Corrigan
Publication Information:  Random House. 2018. 240 pages.
ISBN:  039958837X / 978-0399588372

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

Opening Sentence:  "There was no real reason for it to fall apart that morning."

Favorite Quote:  "The other problem with language is that arranging words into sentences requires we flip on our thinking machine, which necessarily claims some of our focus, so that as soon as we start deciding how to explain a feeling, we're not entirely feeling the feeling anymore, and some feelings want to be felt at full capacity."

The subtitle of this book refers to "the 12 hardest things I'm learning to say." That begs the question. What things? The answer is in the chapter titles. It's like this. Tell me more. I don't know. I know. No. Yes. I was wrong. Good enough. I love you. No words at all. Onward. This is it.
As a memoir, this question-based structure implies that the book is more essay-like than a chronological story. Each essay pulls together Ms. Corrigan's experiences that, for her, address the thought of that chapter. The focal point of each essay is the title idea; the personal stories are the supporting evidence. Each essay stands alone. However, the life story can seem to stop abruptly and pick up again at a different point in the book when the same individuals or situations are used in a different chapter. The structure also means that the continuity of the emotion is not there consistently. I find myself feeling the joy and the sadness momentarily, but then the book moves on to something else. Sometimes, it winds its way back to that situation again, but then the emotional connection has to be found again. The point here is to convey the ideas not necessarily tell the story.

The scenarios from Ms. Corrigan's life captured in this book reflect her demographic of a seemingly comfortable lifestyle with a stable home and income; the challenges and lessons described do not stem from that struggle. The situations range from the day to day task of parenting teenagers to the life-changing loss of a parent to the tragic, very premature death of a friend. There are others, but it is these three that stand out to me. The stories of grief touches my heart, and the descriptions of her teenage daughters in particular leave me wondering what her daughters think of the way in which they are portrayed.

The book description refers to Ms. Corrigan's writing as "the streetwise, ever-relatable voice." The ever-relatable aspect is the conversational tone of the book. At times, it reads like a conversation over a cup of tea with a friend, but more often, it is a stream of consciousness thought process related to the idea of the chapter title. It jumps, but as a reader, it takes me longer to follow that jump.

The "streetwise" may refer to her use of what may be at times inappropriate language especially in a household with teenagers. Her humor is often referred to as self-deprecating, but at times it seems too much so. Certain moments of the book reach me, but much of it does not touch an emotional cord.

A book of this nature relies on its feeling of authenticity. That is what creates my connection as a reader. I do not for one second question the authenticity of Ms. Corrigan's experiences or emotions. Just as a book, this telling seems to come across to me as trying too hard to portray that authenticity. Moments touch me, but overall I am not moved. It's not bad, but it does not grab me as I expect it would.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.