‘The Night Tiger’ by Yangsze Choo

the-night-tiger-choo-picThe Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo captures mystery, magic, and mysticism in a literary litany to 1930s colonial Malaysia. Weretigers, mummified fingers, haunted dreams, and forbidden love are only a few of the elements that comprise Choo’s story.

Ji Lin is the first of Choo’s point of view characters that the reader meets. She is a young, spunky girl living in Malaysia at a time when women are meant to be men’s wives and nothing more. Unmarried and unwilling to relent to the patriarchal pressures to do so, Ji Lin finds herself living a double life as a seamstress’ apprentice and a dance hall girl. Life is far from thrilling for Ji Lin until she meets a man at the dance hall who drops a vial in which sits a blackened and decrepit finger. Suddenly, Ji Lin is propelled into a nightmarish adventure.

Next, we meet Ren. Ren is eleven years old, but he’s already experienced more of life and of death than most children his age. His twin brother died three years ago, leaving Ren to survive on his own, eventually becoming the house boy of a Western doctor. But now Ren’s master is dead, and his last order to Ren is to return the master’s missing finger. Ren must do so before the 29 days after his master’s death have expired. If he doesn’t fulfill this last duty, Ren is certain that his master will turn into a tiger and be cursed to walk the streets of Malaysia feeding on women and never being laid to rest.

Finally, we meet William. William is a doctor at the Batu Gaja hospital, a friend of Ren’s former master, and a rather unlucky man.

Choo weaves these three characters’ narratives together revealing the story in pieces to the reader as the characters grapple to figure out the mysteries surrounding them. Packed with murder, ghosts, and high stakes sexual tension, The Night Tiger takes on a lot in its 300-plus pages.

While The Night Tiger’s storyline is fascinating and consumes its reader even when its pages are closed, the telling of the story often becomes cliché and too told for lack of a better word. The characters, who in themselves are captivating and compelling, tend to have things happen to them without having much agency in the matter. Similarly, the events that happen to these characters often feel contrived or too easily given. A conversation is overheard just as one character bumps into another. People are connected in too obvious of ways. While this can become overbearing at times, Choo’s plot is powerful enough to carry the narrative to its end without losing the reader.

Slated for release by Flatiron Books in February of 2019, you can preorder a copy of The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo from your local bookstore.

Read more historical fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak

bridge-of-clay-zusakMarkus Zusak author of the acclaimed novel and now title movie, The Book Thief, is on the verge of his second release. Zusak’s latest work Bridge of Clay, is a multigenerational family portrait that deals with issues of loss, regret, creation, and the danger and joy of love. Told by Matthew Dunbar, the oldest of the Dunbar brothers, Bridge of Clay is less about its narrator and more about Clay: the brother who bridged a broken family, a broken past, and a broken peace.

Bridge of Clay reaches across and through time to tell the story of the five Dunbar boys. The story, though, starts before the brothers are born, with their mother Penelope and the struggles she overcame to become the person they came to know. There’s also the boys’ father, Michael, and the loss and pain he was swept up in before and after his sons were born. Then there’s the meeting of Penelope and Michael in the midst of a piano delivery gone wrong. There’s the Iliad and the Odyssey. There’s Carey, an almost-famous jockey and Clay’s best friend. Threads and threads woven together to tell Zusak’s saga.

Through all this mass of time, Matthew begins his story at one of many beginnings, which is also a middle and an end. Much of Zusak’s novel is told in this way: circling through distant past, near past, and present so that the reader at times can’t be sure which part of the circle she’s in or why it matters. Sometimes the reader reaches the curve of that story arc 100 or 500 pages later and suddenly something makes perfect sense. While this device can make aspects of the various storylines seem irrelevant, in the end  it makes the reader realize she’s read a masterpiece. That being said, she needs to make it to the end to have that realization.

Much of the novel is contemplative in nature and has a beautiful stillness that moves the reader into all different ranges of emotions: joy, sadness, pain. The effort it takes to maneuver through the tangles of time and truly get to know the characters is great; however, the end makes all the reader’s struggles well worth while and rewards those who have the stamina to make it.

