‘The Language of Trees’ by Steve Wiegenstein

the langauge of trees-wiegensteinIn the Ozarks of Missouri, a community of early 19th century settlers face the challenges of an ever-changing America in Steve Wiegenstein’s latest novel, The Language of Trees.

Daybreak is a utopian society that has thrived for 30 years until it is suddenly shaken by the outside world. Now, it’s up to the founders’ children to not only maintain their community, but to thrive within it when the world seems set against them. It is a post-Civil War America, and Daybreak has met with little trouble since the war until a group of loggers move in nearby and offer to buy a large chunk of the community’s land. With the loggers come love interests, the ideals of capitalism, and the threat of what selfishness can do to a community.

Each of the characters takes a turn to show the reader Daybreak from her eyes, even characters that at first seem to be villains. Wiegenstein, though, does a fantastic job of staying in a single character’s head at any one time. Through all of these different perspectives, Wiegenstein is able to truly build the idea of community within the reader’s mind.  The reader becomes acquainted with each character so fully that even those who are less honorable are still able to be sympathized with.

Melding history with fiction, allure, and mystery, Wiegenstein paints a beautiful and romantic picture of 19th century America: a world where even in hardship, a community can stick together.

The Language of Trees is the third in Wiegenstein’s Daybreak saga. With the next generation of characters leading the way, though, The Language of Trees is just as strong on its own is it is within the series.

Slated for release by Blank Slate Press on September 26, 2017, you can preorder a copy of The Language of Trees by Steve Wiegenstein at your local bookstore.

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

‘Girl in the Blue Coat’ by Monica Hesse

girl-in-the-blue-coat-hesse.jpgGirl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse is a novel steeped in history, passion, and emotion. A coming of age book that tells the story of the main character, seventeen-year-old Hanneke’s experiences in Amsterdam during World War II. Hanneke is an angry citizen of Amsterdam during the German occupation in 1943, angered not only by the Germans’ presence, but mostly because her boyfriend died during the war and she feels responsible. Now, Hanneke works in dealings on the black market, delivering goods like coffee, chocolate, and cigarettes to her fellow citizens.

At the beginning of the novel, Hanneke is completing a routine drop off at Mrs. Janssen’s house, a woman Hanneke knows well and whose son and husband have also died at the hands of the Germans. When Mrs. Janssen invites Hanneke to stay for real coffee and pastries though, Hanneke is suspicious of what more Mrs. Janssen might want from her. After reluctantly agreeing to join the old woman, Hanneke begins to relax and wonders if perhaps Mrs. Janssen is merely lonely. And she is, though not exactly for the reasons Hanneke was thinking.

Mrs. Janssen reveals to Hanneke that she was hiding a young Jewish girl in her house, a girl she not only feels responsible for because the girl’s whole family is dead, but a girl she has also come to love as a daughter. Though Hanneke has never worked in dealing with contraband people, she decides to help Mrs. Janssen almost as a way to please Bas, her dead boyfriend. She knows he would help Mrs. Janssen if he were alive, so in an attempt to regain the trust she thinks Bas has lost in her, she decides that hunting for this girl is the right choice.

Along the twisting roads of mystery leading up and down Girl in the Blue Coat, Hanneke finds much more than and not at all what she was ever looking for. She finds unsuspecting friendships, passion for a cause, and more than one reason to keep living her life.

Though marketed as a young adult novel, Girl in the Blue Coat is an exhilarating and powerful read for any aged booklover.

The paperback version of Girl in the Blue Coat by Monica Hesse was published by Little Brown and Company in April of 2017. You can purchase a copy of the novel at your local bookstore.

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

 

‘The Cauliflower’ by Nicola Barker

the-cauliflower-barkerThe Cauliflower by Nicola Barker is a semi-biographical, spiritually investigative, and entirely comedic novel about the Hindu Swami Sri Ramakrishna, about religion in general, and about perspective.

The Cauliflower is told from a variety of perspectives and from a multitude of vantage points. Spanning a wide cast of characters, all who have some form of contact with Sri Ramakrishna, the book does not follow a conventional biographical telling, instead, the various narrators skip through years out of sequential order but in an order that reveals more about the characters themselves.

