Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson


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The book's description from the publisher's website:

A secret notebook. An unlikely inheritance. A collision of worlds. Prepare to be swept off your feet . . .
It is 1923. Evangeline (Eva) English and her sister Lizzie are missionaries heading for China’s ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar. Though Lizzie is on fire with her religious calling, Eva’s motives are not quite as noble, but with her green bicycle and a commission from a publisher to write A Lady Cyclists Guide to Kashgar, she is ready for adventure.
In present day London, a young woman, Frieda, returns from a long trip abroad to find a man sleeping outside her front door. She gives him a blanket and pillow and in the morning discovers the bedding neatly folded and an exquisite drawing of a bird with a long feathery tail, some delicate Arabic writing, and a boat made out of a flock of seagulls on her wall. Tayeb, in flight from his Yemeni homeland, befriends Frieda and, when she learns she has inherited the contents of an apartment belonging to a dead woman she has never heard of, they embark on an unexpected journey together.
A Lady Cyclists Guide to Kashgar explores the fault lines that appear when traditions from different parts of an increasingly globalized world crash into each other. Beautifully written and peopled by a cast of unforgettable characters, the novel interweaves the stories of Frieda and Eva, gradually revealing the links between them, and the ways in which they each challenge and negotiate the restrictions of their societies as they make their hard-won way towards home.
It's really difficult for me to competently write this review, since I do feel very ambivalent about A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar, about what it was and what it could have been.

I enjoyed the two storylines almost equally. This is where Ms. Joinson serious writing skills show: creating and building up the characters that are interesting, engaging and keep the reader reading. I was especially drawn to the ones that were rather on the dark side, even though there were precious few of them. Millicent, the missionary who led Lizzie and Eva to Kashgar, turned out to be a pretty despicable creature in my eyes, mostly because of her selfishness and complete disregard for those devoted to her. However, this character alone added a lot of richness to A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar and without her the novel could have possibly turned out to be boring. To me, one of the top three factors determining the quality of a novel is the emotional aspect. A story, or even one element of it, has to evoke strong feelings within me. Both positive and negative will do. That's what happened in the case of Ms. Joinson's book and thank goodness for that. As awful as Millicent was, she added spice and dimension to A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar.

The same also applies to the present story of Frieda and Tayeb. This one had actually three deliciously despicable people (Frieda's father, mother and married lover, Nathaniel) but boy, did I hate Frieda's mother. That little number was selfishness personified. It's as if Millicent's spirit was being reborn from generation to generation until it found its perfect host. Call me opinionated and judgmental, but if a woman makes a conscious decision to become a mother, raises the child for long enough to be loved by her/him and then simply disappears forever because there are more important things for here out there, then I won't even consider wasting my time trying to understand the motives. But yet again, Frieda's mother kept me reading A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar until the end.

What exactly is the reason for devoting two paragraphs to characters only, very unlikeable ones nonetheless? It's because, sadly, everything else fell short for me. The historical aspect held a lot of promise. With the Christian first female missionaries arriving at that remote and hostile part of the world and the conflict between the Muslims, the Chinese and the missionaries (both female and male), a lot could have been happening to make A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar stand out. And again, the same applies to the modern story of the novel. The place of Muslims in today's England, the issue of child abandonment and finally the secrets we keep and how they affect our lives. None of them were explored and it's a shame.

As I was making progress with Joinson's novel, the most important issue that I couldn't stop thinking about was how much better off this author would have been, had she abandoned the idea of two storylines and two timelines packed into one book, and instead wrote two separate books. I could even see a potential for a trilogy here. Both the story of Eve and Frieda could easily stand on their own if given proper, singular focus each. So maybe, next time we'll see Suzanne Joinson putting out a fantastic story with strong female characters (I believe that's what she was going for in this book), instead of an okay novel with a potential. I hope so. There's much to like and appreciate in Joinson's writing and enough promise in it to warrant my looking forward to what we'll read from her next.

