BOOK REVIEW: The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah Jefferies

BOOK REVIEW: The Tea Planter’s Wife, by Dinah JefferiesTitle: The Tea Planter's Wife by Dinah Jefferies
Published by Broadway Books
Published: June 20th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Historical
Pages: 448
Format: Trade Paper
Source: Blogging for Books

#1 International bestselling novel set in 1920s Ceylon, about a young Englishwoman who marries a charming tea plantation owner and widower, only to discover he's keeping terrible secrets about his past, including what happened to his first wife, that lead to devastating consequences

Dinah Jefferies’s The Tea Planter’s Wife begins with nineteen-year old Gwen arriving from London to join her new husband Laurence at his tea plantations in Ceylon. In her struggles to adjust to being a wife and to her new surroundings, Laurence begins behaving oddly toward Gwen and the two have a strained relationship throughout the book, both typical of the time period and for other reasons that I won’t spoil. After she becomes pregnant with twins and gives birth, Gwen harbors a weighty secret for years until she no longer can hide the truth.

Jefferies’s prose is vivid and descriptive, and she crafts an engaging cast of characters. We feel for Gwen’s struggle to adjust to her new life and role as mother and wife, we are charmed by Mr. Ravasinghe, and we are irritated by Laurence and his sister Verity, especially their attitudes and behavior toward Gwen throughout the novel. Each character seems well-developed and suited for the narrative, and I wanted to know more about Mr. Ravasinghe and Gwen’s friend, Fran, and their relationship, but alas. Perhaps in a future/companion novel?

The Tea Planter’s Wife highlights the racial divide, and the subject of race threads through each character’s story. It makes the reader consider the effects of prejudice and how often day-to-day struggles could be lessened if one let go of that prejudice. The book itself has those Gothic undertones that I enjoy, and while some of the events are predictable, I enjoyed the book from beginning to end. It’s the perfect book for those late summer rainy days when you can almost imagine being in one of those plantation houses in Ceylon listening to the rain.

A copy of this book was provided to me for review by Blogging for Books! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier

BOOK REVIEW: New Boy, by Tracy ChevalierTitle: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier
Series: Hogarth Shakespeare #5
Published by Hogarth
Published: May 11th 2017
Genres: Fiction, Retellings
Pages: 204
Format: Hardcover
Source: Blogging for Books

From the New York Times bestselling author of Girl with a Pearl Earring comes the fifth installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, a modern retelling of Othello set in a suburban schoolyard

Arriving at his fifth school in as many years, a diplomat's son, Osei Kokote, knows he needs an ally if he is to survive his first day so he's lucky to hit it off with Dee, the most popular girl in school. But one student can't stand to witness this budding relationship: Ian decides to destroy the friendship between the black boy and the golden girl. By the end of the day, the school and its key players - teachers and pupils alike - will never be the same again.

The tragedy of Othello is transposed to a 1970's suburban Washington schoolyard, where kids fall in and out of love with each other before lunchtime, and practice a casual racism picked up from their parents and teachers. Peeking over the shoulders of four 11 year olds Osei, Dee, Ian, and his reluctant girlfriend Mimi, Tracy Chevalier's powerful drama of friends torn apart by jealousy, bullying and betrayal will leave you reeling.

 You are not my brother, O thought. He hated it when white people used that word, trying to take on some of the coolness of black culture without wearing the skin and paying the dues.

Tracy Chevalier’s New Boy is the latest installment in the Hogarth Shakespeare series, and I think it’s one of my favorites of the series. Having studied and taught Othello, I felt as if I were able to deconstruct the novella as I was reading it and delight in the correlations of the novella to the play.

Osei, or O, is a Ghanian diplomat’s son, and he is attending a new school in the 1970s in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. when a series of dramatic events unfold on school grounds from first bell to the final bell. It’s evident from the beginning that O is one of the only black students to attend this school, and that sets him apart immediately. Racial tensions are high, and everyone from the students to the instructors harbors some kind of prejudice toward O either through their own ignorance or through something that happens during the span of the day.

I thought Chevalier’s transposition of the dramatics of Othello to a schoolyard playground with all of its hormone-fueled rage, jealousies, and love was spectacularly done. Somehow the age of the major characters seemed to elevate the drama to something at once so believable and frightening. The final scene in the novella is heart-stopping and ends abruptly. I only wish there was more, a few pages of the aftermath, but as in the play, the reader is left with a quick cut to a black screen without that neat resolution.

In such a small book, Chevalier weaves a depth in each of her major characters, and her talent really shines in her development of O’s struggles at home, with himself and his place in the world, and how those struggles clash with the reality he faces at his new school. You feel his awkwardness, his intelligence, his anger, his love, and his wrath in a mere two hundred pages, and you’re left wanting to know more about this young man by the time the book ends.

