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review 2020-04-21 16:53
A memorable, witty and dark comedy about some very serious topics. Highly recommended.
One Year of Ugly - Anderson, Caroline, Mackenzie, My

Thanks to the Borough Press (Harper Collins UK) and NetGalley for providing me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

This is a debut novel, and what a debut! Although I hadn’t heard of the author before, I was thrilled when I realised that we had a few things in common (I’ve also worked as a translator, and we’re both alumnae of Sussex University. Go Sussex!), and I am sure this will not be the last novel I read by Mackenzie.

This novel touches on many things, and although it does it with wit and humour (at times a very sharp and quite dark sense of humour), the themes it delves in are quite serious. Illegal immigrants (in this case, Venezuelans in Trinidad) that try to settle into their new life, but whose already uncertain and danger-ridden existence becomes more complicated when they are blackmailed into doing all kind of other illegal things to settle the debt a member of their family, Aunt Celia, left unpaid upon her sudden death. The Palacios, an extended but close family, with their traditions, their unique personalities, their traditions from home and from their adopted land, their parties and meals together, with their quirks and their not-quite-upstanding members, are suddenly thrown into the hands of the criminal underworld, and their lives become even more dangerous. There is blackmail, housing other illegal immigrants, being tracked and followed, having to work all hours to keep their non-paying guests, being threatened and pushed around, and some of their members are even driven out of their minds by the pressure. To all these events (and more that I’m keeping quiet), we have to add life as usual for this family, and that includes: secret love-children, a young girl’s pregnancy, dangerous love affairs, strong women (some with a flair for drama), weak-willed men, heavy drinking, unfaithful husbands, grief and mourning, mental illness, trying to fit into a completely different place and being the object of prejudice and suspicion. The author explains her reasons for choosing to write a comedy in her note at the end, and they make perfect sense to me. First, because, as she says, some people might resist reading another book that deals in some of these very serious topics if they are presented in a straightforward manner, but a comedy might reach those readers, and also, because comedy and humour are great weapons to deal with dark situations and to endure and keep hope alive when things are tough. The author does a great job, both in dealing with the illegal immigration angle, and also in creating a family that we love (or at times, love to hate).

There are many characters, some pretty major (not all the members of the family have important roles, but we do get to know them fairly well by the end of the novel, although there are plenty of surprises, and I’m not only talking about Aunt Milagros here), and others that only pass-by, like some of the illegal immigrants they are forced to house through the year, and in many cases they are depicted like a cartoonist would do, exaggerating some traits for comedic purposes, but affectionately. Yola, the main protagonist, who narrates the story in the first-person, is intelligent, witty, hard-working, and although she might not see eye-to-eye with all the members of her family, she loves them fiercely and would do anything for all of them, even for the new arrivals that she’s not so keen on. Aunt Celia, who has died just before the story starts, is also very present in the novel, as she had been writing her biography/memoir, and the manuscript is passed on to Yola, who is also a writer and translator, and whom the majority of the members of the family think of as the most suited to follow in Aunt Celia’s steps (and become the family’s official bitch). Celia’s book is priceless, and we get to hear her voice through Yola’s reading. Then we have Ugly, who although doesn’t turn up often, his few appearances are very memorable. And Román, the romantic hero (yes, I know, the name is self-explanatory), who at first appears more of an antihero, but there is more to him than his gorgeous looks, and, well, let’s say the romance side of the story is bound to satisfy most readers keen on the genre. I liked Yola, and although some of her actions seemed pretty unreasonable and inconsistent, she is fully aware of it. As we’re inside her head, it’s easy to empathise, especially because she’s put in pretty impossible situations at times, and it’s difficult to imagine what else she could do. I also liked most of the members of her family, and yes, Aunt Celia and Aunt Milagros truly shine through. The female characters are more memorable than the males (other than Román and Ugly), but they are also familiar, and it’s likely that most readers would identify people they know who share characteristics with them. As is the case in all families, you might have your favourites, but there’s so much history shared that you feel for them. Yes, I’ll miss the Palacios.

The writing is sharp, witty, and eminently quotable. It flows well and although I know many readers don’t like first-person narratives, I enjoyed this one, and also the fragments from Aunt Celia’s memoirs. There are words and expressions in Spanish (I’m not from Venezuela, but the Spanish terms are well-written, and the research has paid up), but they do not impede the understanding of the text, and rather add to the atmosphere and the realism of the piece. I have highlighted the text extensively, but I’ll try to share a few examples of the writing. As usual, I’d recommend prospective readers to check a sample first, to see if it suits their taste. (Some reviewers did not like the humorous tone when dealing with such serious matters, but I felt that was one of the strong points of the novel).

Her wit was as lethal as a syringe of cyanide.”

Only a real political genius like him, with his communist sympathies despite everything we’d been through in Caracas, would name his kid after Fidel Castro.”

