Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Zan-Gah: A Prehistoric Adventure by Allan Richard Shickman - 160 pgs

Book CoverIn this new YA adventure story, a young boy living in a primitive era discovers the savage world around him and the budding humanity he carries inside. Zan is only eleven years old when his village goes out in pursuit of the terrible beast that has killed one of the village children. Despite his fear, Zan emerges from the hunt as the sole victor and is given the name Zan-Gah (Zan of the Rock) as a mark of the honor that he has won. But Zan's life is far from complete, for his twin brother has gone missing and has not been seen in the past two years. Feeling tremendously guilty for his possible role in his brothers absence, Zan-Gah goes in search of his missing sibling, finding danger, treachery and violence along his way. Will Zan ever see his brother Dael again? Will he even survive his desperate journey? Young readers will find themselves pondering all these questions while learning a plethora about primitive life in this thrilling and unusual tale of a brave boy's fight for survival.

I don't read many YA titles. I am not exactly sure why that is, but somehow I always think that I won't be able to relate to the characters of the story. Then an opportunity comes along to broaden my reading horizons and I begin to ask myself why I have arbitrarily been holding myself back from genres that I am unfamiliar with. Such was the case with this book. I went into the book expecting to find that the story and characters would be elementary representations of what I would normally find in adult literature, but what I found instead pleased me greatly.

First off, I really felt that Zan-Gah himself was a wonderfully crafted character. He was very believable and had some pretty complex emotional reactions to his environment. Instead of being a one-dimensional cutout, Zan wondered and deduced a lot about himself and the people he was living with, recognizing not only the flaws within himself, but lovingly understanding the ones he saw in those who surrounded him. A lot of his behavior in the later sections of the book were a direct result of the guilt that he was feeling about his brother having gone missing. I think a lot of young adult readers will relate to and understand Zan's feelings of guilt and its repercussions. I also think that the guilt that drove him was a plausible motivator in which to propel the narrative, and felt that it made Zan a really sympathetic character.

I also thought that the action/adventure aspects of the story were very meticulously plotted and developed. It didn't feel like the narrative was overcrowded with action but instead that it was paced more sparingly and believably. I think it would have been a mistake to assume that the book had to jump from action scene to action scene just to keep a younger audience enveloped in the story, and I very much appreciated the meat and thorough mix of background, action and character development that made up the narrative. Another thing I liked about the action scenes was the fact that they were very believable. There were not a lot of fantastical elements in this story. This made the story seem like it had a bit more gravity and relevance, which I also appreciated.

Though I have not read a lot of fiction set in the prehistoric era, I found that the author fleshed out his setting well and provided a lot of detail about the time in question. There were explanations of the ways in which food was gathered, hunted and cooked, and various facts about the way people lived their day to day lives. The topic of warfare between clans was also given much attention and the author necessarily included pertinent information about weapons and battle as well. I think that the most interesting aspects of life during that time was the look into the life of the women of the group. Though they were mostly separated from the men most of the time, they had a certain way of making their presence and opinions known. Ultimately, I felt that all aspects of this story were fully realized and explored with a lot of attention to detail.

I think that this would be a great read for young readers, but also for adults who might enjoy a look at prehistoric life. I think the author did a wonderful job with the characters and setting and I found the adventures that Zan went on to be full of interesting twists and turns. Reading this book was a pleasant diversion from some of the heavier books I have been reading lately, and though it was short, there was a lot packed into this tale. I would definitely recommend this book to a variety of readers and think that it might make a nice summer read for those looking for something a little different.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, June 28, 2010

On Folly Beach by Karen White - 416 pgs

Book CoverEmmy Hamilton is having a hard time adjusting to her new status as a widow. Her husband, a soldier, has been killed in Afghanistan, and though time is moving forward, Emmy just can't seem to emotionally recover. When her mother suggests that she relocate to her old hometown of Folly Beach, Emmy is not really receptive to the idea. But when she finds out there is a bookstore for sale on the island, Emmy begins to reconsider. Soon she is the owner of Folly's Finds and she sets out to make some improvements to the small and colorful shop. She also begins to get to know the previous owner's family, including Heath, a man who has his own scars and resentments. As Emmy begins to organize her new store, she comes across a group of old books that seem to have secret messages inside them. Further investigation reveals the lives and secrets of an old branch of Heath's family. The only surviving member of the little group is Heath's old curmudgeonly aunt Lulu, who guards the secrets of the past with intense fervor. As Emmy and Lulu's stories intertwine, we learn of life in 1940's Folly Beach during the war and of the painful love triangle that consumed the lives of Heath's family: a story that is fraught with tension, secrecy and age-old deceptions. As Emmy fits the pieces of the story into place, her life begins to change as well and she comes to discover what those who have gone before her also have learned, that grief and heartache are but a season of life, and that sometimes it's alright to move on.