New Boy is a masterful retelling of one of Shakespeare’s most racially charged plays, and it had me hooked from page one.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review by Blogging for Books! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Human Acts, by Han Kang

BOOK REVIEW: Human Acts, by Han KangTitle: Human Acts by Han Kang, Deborah Smith
Published by Hogarth Press
Published: January 17th 2017
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 218
Format: Hardcover
Source: Blogging for Books

From the internationally bestselling author of The Vegetarian, a rare and astonishing (The Observer) portrait of political unrest and the universal struggle for justice.
In the midst of a violent student uprising in South Korea, a young boy named Dong-ho is shockingly killed.
The story of this tragic episode unfolds in a sequence of interconnected chapters as the victims and the bereaved encounter suppression, denial, and the echoing agony of the massacre. From Dong-ho's best friend who meets his own fateful end; to an editor struggling against censorship; to a prisoner and a factory worker, each suffering from traumatic memories; and to Dong-ho's own grief-stricken mother; and through their collective heartbreak and acts of hope is the tale of a brutalized people in search of a voice.
An award-winning, controversial bestseller, Human Acts is a timeless, pointillist portrait of an historic event with reverberations still being felt today, by turns tracing the harsh reality of oppression and the resounding, extraordinary poetry of humanity.

 How long do souls linger by the side of their bodies?
Do they really flutter away like some kind of bird? Is that what trembles the edges of the candle flame?

In such a small volume and through interconnected chapters, Human Acts recounts the violent Gwangju Uprising in South Korea in the 1980s. Each of the chapters has a different voice telling his or her version of the events, and the effect is haunting. Human Acts is just over 200 pages long, but it seemed so much more than that. I had to set it aside sometimes because the emotions and events told by the very human voices was too much to bear. I’m not usually emotionally overwhelmed by books, but Human Acts illustrates some of the very worst acts a human being could do to another being.

Each chapter follows the perspective of someone involved in the uprising from the time it happened in 1980 to the present time in 2013. I think what I liked most about it is Han Kang’s own perspective of the events in the epilogue. Compared to her previous novel, Han Kang’s Human Acts seems more real, visceral, and grounded, and somehow that made everything about the lengths humanity will go to prove their point that much more terrifying.

I don’t want to give too much away, but it’s a necessary read. Han Kang has a way with words that digs at your very core and I’ve not stopped thinking about this book since I’ve finished it. It’s a timely read, especially in today’s political climate.

Thanks to Crown Publishing/Blogging for Books for a review copy!

BOOK REVIEW: Spaceman, by Mike Massimino


BOOK REVIEW: Spaceman, by Mike MassiminoTitle: Spaceman: An Astronaut's Unlikely Journey to Unlock the Secrets of the Universe by Mike Massimino
Published by Crown Archetype
Published: October 4th 2016
Genres: Memoir
Pages: 320
Format: Hardcover
Source: Blogging for Books

Have you ever wondered what it would be like to find yourself strapped to a giant rocket that’s about to go from zero to 17,500 miles per hour? Or to look back on the earth from outer space and see the surprisingly precise line between day and night? Or to stand in front of the Hubble telescope, wondering if the emergency repair you’re about to make will inadvertently ruin humankind’s chance to unlock the universe’s secrets? Mike Massimino has been there, and in Spaceman he puts you inside the suit, with all the zip and buoyancy of life in microgravity.Massimino’s childhood space dreams were born the day Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon, but his journey to realizing those dreams was as unlikely as it is captivating. Growing up in a working-class Long Island family, Massimino catapulted himself to Columbia and then MIT, only to flunk his qualifying exams and be rejected twice by NASA before making it to the final round of astronaut selection—where he was told his poor eyesight meant he’d never make the cut. But even that couldn’t stop him from finally earning his wings, making the jump to training in T-38 Air Force jets and preparing his body—and soul—for the journey to the cosmos. Taking us through the surreal wonder and beauty of his first spacewalk, the tragedy of losing friends in the Columbia shuttle accident, and the development of his enduring love for the Hubble telescope—which he’d be tasked with saving on his final mission— Massimino has written an ode to never giving up and the power of teamwork to make anything possible. Spaceman invites us into a rare, wonderful world where the nerdiest science meets the most thrilling adventure, and pulls back a curtain on just what having “the right stuff” really means.

I have to admit, I’m totally out of the loop with the more recent NASA astronauts, and this memoir of Mike Massimino’s makes me want to read everything about the space program that’s happened since the beginning of the 2000s. Like Massimino, I was really interested in space and space travel as a kid, fascinated by Aldrin and Armstrong and engrossed with science fiction. Massimino recalls when he looks back on the earth from the Hubble Space Telescope, he says, “The Earth is a spaceship, and we’re all space travelers.” That little bit of wonder he showed then brought back the similar kind of wonder to me as I had when I was younger.

