The Season of Crimson Blossoms – Abubakar Adam Ibrahim

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On the surface, this novel is about the story between Binta, a 55-year-old grandmother, and Reza, a 20-something drug dealer criminal. Set in northern Nigeria, this affair is really a representation of the repressiveness of the culture of Muslim Hausa society. Binta is grieving the loss of her son, Yaro, and finds maternal redemption in her love for Reza. In turn, Reza finds solace in loving Binta, who reminds him of his mother who abandoned him when he was a child. I found this Oedipus/ Jocasta relationship quite distasteful at first, but I accepted it to learn the reasons behind it. 
There are themes of unfulfilled dreams, repression of grief and loss, and how violence only begets violence. Ibrahim is critical of these societal mores and presents a sad story against the background of political upheaval and misogynistic religious oppression. Other characters in the Binta / Reza orbit are suffering from PTSD and feelings of betrayal from society’s lack of sympathy to violence and encouragement of sexism. It affects everyone, and eventually the discovery of the affair causes an explosion in this cultural crucible.
Though the setting and characters are interesting, the story was at times repetitive and in the middle became tiresome. The ending was powerful. It’s a complicated story with an important message, and is definitely worth your time. 
Many thanks to Cassava Republic Press and Edeweiss for the copy in exchange for my review.

Giraffe – JM Ledgard

giraffeI stumbled on this book  by accident. It was on a table at our local library sale, and the title caught my eye, so I picked it up. That cover! Astonishing! I had no idea what I was in for.

Whenever I describe the topic of this book to others, I am immediately treated with responses of rebuke or disgust. “I’m not reading that! That’s awful!” But I encourage you to look beyond the ghastliness of the subject matter. I don’t want you to miss out on the experience of the beauty of this book. I am completely ambivalent. I almost wish I had not read it so that I could have remained unaware of this brutality, and yet, I feel like everyone should read it.

Giraffe is a fictionalized, almost journalistic, account of an incident in the 1970s in Czechoslovakia. The largest herd of giraffes ever held in captivity was intentionally slaughtered, though the political reasons are dubious and inconclusive. The author presents the story through the eyes of the different unwilling participants in this drama: a scientist, a female factory worker drawn to the beauty of the giraffes, even the leader of the giraffes, called Snehuka, “Snow White,” for the whiteness of her unspotted belly.

This book is beautiful and horrifying, honest and without sentimentality. The writing is superb. If you can brave the subject matter, you will feel honored for having borne witness to the story.

 

 

 

The Broken Girls – Simone St. James

I love a good ghost story!

1950: at Idlewild Hall, a boarding school for delinquent girls, 4 roommates develop a bond over their shared circumstances. Lurking in the background is the simmering fear of Mary Hand, the ghost that roams the grounds. Mary Hand summons your deepest fears and calls to you to let her inthebrokengirls from the cold. If you don’t resist her, you die.

2014 : Journalist Fiona Sheridan is investigating the refurbishment of Idlewild Hall. Why would an eccentric wealthy stranger want to restore this dilapidated building to its former glory? Buried secrets come to light during the renovations that reveal the mysteries of what happened to those four friends back in 1950, and also the real story of what happened to Fiona’s sister, Deb, who was murdered twenty years ago and left on the grounds at Idlewild.

The story moves back and forth in time from 1950 to 2014, the constant presence of the ghost Mary Hand tormenting those who visit Idlewild. The supernatural elements of this story were spooky enough to keep me turning the pages, and the earthly, present-day evils only enhanced the tension. The denouement was a bit far-fetched, but I still enjoyed way everything came together.

There is a lot going on in this book. There is the simmering suspense of Mary Hand, and the author weaves in other plot elements of unsolved murders and disappearances to create a complicated story. I was enthralled from start to finish, and relished the creepy atmosphere of Idlewild Hall.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Berkley Publishing Group for the advance copy.

The Hawkman – Jane Rosenberg LaForge

hawkmanThe residents of post-WWI Bridgetonne, England, are unnerved by The Hawkman, the town’s most enigmatic indigent. This shabby, filthy recluse is harrassed by the local children and berated by the adults. He doesn’t speak, he bothers no one, and yet, the residents, especially Lord Thornton, want him out.

Miss Eva Williams, an American outsider, has taken a position at the local college under the employ of Lord Thornton. She is challenged by Thornton’s notion that the Hawkman should be gotten rid of in order to ensure the safety of the women of the college; however, her efforts are not what Lord Thornton intended. She shows compassion instead of contempt, and that causes quite an uproar in Bridgetonne.