I have been reading a lot of great reviews on this book lately, and frankly, it made me a bit nervous to get started with it. You see, I can't help it sometimes. The hype gets to me and I ultimately feel let down. Sometimes hype just ruins things for me. That was why I had almost given up on this book before I had really begun. I guess that I just assumed that this would be another over-hyped read and didn't really give it much of a chance. Either that or the first section of the book started a bit slowly for me and took some time to build up. Whatever my preconceived notions were, I am glad to say that after some initial misgivings, I ended up enjoying this book a whole lot.

This book is organized as a dual narrative, with the sections about Emmy's life in the present alternating with the sections of Lulu's life in the past. Because the book is written in third person, both stories retain their immediacy and don't really compete for vitality or dominance. It was interesting to me that my favorite sections of the book alternated between the past and the present and that both sections sustained a great amount of tension and drama. There was a lot of sadness in this book but I didn't feel that it was particularly overdone or maudlin and instead felt that the book explored grief in its many permutations and disguises. It was nice to see both of the stories come full circle and mesh together at the end and I felt that all the aspects of the plot were really well balanced.

I also liked the characterizations in the book. I felt that the author really developed her characters well and that their actions spoke loudly towards the truth that had been written for them. It became very pleasing to read along, knowing what type of reaction certain scenes were going to get by the various characters, and instead of being predictable, I felt that the characters' attributes were really gelling in a believable way. I also liked that the characters were multi-dimensional. The negative characters especially were imbued with some really positive qualities and it was hard not to sympathize with them in some ways and understand why they did the things they did. The only character aspect that I had trouble with was Emmy's nosiness. At times she felt a little too nosy, if you know what I mean. As she tries to piece together the truths of Lulu's past, she often makes people uncomfortable and digs further than is generally acceptable. I felt that this was a bit rude at times,and though I still liked and appreciated Emmy's story, I think she could have calmed down a whole lot and still got the same things accomplished.

The historical detail in this novel was wonderful and I felt it was very well written and researched. Part of the story deals with the German U-Boat invasion and the discovery of a ring of German spies who had infiltrated different parts of the United States. White does a wonderful thing in the historical aspects of her book by making the past come alive and telling her story with strength and fervor. It was a tough call for me but I would have to say that I favored the historical sections just slightly and thought that it was in these scenes that the book excelled. As a reader, I got a really interesting account of what life was like in the 40's during the war and just how rationing, shortages and wartime affected the people of Folly Beach. These sections weren't just the backdrop for the story, they were more like the bones which held the body of that half of the narrative together.

I also must say that I totally adored the fact that much of the book dealt with a book shop. Though it wasn't a main focus of the story, a lot of incidentals and anecdotes had to do with the shop and I was always happy to see them. Old books and the secret notes written in them also have their place in the narrative and it was lovely to see some favorite classic titles mentioned within the scope of the story. I loved that most of the people in this story were bookworms in one way or another and thought that this invented Folly Beach was somewhere where I felt I could fit right in. The book also included a bit about a lighthouse, which was another bonus for me, as I love them too.

I thought that this was a finely crafted story that really seems to live up to the hype. The author excels in both her characterizations and her plot, which made this a really full bodied read for me. Though it took some time for this book to ramp up for me, I did end up getting pretty deeply enveloped in the story and think that other readers would probably feel the same. The book would appeal to those who like historical fiction, light romance or books with a great interlocking set of stories. I am so glad to have discovered this book and to have given it the chance it deserved. A rich and compelling read.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Heart of Lies by M.L. Malcolm — 336 pgs