In Spaceman, Massimino really emphasizes the fact that he couldn’t have done anything he’s done without the help of his family, his friends, and his team. Anything great is accomplished with the help of others, and that’s something where I feel like a lot of us, including myself, tend to lose focus when we’re so concerned about getting to the destination that we tend to forget who is there with us along the way. It’s also another reminder that no matter how many times you get told no, get rejected, denied, anything, if it’s something you want to do, keep going for it. Find out what you need to do to succeed, get back up on your feet, and try again. Sometimes we’re told no because it’s not the right time, but that doesn’t always mean it will never be the right time.

Massimino’s writing is clear, engaging, and appeals to a wide range of audiences. Difficult subjects are presented clearly and thoroughly without the technical jargon often found in academic pieces. When he has to use technical jargon, Massimino makes an effort to explain what it means, which is helpful for someone like me who has no background in engineering. Spaceman‘s conversational tone felt like I just spent an afternoon or two getting to know Massimino one-on-one. He approaches the difficult task of describing the aftermath of the Space Shuttle Colombia with candor and respect, and I hadn’t known that Massimino’s and his crew’s launch was switched with that particular launch, and it made everything feel so much more real an close to the heart.

Massimino brings a lot of heart and humanity to the recollections of his journey to becoming and astronaut, being an astronaut, and discovering what it actually means to be an astronaut. Being a leader doesn’t always mean keeping everything in perfect order all the time. Sometimes it means trying your best to keep your team’s spirits up even in the most difficult times while performing the most herculean tasks.

Thank you to Blogging for Books and Crown Publishing for sending me a copy to read and review. All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: The Mortifications, by Derek Palacio


BOOK REVIEW: The Mortifications, by Derek PalacioTitle: The Mortifications by Derek Palacio
Published by Tim Duggan Books
Published: October 4th 2016
Genres: Fiction
Pages: 320
Format: Hardcover
Source: Blogging for Books

Derek Palacio’s stunning, mythic novel marks the arrival of a fresh voice and a new chapter in the history of 21st century Cuban-American literature.
In 1980, a rural Cuban family is torn apart during the Mariel Boatlift. Uxbal Encarnación—father, husband, political insurgent—refuses to leave behind the revolutionary ideals and lush tomato farms of his sun-soaked homeland. His wife Soledad takes young Isabel and Ulises hostage and flees with them to America, leaving behind Uxbal for the promise of a better life. But instead of settling with fellow Cuban immigrants in Miami’s familiar heat, Soledad pushes further north into the stark, wintry landscape of Hartford, Connecticut. There, in the long shadow of their estranged patriarch, now just a distant memory, the exiled mother and her children begin a process of growth and transformation.
Each struggles and flourishes in their own way: Isabel, spiritually hungry and desperate for higher purpose, finds herself tethered to death and the dying in uncanny ways. Ulises is bookish and awkwardly tall, like his father, whose memory haunts and shapes the boy's thoughts and desires. Presiding over them both is Soledad. Once consumed by her love for her husband, she begins a tempestuous new relationship with a Dutch tobacco farmer. But just as the Encarnacións begin to cultivate their strange new way of life, Cuba calls them back. Uxbal is alive, and waiting.
Breathtaking, soulful, and profound, The Mortifications is an intoxicating family saga and a timely, urgent expression of longing for one's true homeland.

 The sin is in the knowing. The sin Christ confronts in the desert is the knowledge that his body is useless and, dangerously, how easily he can dismiss it. He will see how tiny a thing he is doing. He will know how small he is as a human being, how little he can change the world as a lump of flesh. The moment he knows, he can and will and should let it all fall away. He will enact the right of a God on Earth; he will make food from stone. He will shake water from the clouds. He will walk into a city and take it.

Derek Palacio’s debut novel The Mortifications follows a Cuban family in the 1980s. Soledad Encarnación and her two children, twins Ulises and Isabel, leave behind a husband and father to escape the revolutions of Fidel Castro’s Cuba. Like many novels of families, this one has its share of interesting characters who all represent some aspect of humanity. Soledad is a mother trying to do the best thing for her children, Isabel finds solace and meaning in religion, Ulises finds himself through the classics and agriculture, and Henri becomes the stand-in father figure.

While I found the first half of the book incredibly engaging, I found the last half stretching for believability and substance. Palacio is a talented writer. However, I found some of the metaphors and similes and symbolism reaching a little too far at times. When I see a character named Ulises, I almost expect a Cuban expression of something resembling Homer’s The Odyssey. At first, the novel did feel like it would go in that direction, and it did, a little bit, with Ulises becoming fascinated by classics during a recovery period. I almost wonder, as I’ve seen similar things before in post-MBA debut novels, if this is a rite of passage, a stuffing of everything you’ve learned into one novel whether or not it actually works. I felt that there were also too many characters for how short this is. I think following one or two of the characters and their immigration experience (and even their return home) would have made for a richer novel.

However, I did enjoy reading this, and I will recommend it to people interested in immigrant experiences and Cuban-American experiences.

Thank you to Crown Publishing/Blogging for Books for providing me with a copy in exchange for a review. All opinions are my own.