This book is dreamy and mythical, bordering on magical realism. The backstories of both The Hawkman and Miss Williams are revealed gradually,  interwoven with folklore and dark fairy tales to reinforce the motives of the characters.

I enjoyed this book because of its originality and departure from straightforward historical fiction. The atmosphere was believable and yet mysterious. At times the fairy tales arrived unexpectedly, leading to an abrupt change of narrative, and I didn’t understand the purpose or moral of most of them. Regardless, the writing was illusory and fantastical without sacrificing the sober reality of the effects of war.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Amberjack Publishing for an advance copy in exchange for my review.

The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore – Kim Fu

In The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore, five girls camp2out with their camp leader on a kayaking and camping excursion. Their leader decides to push the girls even harder, rowing for a farther, more secluded island for camping. No one from camp knows where they went, and no one from camp knows that these girls are stranded and alone. There is a pivotal point in these characters’ lives that changes the course of their adulthoods.

The novel is told in vignettes, back and forth in time from the adolescent girls at Camp Forevermore and then their later adult lives. Each girl’s story is told in turn. Not all the girls’ adult stories seem relevant to the camp incident, but perhaps that’s the point the author is subtly implying: some girls overcome, and some never recover. I appreciated that the characters were not cardboard stereotypes. The girls have different personalities and come from different backgrounds, and that adds to their experience and also to their suffering on the island.

I enjoyed this novel. The writing is intelligent and contemplative. The Lost Girls of Camp Forevermore is a story of basest natures coming to the surface when faced with adversity with the follow up of how one trauma can infect people’s minds for the rest of their lives. I look forward to reading more from this author.

Many thanks to Netgalley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review.

New Boy – Tracy Chevalier

Chevalier does not disappoint with this modern spin on the classic tale.  New Boy is a retelling of Othello in Random House’s Hogarth Shakespeare series. Other retellings in this series include Hagseed by Margaret Atwood (a retelling of The Tempest) and Vinegar Girl by Anne Tyler.

newboyAt 206 pages, this is almost a novella, but its succinctness is perfect for the retelling. The simmering racism pervades throughout, and the setting Chevalier chose lends an interesting cultural perspective.

Set in Washington, DC in the 1970s, the cast of characters are sixth graders on the cusp of adolescence, experimenting with adult situations that involve romance and manipulation. The new boy is Osei, a dark-skinned African who has some experience being the “other” in a classroom of white faces. He keeps to himself, ignoring the curious stares and reluctant approaches of the other kids. He befriends Dee, a popular girl who is fascinated with his exoticness. There is also the conniving Ian, intent on destroying their relationship.

The entire story takes place in a single day, mostly through drama on the playground. An ordinary day at the elementary school turns dark quickly as alliances dissolve and primal fears emerge.

The use of tweens is a clever twist on the original; they’re young enough to maintain a sheen of naivete and just old enough to begin the subtle art of manipulation. The diabolical machinations of Ian, however, were a little too complicated to be completely believable. The complicated maneuvers were necessary, however, in order to reflect the original Shakespeare, even though in this instance Iago is only eleven years old. That complaint aside, New Boy is a refreshing take on the old story, one that many younger readers will be able to identify with.

Recommended. Many thanks to bloggingforbooks.com for this copy in exchange for my honest review.

Rust and Stardust – T. Greenwood

rustandstardustIn 1948, 11-year-old Sally Horner stole a notebook from Woolworth’s. Frank LaSalle, newly released from prison, witnessed the theft and grabbed Sally, telling her he was with the FBI. Terrified of getting in trouble, she agreed to leave with him, and she didn’t come home for two years.

I was drawn to read this novel after discovering that Sally’s story inspired Nabokov’s Lolita.

Rust and Stardust is a fictionalized account of what may have happened during Sally’s two years on the run with Frank LaSalle. LaSalle mentally and physically abused Sally, convincing her at first that he was the law, then that he was her real father. Sally was naïve and gullible, believing that she had to keep quiet or she would get in trouble. He took her across the country, evading the police and the FBI, telling neighbors that Sally was his daughter.

No one thought to question his story.

Rust and Stardust gives life to a real story that has almost been lost to history. Told from multiple points-of-view, the story follows Sally’s nightmare with Frank LaSalle, and also the horrible anguish of her family searching for her. The author deftly recreates Sally’s thought processes, showing how this young girl could believe such outlandish lies even while enduring abuse and isolation. Even though I knew the outcome, this was a gripping story. My heart was racing while I turned the pages.

Highly recommended.

Many thanks to Netgalley and St. Martin’s Press for the advance copy in exchange for my honest review.