Book CoverAfter a secret assignation gone wrong, Leo Hoffman is headed to Shanghai to begin life anew. But just before leaving Europe, Leo meets the alluring and irresistible Martha, who he has to leave behind in his haste to escape. After settling in Shanghai, Leo sends for Martha, who makes the difficult passage by herself to share her lover's new fortune. Soon Leo and Martha are living in delicious style in 1920's Shanghai, sharing the best of what life has to offer them. But Leo is not being completely truthful with Martha and has to keep the real reason for his fortune a secret from her. When Martha gives birth to a daughter, the little family seems to be on the path to true happiness. Then one day, a horrible accident wipes away all of their shared happiness and the couple's young daughter, Maddy, is shuttled off to America with Leo's promise that he will soon join her. But things in Leo's past hold him back and he is not able to leave Shanghai as planned. This forces Maddy into the clutches of a selfish and scheming woman who desires Leo above all else. When the events of Leo's life finally leave him free to make the journey to America, he finds that Maddy has grown beyond her love for him and he must make a painful decision that will have repercussions for father and daughter alike. In this historical tale of intrigue, one man must make very difficult decisions regarding the life he longs to leave behind and the daughter who lives only for his love.

I don't know what it was about this book. Usually, I love historical dramas that showcase places and times with which I am less familiar, but in the case of this book I think there was some kind of disconnect. While I found the story interesting enough and the characters were agreeable and intriguing, I felt that somehow this book missed its mark with me.

One of the problems I had with this book was the fact that I couldn't really get invested in the characters' plights. They all seemed very one-dimensional and their emotions just didn't resonate off the page. There were times I found it hard to empathize with the characters because they didn't seem to reflect any deep feelings at all and they never seemed to reflect upon their emotions. I think the problem was that they never had any meaningful perceptions and revelations about their emotional situations. They never grew as a result of their experiences and instead remained static and unmovable. As as reader, I was told that Leo felt sad dejected, and hurt, but I never really bought it because he just seemed so disaffected all the time. It was definitely a case of telling instead of showing and because of this most of the characters seemed less than sincere.

I really liked the plot of the book for the first two-thirds, but when the accident happened and the book focused more on Maddy and her plight in America, I began to lose interest. I felt that the story had taken a turn and the characters I had grown to like were being replaced by the sad plight of a child. This was not bad per se, its just not what I had been expecting and I found myself wanting to skim these sections, although I did not. One thing that hampered me with Maddy is that I felt she was very spoiled for most of the middle section of the book and she seemed almost precocious at times. When her fortunes turned, I just couldn't scare up a lot of sympathy for her and her plight. I did not get on well with her and the fact that the book focused so much on her during its closing section made me feel a little disgruntled.

Although some things didn't work well for me, there were some great aspects that I really enjoyed about the book. First off, I felt that there was a lot of good intrigue sprinkled throughout the plot and things were far from predictable. I liked the way the action that centered around Leo's business dealings was so clearly delineated and full of suspense. I was rooting for his success and disentanglement during these sections and felt that the author did a wonderful job of perking up the plot through the uses of Leo's particular problems and his reactions to them. I also really liked the relationship between Leo and Martha. Leo was incredibly romantic at times, and as a reader, it was nice to see a man who was not too masculine to be tender within the pages. Though he did some things that I was not exactly thrilled with, I found Leo's love for Martha to be one of the brighter spots of the book.

In writing this review, I realize that the main reason for my disconnect with the book is probably because the story tried to straddle too many genres. At first, it seemed like a historical mystery and suspense story but then it quickly morphed into a tale of domestic intrigue. Towards the end, the tale moved more into the realm of melodrama. I think any one of these would have been fine had the author stuck to it, but the effect of placing them all into one story made the book feel disorganized and overcrowded. I think the rapid shifts of perspective and storyline were a bit confusing to me and it was hard to feel connected to any of the stories because of it. While I did like the book, I was not wowed by it and would probably not continue on and read the sequel.

Though this book didn't really work for me, I do believe that it might work for other readers out there. If you are fond of stories that feel very fluid and that will keep you guessing, then this is the book for you. While I found the story to be a little less interesting to me, I do feel that there are some things that the author really excelled at in the book and because of that, I am glad to have read this novel.

About M. L. Malcolm

M. L. Malcolm is a Harvard Law graduate, journalist, recovering attorney and public speaker. She has won several awards for her short fiction, including recognition in the Lorian Hemingway International Short Story Competition, and a silver medal from ForeWord magazine for Historical Fiction Book of the Year. She has lived in Florida, Boston, Washington, D.C., France, New York, and Atlanta, and currently resides in Los Angeles.

