Tuesday, November 9, 2021

A Mother's Tale & Other Stories, by Khanh Ha


C&R Press, 2021
141 pp

paperback (from the author, thank you!!)

Some time ago I stopped becoming active in book tours because of my own still-unread, Library of Congress-sized tbr pile, but for this author, whose books I've read before,  I made an exception.  Given that we're still in the midst of  downstairs remodel hell where my day often lasts from 6:30 a.m. to like 7 pm, that's a big deal. Khanh Ha's work is well worth it -- his writing touches on human connections in the most horrific and challenging of times; here he has put together eleven short stories that, as the blurb notes, have to do with the Vietnam War in some fashion and the people involved who try to salvage "one's soul from living hells."   

I'm particularly picky when reading a short story collection or anthology -- in my mind, the opening story should provide a guide to or at least whet the appetite for what will be coming next.  No worries here:  "Heartbreak Glass" is a great beginning.   A young man who will soon be going into the army as a soldier in  the Vietnam War befriends a lonely man he calls Uncle Chung, who, before he himself had gone to serve in the army fighting Americans, had been a foreman in a machine shop.  Only thirty-one,  Uncle Chung had lost all of his limbs and his sight as a result of the war, and now lives a somewhat marginal existence with his young wife, who is not as  sympathetic and caring as one might imagine.  The young man, who also brings him medicines from time to time, tries to absorb  "the horror of the war" through Uncle Chung's stories of the battlefield, but there are other horrors Uncle Chung has had to face since his return home.  As with  the stories that follow this one, "Heartbreak Glass" makes for compelling reading, and offers a compassionate poignancy that crawls beneath the skin until the very last word.  

A Mother's Tale and Other Stories explores very personalized and individual experiences of the war, especially the lasting effects of the conflict that has taken its toll not only on the soldiers and ordinary people of the time,  but also on those left behind.   The titular story, for example, finds a mother who has come to Vietnam to hopefully locate the remains of her son; the characters from this tale have recurring roles in other connected stories in this collection as well. In  "The River of White Lilies" (one of my personal favorites), an  American soldier comes to see the people of a small village as the very human beings that they are, and in more than one story, the story is related from the point of view of the dead, now ghosts who recall their memories.  The blurb notes that this book is "rich with a dreamlike quality,"  the stories sharing a "common theme of love and loneliness, longing and compassion,"  and much more to the point, the author reveals how "beauty is discovered in the moments of brutality, and agony is felt in esctasy."   

Alongside the visible physical damage, these stories also offer insight into the often-hidden psychic trauma that lingers after any war, and I will warn potential readers that in both areas the reading can be tough to get through on an emotional level from the outset.  At the same time, the quality of the writing in these stories sort of helps to mitigate the sadness, making it so you can't help but want to go on from story to story, facing whatever may come your way.    Very nicely done, a book I can certainly recommend.  


As I mentioned, I read A Mother's Tale & Other Stories as part of a book tour; my many thanks to Teddy Rose who put the tour together and especially to the author.  You can follow the tour schedule, read more about the author and even sign up for a chance to win a free copy of this book at the Virtual Author Book Tours website here

Thursday, September 23, 2021

The Great Circle, by Maggie Shipstead


Knopf, 2021
593 pp


I bought this book back in May and since then it was awarded a spot on the Booker Prize longlist; recently it moved on ahead to the shortlist.  I had originally picked it up due to the dustjacket blurb, which promised an "unforgettable, mesmerizing new novel," along with the story of "an epic tale of two extraordinary women whose fates collide across geographies and centuries."   I hadn't quite planned to get to the novel as quickly as I did but its placement on the shortlist moved up the reading timeframe.  My thinking here was that "oh! It made the shortlist so it must be awesome."   More on that later. 

