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review 2018-11-26 02:00
Exit West - Mohsin Hamid

When Saeed and Nadia finally had coffee together in the cafeteria, which happened the following week, after the very next session of their class, Saaed asked her about her conservative and virtually all-concealing black rode.

"If you don't pray," he said, lowering his voice, "why do you wear it?"

They were sitting at a table for two by a window, overlooking snarled traffic on the street below. Their phones rested screen-down between them, like the weapons of desperados at parley.

She smiled. Took a sip. And spoke, the lower half of her face obscured by her cup.

"So men don't fuck with me," she said.

 

The quote above appears at the end of Chapter One, and sums up the essence of what I like about the novel. It does equally well as an example of what turns me off as well.

 

I love that the setting and characters give me a unique and interesting perspective on the world, one which I seldom have access to. They surprised me, and confronted me with assumptions and prejudices that I wasn't aware I harbored, even considering myself fairly open-minded and educated about the world. In this way, Exit West demonstrates to me that there simply aren't enough diverse voices from a Middle Eastern lens that are making it into the mainstream consciousness, leading to a limited set of narratives from which we draw our judgments and conclusions about its culture and diaspora. I appreciate that this novel expands that perspective. Further, the characters are likeable and I immediately sympathized with their position, foibles, and desires.

 

With such strengths, it might seem odd that I am giving a rating of 3/5 stars. The fatal flow in the novel is this: despite the unique perspective and sympathetic characters, it was hard for me to feel engaged with the story itself. The tone, while sometimes genuinely funny and surprising, often just comes off as smug and cheeky to me. The style is literary and detached; even violent deaths are described matter-of-factly, and it feels like it takes a very long time for things to happen. Given the violence and suffering of the backdrop of civil war, I found myself craving something more direct, clear, and raw to bring it home emotionally.

 

That, or perhaps I'm just not literary enough to appreciate the excellently crafted prose when the plot feels understated and beneath the surface... I'm no pulp reader -- lack of character depth and hacked-together stocked plots do really annoy me. I do want to think when I read, but in the sense that I want to learn something new, maybe have my mind blown, and perhaps be inspired. I don't want to be craving more connection while applauding politely, as artisan turns of phrase pirouette on by.

 

Overall, I'm glad this novel exists, and I don't think I wasted my time reading it... but you won't find me singing it's praises or strongly recommending it to friends.

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review 2018-10-30 18:28
The Gad Nail by Anthony Spaeth
The Gad Nail - Anthony Spaeth

I had the great pleasure to listen to Howl of the Lambergoon and was very happy to see a sequel to the series (Gad the Zig). While this is the second book, it stands on its own. As with Book 1, the story captures the fanciful and instantly pulled me in. I own both the audiobook and the paperbook, so this review is for both formats.

A potter lives a lonely life on the Hebrides so he uses a bit of magic to craft a kid (who gets a robin’s nest for a cap and an iron nail for a heart). Gad is then sent on his first quest – to find a meal. The potter warns him seriously to stay out the Fendrees woods.

And we can all see where Gad will have to venture for one reason or another. There’s a turtle involved and faeries! Gad wasn’t sure he would be able to make it out alive! Thankfully, more than one comes to his aid and the faerie queen of Fendrees woods takes their pleas into consideration.

While the plot is straight forward, it is eloquently told. The cadence and word choice are just as well used as the imagery. I would recommend this for adults and kids as there’s enough here to capture the heart of any age. 5/5 stars.

The illustrations are beautifully done, as with Book 1, even with the change in illustrators. The cover illustration didn’t pull me in as much as Book 1 simply because it has so much pink. I can clearly see the artistry in the cover despite the pink and I knew the story would be worthy. The interior illustrations use the full palette and don’t rely heavily on pink. Once again, I love that there’s a fanciful map at the beginning. The illustrations near the end of the tale, when kids are encouraged to hunt out their own magical woods, were my favorites. It’s great that kids of different walks of life are included, such as the kid in the wheelchair. 5/5 stars.

Narration: Derek Murray gives a superb performance. He nails the rhythm perfectly. He has distinct voices for all the characters and his faerie queen voice is feminine. Murray’s Scottish accent adds to the book since it’s set in the Hebrides. 5/5 stars.