Check out M.L. Malcolm's website here.
M.L. Malcolm

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour by visiting these other blogs:

Tuesday, June 8th: My Two Blessings
Wednesday, June 9th: I'm Booking It
Thursday, June 10th: Books for Breakfast
Monday, June 14th: Diary of an Eccentric
Wednesday, June 16th:  Rundpinne
Tuesday, June 22nd: Raging Bibliomania
Wednesday, June 23rd: Peetswea
Monday, June 28th: Heart 2 Heart
Tuesday, June 29th: Chefdruk Musings
Wednesday, June 30th: Dolce Bellezza

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Girl In Translation by Jean Kwok - 304 pgs

Book CoverKimberly Chang and her mother have just immigrated to America from Hong Kong in an attempt to escape the communist threat. Having secured help from her aunt's family, who owns a clothing factory, Kimberly and her mother are quickly ushered into their new apartment which comes complete with rodents, roaches and little to no heat. When her mother begins her job at the factory, Kim is enrolled in a public junior high school and her problems with assimilation begin in earnest. Kimberly is a very smart girl who had been used to winning honors and accolades at her school in China and is frustrated and upset that all her attempts to learn and understand the language are coming to nil. Soon Kimberly is working at the factory with her mother in addition to going to school, and it isn't too long before the small family's lives are beset with heartache. As the job at the factory devolves into a sweatshop situation, Kimberly and her mother are forced to do with less and less, while the requirements of living grow to be more and more. When Kim eventually makes a friend and begins to learn the ropes of the school and the English language, her life begins to take a turn for the better. Soon she also forms a romantic attachment in an unexpected place and she comes into her full academic glory. Though she has come from an extremely humble beginning, Kimberly eventually pulls free of her chains and takes her life and her mothers into uncharted waters, and they are able to truly begin again. In this reflective and often somber new novel, Jean Kwok gives us a very different take on achieving the American dream and shows how the spirit and fire of one girl can overcome even the most harsh of obstacles.

While I did end up enjoying this book, it was a bit of a slow start for me. From the moment the story begins when Kim and her mother step into that awful apartment, I felt a sort of odd disconnect. I wasn't sure if it was the writing style or the characters, who seemed almost devoid of real emotion, but for me, there was just a sense that the story was going to be a slog. Therefore I was happily surprised when Kim's voice began to take on more of an authentic ring and her life story really took flight. I think one of my problems with the early sections of the book had a lot to do with the lack of intimate details and feelings that Kim and her mother expressed, but as Kim grew into the courageous girl willing to brave any situation, she also grew on me.

A lot of this story was sad. Kim was forced to assimilate very quickly, and as a result, her self-image and confidence was really affected. Though she wanted to have friends and be a top student, her lack of knowledge about American social customs and the language barrier really put her up against some huge stumbling blocks. Part of the problem was the traditional ideals of her mother. Though Kim was sometimes invited to the homes and parties of her classmates, her mother felt that it was improper that a girl should socialize in that way and was also worried about having to reciprocate that hospitality when their home life was in such shambles. This led to a weary Kim having to lie about her excursions and kept her from feeling like part of the group. It was really frustrating to see that Kim definitely needed to bond with her fellow students, if only to learn from them, but due to her cramped schedule and the beliefs of her mother, was kept away. I also was kind of appalled to see that Kim and her mother were so ill used by her aunt in the factory. They were basically indentured servants, working long tiring hours for what amounted to pennies, jealously kept from advancement and success by a domineering and cruel woman.

As Kim begins to strike out on her own, she has many life changing experiences. When she discovers that there is mutual interest between herself and a boy who works in the factory, she is first delighted and then shy and confused. There is a lot of struggle in this quasi-relationship because although the boy is more familiar with her way of life and situation than other boys might be, Kim is still caught up in the anxieties of her low self-esteem and financial situation. This leaves the door open to many frustrations and misunderstandings between herself and the boy in question, and regretfully, the relationship takes many years to bear fruit.