FTC: I received an e-galley of A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson for review from the publisher, Bloomsbury USA via NetGalley.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The Hunger Angel by Herta Müller; translated by Philip Boehm


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The book's description from the publisher's website:

A masterful new novel from the winner of the 2009 Nobel Prize, hailed for depicting the "landscape of the dispossessed" with "the concentration of poetry and the frankness of prose" (Nobel Prize Committee)
It was an icy morning in January 1945 when the patrol came for seventeen-year-old Leo Auberg to deport him to a camp in the Soviet Union. Leo would spend the next five years in a coke processing plant, shoveling coal, lugging bricks, mixing mortar, and battling the relentless calculus of hunger that governed the labor colony: one shovel load of coal is worth one gram of bread.
In her new novel, Nobel laureate Herta Müller calls upon her unique combination of poetic intensity and dispassionate precision to conjure the distorted world of the labor camp in all its physical and moral absurdity. She has given Leo the language to express the inexpressible, as hunger sharpens his senses into an acuity that is both hallucinatory and profound. In scene after disorienting scene, the most ordinary objects accrue tender poignancy as they acquire new purpose—a gramophone box serves as a suitcase, a handkerchief becomes a talisman, an enormous piece of casing pipe functions as a lovers' trysting place. The heart is reduced to a pump, the breath mechanized to the rhythm of a swinging shovel, and coal, sand, and snow have a will of their own. Hunger becomes an insatiable angel who haunts the camp, but also a bare-knuckled sparring partner, delivering blows that keep Leo feeling the rawest connection to life.
Müller has distilled Leo's struggle into words of breathtaking intensity that take us on a journey far beyond the Gulag and into the depths of one man's soul.
 That which doesn't kill me...doesn't make me stronger either.

No man is an Island, entire of itself...Every man is an Island, entire of itself.
(emphasis and changes are mine)

These two quotes are simply thoughts of two individuals. Nietzsche's quote isn't even accurate ('kill' should be 'destroy'); I suppose it was changed by simply another individual to make the message more powerful And yet, people use these witticisms as guides/mental support for their lives. I really dislike these and many other 'sayings' because they're misleading and untrue. Nowhere is it more obvious than in The Hunger Angel. Soviet Union's regime and its gulags had that absolute power which could and did kill a great number of people; those who had the misfortune to come back from the dead, existed among the living as if suspended between life and death. They indeed survived the camps but returned weaker, conditioned to fear, yearning for the relief of death and not receiving it. They were little islands floating among those saved from the cruel reality of the camps and living entirely of and dependent on themselves. This is the truth Leo Auberg embodies.

When I picked up The Hunger Angel, I didn't know what to expect. I was hoping I would like it and would be able to appreciate the aspects of Herta Müller's writing that earned her the title of a Nobel Prize winner. What I didn't expect was to be stunned into silence by the power of Müller's gift. From page three, when I read

I carry silent baggage. I have packed myself into silence so deeply and for so long that I can never unpack myself using words. When I speak, I only pack myself a little differently.

I knew that, from then on, my life would be split into two phases, the life before The Hunger Angel and the life after. I knew that because those words spoken by Leo were my life, my most secret and yet most fundamental feelings that I'd always wanted to articulate and that I couldn't even express cohesively to myself. This review is the most difficult to write because The Hunger Angel became very personal to me. Reading it was an epiphanic experience. With every page, all the murky, undefinable emotions rising within me and causing me so much anguish became crystalline clear.

To avoid the danger of ending up with a mini memoir of mine, instead of a somewhat helpful review of  Ms. Müller's book, I will only say that when Leo writes about his homesickness, about displacement, about feelings of not really belonging anywhere, he writes about me as well.

Müller's writing is incredible, it has clarity and shoots meaningful images like arrows, straight through your heart. And yet, this same writing created a novel that's so layered with messages, that every time you read it, you'll find meanings and depths you hadn't the time before. Every person that reads The Hunger Angel will come away from it with a different understanding, a different message and a different interpretation from other readers.

There is one thing though that is unmistakeable and undeniable regardless of what else all who read The Hunger Angel understand from it. And that is the power of words.Words are what helps Leo survive the five years of terror and horror and I believe words propel him to live just one more day of his life after the gulag. Not being able to tell his story to anyone, facing the cruel realization that no one really wanted to listen, to know, he writes it all down. He unburdens himself of the silence he carried for so long by pouring all the words he can never speak onto paper.