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review 2018-10-30 18:11
Howl of the Lambergoon by Anthony Spaeth
Howl of the Lambergoon - Anthony Spaeth

I had the pleasure to review the audiobook for Audio Book Reviewer and you can catch my review over there. Derek Murray gives a marvelous performance for the narration of the audiobook. Here is an additional review of the paper version.

This story is just as enchanting the second time through and just a bit more engrossing with all of these luscious illustrations. The characters come to life so quickly and it was easy to put myself in their shoes. The tale holds adventure, mystery, and a quest of sorts. The physical book has a simple but well done map to go along with the story, which is set in the Hebrides. A touch of history and myth curl their way throughout this engaging story. I love Aud’s hairstyle in the illustrations and the lambergoon is a treat to behold!

Told in rhyme, it’s easy to fall into the near sing-song pacing. The charm continues to grow with each passing page. I can see how kids would be easily caught up in this story with all the fun, silly words (like lambergoon). In fact, I bought a copy for my niece. At this rate, she’ll be reading before she’s out of the womb!

This is easily one of my favorite tales of the year, despite most of my reading being dark fantasy, epic scifi, and murder mystery. 6/5 stars.

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review 2018-09-26 18:29
The Secret Chord by Kathryn Guare
The Secret Chord: The Virtuosic Spy - Book 2 - Kathryn Guare

I was really excited to dig into this book because Book 1 was so good. This story had it’s charms as well but I did enjoy the first book more. Our hero, Conor McBride, is in dire need of some serious rest and relaxation. He goes to great pains to walk away from the espionage business that entangled him and his brother in Book 1. A fancy but quiet Vermont Bed & Breakfast needs an experienced dairy farmer and that’s right up Conor’s alley.

At the B&B, he meets Kate (the owner) and Abigail (the motherly demanding chef). Kate is a painter who’s currently suffering from artist’s block. She sits in front of her canvas day in and day out not painting because she lacks that spark. She does have a good sense of humor and can be stubborn and decisive. Sometimes I liked her and sometimes I rolled my eyes at her. She’s initially a little prickly with Conor, assuming that Conor has assumed she’s incompetent at farm work. Kate says she’s good with the tractor but we never see her doing any farm work, so I have my doubts.

Kate is directly tied to my one complaint for this book. I don’t mind a little romance with my espionage thriller, but I do mind characters being idiots and Kate was often an idiot and it usually was because of the romance. She is idiotically jealous over something Conor mumbles in his sleep. In another incident, she feels that Conor needs to ask her forgiveness and I felt she was being high handed, needy, and immature. Finally, there’s this end stage of the spy operation and Kate insists on going along with no spy training. This was such a bad idea but she bullies her way into it, endangering everyone. I really dislike it when stories use this particular ploy to make room for drama later on. So, yeah, I wanted to like Kate but I felt that she was mostly useless and at times detrimental to the other characters.

I loved that Conor played his violin for Kate. They chat about art in general and her artist’s block. Conor makes a comment along the line that Kate is making it all about herself instead of the art – and that sums up Kate perfectly. She’s not a bad person but she is self-centered.

Along this same line, I have to say that the ladies in this book are all comforters or love interests. Kate and Abigail and Yvonne (I think I have her name right) are well written but I wanted more from the women in general. It’s the modern age and lady spies have been around for hundreds if not thousands of years. It would nice to see that reflected here.

Setting that aside, it was great to have Frank Murdoch and Sedgewick back in the game. Conor thought he had been clever, had left his old life behind, but he’s also new to all this spy business. So he’s not too surprised when Murdoch reaches out and has an assignment for him. There’s some unfinished business with Vasily Draganov, the big baddie from Book 1. Conor is still mourning his brother Thomas and his mother Brigid and the loss of the family farm. I could easily see how torn Conor was – go after this man or put it all behind him and try to heal.

At the end of Book 1, I wasn’t sure how much to trust Sedgewick and Murdoch but now there is a true bond among the three men. They each go through this new crisis and come out knowing each other better. Sedgewick is still a bit paranoid and rougher around the edges and Murdoch is still all proper English (doing his best to hide his heritage).

There’s plenty of double crossing and double agents stuff going on. It’s clear by the end of Book 1 that one of the good guys was feeding intel to one of the bad guys. Now in this book, that gets dealt with and wrapped up. Also, there’s a lingering string back to Thomas and to Conor’s farm caretaker (no longer employed since he sold the place) Phillip. I was delightfully surprised with the big reveal on that and also on how it got handled.