I thought that the sections regarding Kim's school career were very interesting. She goes from being at the top, to somewhere in the bottom rungs, and is constantly maligned by both teachers and students. The main problem seems to be the language barrier, but she also has the more typical problems of teasing and being the odd person out. Her friendship with another girl in her class was a bright spot, both for her and for me. It had to be very punishing for her to constantly have to doubt her own value and accomplishments, to have to run twice as fast just to pull up even with the pack. As she becomes more comfortable in her environment, doors begin to open for her, both academically and in the area of relationships. I cheered for Kim when she began to fit in, and thought that though her success was hard won, it was a sweet victory.

In later sections, Kim falls into the same pitfalls as some of her friends. She becomes mildly promiscuous and seeks out destructive endeavors in order to fit in and find herself. This was a bit of surprise to me, and I felt that these were some of the sections that really emulated real life. Kim's life was a conundrum. Living and working as she did did not set her free, neither did travelling down the paths of her friends. What I think it finally was, was her determination to free her mother from her bonds and to experience the life she knew she was meant to have. And believe me, there was a lot of nefariousness disguised as goodwill keeping her trapped where she was. I think that's why it was doubly impressive that she broke free and was able to live the life she dreamed of. Though the book does return a more somber conclusion, I felt that there was a tremendous balance struck between Kim's dreams and her reality.

I think Jean Kwok did an excellent job with making Kim's story a tale of perseverance and heart, and it ended up being a very satisfying read for me. I would definitely recommend this book to those who are interested in well developed coming-of-age stories, as well as those who like to read about the immigrant experience. Kim was a human enough character for readers to really relate to her struggles, yet still somewhat of a curiosity whose foreign outlook and opinion would really muster a lot of interest in her singularly unique experience of a new life in America. A very thought provoking read and one that really spoke to me.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Based Upon Availability: A Novel by Alix Strauss - 352 pgs

Book CoverIn this novel of loosely connected stories, a group of eight women fumble through heartache, loneliness and idiosyncrasies of fate that lead them stumbling into the future. The story begins with thirty-something Morgan, a woman who uses her elevated position at the famed Four Seasons Hotel to snoop through the guests rooms and relieve them of their personal effects. Due to a tragedy in her early life, Morgan is unable to make emotional connections with those around her and finds herself drifting further and further away from the people in her life. As Morgan's story winds to a close, we meet Anne, a shy and unassuming woman whose mind is plagued by the obsessive-compulsive disorder that takes over her life. As Anne moves towards a new and healing relationship, she discovers that things are not at all what they seem and is left even more broken then she assumed she could ever be. Following on Anne's heels is Trish, a woman whose jealousy and desires are creeping into her life in an alarming way, wreaking havoc on both her old friendships and new. Trish is hoping to find a soft place to land, a friendship that will edify as well as enrich her. Ellen is manifesting the symptoms of a hysterical pregnancy, driving her husband and family away with her ever-growing neurosis, and Robin is about to perpetrate a truly horrifying act on a sister that has abused her all her life. Shelia is hoping that her lover will suddenly change his mind about leaving his wife, and rock star Lou is being sequestered in a hotel room in an attempt to kick her raging drug habit. Franny is living a life of appearances and is clinging to a fantasy that will never bear fruit, frantically attaching herself to the strangers who pass through her life in an attempt to wring some meaning from her life. All of these women's lives intersect at crucial moments, but none are able to stop the terrible slow motion destruction of any of the other's futures. Both raw and uncomfortably moving, Alix Strauss deftly imagines the hidden lives of a group of women desperately in search of meaning and belonging.

About once every year, I do a reread of one of my favorite books. The book is called Self-Help, written by Lorrie Moore. Self-Help is a group of short stories that all share the themes of death, loss and isolation. I know, I know, it sounds kind of depressing, but the thing that keeps me coming back is the haunting humanity that comes through in every page, the subtle nuances of life that Moore captures in her ultra-realistic characters. I was wonderfully surprised to find a lot of the same qualities in this tale. I would be a little hesitant to classify this book as a novel (as it's suggested by the title), rather, I would call this a group of character sketches that share a lot of the same themes and subjects and that expertly capture the overwhelming sadness that sometimes permeates the everyday life.

