“Southernmost” by Silas House

I received a copy of Southernmost from NetGalley and Algonquin Books in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own.

I got a little nervous when the book began with a Pentecostal preacher and his uber-devout white suffering but surviving a massive flood just after gay marriage was legalized by the Supreme Court. My nerves were because I hadn’t realized the extent to which this book is based in evangelical religion. That fault is mine.

That being said, things took a turn I was not expecting when Asher, the Pentecostal preacher, stood up for something he wasn’t sure he even understood – same-sex love.

Things escalate very quickly for the first third of House’s novel. As Asher preached acceptance and tolerance but was rebuffed by his congregation, he quickly found himself on the road to divorce, tried to fight to keep his son, assaulted his mother-in-law, and kidnapped his son. I was left with the nagging question of how Asher could be a social media hero of inclusivity if he, you know, commits assault and kidnapping because someone, his wife, didn’t agree with his awakening. Hmm… I hadn’t realized the irony of that as I read the book, but I see it now as I write this review.

Things slow to a crawl in the second third of the novel. The up-side of the slow march was that it is impossible to know how the complicated tale of Asher Sharp’s voyage of self-discovery can possibly end. Whether it ends well or ends badly, there are scant few clues in the narrative. But this part of Asher’s journey takes place in Key West, a location chosen because he thinks his estranged brother might be there – it seems important to mention that he and Luke are estranged because Asher was wholly intolerant when Luke came out of the closet. With his evolving way of thinking, he wants to make amends. Things are tedious but there is the potential for a fantastic finish.

The final third of the novel begins with some promise when, for a variety of reasons, Asher opens up to Bell and Evona, the two Key West women who gave he and Justin a safe space. The promise fades a little when it’s made clear that they knew all along that he was not quite as unremarkable as he hoped to present himself. And he might not have opened up to them were it not for seeing himself and Justin on the Have You Seen Me? flyers at the post office.

It all ends a bit predictably, which is not to say badly. It ends as it should, with Asher following through on being an example of how life should be lived, and corrected.

The moral of House’s book is to not hate others because they are different than you. It is an important lesson, but it does get a little lost in frantic and then slow pacing of this book. The point is made at the expense of pacing and

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“Right Handed Lefty” by Ryan Coughlin

I read this book back in October. That’s when I gave it five stars. I stand by this five star rating six and a half months later because I still think about this book.

Ryan Coughlin tells the story of friendship in “Right Handed Lefty,” of Ellis, George, and Mason forming a trio of steadfast friends as the outsiders and loners in their tiny Wisconsin town. They are not alike, not outsiders because they share much beyond a sense of not belonging. They are alike because they are good kids. Another story of friendship within the book is that of Ellis Sayre and Boscobel – and that plotline pulled me in right away too. And a third friendship is that of Ellis Abbott and Hank the Chief, child Ellis’ biological grandfather and the heir of sorts to Boscobel. Early on it was clear that the grandfatherly sorts would have a moment to shine and they do.

Taken together, Ellis, George, and Mason form a band of misfits that rivals the boys in IT and in STRANGER THINGS. Only theirs is a crime drama instead of a supernatural one. This does mean that it veers a little toward the cliched side of things but it is infinitely readable and would be infinitely watchable.

There is a backstory of Two Left Feet, and Indian who used to live in the town, and that’s interesting enough that idea read a book about him too! Just saying, Ryan Coughlin, that you’ve got a reader in me!

One of the running themes that works so well is that Ellis, of the trio of buddies who go on the run after witnessing a murder, thinks no one will miss him because his adoptive parents are getting a divorce. But they do miss him. Marty fast becomes one of the best fathers I’ve read in this sort of novel in a very long time as he panics and turns over every proverbial stone in search of his son.

This was an unexpectedly good story. It’s not a genre I’d normally choose but I am very glad to have had the chance to read this book. The friendship between Chief Hank and Ellis Abbott is an excellent mirror image of sorts to the fine line Ellis Sayre has to walk as a child of two worlds, or more. Backstories and sidestories don’t always work as well as they do in this book. I loved it and I’m going to read it again soon!