There are so many weighty subjects that Herta Müller writes about in The Hunger Angel, that whole dissertations could be written about it (and no doubt they will some day soon). The life in the gulags, the loss of dignity, the hunger angel that becomes Leo's constant companion and that never goes away, even if the food is abundant, because there's always something else we'll desire and the hunger angel will be there to fuel it.

To me, it's the themes of dispossession and displacement that were crucial. Once it happens to a person, it can never be healed. Because, contrary to one of those sayings again, time doesn't always heal all wounds. Indeed, when you're uprooted, denied life where you had always belonged, not only can you spend the entire rest of your life searching for that which can never be found, but you can also,  on some subconscious level or through an upbringing doom your descendants in the way you were doomed. How am I drawing this conclusion? My great-grandparents and my grandparents were Poles living in Ukraine and I believe a few months into the WWII, they had to run, literally like thieves in the middle of the night, from the Red Army. They left everything behind, their vast lands (they were farmers), their homes, everything in them. All they could take, they carried in potato sacks on their backs. I am now 34 years old, with a family of my own and the most prominent factor present in all my life is that I never really have felt at home, felt an attachment to a place that would make me realize this is where I belong. I still don't. Most importantly, displacement isn't just geographical. It's also the displacement of the soul. And Leo is and will always remain doubly displaced: from his Romanian town and by being denied his sexuality. Leo is homosexual and that's yet another silent baggage that he carries, that will never allow him to find a place where he belongs, as long as he has to fear being discovered.

I have to finish these wandering thoughts of mine about The Hunger Angel. I would love for you to just know this: read this book not for the plot, certainly not for seat-of-the-edge suspense, and maybe not even all that much for the characters. There's no happy ending either. Read The Hunger Angel to experience the most incredible writing, to witness the work of a literary genius. Not one sentence can be skipped because they all carry meanings and when you find those meanings, which will probably in some way become personal to you gasp and hold your breath in shock. Read it also for the history that has been mostly ignored and still is. Soviet Union's communist regime with Stalin for a leader performed ethnic cleansings on an unimaginable scale. Herta Muller gives our generation an opportunity to be ignorant no longer. And don't be that person who exclaims with disdain, 'It's only fiction!'. The quote I'll share below is not the author's figment of imagination. The speech of an officer to the prisoners of the gulag, as absurd as it may sound, does give you a real taste of the ideology behind Soviet Union's communism.

An officer...gave a speech at the roll-call grounds, the Appellplatz. He spoke about peace and FUSSKULTUR...: Fusskultur strengthens our hearts. And in our hearts beats the heart of the Soviet Socialist Republics. Fusskultur steels the strength of the working class. Through Fusskultur the Soviet Union will blossom in the strength of the Communist Party and in the peace and happiness of the people.


The Hunger Angel is translated by Philip Boehm, who is an accomplished translator of works in German and Polish. He obviously performed magic when translating Muller's novel. To be put to task to translate such a complex novel, with meanings and words as the main themes, must have been awe-inspiring. You'll catch yourself forgetting that The Hunger Angel is originally written in German and thinking that maybe English is Muller's native language. And the thing I admired the most when considering Mr. Boehm's approach to this novel, is his choice of the title. Original one (Atemschaukel - breath-swing) is not easily and literally translatable into English in order to make sense, like it does in German. I know that it's just my opinion, but The Hunger Angel is the title (and what it represents throughout the novel) that was meant to be. One may wonder what sense does it make that The Hunger, that awful, persistent and never-ending sensation, is called an angel. My understanding is that firstly, as Leo personifies sensations and things and objectifies people to maybe develop some kind of mental detachment pivotal to survival, a hunger becomes a being, a companion, a presence that never leaves, the Hunger Angel. Secondly, now that it's no longer simply a bodily sensation, in the end, the Hunger Angel is the only one that never abandons Leo and lets him know that Leo's not alone in that world he no longer belongs to. Sick and twisted, yes. But that's mercy nonetheless, and angels and mercy travel in pairs.
Here I'd like to share with you some of the quotes that are especially meaningful to me.*

No words are adequate for the suffering caused by hunger. To this day I have to show hunger that I escaped his grasp. Ever since I stopped having to go hungry, I literally eat life itself. And when I eat, I am locked up inside the taste of eating. For sixty years, ever since I came back from the camp, I have been eating against starvation.

