Category Archives: Fiction

The Magdalen Girls by V. S. Alexander

I know I’ve said it a million times but Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge is one of my favorite reading challenges. Because the rules of the challenge state each book must be by a different author and set in a different country it inspires participants to read books set in countries from across Europe. I don’t know about you but I think that’s pretty cool.

I’ve made pretty good progress up to this point, reading and reviewing about a dozen books representing countries from the United Kingdom to Russia and everything in between. However, there’s still plenty of work to be done before the challenge wraps up on January 31, 2018. Last weekend, while searching my library for books to apply towards the challenge I came across a novel set in Ireland. Published late last year, The Magdalen Girls looked like a nice departure from the “deep thinker” diet of books like Pankaj Mishra’s Age of Anger: A History of the Present and Peter Watson’s The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century I’ve been reading of late.

The year is 1962 and the place is Dublin, Ireland. After 16-year-old Teagan Tiernan is wrongly accused of having improper relations with a young Catholic priest she’s promptly sent away to the Sisters of the Holy Redemption’s laundry house. Forced to work in the laundry as “penance” for her “sins” she and the other imprisoned girls endure malnourishment, back-breaking labor, and physical and emotional abuse. Teagan soon realizes she needs to escape before she’s reduced to a broken shell of a human being like the rest of girls in the laundry. Passionately proclaiming her innocence she secretly conspires with two of the girls to escape.

Sad and maybe a tad melodramatic at times, nevertheless I enjoyed The Magdalen Girls. I found it fast-paced, decently written and possessing a few plot twists that I never saw coming. I needed something light and entertaining and The Magdalen Girls did not disappointment me.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History

The Girl from the Garden by Parnaz Foroutan

You can probably tell from one of my earlier posts, I have weakness for Iranian writers. The crazy thing is even though I’ve read lots of Iranian writers, I’ve read few who write fiction. Clearly, if I’m to widen my exposure to Iranian writers I need to read more Iranian fiction. Therefore, when I came across Parnaz Foroutan’s novel The Girl from the Garden at the public library I figured it was an excellent opportunity to read some Iranian fiction.

Parnaz Foroutan was born in Iran. After spending her childhood there her and her family immigrated to the United States, where she currently resides in LA. Her debut novel is set in the Iranian town of Kermanshah sometime in the first third of the 20th century and follows the lives of family of Iranian Jews. It’s told from the perspective of the sole surviving daughter Mahboubeh, now an elderly woman living in LA.

As much as I wanted to love The Girl in the Garden for whatever reason(s) it just wasn’t my cup of tea. This is a shame because I was excited to read a novel about a family of Iranian Jews living in pre-Revolutionary Iran. (In all fairness while reading The Girl in the Garden I was also reading several other books. Based on my personal experience a distracted reader is frequently an unfulfilled one. It wouldn’t surprise me if those literary distractions adversely impacted my ability to truly appreciate Foroutan’s novel.) But this first time novel shows considerable promise. I’m confident before I know it I’ll be reading one of her future novels and enjoying the heck out of it.

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Filed under Fiction, History, Iran, Middle East/North Africa

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War

Some of you might remember one of my Five Bookish Links posts in which I posted a link to a piece that appeared in Small Wars Journal. In the article, James King asked members of INTELST forum, a group of almost 4000 current and former Military Intelligence professionals what they thought are the best books for intelligence analysts. What I neglected to mention in my post is according to King “while the list is composed of mostly non-fiction there are a few fiction books.  One of these fiction books, Ghost Fleet, was nominated more than any other book on the list.”

If there’s a consensus among 4000 military intelligence experts the novel Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War should be required reading then this is a novel I need to read. Luckily for me, I was able to borrow a downloadable copy through my public library’s Overdrive portal. Inspired by King’s recommendation I quickly went to work on the Ghost Fleet and because it’s such a page-turner I blew through it in only a few days.

Ghost Fleet takes place approximately 10 years in the future. China is ruled by the Directorate, a junta of military strong men and civilian business leaders. Believing the United States stands in the way of China’s continued ascendency as a world power, and confident in their nation’s technological and military prowess the Directorate authorizes a sneak attack on American forces in East Asia and the Pacific. Just as the Germans enlisted the declining power of Austria-Hungary as their junior partner in World War I, the Directorate adds Russia as its junior partner attacking US bases in Japan, Guam and Hawaii. Before long America’s Pacific-based Aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines have been destroyed, its spy and GPS satellites have been shot to pieces and Hawaii is under Chinese occupation.