Our immigrant story is as classic and unchanging as any Hans Christian Andersen fairytale —the tale of the illegal refugees who risked it all to live like cockroaches, hiding in the dank cracks of an unknown society where they hope no one will find them, antennae forever twitching, listening for the heavy boot of National Security, only to discover that the strange new place they call home has all the ugliness of the world they left behind, except worse, because here you’re stripped of rights, dignity, personhood.”

’Life is a big piece of sugarcane’. ‘Sugarcane?’ ‘Yes, a maldito sugarcane! You have to bite down hard and suck as much sweetness out of it as you can.’”

The ending is open to interpretation and to what we have learned and think about Yola. I liked it, as I liked the whole book, and whichever choice readers think she goes for, it is certain to be hopeful and positive (although this being Yola, not without a touch of irony and ambivalence). Considering what happens during the book, the ending is perhaps too neat, but this is a comedy so it goes with the territory, and I think most readers will enjoy it.

This is a great debut novel, which deals in serious topics using a comedic register that in my opinion works very well but might not suit everybody. The characters are wonderful, if somewhat cartoonish at times, and the family Palacios is likely to stay with readers for a long time. I recommend this novel to people interest in finding new authors, and who don’t mind the use of dark comedy to discuss important issues. I highly recommend this book and I am looking forward to the next novel by the author.

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review 2019-11-27 17:13
A debut novel for readers that like to be challenged.

 

 

 

The Reluctant Healer

Andrew Himmel

Publisher: Greenleaf Book Group Press

 Release date: October 8, 2018

ISBN-10: 1626345309

ISBN-13: 978-1626345300

 

https://www.amazon.com/Reluctant-Healer-Andrew-D-Himmel/dp/1626345309

 

Reviewed by Dr. Wesley Britton

 

Andrew Himmel's original debut novel is told with a fresh writing style,  an eccentric approach to his subjects and characters,  and a dry, wry wit, especially in the descriptions and observations expressed in the viewpoint of the novel's main character, New York attorney Will Alexander.

 

The main theme of The Reluctant Healer is the collision of Alexander's legalist, rationalist world view which is challenged when he meets the sexy New Ager Erica Wells. When they meet, Erica reveals she's an energy healer who can perceive Alexander has extraordinary abilities as a natural healer. Alexander doesn't accept that judgement but finds himself drawn to the beautiful woman who is an intellectual match for him even if her metaphysical beliefs are the polar opposite of his own.

 

Very reluctantly,  Alexander finds himself being put in situations where his natural energies seem to, in fact, cure all manner of diseases and afflictions. For Erica, natural healers like Alexander are badly needed in a new era where viruses are becoming immune to antibiotics and it's natural energy, energies found in everything, that can be cures when the afflicted are merely in Alexander's presence.

 

Alexander's journey takes him into all manner of circumstances including long motorcycle rides, theft of an opponent's cell phone, and situations that ultimately place him in legal jeopardy. To say more would be to swerve into the world of spoilers.

 

Himmel's style and tone are extremely cerebral and the book is not light reading.  It's a book with serious intent. In supplementary material at the end of the book, Himmel reveals much of the book's content was inspired by his own journey, very much like Alexander's, as the author' wife Michelle became interested in energy healing and pulled him into her realm of Universal Energy healing. Jumping off from his real-life experiences, Himmel claims his novel was ignited when he mused, "What if the conventional individual, rigid in his beliefs, developed the capability of healing others, even as he distrusted much of the alternative world? His struggle would become poignant and pronounced, because he would be grappling not just with tension in his relationship but also with internal conflict with phenomena that challenged both his sense of self and his worldview."

 

In a quiz prepared for readers with an academic bent, Himmel says, "The author believes that The Reluctant Healer is a bigger story about how we as human beings get along with and coexist with people who are different from—and  sometimes the complete opposite of— us."

 

It seems to me larger themes also include a modern twist on the conflicts between the rational and the mystical. In other words, The Reluctant Healer is a brain tickler designed to stimulate thought an reflection in Himmel's readers. He offers no answers, no final conclusions, advocates no point-of-view, and leaves the story open for a sequel already in progress.

 

Not a book for all readers, but certainly one for readers who like to digest what they read and be challenged by above average language choices, imaginative imagery,  and be willing to absorb the story slowly. I had to read it in chunks, always eagerly returning quickly to continue the flow.


This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on Nov. 27, 2019 at:

https://waa.ai/OQKw



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review 2019-09-15 21:21
The Woo-Woo: How I survived ice hockey, demons, drug raids, and my crazy Chinese family - Lindsay Wong
Woo-Woo, The - Lindsay Wong

First: not enough hockey. Or at least, hockey makes a brief and violent appearance (of course!) but then it disappears. I'd have liked to see it mentioned again, if only to update whether it had any appeal of any kind ever again.