<i>Thanks to NetGalley and CHBB Publishing for an advance copy of this book in exchange for an honest and original review. Apologies for the shamefully late and inexcusable review. All thoughts are my own.</i>

Choices: The True Story of One Family’s Daring Escape to Freedom – by J.E. Laufer

This very short book is the story of the author’s parents and their decision to flee Communist Hungary after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. It’s a part of history I’ve never read about and that alone made the book something I was eager to read.

The author’s parents, Kati and Adolf, survived the Holocaust – with Kati losing her parents and four siblings at Auschwitz while Adolf survived the camps. The fear that must have instilled in them, the fear of both going against the ruling government and the fear of not going against the ruling government, must have been almost paralyzing. But when their friends started to slip away from Hungary, they took courage from it and decided to go. But there was also fear there, in that the people left behind were always watched more closely by the government and police.

Fear is the driving factor of their decision to escape. Even in their first group to attempt an escape, someone asks whether the farmer letting them go through his land is sympathetic to their goals or just fond of money. It’s a stark reminder that, at times like this, there really is no in-between.

As a reader, as a viewer of this family’s story, you can’t help but question what you would do. Could you flee? Would you stay? Could you be like the guides and risk your life so that other’s can get away? What would make a guide do that? Could you give up your family and confront fears of the unknown? Would you be able to start life over with nothing? How did they do it?

This is a simple and powerful story of family fighting to make a better life for themselves, no matter the risk. I’ve never read a personal account of Communist Hungary and this was an excellent look at the basics of this part of world history and the people who endured and survived it.

(I received a copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.)

 

An immigrant story you need to read…

Everyone knows the rules. Never yield the right of way. Never stay in your own lane. Never slow down at a yellow light. If you missed your exit, simply put your car in reverse. You may change the direction of a one-way street. Blow your horn angrily and with abandon.

(a quote contained in an ARC that may not be in the finished book – though I hope it is)

Donia Bijan’s THE LAST DAYS OF CAFE LEILA is the immigrant novel you need to read.

A story of Family in it’s purest, most raw form, it is the story of the ‘American Dream’. It unwraps the almost mythological idea of the American Dream to compare what that means to the people who never come to America but know of it, the people who come to America and strive for it, and Americans who might take it for granted. That sounds like an awfully grand way to start a review but it is a fair way, as you’ll know when come to the end of the story.

One of the most compelling hooks to the story is that our main characters, Zod and his daughter Noor, are Iranian. Zod is the son of a Russian immigrant to Iran and Noor becomes an Iranian immigrant to America, and daughter, Lily, because a child of two incredibly different worlds. That, the immigrant’s story, is the basis for the story, for the characters and the choices they make throughout the novel.

Noor left Iran when she was eighteen, when Zod sent her and her older brother Mehrdad to America to go to school and make lives for themselves. Noor became a nurse, married a cardiac surgeon – an immigrant from Spain, and had her marriage fall part. When that happens, she goes home to Iran for the first time in eighteen years, taking her teenage daughter with her. The timing is painfully opportune because Zod is dying and needs to make peace with his life, just as much as Noor needs to be able to find herself in her roots.

Bijan tells the story of the family mostly with a present-day portrait of Zod, Noor, Lily, and the people surrounding them but there are flashes to the past, to when Noor and Mehrdad were children and Zod was in adoration of his wife, Pari, to when Noor was a young woman new to America, and even further back to when Zod was a student in Paris. The flashes to the past are important, because they tell the story of the Iranian Revolution, of how that shaped a family, and even of how the Russian Revolution shaped Zod and his descendants.

The action of the story, the height of intensity and character definition in it, is when Lily decides she’s been in Iran long enough and she wants to go home. But it is present-day Iran and it isn’t easy for anyone to move freely. Her plan, playing on the puppy love from a boy named Karim, comes off as almost contrived and cliched but, in the end, it shows just the right sense of teenager desperation to go home. And it serves a catalyst for Noor finally finding herself after a lifetime of defining herself by what she meant to someone else. Offered the chance to go home, to go back to being who Lily and Nelson defined her as, Noor stays in Iran to start being who she defines herself as, combining a world that will involve Lily, a badly injured Iranian girl called Ferry, and Cafe Leila – the place her grandparents began with recipes smuggled from Russia.