In 1950 a young woman by the name of Marian Graves disappears along with her navigator Eddie Bloom  during her attempt to "circumnavigate the globe longitudinally," flying "by way of both the North and South Poles."   After leaving Queen Maud Land, where they had last been seen, the plan was that they would fly over Antarctica, passing over the South Pole and then on to the Ross Ice Shelf to Little America where they would land and refill the plane with gasoline that had been previously cached.  The last leg of their journey would take them to New Zealand, but something happened and the Peregrine was never seen again.  Years later, during a scientific expedition to explore the remnants of Little America III, Marian's handwritten journal was discovered protected by a life preserver.   Her journal was published, as was a novel based on her life;  in the 21st century,  young actress Hadley Baxter is handed a script for a movie called Peregrine based on that book.  Hadley, whose career was looking pretty hopeless at this point due to her own recklessness, gets a second chance when she is asked to take on the role of Marian in the film.   The stories of both of these women are presented in interwoven narratives that move back and forth through time as,  according to the dustjacket notes, "the two women's destinies -- and their hunger for self-determination in vastly different places and times -- intersect in astonishing ways."   

The description ticked many of my reader boxes, and with the judges' decision to forward this one on to the shortlist, I was eager to get to it.  Not too long into the story I was already wanting to put it down and never pick it up again, but I perservered.  First of all, I really disliked Hadley's story -- I could have cared less about her Hollywood experiences, her sex life and her stupid self-destructive behavior;  that entire storyline could have been completely removed leaving only Marian's story and I wouldn't have minded at all.   And even that took time to get rolling, beginning five years before Marian was born with a botched christening of a ship, a young woman's seduction of the captain of that ship (Marian's future parents),  her memories of childhood incest, their subsequent marriage and the birth of twins leading to post-partum depression before a Lusitania-like explosion during which mom abandons the babies and dad saves them and then spends years in prison, leaving the twins with his brother in Montana.  Moving on with the story from there, it's pretty much a continuation of the kitchen-sink approach where anything and everything happens, covering Marian's life from eight years old on to her decision to make the pole to pole flight in 1949, culminating of course in her disappearance in 1950 .  Of course, by the time we discover what really happened, the book is almost over; in my humble reader's opinion, some solid editing and judicious paring would have tightened it all up to make the book a much better read.    There's also the matter of the destinies of the two women intersecting -- all I will say is that there are a number of parallels between the two that seemed forced, as well as a number of coincidences in this story that defy the imagination.  Finally, there is more than one instance where the novel just plods, testing my patience to its utmost.    I have to say that the best part of this book is at the end with Marian and Eddie as they make their journey around the world; some of the best and most beautiful writing in the novel is found there.   

Current stats for this this book show that sixty-three percent of Amazon readers have given  it a 5-star rating and forty-two percent of goodreads readers have done the same.    For me, there was an over-the-top, melodramatic component to this novel that just left me cold and had me skimming pages.    I really wanted to love this story, but I just didn't.  I've read too many truly fine novels recently to count this one among them.  

Sunday, September 12, 2021

The Fortune Men, by Nadifa Mohamed


Viking, 2021
372 pp

(read twice)

The Fortune Men focuses on a Somali immigrant, Mahmood Mattan, who in 1952 was accused of the murder of a shopkeeper in Tiger Bay, Cardiff.  I had absolutely no idea going into this book that it was based on a true story,  one I'd never heard about but one which the author obviously believed needed retelling; in this interview she notes that she had a "feeling" that it was a story she "couldn't shake."   By the way, clicking on that first link gives away the story, so don't go there unless you've read the book first. 

The novel begins as the radio announces the news of the death of King George VI in Berlin's milk bar, a hangout for "many of Tiger Bay's Somali sailors."  Mahmood had been to sea as well, but has spent the last three years doing "just foundry work and poky little boilers in prisons and hospitals."   As we're told, "The sea still calls" to him, but his Welsh wife Laura and their three young boys "anchor him here."  On that night, as "news of the King's death drifts from many of the low-slung wind-blown terraces," he walks down Bute Street and notes "a few lights still on" at some of the businesses he patronizes, including that of Volacki's, "where he used to buy seafaring kits but now just bags the occasional dress for Laura."  It is a small shop left by her father to  Violet Volacki, who lives there with her sister Diana and niece Grace.  After the shop closes, and as they are having dinner and making plans for the upcoming Purim festival, the doorbell rings.  Although Diana encourages Violet to let whoever it is wait until tomorrow, "that bell and the shop have a hold on her that she can't resist," and she goes out to answer the door.  That will be the last moment that Diana and Grace see Violet alive; she is later found dead, murdered in her own shop.  