Alas, this is not your grandfather’s World War III novel. When the call goes out for assistance at America’s hour of need it’s answered by a diverse cast of heroes. A former Sudanese “Lost Boy” now Silicon Valley mogul recruits the best and brightest minds in the business to take down China’s IT infrastructure. A flamboyant Aussie biotech billionaire (a kind of ethnic Indian version of Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban rolled into one) who, styling himself a modern-day privateer, seeks America’s blessing for his efforts to pillage Chinese military assets. A  university-based Chinese-American female scientist whose expertise in designing massive batteries is a potential military game changer. As Hawaii  suffers under Chinese occupation a gang of American servicemen and servicewomen calling themselves the North Shore Mujahideen engage in high-tech assisted hit and run attacks on the Islands’ occupiers. Lastly, a female serial killer, as beautiful as she is emotionally damaged, has been haunting the bars and beaches of Honolulu brutally murdering Chinese occupiers one by one.

To dismiss Ghost Fleet by saying it’s not high-class literature misses the point. Not only is it an exciting page-turner but those in the know have praised the book to high heaven. When an American Admiral proclaims the book is “a startling blueprint for the wars of the future and therefore needs to be read now!” if for that reason alone I’ll recommend Ghost Fleet.

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Filed under Area Studies/International Relations, China, East Asia, Eastern Europe/Balkans, Europe, Fiction, Japan, Science

Immigrant Stories: The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez

Since 2003 my local public library has sponsored an annual Everybody Reads program. Even though I’ve never attended any of the related events like the discussion groups or lectures nevertheless I’ve read and enjoyed the different books my library has selected over the years, be it The Kite Runner, The Ghost Map: The Story of London’s Most Terrifying Epidemic and How it Changed Science, Cities and the Modern World or The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates. While it might have taken me a few years to get around to reading some of the selections like The Girl Who Fell from the Sky, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier and Midnight at the Dragon Cafe none of these books left me disappointed.

In early 2016 the library went with Cristina Henríquez’s novel The Book of Unknown Americans for its annual Everybody Reads selection. Last year, upon hearing that news I had every intention of reading it but I was probably up to my eyeballs in other books so I soon forgot. Then last week I found myself at the library and came across a slightly dog-eared paperback copy of The Book of Unknown Americans. Feeling this was as good a time as any to finally read it, I helped myself to it. After burning through Henríquez’s novel in mere days I’m happy to say once again, my local public library chose a fine piece of fiction for its Everybody Reads program.

The Book of Unknown Americans is set in an apartment complex in Delaware that’s populated almost exclusively by immigrants from across Latin America. The main story revolves around two teenagers. One is 15-year-old Maribel Rivera, newly arrived from Mexico and strikingly beautiful, her struggle adjusting to life in America is made worse thanks to a traumatic brain injury. The other youth is Mayor Toro, originally from Panama and the son of a family whose middle class origins belies its current predicament of working immigrant poor. The first time Mayor spies Maribel in a neighborhood discount shop it’s love at first sight. Later, as he gets to know Maribel and witnesses her vulnerability the more protective he becomes of her. But beauty can be a curse as well as a blessing, as the guileless Maribel catches the eye of a local young ne’erdo-well. Their brief encounter will set in motion of chain of events that in the end will profoundly impact all their lives.

The Book of Unknown Americans has inspired me to read other novels dealing with the immigrant experience. Specifically, I’m thinking Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of Butterflies and How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents as well as Oscar Hijuelos’ The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. My guess is in the future you’ll be seeing these novels as well as others like them featured on my blog.

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Filed under Current Affairs, Fiction, Latin America/Caribbean

Immigrant Stories: The Day of Atonement by David Liss

I’m sure you know by now I’ve been searching high and low for historical novelists whose writing an Alan Furst fan like myself can happily sink my teeth into. After having a modicum of success exploring the fiction of Jenny WhiteSam Eastland and Jonathan Coe I kept searching. Last June, by a stroke of good luck I discovered Tom Gabbay’s novel The Lisbon Crossing. Set in Portugal during the early years of the World War II, I found his 2007 novel the kind of thing an Alan Furst fan could enjoy. But while I generally liked it, I kept wondering what else could be out there? Could there be another novelist whose kind of historical fiction I could get into, just like that of Alan Furst?

This rather quirky quest of mine would take me back to Portugal, and to a writer I’d sadly neglected to consider. During one of my visits to the public library I found of copy of David Liss’ novel The Day of Atonement. Picking it up to do a quick inspection, I was intrigued by the novel’s plot: a Portuguese Jew, after fleeing Lisbon years earlier as a child returns to the nation of his birth masquerading as an English businessman. Remembering how much I enjoyed Liss’ earlier novel The Coffee Trader, I figured I’d also enjoy The Day of Atonement. Come to find out I was right.