I am so honored to having been given an ARC of this book and I felt terrible that I hadn’t read and reviewed it soon, but it turns out the paperback goes on sale today (April 7, 2018) so it’s still timely. And it is a book I will buy a finished copy of, pester every reader I know to read, and read again. It is such a rich tale of immigrants, of East vs. West, of a woman’s fight to be her own person in worlds where women are supposedly equal and where they are definitely not, and of family. There is nothing I can critique about the story, and it made me want to learn everything about Iran. These are definite signs of a good book, one that anyone reading these needs to try as soon as possible!

Facts & Figures

  • publication date: April 18. 2017 (Algonquin Books)
  • buy ithere
  • 320 pages
  • genres/categories: fiction / Iran / immigrants / family / women / contemporary / history / San Francisco
  • my reading dates: March 12, 2018 – March 23, 2018
  • my rating: 5 stars
I received a copy of THE LAST DAYS OF CAFE LEILA through NetGalley, from Algonquin Books in exchange for an honest and original review. All thoughts are my own, and are cross-posted on Goodreads, NetGalley, and my blog.

a trite start turned tolerable

So… The Den of Iniquity… that’s what we’re here to talk about. It’s the first book in Annabelle Bryant’s Bastards of London series. Don’t ask me how many books there will be in the series because I don’t know and, to be honest, I’m not sure I ever will know. Because this book is… fine. Just… fine. Not anything earth-shattering and not anything window shattering, as in a reader might be inclined to throw it out a window in hatred.

It’s fine.

It starts of with the trite trope of an upper class woman, in Victorian England of course, setting out to ‘reform’ a man who has absolutely no desire to be reformed. Vivienne, said (unmarried) upper class woman, decides to do this in her mother’s memory. I read the book a couple months ago and can’t quite remember what charities her mother undertook, but I did get the sense that Vivienne was bored by simply teaching the poor street urchins and helping prostitutes get off the streets and things.

So she sets her sights on a man who chooses to go by Sin (because his name is Sinclair) who runs a gambling hell (I honestly thought it was a much repeated typo to say hell instead of hall… or meant to further the narrative of Sin needing saving, but apparently it’s actually hell… which is fine).

Anyway, things escalate very quickly to what I noted in my reading journal as “so much smut, glorious smut!”

Not really glorious, though, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute. Suffice it to say, the trope plunges along full-speed as the bastard (he has two partners, so possibly the series is a trilogy?) gambling hell owner falls for the proper, titled girl. She agrees to said smut with surprising quickness (I’m talking first meeting sex), apparently in part because of severe issues with her creepy stepfather/guardian.

Things are not smooth sailing for Vivienne, though, thanks to the creepy stepfather/guardian and the clingy, puppy dog love her best friend’s brother has for her. And she just wants Sin!

I mean Max. He wants people to call him Sin, to be known as that, but Vivi (as he calls her) refuses and calls him by his Christian name, I suppose you’d call it. All in the name of Bad Boy Reform, of course.

Back to the not so glorious smut. It’s fine. Very steamy and hot. I am not, however, the reader who likes my smut best if it seems like the author used a thesaurus to exhaust all the different words, scientific and slang, for human genitalia during a sex scene. I know what parts go where and why. And some words just make me cringe. And that takes something away from the story, in my humble opinion.

There is, however, a breathtaking line in the book that makes up for some of the folds and shafts and things.

…don’t ask me to share my soul when I’ve only just opened my heart…

The end of the story is good, if rushed and a little unbelievable race of fistfights, daring rescues, more sex, and wedding plans all in the space of a day or so.

Den of Iniquity was a fun book, more fun still I imagine if you don’t have my sex words hangups. I might read more of the series. I might not. Only time will tell.

(Thanks to NetGalley and HQ/HQ Digital for the chance to read this book in exchange for an honest and original review.)

I read (and liked!) the same book as Barack Obama!

And that book would be Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie. (At least, I assume he liked it. But he definitely bought it. See?)