Slated for release by Knopf publishing on October 9, 2018, you can order a copy of Bridge of Clay by Markus Zusak from your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘Mexico’ by Josh Barkan

mexico-barkanMexico by Josh Barkan is a series of epic, terrifying accounts of the lives of Mexico’s citizens. Told in a series of short stories, Mexico follows a host of different narrators, from gangsters to victims. The stories all revolve around crime, usually involving drugs, extortion, and often murder. What strangely ties all of the stories together though, beyond their setting, is their endings. Each narrative closes with a message of hope, or at least a glimmer of it, despite the tragedy that ensued for the pages of that story.

Some memorable characters include the drug lord’s abused wife who gives hope to a woman about to lose her breasts to a mastectomy, the famous, philandering painter who is turned honest by an encounter with a gangster who sells drugs to the painter’s daughter, and the young boy whose mother sacrifices her dignity to bring her son to America and out of the family’s gang-ridden neighborhood.

Each of these stories includes hardship and often a main character who is difficult to like at first. However, by the end of each story, the protagonist has learned something from the horror she’s experienced and claims that she will life a better life because of her experience. It is slightly suspicious that the reader never sees any of these characters actually enact these assertions; though, there is at least the idea of change planted at each stories end. Whether the characters follow through with the aspirations they’ve set for themselves is up to the reader to decide.

While Mexico is beautifully written and the characters utterly enthralling, where the novel falls short is in its untimely release. At a time of political turmoil, when those people who represent the United States are claiming that Mexico is nothing but a drug-ridden war zone, the last thing the public needs is a book that claims just that. I admit that there is an air of redemption for each character, but this does not go for the country as a whole. Rather, Barkan almost seems to suggest that the people of his narrative are redeemable, but the country is not.

Mexico is enthralling, captivating, and chilling, looking at a side of humanity that is often ignored.

Released by Crown Publishing January of 2017, Josh Barkan’s Mexico is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘The Wolf Road’ by Beth Lewis

the-wolf-raod-lewisTerrifying, gripping, and raggedly beautiful, The Wolf Road by Beth Lewis is this year’s most thrilling post-apocalyptic novel. With a heroine as gruff and chilling as the book’s villain and a plot twisted and muddled with murder, lies, and disparagement, Lewis draws you in from page one.

Elka has been raised by her pseudo father Trapper in a hut in the woods since she was seven years old. That’s when the Thunderhead took her away from her home and the only family she knew. The rules with Trapper are: don’t ask, don’t speak about Trapper to anyone, and survival is the most important thing. Learning to hunt and survive in the wild with Trapper’s help, Elka soon forgets her old life in the village with her Nana and her letters – she hated them both anyway. In the wild, she is more herself, more at home. And with the man she calls Daddy, she is safe.

That is, until ten years later when she goes into a nearby town one day and finds pictures of Trapper’s face plastered all over the walls of the town; pictures with a price on his head. What could he have done? The magistrate claims murder, but Elka can’t believe it. How could she not know that Trapper was a murderer? All those years – ten years with him – she’d have to know.

Suddenly, Elka is propelled into a world fiercer than the one she has known these past ten years. On a hunt to uncover the truth and bring justice and light to the lies hiding in her past, Elka embarks on journey riddled with trial after trial. Testing the limits of her strength, her humanity, and her individuality, Elka struggles against the powers of nature, the law, and herself.

Told in a wild and uniquely brusque voice, Lewis captures language in a post-apocalyptic world nearly perfectly. Lewis uses slang and names for things such “the Great Stupid” for war which give The Wolf Road an edge beyond the present. There are times though that Lewis slips in language that points to knowledge that Elka can’t seem to have based on her upbringing and isolation. Words like “Charger.” These moments are far and few between, and on the whole The Wolf Road is a beautiful and blunt novel.

Published by Crown Publishing and released in July of 2016, The Wolf Road is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang

the-vegetarian-han-kangWhat is the difference between living and enduring? What is life when it is controlled by someone external to yourself? What is reality and how do we know that the place our physical being resides in is it? Among many other esoteric questions, Han Kang tackles these in her novel The Vegetarian. Addressing issues of abuse and the effects of trauma on the human psyche, Kang provides a unique glimpse into the convergence between sanity and insanity.