The Day of Atonement is a well-written and fast-paced novel set in mid-18th century Lisbon, a city as picturesque as it is dangerous. Our hero navigates the city’s dim alleys and cut-throat bars not to conduct business per se but to exact revenge. But will he pull off his bold plan before being unmasked not simply as an imposter, but also a despised Jew?

With 10 novels to his name there’s no shortage of stuff by David Liss for me to read and hopefully enjoy. I can’t wait to do so.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction, History, Judaica

About Time I Read It: Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name

After enjoying the heck out of Vendela Vida’s novel The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty I was up for reading more of her stuff. Once I learned one of her earlier novels, Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name happened to be set in the Nordic region of Lapland I added it to my Overdrive wish list, knowing I could apply it towards Rose City Reader’s European Reading Challenge. Last week I found myself in the mood for more of Vida’s fiction so I borrowed a digital copy for my Kindle. Much like with The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty I whipped through the book in no time. And just like I did with The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty I enjoyed it.

Life hasn’t been kind to Clarissa Iver­ton. Her mother ran off when she was 14, leaving her dad to care for Clarissa and her developmentally disabled younger brother. Years later, reeling from her father’s recent death, she learns he wasn’t her true biological dad. Then, days later, just when things couldn’t possibly get any worse she breaks up with her fiancé. In hopes of meeting her real father Clarissa travels halfway across the world to Northern Finland, where she ends up unearthing even deeper and darker family secrets.

Even though I liked The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty slightly more than this earlier novel of Vida’s in no way did Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name leave me disappointed. Vida has a gift for writing taught novels featuring female protagonists, who despite any personal weaknesses still manage to overcome whatever curve balls life has thrown their way. While I’ve read only two of her novels, I like they’re set in exotic foreign locales, be it sun-drenched Morocco or frozen Lapland . Therefore, I doubt Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name will be the last novel by Vendela Vida featured on my blog.

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Filed under Europe, Fiction

Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith

One of the other books I picked up at the public library a few weeks ago was Alexis M. Smith’s 2016 novel Marrow Island. It’d been on my radar for months, ever since Karen and Amanda, the former hosts of the Portland Silent Reading Party mentioned it on both their blog and Facebook page. Figuring any book Karen and Amanda promotes has got to be good I decided to grab a copy of Marrow Island. I’m happy I did.

What I didn’t know until I started reading Marrow Island it’s by an author who lives in town. I’ve always been a bit skeptical when it comes to local writers because I suspect some of them are praised not necessary for their talents but because they’re local. Fortunately, this isn’t the case with Smith since Marrow Island is an award-winning novel, receiving accolades from the likes of Ellie and Book Riot.

Marrow Island is not some simple tale set in the Pacific Northwest but a multidimensional novel that succeeds in combining a number of diverse elements. Not only is it an ecological thriller with LGBTQ romantic overtones, (without revealing too much, it won a Lambda Award for best bisexual fiction) there’s also an alternate history aspect of the novel, since it’s set in the Pacific Northwest 20 years after a major earthquake devastated the greater Puget Sound. There’s also political and social commentary thrown in, as Smith describes how Seattle and the surrounding area rebuilt it gentrified, thus driving out not just the poor, working class and people of color but also the non affluent middle class. Lastly, in Marrow Island human driven climate change is a hard and fast reality as Smith mentions almost in passing the droughts, shortened rainy seasons and intense summer heat that plague the region.

The story bounces back between the present and two years earlier when the protagonist Lucie Bowen, an out of work investigative journalist returns to her old stomping grounds of Marrow Island in Washington’s San Juan Islands. Thought to have been abandoned after the quake, Lucie’s heard rumors the island is now home to vibrant community known as the Colony. Led by an environmentally conscious nun, members of this Catholic Worker-esque commune live off the grid, preferring to subsist on locally grown food while using indigenous flora for medicinal purposes. During her visit Lucie learns of the Colony’s practice of employing mushrooms to cleanse the island’s soil, severely polluted after the local oil refinery exploded and caught fire during the quake, and made worse by fire retardants used in fighting the fire. Before long however she learns the colony’s ecological mission comes with a steep price: cancer is ravaging the Colony and babies are being still-born.

Rest assured, whatever I fears I might have had about the praiseworthiness of local authors Marrow Island succeeds on its own merits. Without a doubt it’s an enjoyable novel.

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