One of the things I most enjoy about a good character driven novel is the fact that, if done well, it's interesting to recognize the emotions and traits of the characters in relation to myself. This book excelled at this. It was humbling and almost searing to watch these women painfully expose their true selves and maneuver around others with their frailties worn on their sleeves for everyone to see. Their embarrassments were magnified, their isolation seemingly extreme, and their self pity utterly exposed for all who cared to look. It was almost painful to read about how broken these people were, to see them caught in lives that had no meaning and lost not only to one another, but to themselves. These were successful women who had no success in the arenas of their hearts and minds, whose neuroses were only thinly covered by the egos that protected them. As each woman comes forward to expose her true self, it's as if she is shedding her skin to reveal the unfinished being beneath, the part of her that is too fragile to see the light of day and must hide beneath the veneer of polish that she presents to the world.

I do think that there were some women that I connected with in this story more than others. I felt particularly engrossed in Robin's story of revenge, and though it was appalling and frightening, I couldn't help but feel that she finally got the vindication that she deserved. I also felt very moved by Ellen's story of her turmoil with the false pregnancy. I thought it was very interesting to see someone so caught up in mental confusion while the world looked on in pity and derision. I think Ellen's story hit me the hardest, though I also felt for Anne and her struggles with OCD. Other stories didn't affect me as much. For example, I found it really hard to connect with Shelia and her obsession with her married lover, or Franny and her co-dependence. I think this might have been because these two women had very different morals and mindsets from myself and I felt like I couldn't understand their plights as well. Their emotions were still touching and painful to read about, it's just that I lacked the internal component for them to resonate with me.

The various themes that were addressed in this book were done in such an elegant and personal way that I really found myself moved by the book. These women dealt with some heavy and emotion-laden issues. These issues are things that we hide under our mental bed and never admit to others, and in revealing them Strauss makes her characters particularly vulnerable and afflicted. While I was reading this book, I wondered just how many women out there are suffering under the yokes of these same horrible feelings, how many are walking around looking whole while feeling so emotionally scarred and damaged. The book speaks of strong women with powerful weaknesses, heroes who all carry their fatal flaw just under the surface. As these women struggled through their days and nights, their wounds became ever more noticeable and debilitating until there was barely enough skin to cover them from the world.

I can't tell you how much this book moved and haunted me, and the types of emotions that it brought forth while reading it. I think may writers have tried to achieve this effect in their books and I definitely felt that Strauss did it better than most. Though this book is a very dark look into the lives of damaged women, I feel that almost any woman who reads it will be able to recognize the feelings and behaviors that come creeping from these pages and be able to humbly feel for these women who try so hard to maintain their unaffected facade beneath the penetrating glare of the everyday. I think this book is another that I will be rereading from time to time, not only to explore the rich world of emotion that Strauss creates, but as a way to connect with the some of the universal feelings that we, as women, share and undergo. A very powerful and moving read. Highly recommended.

About Alix Strauss

Alix Strauss has been a featured lifestyle and trend writer on national morning and talk shows. Her articles cover a range of topics and have appeared in The New York Times, Time, Entertainment Weekly, Esquire and Departures, among others. Her other books include the award-winning collection of shorts, The Joy of Funerals, an anthology of blind date horror stories Have I Got a Guy For You, and most recently, Death Becomes Them: Unearthing the Suicides of the Brilliant, the Famous and the Notorious.

Connect with Alix:

TLC Book Tours A warm thanks to TLC Book Tours for providing this book for me to read and review. Please continue to follow the tour stops to see what other bloggers felt about this very moving book:

Tuesday, June 8th: nomadreader
Wednesday, June 9th: Raging Bibliomania
Thursday, June 10th: Book Addiction
Monday, June 14th: Dolce Bellezza
Tuesday, June 22nd: Heart 2 Heart
Wednesday, June 23rd: Reading on a Rainy Day
Thursday, June 24th: As Usual, I Need More Bookshelves
Tuesday, June 29th: Booksie's Blog
Wednesday, June 30th: Starting Fresh
Date TBD: Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin'?

