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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Full Circle: Topical Novel About An Iraqi Woman Refugee

The central character of Full Circle by Regina Timothy escaped an honor killing by her family in Iraq and managed to flee to the U.S.   I've read a really extraordinary book about an honor killing in the Druze community of Israel called The Seven Perfumes of Sacrifice 
which I reviewed here.  In that review I discuss honor killing as a world wide trans-cultural phenomenon.  I didn't choose to read Full Circle because it was about an honor killing.  Its themes are broader. It deals with a number of issues that have been at the center of discussion in the U.S. That's why I requested it for from the author in return for this honest review.


 In addition to honor killings, Timothy's characters grapple with immigration, terrorism, Islamophobia, the impact of the Iraq War on both Iraqis and Americans, income disparity, bullying and the often related issue of school shootings.   So Full Circle is very topical.  I appreciated seeing how the author made connections between all these issues through the events of her plot.

I admired central character Samia Al-Sayid's ability to survive so much adversity.  She isn't a strong woman protagonist on the model of Wonder Woman. Some readers appear to believe that only women who are action heroes can be considered strong, but Samia is internally strong.  That is why she is the one left standing amidst so much tragedy.

 As other reviews have mentioned, the story is often quite moving but since this is a first novel, I was not surprised to find flaws.  There are  moments of overt didacticism in which the author appears to be telling us what to think through the mouth of her protagonist.   I'd prefer not to see that in a novel.  Readers should be considered capable of drawing their own conclusions from events.  Full Circle could also use more thorough proofreading.  There were occasional missing words and words out of order in common phrases or place names. As a New Yorker by birth, I considered  "Central Grand Station" instead of Grand Central Station the most obvious example.  The errors weren't frequent, and I was able to determine what the author intended.   Many readers may not be bothered by mistakes that don't interfere too much with the book's readability.  Yet I feel that authors should take care that published products offered for sale on websites represent their best work.

When I ran a search on Regina Timothy, I expected to find that she is an American or an immigrant to the United States. I was surprised to learn that she is a Kenyan who resides in Kenya.  Full Circle shows so much familiarity with the social reality of  immigrants and minorities in the U.S.  This represents a great measure of success in her first novel.  So I recommend that  Timothy continue to practice her craft.   Her future work can only improve.



Saturday, March 10, 2018

Stone Cold Sober--A Pregnant Investigator on the Case

Publicist Wiley Saichek is  actually listed in the acknowledgements of  Stone Cold Sober by Rebecca Marks.  This is the third mystery in the Dana Cohen series.   Dana is a retired NYPD officer in her late forties who nevertheless finds herself in the middle of criminal investigations.   I decided  to try out this series.  Stone Cold Sober looked like the one that I would be most likely to enjoy because it involves an amateur theatrical production which reminds me of my own participation in performances of plays and  dramatic readings on an amateur basis.  So I requested it, and was gifted with a copy for review by Wiley Saichek.


I have to admit that the title didn't particularly appeal to me.  It seemed to imply that there would be a great deal of space devoted to the protagonist's struggle to maintain her sobriety.  I was relieved to discover that this didn't turn out to be the case.   Resisting alcohol seemed to be a relatively minor issue for the pregnant Dana Cohen.

The pregnancy itself had major impact.   Pregnancy symptoms, and the difficulties that the pregnancy caused in Dana's already troubled relationship with the baby's father seemed to dominate the book.  I was continually questioning whether this relationship was a healthy one that was worth maintaining.

 I think that many authors in the mystery field who believe women are the equals of men tend to de-emphasize any issues that might arise from pregnancy.  They don't want to appear to be disqualifying women, who might potentially be pregnant, from participation in investigation.   Readers who are looking for a crime novel that prominently focuses on the personal dimension of the protagonist's life may find Stone Cold Sober refreshingly realistic in this area.

At the outset, the case in Stone Cold Sober seems to be open and shut, but Dana has suspicions that police were missing crucial information that would lead them in a more unexpected direction.   It turned out that the perpetrator wasn't on anyone's suspect list.  This makes the third Dana Cohen novel a better than average mystery.



Friday, March 9, 2018

The Sapphire Song: Mystical Symbolism in a Fantasy

I receive e-mails from Book offering review copies.  When I applied for The Sapphire Song by Todd Erick Pederson,  I requested a Net Galley copy for which I was approved.   Book Buzz. net called it a mystical fantasy with paranormal content.  The protagonists are a male sculptor and a female storyteller.   All of this sounded like it would be of interest to me.  So I agreed to review it.