Word quickly spreads that the killer was a Somali man, and Mattan is arrested, first on two minor charges for which he is put behind bars, while the inspector handling the case also knows Mattan will be going down for Violet's murder.  There is absolutely no evidence pointing to Mahmood as the killer; Diana and Grace both say that he is not the "coloured" man they viewed from the dining room as Violet went to answer the doorbell.    As the dustjacket blurb reveals, and as the author fully establishes here,  Mattan is a 
"chancer, sometime petty thief... a smooth-talker with an eye for a good game. He is many things, in fact, but he is not a murderer." 
However, none of that matters -- as is made clear to Mahmood, "You'll hang, whether you did it or not."  

This book, with its subject matter, should have been right up my reading alley, and the first time through I thought perhaps there was something wrong with me because I didn't really engage with it all that well.   That fact really bothered me for a long time, leading me eventually to  believe that I must have read it at the wrong time while  grim happenings were going on in my own world and my attention was mentally elsewhere.   That was three weeks ago, and I decided to give it another go this past week since the situation at home has drastically improved.  The second time through (and this time with hindsight into the reality behind the fiction),  I engaged with it much more, catching many things I'd missed the first time, and while certain parts of the novel still seemed to drag a bit in the telling, all and all it became a better book on this last reading.  

I keep thinking about the epilogue, considering the fact that the real Mahmood Mattan had someone in his corner to try to right the egregious wrongs done to him (albeit posthumously);  it makes me wonder how many people of that time and that place had been victims of the same racism, xenophobia, betrayal, and  police complicity and have similar stories yet untold.  The Fortune Men is not at all a feel-good novel, but it is a very human story, bringing forth from the past a sad truth that remains extremely relevant today.  

Sunday, August 29, 2021

An Island, by Karen Jennings


Holland House Books, 2019
179 pp


"... he would not leave; he would never leave. The land was his always." 

The first time I read about this book after its placement on this year's Booker Prize longlist, I knew I had to have it, and I absolutely knew within the first few pages of reading it that this was a book that I was going to love, given its subject matter.  The surprise was just how very much it crawled under my skin. 

It was the blurb that sold me on this book:  
"... A young refugee washes up unconscious on the beach of a small island inhabited by no one but Samuel, an old lighthouse keeper. Unsettled, Samuel is soon swept up in memories of his former life on the mainland: a life that saw his country suffer under colonisers, then fight for independence, only to fall under the rule of a cruel dictator; and he recalls his own part in its history..."

Samuel, in his seventies now,  had been used to discovering bodies washing up on the island over the over the last twenty-three years he's been living there; this  "young refugee" is the latest  in a series of thirty-two "nameless, unclaimed others."   At first, officials would come out to look for bodies, to "find all those who suffered under the Dictator"  so that now the nation could  "move forward," but as time went on and more bodies came to shore, officials brushed them off as possibly "another country's refugees," now unwanted.   Samuel was told to do what he wanted with them; it was not the government's problem.   This time around though, Samuel was surprised to find the man alive.  Planning to send him back on the supply boat coming the next day, Samuel takes the man into his cottage, feeding him and giving him warm clothing,  just waiting until "the island was his again."  However, even though they don't speak the same language,  the refugee panics at the sight of the supply boat before its arrival, and begs Samuel for help. Samuel recognizes something in that plea for help, and the other man is there, it seems, to stay.  His presence there rekindles bits of Samuel's memory of his pre-island days; memories that were "things best forgotten now approaching as steadily as waves approach the shore."  As more of his past is revealed, in the present he wavers between trust and paranoia toward the stranger, the latter growing steadily as he wonders about this man's true intentions.  

To say too much more about this novel would be criminal; I will only reveal that even though this story is less than two hundred pages long, there is much to unpack here, including the upheavals in ordinary people's lives as they suffer through political strife and struggle, and the emotional and physical tolls that remain as a result.  As the memories come back, so too does Samuel's awareness of the humiliation he'd suffered over the years, and he comes to the realization that this "land was his, always."  Soon  the presence of this outsider becomes untenable; this is Samuel's  home, and no one will take it from him. 