I'm always telling myself I don't have many feelings. Even when something does affect me I'm only moderately moved. I almost never cry. It's not that I'm stronger than the ones with teary eyes, I'm weaker. They have courage. When all you are is skin and bones, feelings are a brave thing. I'm more of a coward. The difference is minimal though, I just use my strength not to cry. When I do allow myself a feeling, I take the part that hurts and bandage it up with a story that doesn't cry, that doesn't dwell on homesickness.

Some people speak and sing and walk and sit and sleep and silence their homesickness, for a long time, to no avail. Some say that over time homesickness loses its specific content, that it starts to smolder and only then becomes all-consuming, because it's no longer focused on a concrete home.
FTC: I was provided an ARC of The Hunger Angel for review from the publisher, Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Macmillan.

* All the quotes are from an uncorrected proof and need to be verified against a finished copy for any inaccuracies.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

The Reckoning by Alma Katsu - The Taker Trilogy Book 2


* * * * 1/2

The book's synopsis from the author's website:

Lanore McIlvrae is the kind of woman who will to do anything for love. Including imprisoning the man who loves her behind a wall of brick and stone.
She had no choice but to entomb Adair, her nemesis, to save Jonathan, the boy she grew up with in a remote Maine town in the early 1800s and the man she thought she would be with forever. But Adair had other plans for her. He used his mysterious, otherworldly powers to give her eternal life, but Lanore learned too late that there was a price for this gift: to spend eternity with him. And, though he is handsome and charming, behind Adair's seductive facade is the stuff of nightmares. He is a monster in the flesh, and he wants Lanore to love him for all time.
Now, two hundred years after imprisoning Adair, Lanore is trying to atone for her sins. She has given away the treasures she's collected over her many lifetimes in order to purge her past and clear the way for a future with her new lover, Luke Findley. But, while viewing these items at an exhibit at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, Lanore suddenly is aware that the thing she's been dreading for two hundred years has caught up to her: Adair has escaped from his prison. He's free—and he will come looking for her. And she has no idea how she will save herself. 

As The Reckoning is a part of the trilogy, I'm advising everyone who hasn't read part one, The Taker, to hurry up, get it and read it. The sooner, the better. This way you'll get to enjoy The Reckoning as soon as possible. And trust me, your time will not be wasted. Alma Katsu wrote a fantastic book. Even better, in my opinion, than her debut, The Taker. Which must have been a difficult task, considering that usually the middle books in trilogies are the weakest (that has been my experience).

Ms. Katsu wrote the continuation of  Lanore's and Adair's  stories with so much refinement that I was actually humbled in my light (sometimes possibly patronizing) treatment of the paranormal romance genre, although The Reckoning definitely belongs to the dark group of paranormal romances. It really is an intelligent novel, with writing and characters and the plot that stand out from the crowd that floods today's book market. This second part of The Taker Trilogy is better than the first (don't get discouraged, because The Taker is certainly a great beginning and you will want to read the whole trilogy based on it) in one, very important aspect. While The Taker was a fairy tale for adults, with very strong and mostly very brutal sexual elements, The Reckoning is no longer that. It deals with serious issues, such as a possibility of redemption, an opportunity to change and why it's not always fulfilled. It shows us the strength of love that endures centuries but that also can be very dangerous and may make us vulnerable to others and open to be fully exploited, helpless and yearning for the end of our lives. The Reckoning serves us the painting of how tragically potent and destructive human emotions can be in their extremes. All that makes Alma Katsu's second book a notch above the clear-cut fairy tales, even the ones in the spirit of Grimm Brothers.

And here, I must break my rule of never comparing one work with another. In general, such comparisons may very well turn detrimental to the novel discussed. However, in the case of The Taker Trilogy, such doubts must be dispelled. It will indeed appeal to readers who are 'seeking a less erotic, more literary Fifty Shades of Grey. But it will also satisfy those of us who run away from any book mentioned in the same sentence with The Fifty Shades Trilogy. Trust me, Alma Katsu is a class writer of her own, galaxies above what E. L. James could ever produce.

A word on the historical aspect
The Reckoning's story switches between the past and the present. Especially interesting is the part involving Lord Byron after he had been banished from England and during his stay in Spain. However, as it spans centuries, each time we go back to the past, it's a different era and a different country. Some may say that it could be too much and therefore too confusing. However, Alma Katsu managed to maneuver between the eras expertly and I don't think there's any risk of a reader getting confounded.
FTC: I received a copy of The Reckoning for review from the publicist, Wunderkind PR.