Previous reviews have remarked on the lyrical prose  which is indeed very lovely.   The spiritual content has been compared to Hesse's Siddhartha which is a novel about the Buddha.   Pederson does seem to draw on Buddhist themes.

 A sculpture that is central to the narrative could be said to be an indirect reference to The Jewel in the Lotus which is a representation of the mantra Om mani padme hum as an image. The Wikipedia article I've linked discusses the significance of each word in the mantra.   It relates to Buddhist enlightenment.  Meditation, which is a means of achieving Buddhist enlightenment, is an important activity for the male and female protagonists in The Sapphire Song.

Metaxaeus, the sculptor, visualizes and sculpts a phoenix from a gemstone.  The phoenix is conceptualized as the Western phoenix which rises from the ashes and therefore symbolizes reincarnation.  This makes the Western idea of the phoenix compatible with Buddhism which also deals with reincarnation as the way in which karma is worked out.  The working out of karma is definitely an important aspect of this story.  Yet I think that Pederson also weaves the Chinese phoenix into his book through his plot.  The Chinese phoenix is the fusion of yin and yang which represents the unity of male and female spiritual forces. (See The Legend of the Chinese Phoenix .) The arc of the narrative in The Sapphire Song is about  the male and female protagonists dreaming about each other and seeking unification. This is why the Chinese phoenix is associated with weddings.

My research into the symbolism of Pederson's images helped me to appreciate The Sapphire Song more. I hope that this review will also be helpful to other readers who are seeking to interpret the spiritual journey of Pederson's characters.  



Monday, March 5, 2018

The Night of the Flood--An Anthologized Disaster Novel

Night of the Flood edited by E. A. Aymar and Sarah M. Chen is an unusual book.  The stories by a variety of authors share a setting, plot events and characters.  They represent different perspectives on an unnatural disaster engineered by a group of women who call themselves The Daughters.  I was intrigued and requested a free copy from the publisher via publicist Wiley Saichek.


The book opens with "Dear Townspeople of Everton" which is a letter explaining the motivations of The Daughters.   They consider their destruction of a dam just outside the fictional town of Everton, Pennsylvania an act of justice.  Is it indeed an act of justice, or is it an act of terrorism?  Can it be justified?

The remaining stories show how people react to the disaster, and how it impacts their lives.

 I thought the first of these, "The Orphans" by E. A. Aymar about a brother and sister pair of central characters was immensely powerful because it made me sympathize with a girl who was a total sociopath.  Her life had damaged her so severely that she was incapable of empathy. The last story in the anthology, "The Chase" by Elizabeth Heiter, was also about a brother and sister pair who seem to be almost mirror opposites of the central characters in the first story.  These brother and sister pairs, the horrors in their pasts and what they made of their lives seemed to bracket the anthology.  This shows that The Night of the Flood focuses more on character dilemmas than on the disaster that has overwhelmed Everton.

As if Everton didn't have enough homegrown problems, they had to be visited by an out of town serial killer in "Carter Hank McKatar Takes A Sedative At One In The AM" by Shannon Kirk.   The concept of this story is what causes it to stand out.  It involves a twist that makes it even darker than the standard serial killer story.

On the other end of the spectrum are a pair of stories about women that I considered heartening. "The Darkest Hour" by Hilary Davidson opens with a mother and her children taking refuge in a high school gymnasium which reminded me of  news footage showing the survivors of real life hurricanes.  It turned out that the flood wasn't the biggest threat to this family.  In "A Watery Grave" by Sarah M. Chen, a female trucker is caught in the Everton disaster.  Both female protagonists seem to be trapped, but they are underestimated and turn out to be more resourceful than they appear.

I found The Night of the Flood  unexpected.  Some stories moved me while others made me think.  I recommend it to readers who have an appetite for a book that's very different.



Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George Washington

I am very aware that I decided to read and review an alternate history about America's first President that sounds dire on President's Day weekend.   I would like readers to know that this book by Charles Rosenberg shows George Washington in a very positive light for the most part.  I received it from the publisher via Net Galley in return for this review.


 The fact that Rosenberg's novel is an alternate history means that the book was quite suspenseful for me because I had no idea of how far it would wander from our timeline.  George Washington is in British hands.  The fate of the American Revolution is in doubt.  I wouldn't want to ruin that suspense for other readers by giving even a hint about how the novel ends.

Although Rosenberg's George Washington did not regard himself as irreplaceable, some characters in this novel appeared to believe that the revolution that resulted in the formation of the United States had no general other than Washington who could have led Americans to victory.  Yet there is a mention in this book of General Morgan and his defeat of the British at Cowpens which did happen in our version of history.  There is an illuminating page about General Daniel Morgan at a website called The History Junkie written by Russell Yost.  Daniel Morgan sounds like an unusual figure.  I would like to know more about him.