As bleak as this book is, as allegorical as it may be, it is a beautifully-written, insightful novel that begins rather quietly before readers are abruptly jolted back into the past, returned to the present, and jolted back again.   I'm wondering if these interruptions are meant to somehow mirror Samuel's mind, as it is certain interactions between him and the stranger which cause these memories to come to him, something as simple as the sight of a flower that the other man has made from odd bits laying around Samuel's cottage.  It can make for reading distraction,  but Samuel's past has a direct connection to what will eventually happen in his present.  I love the way the author set this all up, including the early foreshadowing  that sets the atmosphere, and then the slowly-building drama that results from Samuel's somewhat broken memories of the past.  And do pay attention to the red hen, although I won't say why.  There's so much more, of course, but this is truly a novel to be experienced.  

 Don't let the short length of  An Island  fool you -- it is a powerhouse of a novel that even now, several days after finishing it, is still haunting me.  

I am recommending it to everyone I know. 

Saturday, August 21, 2021

The Mermaid of Black Conch, by Monique Roffey


Peepal Tree Press, 2020
188 pp

(read earlier this month)

I loved this book, and thank goodness that Peepal Tree Press had the smarts to publish it.   In an interview with author Monique Roffey, she states that she finished writing this novel in 2017, but "the reality was that nobody wanted to buy it," and that she was "turned down by every big mainstream publisher."   Too bad for those big mainstream publishers -- in 2020 this book won the author the Costa Award, and I can only imagine the kicking of selves that went on among said mainstream publishers.  

The first time David Baptiste saw the mermaid was in 1976 while out fishing in the waters off Black Conch Island.  He dropped anchor, and after lighting his spliff began to sing to himself while strumming his guitar.  It was then that she made her appearance,
"A red-skinned woman, not black, not African. Not yellow, not a Chinee woman, or a woman with golden hair from Amsterdam. Not a blue woman, either, blue like a damn fish. Red. She was a red woman, like an Amerinidian. Or anyway, her top half was red. He had seen her shoulders, her head, her breasts, and her long black hair like ropes, all sea mossy and jook up with anemone and conch shell.  A merwoman."
From that moment, he "ached to see her again," and five days later she returned, attracted to his music. She came back now and then, listening to his songs; unfortunately, during the annual fishing competition held in Black Conch in late April, she got too close  to the Dauntless, a whaler on which two Americans, father and son, were fishing.  She was caught by their hook and while she put up a great fight, she lost; when they realized what they had caught, the Americans were determined to take her back to shore, as "she's worth millions."  The men on the boat from the island were stunned, "lost for words and for what to do" -- they had heard about mermen in their part of the ocean, but never a merwomen and at first, they realized that "this was wrong," as "she carried with her bad luck at best," but soon one of them also "began to see dollar signs."   She is reeled in, captured and taken back to the docks where she is hung up like a fish, but later David cut her down and took her to his house.  This is where the story actually begins,  as he tries to keep her not only alive but hidden away from prying eyes as an all-out search begins for the mermaid; it isn't long though until he realizes that she's begun the  transformation from mermaid to young woman. 

If you're rolling your eyebrows at this juncture, wait.  This isn't Splash or The Little Mermaid, but rather a powerful story of otherness, women and the assumptions men make about them as well as the destructive  power of envy, a love story and a quick run through the history of the Caribbean,  pre- and post-colonial.   The mermaid, Aycayia,  was much older than her newly-transformed self revealed -- she was once a woman of the Taino , who had lived on an island "shaped like a lizard," and had been there long before Europeans found their way to the islands and prior to the arrival of enslaved Africans. She had become a mermaid due to a curse put upon her by jealous women, who through the goddess Jagua, "seal up my sex inside a tail, Good joke to seal up that part of me men like."  Through Aycayia's narrative, which is interspersed throughout, she offers a look at pre-colonial history and indigenous myth and legend, while in the main story, the author examines slavery and its legacy in the descendants of the enslaved on Black Conch and in one woman, Arcadia Rain, who owns a large part of the island and can't quite escape her own family's history as slave owners.  Here though, Roffey differs in the usual telling, as Arcadia understands her position on the island and what it represents; she has, along with her young son, isolated herself in the old family home  "to keep away from this hatred. History. The great tragic past."  And there's much, much more.  