The Reckoning by Alma Katsu has been released today, June 19th, 2012 by Gallery Books.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian

Before we move on to my review, I'd like to write about the wonderful Book Expo America 2012 (as well as previous years) and thank all the people behind the scenes of this one of the biggest publishing event in the world. Because they made it possible for me to attend, I succeeded in meeting with some of America's most talented and most famous writers. One of them was Mr. Chris Bohjalian, with whom I had an incredible opportunity to speak about his novel, The Sandcastle Girls, as well as his Armenian roots and our shared experiences as part of two diasporas (Armenian and Polish).

Chris Bohjalian and me at BEA 2012

Another great surprise was Ms. Ruta Sepetys who wrote Between Shades of Grey, a YA novel and a book that matters, will always matter and should really be read by young, middle aged and old everywhere. And what a nice person Ms. Sepetys turned out to be. Yet another reason for me to be grateful for an opportunity to attend last month's BEA.

If you ever have a chance or an opportunity to sign for one publishing event, please let it be Book Expo America, right in the heart of NYC, Manhattan!


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The book's synopsis from Chris Bohjalian's website:

In his fifteenth book, The Sandcastle Girls, he [Chris Bohjalian] brings us on a very different kind of journey. This spellbinding tale travels between Aleppo, Syria in 1915 and Bronxville, New York in 2012—a sweeping historical love story steeped in the author's Armenian heritage, making it his most personal novel to date.

When Elizabeth Endicott arrives in Syria she has a diploma from Mount Holyoke College, a crash course in nursing, and only the most basic grasp of the Armenian language. The First World War is spreading across Europe and she has volunteered on behalf of the Boston-based Friends of Armenia to deliver food and medical aid to refugees of the Armenian Genocide. There Elizabeth becomes friendly with Armen, a young Armenian engineer who has already lost his wife and infant daughter. When Armen leaves Aleppo to join the British army in Egypt, he begins to write Elizabeth letters, and comes to realize that he has fallen in love with the wealthy, young American woman who is so different from the wife he lost.

Flash forward to the present, where we meet Laura Petrosian, a novelist living in suburban New York. Although her grandparents' ornate Pelham home was affectionately nicknamed "The Ottoman Annex," Laura has never really given her Armenian heritage much thought. But when an old friend calls, claiming to have seen a newspaper photo of Laura's grandmother promoting an exhibit at a Boston museum, Laura embarks on a journey back through her family's history that reveals love, loss – and a wrenching secret that has been buried for generations.
I've struggled with what words to describe The Sandcastle Girls ever since I was done reading it. I'm afraid nothing I write will properly give it its full credit and convey how important this book is. I was blessed to be able to read it and I can only hope that I'll successfully convince every one of you to read it as well.

First, I have to say how deeply ashamed I feel that I'd known absolutely nothing about the Armenian genocide of 1915-16. Especially being Polish and growing up in Poland, having gotten my entire education there, in that country which still struggles with the history of Soviet oppression and mass extermination of the Polish committed by the Soviet government, it's shameful that the Armenian genocide was erased from the pages of history books. It's utterly unforgivable that most likely all over the world people remain ignorant of this great tragedy, tragedy that happened in 1915 and tragedy that keeps happening every day these people, slaughtered in the middle of nowhere, are not remembered and are not given as much dignity due, dignity that they were denied then.

Chris Bohjalian wrote this story using his beautiful gift to the fullest. There is absolutely nothing in The Sandcastle Girls to make the merest complaint about. The story of Armen and Elizabeth, they're falling in love with each other in the midst of horrible tragedy may not be based on fact, but is believable and absolutely probable. Love blossoms in the most horrific of circumstances and is that one more offspring of hope humans always cling to, to survive. Incredible strength of character and perseverance of the Armenian people needed hope above all. I want to tell you in as much detail as possible why this novel is so beautiful and stunning, but my emotions while reading The Sandcastle Girls and still days after having finished it, are such that talking about literary merits trivializes the story. Although, maybe the fact that one can get so very much involved in this book is a testament to its literary merits enough.