 

Second: both weirder and not as weird as I anticipated. The demons turn out to be ghosts but not in the way I'm used to thinking of them. The drug raids are very strange, but serve well as humorous anecdotes: unexpected details really go against stereotypes. 

 

Third: see? my parenting isn't that bad. Actually, maybe it is that bad. Maybe there's a memoir coming about how weird it was to grow up with me.

 

Mostly I think my problem is I kind of expected it to be the stuff of sitcom, you know, zany. It's not zany. It's sad and distressing, which is really not how I had planned to focus my Halloween reading. Although to be fair, I suppose bad parenting really is horrific.   

 

I can't wait to see what the next book is about, though.              

 

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review 2019-07-13 15:47
Social Capital?
City Crime - new

“City Crime” is another debut novel and I bought a copy at a talk by the author, Ian Richardson, at our local library. The title might give the impression of misdeeds in the affluent financial sector, but while the action is perpetrated in the hallowed square mile, the real novelty factor is the involvement of detectives from the City of London police, which seems akin to the unusual challenge of policing Beverly Hills. Still, DCI Gould and newly promoted DS Phillipa Cotterell preside over an investigation that is more well-versed than its setting, driven by familiar human frailties of jealousy, greed and lust. Family in-fighting, organised criminals, drug-dealing, blackmail and tainted money, are deftly woven within a plot that belies the veneer of affluent success and culminates in brutal murders and the exposure of baser instincts.


In essence the reader can find little sympathy for any of the cast of victims or the numerous suspects, nor for that matter the police officers. Notwithstanding the rather naïve ideals of Ms Cotterell, one gets the feeling the more tempered cynicism of her superior also has its place, when unpicking layers of deceit. In what seems destined to be a short-lived partnership, the clandestine coupling of the police officers outside of the investigation also appeared likely to heap pressure on their relationship, rather than support it, but in or out of work, their collaboration seems to have a limited shelf life. This may be disappointing if the reader is looking for the next ‘crime-fighting duo’, but the chemistry, á la Morse and Lewis; Poirot and Hastings; Holmes and Watson, has to be right in order to evolve, though such novels also need to be able to stand alone and this it does.


In truth, I found the plot more convincing and developed than the characters, but the twists and turns of the story were absorbing and as the introduction of a new voice in criminal fiction, this book was an enjoyable and promising light read. I hope the author continues to write into a well-earned retirement.

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review 2019-02-22 08:20
A decade after a friend’s suicide, memories and the past are dissected to get to the truth behind ‘The Lost Night’
The Lost Night - Andrea Bartz

When Lindsay lost her best friend Edie to suicide in 2009, she was amidst a haze of partying, hanging out in a hipster community in Brooklyn, living it up with drugs, alcohol, and forgotten nights. A decade later brings a reunion with an old friend from that whiskey-and-Molly-soaked era, Sarah, and memories and questions about their friend’s death surface.

Lindsay begins a fully-fledged investigation into her own past as well as of many friends who shared those wild days and wilder nights. Delving into the past by muddling through barriers to obsolete technology, getting access to police case files, and often awkwardly questioning people she’d soon forget, Lindsay becomes completely obsessed with Edie’s death and the night she can’t remember. Her memories play tricks on her and some have vanished; a testament to how many years were wasted in what seemed like the ‘best of times’ when they were happening. Her research become all-absorbing, intense and obsessive.

 

This novel explores more than just a death that left countless questions behind and friends and family grieving. It explores the complexities of memory, the psyche, the fragile frivolous relationships that are borne out of a life fueled by chemicals. The excellent writing by Andrea Bartz pulls you along Lindsay’s painful trail through the past, unraveling a mystery that proves to be as compulsive and gripping as it is disturbing and twisted. Bartz writes every word with absolute intent, creating a different atmosphere and tonality with each situation that arises and with other key players’ perspectives.

 

It even brought up emotions in me that were often difficult to juggle while reading, as I recalled questions I still have surrounding a sudden death of someone close to me, as well as the discomfort of my own fair share of stupid drunken nights in my twenties.

It highlights the recklessness and stupidity of the kinds of choices made when you’re young and you feel like you have the whole world at your feet. And this blast from the past, the window into New York at that time, even though it’s just a microcosm, comes across as both vivid and surreal at the same time.

 

This is the perfect read for anyone who loves a good psychological thriller or mystery that pokes around in the recesses of the mind, while questioning the past. The past behaviors and self-absorbed nature of the characters may be jarring to some people, but I found it to be eye-opening and thus made for riveting reading. Getting to the truth and having Lindsay get some closure to her friend’s death had me hooked entirely.

One of my fastest reads in weeks, this was an all-absorbing and exciting read; thank you to Crown Publishing for sending me this advance reader’s copy.

Source: www.goodreads.com/book/show/35955191-the-lost-night
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