At the beginning of the novel, Yeong-hye has just become a vegetarian. Living in a very patriarchal Korea, Yeong-hye is berated by her husband for not eating meat herself or cooking it for him. The most interesting aspect of the first section of Kang’s novel is the fact that it is not told from Yeong-hye’s perspective, but from her abusive and oblivious husband Cheong. The reader feels even more intensely for Yeong-hye’s plight in hearing the misogynistic remarks that come from Cheong’s mouth. The skewed lens through which he views his wife as an object only serves to fuel the rampant anger we build for Yeong-hye.

The next section is told from the perspective of Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law, a washed up artist who when we first meet him is imbued with the passion to pursue a new artistic project: that of painting his sister-in-law in flowers and filming erotic visions of her. The reader is once again privy to the working of the patriarchal mind. In viewing the objectification of both Yeong-hye and her sister In-hye, the horror only continues.

Throughout the course of the novel Yeong-hye struggles with anorexia and eventually appears to be losing her sanity. The men around her can’t fathom why she is going to such great lengths to reclaim her body and herself: it is only her sister who can relate in some distant sense to the horrors that Yeong-hye has experienced. The final portion of the novel is told from In-hye’s perspective, and in accessing the female mind, we are also granted better access to Yeong-hye herself. In seeing herself in Yeong-hye, In-hye begins to question the very fabric of reality and the lines between lucidity and insanity.

The Vegetarian is a tragic and beautiful tale of the terror that abuse brings, and the lengths to which the abused will go to assert their power

The Vegetarian was original published in 2007, but was recently translated to English and published by Hogarth Press in 2015. You can purchase a copy of The Vegetarian at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.

‘2 A.M. at the Cat’s Pajamas’ by Marie-Helene Bertino

2am-at-the-cats-pajamas-bertino2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino is the tragi-comedy of 2015. With pages full of characters that not only pull on the core of your heart, but annoy and baffle you to no end, Bertino does an excellent job of capturing what it is to be human: imperfect, beautiful, ugly and loved.

The cast of characters that make their appearance in 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas ranges from nine-year-old Madeline, a motherless vagabond with an abusive father, to her teacher the love-lust Sarina, to the gruff owner of the night club The Cat’s Pajamas, Lorca, who is about to lose his club because of violated city ordinances. These are only a few of the featured characters into whose heads we are allowed access, among others are Pedro the dog, Madeline’s father, Madeline’s pseudo caretaker, and Madeline’s principle.

At first, Bertino’s head hopping is a bit jarring, and makes 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas hard to fully delve into. It takes a bit of time to become acclimated to not only Bertino’s style of jumping from character to character, but also to the characters themselves; since, in all the jumping, readers aren’t able to get to know the characters as well so quickly. However, once you settle into Bertino’s style, the novel careens off at high-speed, and each section is a drum roll for a new character that you can’t wait to hear about. You begin to fall in love with Sarina and Madeline, with Lorca and his son, while chastising them for their impatience or ignorance or lack of action, while at the same time realizing these are many of the actions that we all tend toward for a majority of our lives, especially when it concerns anything important.

Bertino captures the human essence in this way. She shows it in the way that everyone is a little bit self-doubting no matter how talented or hard working they are, in the way that we can’t help but love the people we love even if they treat us poorly and especially if we are children, in the way that love is unexpected and shows up just when you need it most but when you are expecting it least, in the way that we often treat the ones we love with harshness out of love, out of protection. Bertino reminds us that no one is perfect but that we can all be loved and love ourselves if we just let go a little bit. Even the most terrible characters in the novel you can’t help but love by the end and find empathy for them in their plights.

A sort of backwards fairytale that doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, but ends more happily than it begins, 2 A.M. at The Cat’s Pajamas is beautiful and hilarious examination of the human condition placed in a ridiculously believable setting that makes it all the more real and magical at the same time.

Published by Broadway Books and released in 2015, 2 A.M. At the Cat’s Pajama’s is available for purchase at your local bookstore.

Read more fiction book reviews at Centered on Books.

FTC Disclaimer: This book was given to me in return for a fair and honest review of the text.