Monday, June 7, 2010

Forest Gate by Peter Akinti - 224 pgs

Book CoverOne morning during her early morning class, young Meina is unexpectedly removed and brought to speak with two policemen who inform her that her brother Ashvin is dead. Ashvin and his best friend James had recently put a suicide pact into motion, both boys hanging themselves from two opposite tower roofs. It is only Ashvin who succeeds in ending his life, leaving James behind full of feelings of guilt and irreparable despair. When Meina discovers that the two boys acted in conjunction, she seeks James out to discover Ashvin's motives. The two soon find themselves in a tentative relationship, their sadness giving way to love. But James and Meina have outside conflicts that threaten their new peace. James is the youngest brother of five, and all of his siblings are drug-runners and arms dealers and his mother is addicted to crack. Meina has escaped the war in Somalia after the brutal murder of her parents and is now at the mercy of a benefactor whose motives may not be pure. As Meina and James struggle to cope with the violence and casual cruelties of their London tenement existence, they begin to discover that life's unexpected reversals have led to more than their new relationship and they must find a way to leave their oppressive and stale environment behind to move on to a more fruitful future. In this raw and haunting debut, author Peter Akinti spins a tale of two lives caught in the midst of a terrible violence and the shattered dreams it inflicts upon its innocent bystanders.

It is rare for me to come across a book like this. This story is very gritty and filled with the frustration and sadness of people inhabiting a dim and violence-charged world. Akinti doesn't flinch at all in his tale and the anger and frustration burst off the page and burn into the reader's psyche like fire. There are no missteps in this tale, no fumbling in emotion or intention, and often when I was reading, I was caught up in extreme feelings of anger. The disillusionment of the characters was palpable and it seemed that no matter what they did or said, they were destined to be misunderstood and marginalized. It was an extremely powerful book and one that made me reach into the deep recesses if my mind to formulate questions that I had previously given little to no thought to.

The book begin with the death and attempted suicide of the two boys, and from there, the action focuses on the dual and shifting narrative of James and Meina. Both the main characters have reasons to be broken and despondent; both are filled with indignation at their circumstances. But there is not only the anger of their shared suffering on the page, there is also a sense of their fleeting dreams and unrealized potential and the desperate wrestling of their hope for the future. As the narrative winds on, I came to realize that these two would have to go to extraordinary lengths to find even a modicum of happiness for themselves. To pull out of this desperate tailspin, they would have to be given the chance to start anew when everything and everyone was holding them back. Their situation was indeed grim, and the answers to their problems involved their traveling down paths filled with pain and recrimination. There were no easy answers for these two and it was a long uphill struggle for both of them.

The book was filled with a scathing sense of social commentary. Questions about identity, self worth and the age old repercussions of violence were deftly intertwined into the narrative, with both Meina and James acting as mouthpieces to these shared conflicts. James speaks elegantly and at length about the stereotyping of black males and the ways that people try to defy these stereotypes in themselves and their community, only to find that they are beginning to embody everything that they are fighting against. Meina speaks about the extreme liberties that have been taken of her body and mind, the confusion of war and the loss of self-respect and self-value. Together they have a lot to say, and it is within these messages that the book seeks to be the fulcrum of change. These messages are often biting and brutal, the lessons they impart hard-won. I thought that there was a strange beauty in these messages. The dark meanderings of Akinti's soul took on a life and force that resonated in me profoundly and struck me deeply. The fear that was etched into these characters was palpable and their expression of it not only sincere but frightening.

Another thing I liked about this book was the earnestness of the dialogue. Though most of it was caustic, it had a unique ability to also be reflective and to feel humble. There were small snippets of dialogue that startled with their implications and penetration, and I felt that Akinti definitely succeeded in making his characters' voices believable and authentic in a way that not many books of this caliber do. The questions that the characters asked of each other and themselves were not only searching of themselves but of the wider community surrounding them.

At the end of the book Akinti also provides an essay reflecting his early years in London. This essay reveals that his life was plagued by many of the questions that his characters faced, and I saw a startling similarity between Akinti and his character James. I thought that the essay was a brilliant companion to the story, as it really struck the roots of the societal damage that is inflicted on living breathing human beings.

Though this book was very dark, it excelled in getting its messages across and driving home the realities of violence, subjugation and racism. It was one hell of a powerhouse in terms of plot, character and in the driving home of its messages, and I highly recommend it as a read that crosses genres. It is certainly a book that will make you think, and though the majority of the plot is mired in sadness, there does come a point where things begin to move towards the realm of hope and possibility. Akiniti is a brilliant author, and I hope to read more of his work when it becomes available to me. Don't pass this book up. Though it is far from gentle, it has the ability to change you in some very powerful ways.

This book was provided as a complimentary review copy.
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