I'm obviously no literary critic, just a simple reader. But most of us are that. And most of us don't know that one and a half million Armenians perished at the hands of the Turks. We have had close to a hundred years to learn about it but we didn't and Chris Bohjalian gives us an opportunity to finally start honoring the memory of the mothers who had to watch their children die of starvation, children who had to watch their mothers being raped and then murdered, of the husbands and fathers being taken away from their families, not ever having known what had happened to them or having died with broken souls.

Here's what I wanted to mostly convey: The Sandcastle Girls is the reason why you learned how to read. Oh, you may read silly, light novels for entertainment value, because you want to relax and rest. And that's fine. I read those too. But if you don't read books like The Sandcastle Girls as well, books that should matter, then what meaning is there to your reading at all?


FTC: I received an e-galley of Tha Sandcastle Girls by Chris Bohjalian from the publisher, Doubleday via NetGalley for review.

The Sandcastle Girls will be on sale July 17th, 2012

Pre-order it:

Random House
Barnes & Noble

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Sadness of the Samurai by Victor Del Arbol, translated by Mara Lethem


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The book's synopsis from the publisher's website:

A betrayal and a murder in pro-Nazi Spain spark a struggle for power that grips a family for generations in this sweeping historical thriller
Fierce, edgy, brisk, and enthralling, this brilliant novel by Victor del Árbol pushes the boundaries of the traditional historical novel and in doing so creates a work of incredible power that resonates long after the last page has been turned.
When Isabel, a Spanish aristocrat living in the pro-Nazi Spain of 1941, becomes involved in a plot to kill her Fascist husband, she finds herself betrayed by her mysterious lover. The effects of her betrayal play out in a violent struggle for power in both family and government over three generations, intertwining her story with that of a young lawyer named Maria forty years later. During the attempted Fascist coup of 1981, Maria is accused of plotting the prison escape of a man she successfully prosecuted for murder. As Maria's and Isabel's narratives unfold they encircle each other, creating a page-turning literary thriller firmly rooted in history.
After I finished The Sadness of the Samurai, I had been seriously worried that there might not have been much reason to try and read anything else for a while. The intensity of this novel seemed unparalleled by anything that might come after it. Even though I am now lucky enough to be reading another astonishing novel, I can say with all honesty that within the past ten years, I haven't read anything like The Sadness of the Samurai.

This novel is raw and brutal. It seemed that all my nerve endings were working beyond their capacity, just to help me process the story enough to concentrate on my next day routines until I could read some more (I primarily read at night when my two toddlers are sleeping). What makes The Sadness of the Samurai so special however, is that all the cruelty is juxtaposed with Victor Del Arbol's beautiful, at times tragic, writing. It's verging on poetic sometimes, other times it's straightforward, yet so powerful, it made me catch my breath.And it always crept up on me unexpectedly. That element of surprise, not in the events, but in the writing, added yet another layer of depth.

Now, you'll probably see The Sadness of the Samurai categorized as one genre or another. But don't let it discourage you, if you don't read one specific genre this book is listed under. A thriller? Yes, it is that. A spy novel? I suppose one could call it that, as well. A historical fiction? Most definitely. One that will at the very least make you want to look up Spain's 20th century history, especially the years of WWII and after. But most importantly, it's a complex literary work of fiction. And that means,  having read it, you won't end up dumber. The characters are frighteningly their capacity for cruelty and in their fragility. Some of the people there are truly evil. There's no redemption for them, nor would they seek any. Not one remorseful thought enters their minds. Some are innocent victims, who pay a dear price for the sins of their parents. And of course, those in between: not wholly good but not wholly evil either. You'll have plenty of people to pick from to hate and to admire. I particularly liked Maria, who in the end is, when it really matters, a very brave woman. She's a person with integrity, one who fought, one who knowing full well the consequences, didn't turn her back on her moral responsibility. Really, I could go on for hours about how well Del Arbol builds up his characters, but that's one of the reasons why you may want to read the book and judge for yourself.

I need to stress that The Sadness of the Samurai is not for people whose sensibilities are easily offended. It is not for those who can't stand graphic violence, rape and the bestial side of human nature. I'm saying this not because the brutality takes anything away from the story, but because it is a very important, crucial even, element that makes Del Arbol's book so raw and so astounding, and if a wrong person reads it, they will give a low rating and low opinion on a book they shouldn't be reading in the first place.