All told, 4/5 stars. If the next book comes to audiobook land, I will give it a listen because I think Kate can grow and become useful.

The Narration: Wayne Farrell was great! He has a light Irish accent for Conor that is just perfect. He also does a good job with the female voices. I loved his voice for Sedgewick, especially when Sedgewick was being rude or was in the grip of malaria or alcohol. He also had a good kid voice for the young lad. There were no technical issues with this recording. 5/5 stars.

I received this audiobook as part of my participation in a blog tour with Audiobookworm Promotions. The tour is being sponsored by Kathryn Guare. The gifting of this audiobook did not affect my opinion of it.

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review 2018-09-26 18:00
The Hidden Village by Imogen Matthews
The Hidden Village - Imogen Matthews

This was an educational and charming tale about Nazi occupied Holland during WWII. ‘Charming’ probably sounds a little odd for the subject but it was mostly a light-hearted tale about hiding in the woods and pulling the wool over the eyes of the Nazis. Jan, a lad of 11 years old, plays a major role in the story and for much of it, this was just one big adventure. It was exciting running messages and supplies to the Jews hiding in the woods (Berkenhout). He slips through Nazi hands again and again. Also, he’s found a few pilots that had to bail out. Sometimes his family helps out pilots or Jews by hiding them in their attic. So I can see how it’s all very exciting for the lad.

It took me a while to like Sofie. She is separated from her family and lives in Berkenhout on her own as a teenager. There, she eventually learns to help out. I’m not sure if she had a maid come in and clean once a week before the war, but now she learns to cook and clean and eventually enjoys all the tasks she takes on.

I’m going to show my ignorance here but this one little thing keeps niggling at me. The characters in this story (Jew or not Jew) all enjoy pork. Ham or bacon is nearly a daily ingredient in the cooking. There’s no discussion of ‘Oh, well, things are desperate and we really need the protein so we’ll eat pork even though it’s not kosher’. So was it common for 1940s Dutch Jews to eat pork? I don’t know and my few on-line searches haven’t answered the question. A few lines in the story would have educated me and cleared up that minor mystery.

The ladies in general were comforters and romantic interests. When two or more got together, they almost always talked about boys or men. I was a bit disappointed in this aspect of the story. We all know that the ladies did plenty in WWII besides the cooking, cleaning, reproducing, and flirting.

The last hour of the book gets very serious and it was a definite change of tone from the rest of the book. Unfortunately, several people die or are injured. There’s also the question of whether or not a certain side character betrayed the people of Berkenhout. Unfortunately, that mystery is never clearly answered.

I enjoyed the two pilots. One was a Brit, Nigel. Then later in the book there’s Donald, an American from Ohio. Both were welcomed into Jan’s house, partially because Jan and his mom (who is British) speak English. They both made a good counterpoint to Jan’s dad, who was always in a bad mood and rather gruff with Jan. After Jan’s older brother Oscar went off on a small mission for the local resistance, Jan didn’t have a steady male mentor. Both Nigel and Donald treated Jan well and appreciated his help.

Liesbeth, Sofie’s best friend from school, is a small comforting presence for much of the story. At the end she plays an important role and I liked her all the better for it. Though once again, I had some questions about how Liesbeth’s generosity changed her life and how she pulled it off.

So, as you can see, it was educational for me (who knew nothing about Nazi-occupied Holland before reading this story) yet it left me with several small questions. 4/5 stars.

The Narration:  Liam Gerrard was great for this story. He was the perfect, excitable Jan. He also had believable female voices. I know it would be a lot to ask for, but I would have enjoyed a Dutch accent for the Dutch characters… but that would have been the majority of the book so I understand why it wasn’t done. Gerrard used a light British voice for the majority of characters, which was perfect for the two British characters but it did make it feel like the story was set somewhere in the UK rather than in Holland. Gerrard had a good German accent for the Nazis and the one German defector. I also liked his American accent for Donald (who is from Ohio). His pacing was good too. There were no technical issues with the recording. 4.5/5 stars.

I received this audiobook as part of my participation in a blog tour with Audiobookworm Promotions. The tour is being sponsored by Essential Audiobooks. The gifting of this audiobook did not affect my opinion of it.

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