The Mermaid of Black Conch is an excellent novel, so beautifully told and so powerful, and I can't say I've ever read anything quite like it.  It is one of those books with the originality I crave in terms of story and writing, it has its own special vibrancy that brings both place and people to life, and there are so many layers embedded within this tale waiting to be uncovered that it never has time to be anything but captivating.  

Here's to Peepal Tree Press for taking a chance on this novel.  

I can't recommend this book highly enough.  

Monday, August 16, 2021

Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro


Knopf, 2021
303 pp

(read earlier)

Confession time: not too much into this novel I nearly put it down. I decided that if I still didn't like it after part two it would go into the donations box, so with that mindset I continued reading.  Good decision.  What started out feeling like a mix of children's story and YA novel definitely moved into a darker zone, leaving behind a number of unanswered yet intelligent questions worth pondering.   

Just briefly, since I don't want to give away any spoilers, Klara is a "top-range B2"  Artificial Friend (AF) who, as the novel begins, is on display in a store where people can purchase an AF as a companion, preventing their children/teens from becoming lonely  and  helping them with their school work.  There are newer models, the B3s, but according to the manager, Klara has "the most sophisticated understanding" of any of the other AFs in the store, "B3s not excepted."   As narrator of the events in Klara and the Sun, she has a somewhat limited view, but in affording her this role, Ishiguro allows the spotlight to shine more keenly on the human beings and the world around her, one which is obviously more technologically advanced than our present.   For one thing, something has occurred leaving many important and talented people to have lost their jobs (having been "substituted"); for another, parents who can afford to do so have had their children somehow genetically enhanced or "lifted" via a process known as AGE so that they have the best chances in life.   On the other hand, this world also seems familiar, with among other things,  clear-cut economic and social inequality, people on the margins, city spaces falling to ruin. Klara is chosen by Josie, a young girl who with her mother lives a relatively isolated life.  The only other human in the home is Melania the housekeeper, as Josie's parents no longer live together.  Josie's learning is done via tutors online via the "oblong" (think tablet) rather than school; social engagement with other kids occurs via periodic get togethers called "interaction meetings."   Josie has a friend nearby named Rick, who is clearly not in the same socioeconomic situation as Josie and her mother; he, unlike Josie, had not been lifted although he is definitely talented and worthy of any university.   The two are close and have plans to stay together; the problem is that as a non-lifted student, he has only a very small shot at entering any college that Josie might attend setting him apart and lessening his chances for a bright future.    Further complicating the situation, Josie is ill and if her now-deceased sister's case is any judge, there is a chance that Josie may not live to go to college at all.  As her condition worsens, often leaving her bedridden, Klara hits on a plan to help her, while her mother questions her choice in having had Josie lifted (although at times she seems to resent that guilt, only wanting security for her daughter), and has her own back-up plan just in case. 

Reader reviews are all over the map on this novel, with some people finding it "flat," others thinking that Ishiguro has basically rewritten his previous work, and others loving it.  While  I haven't gone into any detail here, in the last couple of chapters what happens seemed a bit too pat, too easy, and that made the read a bit on the frustrating side. Despite that, however, and getting past my initial reluctance, I found Klara and the Sun to be well done, although admittedly there were a number of spots that sort of bogged it down and made me impatient to move on.     If you're looking for hardcore sci-fi, this isn't the book although it does have its moments, especially in one particularly sinister and unexpected scene.  I left this novel feeling a bit unsettled, just thinking about what exactly might be in store for humankind in the future, precisely because the world inhabited by the characters in this novel doesn't feel too far off.  The dustjacket blurb says that the novel poses a "fundamental question: what does it mean to love?" but there is so much more that gets unpacked in this book.  Two particular issues came to mind almost immediately on finishing: what is it that makes us uniquely human and cannot be replicated in artifical intelligence, no matter how advanced the technology?  Is it ever going to be possible to fully replicate human beings?  There's more -- themes of faith, loneliness, isolation, grief; and of course the ethical dilemmas and social consequences of AI,   --  all put to the reader in the author's usual understated prose style.  It's a fine book -- perhaps not my favorite novel by this author, but still very much worth the time.  


Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Night Theater, by Vikram Paralkar

We'll call this one fiction from India.  Although the author lives and works in Pennsylvania, he was born and raised in Mumbai, and the novel is set in his home country.  

Catapult, 2020
originally published in 2017 as The Wounds of the Dead
206 pp


I can honestly say I've never read anything like this book, and that's a very good thing.  I seriously get tired of same old same old, and Night Theater is anything but. I have no idea how the author came up with this idea (unless it was from reading a lot of Kafka) but it's pure genius. I'll caution anyone contemplating reading this novel  that there are elements of, as the dustjacket blurb notes, "magically unreal drama," requiring a suspension of disbelief.  Let yourself go with this "fabulist" novel in that regard, and you will be rewarded many times over. 

The first words of the book offer a clue as to the strangeness to come:

"The day the dead visited the surgeon, the air in his clinic was laced with formaldehyde."

The surgeon, who remains nameless throughout the story, has been running a  four-room clinic in a small, rural village in India for the past three years, with neither the amenities of a modern practice  nor a budget big enough to keep on hand what he needs to do a proper job.   The walls have cracks in them, the windows have gaps, and he has been spending his own money just to keep the place "from turning into an archaeological ruin." There is no nurse to help him (his budget request for one remains in bureaucratic limbo);   he relies on the pharmacist for assistance.  After a visit from his supervisor, an official dropping off vaccines and angling for a payment to ignore nonexistent "irregularities," he decides that he'll give it two more months "at the most" before leaving, vowing  "No more."   Tired and desperately needing sleep, he'll have to wait as a teacher, his pregnant wife and her son walk into the clinic asking for help.  They are strangers from another district, the victims of thieves who had taken their valuables, stabbed them and left them on the roadside just an hour or so earlier; they're also quite dead.  If the doctor can operate on them and fix their wounds before sunrise, when the blood will flow again, they can remain in the world of the living; if he fails, they must return to the afterlife from whence they'd come.   

To say that the surgeon is overcome is to wholly understate his situation; it's much more as if the floor just dropped out from beneath him and he is left trying to find something to hold on to before he falls through.  It's the pregnant woman and her young son that convinces him, and enlisting the help of the pharmacist and her husband, he decides that he will do as they ask.  For him, it is an "inescapable madness" that he "would have to get through;" he would have to 
"pretend that the visitors had been wheeled in on gurneys, with lolling heads and frothing mouths, victims of some mysterious accident. He would just do his job, and let the pieces fall as they would."
 Once he begins, the surgeon becomes locked into what is best described as a ticking time-bomb  situation, and the tension builds as the clock slowly counts down the hours until sunrise.  As he makes his way through this challenging night,  he finds not only his medical knowledge tested in ways he could never imagine, but also his beliefs as he gleans from his patients, as the dustjacket notes, "knowledge no mortal should have."  

I had to set aside time and put everything on hold once I started Night Theater because I couldn't tear myself away from it.  I also had to jerk myself back to earth and reality once I'd finished as I was so caught up in the tension here as well as the off-kilter premise and the blurring of the lines between living and dead.  It is definitely a high-stakes story, one that will have huge ramifications for everyone involved.   Surprises abound, but what also kept me riveted was the way in which the author wove into his story important and relevant issues such as corruption, inequality and health care, especially the idea of bureaucrats having power over whether one lives or dies.  

Very well done, and the more I've thought about this book since reading it the more it's grown on me.  It was so good that now I'll look forward to reading anything Mr. Paralkar writes in the future. Night Theater likely won't appeal to readers who need straightforward realism, but for everyone else it's a no-miss.   And no, there are no zombies here. 

very very highly recommended.