The Sadness of the Samurai has been translated from Spanish by Mara Lethem. While I couldn't find much information on the web about this translator, I did notice that she has a fairly established record and has been a translator for at at least three different Spanish authors. Just like Del Arbol is a splendid writer, so is Ms. Lethem a talented translator. As a native European, for lack of a better word, I know that there are noticeable differences in a story's overall atmosphere between a novel written by a European author and that by an American one. European novels generally take on a slightly darker tone, explore existential questions and the nature of humans with gloomy outcomes, as opposed to the lighter tones of American novels, where the outlook on life is almost always positive in the end, offering hope and at least some little bit of optimism. Mara Lethem captured the character and atmosphere of that Spanish novel really well, for which I am very grateful.

FTC: I received a copy of The Sadness of the Samurai by Victor Del Arbol from the publisher, Henry Holt & Co.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce


* * * * *

The book's synopsis from the publisher's website:

Acclaimed author Graham Joyce's mesmerizing new novel centers around the disappearance of a young girl from a small town in the heart of England. Her sudden return twenty years later, and the mind-bending tale of where she's been, will challenge our very perception of truth.

For twenty years after Tara Martin disappeared from her small English town, her parents and her brother, Peter, have lived in denial of the grim fact that she was gone for good. And then suddenly, on Christmas Day, the doorbell rings at her parents' home and there, disheveled and slightly peculiar looking, Tara stands. It's a miracle, but alarm bells are ringing for Peter. Tara's story just does not add up. And, incredibly, she barely looks a day older than when she vanished.

Just when I thought there were no new to me writers to discover, along came Graham Joyce. He is an established author, with a long and successful writing career and a nice following of fans. Yet, up until I started reading his newest creation, Some Kind of Fairy Tale, I'd had no idea about Joyce's existence. I won't go into specific reasons why that happened. But it made me reconsider my reading priorities. Maybe I should have been devoting my time to reading fantastic authors such as Graham, instead of wasting it on nonsensical, devoid of any deeper meaning books that bring no value to my life. I suppose there comes a time in most people's lives, when they get such realization about anything of significance (reading is what matters to me), and there's usually a trigger to set our minds in motion. Some Kind of Fairy Tale was a sort of a trigger to me.

If you ever want to experience what true magic realism is, read Some Kind of Fairy Tale. And no, it's not 'a fairy tale' for adults. This is a story where the divide between what's 'real' and what's 'magical' gets smaller and smaller as you read, until at some point you realize that it doesn't even matter any longer whether it's there at all. You read the story of Tara's and where there may have been some incredulity at first, in the end it seems just as natural an explanation, as any other could have been. The subtlety with which Joyce weaves the impossible into our pragmatic world is out of this world (pun intended).

Above all that, Some Kind of Fairy Tale captured my heart with its writing. The prose is simple, spare and brilliant. There's nothing, or almost nothing, that I hate more than convoluted passages of writing that in the end mean absolutely nothing and serve no purpose other than to indulge an author's ego. Mr. Joyce's straightforward writing is, obviously, the exact opposite and does a splendid job of creating characters I really liked and whose company in real life I'd enjoy. All these people were changed by Tara's disappearance and the fact that she comes back, that she is alive after all, doesn't really bring any closure, any resolution.If anything, it brings disappointment and disillusionment for Tara. She now can see the world she left as empty of wonder, and the people she once knew and loved as incapable of looking and any further than at what's right in front of their noses, and sometimes not even that.

OK, before I go off somewhere philosophizing, I'll cut it short and sweet. Some Kind of Fairy Tale is a smart novel that will encourage you to ponder on whether your reality is mundane, and if it is, whether it's because the world is mundane or because we make it so. The novel's tragic at times, at times quite entertaining (made me laugh a couple of times) and it's never boring. Some Kind of Fairy Tale is a proof that literary fiction is not pretentious if it's written well, and that it will give you a satisfied feeling of having spent your time in good company.

FTC: I received an e-galley of Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce for review from Knopf Doubleday via NetGalley

Some Kind of Fairy Tale will be on sale beginning July 10th, 2012. In the meantime, please read a sample below and see if you like it.

Some Kind of Fairy Tale by Graham Joyce