Anyway, I liked it.

It’s been awhile since I read it (I am so behind on my reviews and my ARCs, humblest apologies to all authors and publishers and firmest promises to catch up… eventually.) but I did keep a log-journal type thing while I was reading it so this, belated, review won’t be totally worthless.

So this book, that I am super proud to have in common with Barack Obama, is my first Salman Rushdie book and I was very excited to get an early copy (through NetGalley and Random House in exchange for an honest and original review).

Having been lately fascinated with fairy tales, folklore, and all things supernatural, this was probably the very best book I could have started with. It begins with the story of Dunia the jinnia and the ‘love’ she shared with Ibn Rushd (who was a real philosopher in 12th century Morocco and Spain, and is more commonly known as Averroes). The story then switches to Mr. Geronimo in present day, post-apocalyptic New York City. Mr. Geronimo the gardener is a descendant of Dunia, though I can’t remember if it’s of her and Ibn Rushd, but I think so.

According to my notes, things got a little bit confusing then. Dunia is seen as the jinn/Mother, therefore the mother of all jinn? There seemed to be a war coming between the ever available adversaries of Good vs. Evil. Mr. Geronimo started to float. In a way, I had the sense that there was some prequel story that I should have known first, some research that I should have done to prepare myself for this book. Needless to say, in terms of jinn lore and Ibn Rushd versus Al-Ghazali in terms of philosophy sent me to Google many times.

And then things started to make sense, and I started to love the book. I’d just read American Gods by Neil Gaiman and I started to think of it as comparable to that. The battle of Good vs. Evil, Light vs. Dark is defined by humanity’s lore and history, and we are sometimes oblivious to the things that can change us. But those are lessons that we need to learn for ourselves, maybe without hiding in lore and stories and giving up control to things we can’t control, that might not exist. That seemed to be the message Dunia was trying to craft, though I could be very wrong about it.

The story faltered slightly when, nearly three-quarters of the way through, the two main antagonists were introduced. Zummurad and Zabardast are fine as adversaries, but they lost something in showing up so late. They ended up less three-dimensional, less motivated to fight so hard in the war against Dunia and her father. She and her father, with their kingdom at Qaf Mountain, also ended up seemingly a little abrupt because if how late in the story it became important.

The ending, my notes say, is something I found kind of anti-climactic. I didn’t see the point of it, exactly, and I wondered if I should have read One Thousand and One Nights before I read this. To it’s credit, I feel like I understand something of Arabian folklore now and I do want to learn more. I do want to re-read it, and since I had to rely so heavily on my notes and not my memories of the story, I think I might do it soon.

For the richness of the story, for what I learned from it, I do very much like this book.

Still not quite sure why the gods were sleeping…

As they say… third time’s a charm… and so it was for my third attempt to read Elizabeth Enslin’s While The Gods Were Sleeping. It didn’t work the first two times but this third time, embarrassingly long after the powers that be were kind enough to grant me an ARC, hit the mark and I fell deep into Enslin’s account of life in Nepal.

The first plus of the story is that I know very little of Nepal. I read about the massacre of King Birendra, Queen Aishwarya, and other members of their family at the height of my fascination with all things royal. And then I never knew much more, saving for passing news articles about Living Goddesses and social reforms.

The family that Enslin married into was part of the Brahman caste, and while one of the more well-known castes, I still learned a lot from almost living vicariously through them and their interactions with Enslin. The role of women in the family, how foreigners fit or don’t fit… it was enlightening.

Enslin is, was… I’m not sure what she does now… an anthropologist and she made a study of the women in Nepal. Their roles in the family, their fight for roles outside the family… seeing these things through their songs and poems and speeches was honestly inspiring.

One thing I wanted more of was Aama, Enslin’s mother-in-law. She was a strong, feisty woman who, at the end of the account, was working to set her life story down to be remembered. I would read that story in a heartbeat.

If you want to read a non-fiction book that focuses on the role and the strength of women in a Third World country, I cannot recommend this book enough.

(I received a copy of While The Gods Were Sleeping from NetGalley in exchange for an honest and original review. Apologies to the author and Seal Press for the very belated review.)