Rosenberg's portrayal of George Washington seemed to me very authentic with one exception.   Last year I reviewed a non-fiction book  about the American Revolution called Scars of Independence here.  At the time, I noted that this work of history characterized Washington as someone who cared very much about his reputation. That's why I didn't think it likely that Washington would have publicly joked about adultery as he did in a scene in this novel.  Then he tried to rescue himself by adding that he was completely faithful to his wife.  At the very least, he had placed himself  in an awkward situation by making such a joke.  Probably Rosenberg wanted to humanize his Washington.  It just didn't seem to me that Washington would have wanted to embarrass himself that way.

On the other hand,  I thought there was some really entertaining dialogue at various points in this novel.   Some of my favorite lines were spoken during Washington's trial.

Rosenberg's historical notes showed me that his alternate history is so credible because it was based on real possibilities.   I always appreciate when authors of fiction involving history do the necessary research to make characters and events convincing.  This is why I would consider The Trial and Execution of the Traitor George Washington a successful example of this speculative fiction sub-genre.



Thursday, February 15, 2018

And The Wolf Shall Dwell-- A UK Indie Spy Thriller

I decided to read  the indie spy thriller novel And The Wolf Shall Dwell by Joni Dee because  I was interested in the perspective of this new Israeli-Canadian author.  So I accepted a free copy from Joni Dee in return for this honest review.


Like most spy thrillers, And The Wolf Shall Dwell is plot driven. So it will fulfill the expectations of thriller fans who expect a fast paced plot with a great deal of action.   Joni Dee's protagonists aren't unthinking, but neither do they bog the plot down with a great deal of angst.

A book is written in a different moment in history than the one the current reader is experiencing.    To this American reader, the references to the American President in this novel seemed very out of sync with my reality.   I had to remind myself that this is fiction.  This novel's American President may have been someone who previously occupied that office.  It would also be perfectly legitimate for the author to create political leaders or situations that have never existed for speculative purposes.  The events are credible enough so that they could have happened in those particular circumstances.  One character is so much a relic of an earlier era that he has no home, and you have to wonder what he thinks of what has happened to his country of origin.

I visited the website of the publisher of this book, Blue Poppy Publishing, because I hadn't previously heard of it.   Although they expect authors to either pay for the costs of publication or crowdfund them, they make a distinction between what they do and a vanity press.   Blue Poppy says that they provide guidance for authors as well as services, and they will not publish a shoddy product.  There are a great many self-published books that are unedited first drafts uploaded to book vending websites.   We have all encountered them.  I am happy to say that  And The Wolf Shall Dwell confirms Blue Poppy's publicity.   It is a competently written novel with a suspenseful narrative.



Wednesday, February 7, 2018

By A Charm and a Curse--A Teen Fantasy Romance

When I received the review request from the publisher for By A Charm and a Curse by Jaime Questell, the request emphasized how much I had loved Girl on a Wire by Gwenda Bond which I reviewed here.   I considered the Gwenda Bond novel one of the best books I read in 2014.  It's also among my favorite circus novels of all time.

 It's definitely true that I love books about circuses and carnivals, but I'm also very picky about them.  I called the bestselling Erin Morgenstern novel The Night Circus inauthentic and superficial in my review of Girl on a Wire.  So let this be a warning to those who want me to review their circus or carnival novels.  I did obtain an ARC of  By A Charm and a Curse via Net Galley in return for this honest review.


So let's start with what worked.  The romantic heroine and hero were very sympathetic. Their relationship was intense and moving.  Jaime Questell should definitely continue writing romance.   She understands how to engage the reader's emotions.

I thought that the fantasy aspect of the charm and the curse could have applied to any high risk occupation.   They could have been a unit of mercenaries, for example.  There is nothing that makes this inherently a story about carnival performers.

There also weren't any performers with high risk acts who were central to the novel.  So we don't really get very much of their perspective.  There was  relatively little space devoted to performances or training.  For me, a tumbler or aerialist's breathtaking act is what makes carnivals and circuses magical.   So there wasn't enough of the content that draws me to novels of this type.

 Girl On A Wire was about an especially daring aerialist who filled me with awe.  The novel was about the risks she took and her motivations for taking them as much as it was about a Romeo and Juliet romance.  By A Charm and a Curse was primarily about characters who didn't belong in a carnival and didn't want to be there.  I felt that as a fan of carnivals, I was not part of the intended audience for this book.

For me, the romance aspect was the most appealing part of  By A Charm and a Curse.  Romance fans should be satisfied by it.