While The Cauliflower is a biographically fictional story of Sri Ramakrishna and his rise to “fame,” Barker also investigates interlaying themes that extend beyond the simple telling of this one particular story. The nature of reality of the ability to clearly define anything is a theme that recurs throughout The Cauliflower in a variety of ways. In fact, the reader is made to question what exactly this book is: is it a book, a biography, a newspaper report. At one point, Barker raises the question herself, “Is this book a farce, a comedy, a tragedy, or a melodrama?” Though she does not answer her own question, it appears by the end, that The Cauliflower, and by extension life, must be all three.

Another related theme is the meaning of veracity and certainty, particularly as it relates to religion and perspective. As mentioned above, The Cauliflower is told from different perspectives, but the reader can’t be certain who is telling the truth or what “truth” even means in the novel. Many of the characters disagree on certain events or even on descriptions of other characters; but further, the characters also disagree with themselves. Barker seems to beg the question, what is truth when we all are standing in, and coming from, different places – even if we are all seeing the same thing? This metaphor is extended to religion, and not only the Hindu religion that Sri Ramakrishna inhabits, but all religions.

Though The Cauliflower is a bit slow in the beginning because the reader needs to meet and become accustomed to not only the numerous characters and perspectives, but also the general layout of the book as rather disoriented, once it does pick up speed, it is hard to put down. Overall, this journalistic, meta-reality novel is a beautiful and comedic look into the intricacies and complication involved in living life, following religion, and finding peace with perspective.

The Cauliflower by Nicola Barker was released in 2016 by Henry Holt & Company and 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 Orphan’s Tale’ by Pam Jenoff

the-orphans-tale-jenoffAn enthralling and entrancing read, Pam Jenoff’s The Orphan’s Tale is a beautiful and heart wrenching book. Told from the perspective of the book’s two main characters, The Orphan’s Tale is a story of interconnected love, heartbreak, and sacrifice.

Noa is an outcast who works in a railway station in Germany in the mid-1940s. She has been excommunicated by her parents for sleeping with a German soldier and becoming pregnant. After being forced to give up her child, Noa finds refuge working in the station until she comes across a train car headed east towards the notorious “camps.” She usually ignores the goings on in the station, but something draws her to the car. Inside she finds piles of living, dead, and near dead infants on their way to what end she can’t imagine. In a flurry of desperation, empathy and remorse for her own lost child, Noa takes a baby: a Jew. But now she must run.

Astrid is also an outcast. A Jew who had married an officer of the Reich but was kicked out of their home after he received an order to divorce Astrid. She is now back to the life she always knew: the life of the circus. Things are going as well as they can be going for a Jew hiding during World War Two, until Noa shows up at the circus.

Now the two women are both seeking refuge under the guise of the circus’ act. At first enemies, the two women learn to care for one another in the ways that no one else can. A story of love, betrayal, hope and loss, The Orphan’s Tale is nearly impossible to put down. Jenoff’s fast-paced narrative style propels the reader into the worlds of both Astrid and Noa with a verve and emotive quality that is all encompassing.

Based on historical research, The Orphan’s Tale is a book of fiction, but Jenoff considers the book a tribute to those whom she based the tale off of.

Slated for release by HarperCollins Publishers on February 21, 2017, The Orphan’s Tale is available for preorder at your local bookstore.

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

‘Human Acts’ by Han Kang

human-acts-kangHuman Acts by Han Kang is an eloquent and masterful investigation. It is an investigation into humanity, into the existence and nature of the soul, into the effects and implications of our memories. Originally written in Korean and published in 2014, translator Deborah Smith does a superb job of expressing these sentiments in her stunning yet detached translation of Human Acts.

The book is split into several narratives, each told by a different character, but all interrelated. Human Acts begins, though, with a student uprising in South Korea in the 1980’s. This is where the reader meets, or essentially is, Dong-ho, the character that stitches together all the rest of the stories. Told in second person perspective, Dong-ho’s narrative becomes the reader’s story: a story that then follows the reader through the rest of the book, a story told through a multitude of eyes, eyes that have seen Dong-ho, eyes that haven’t. Every perspective, every retelling, is an attempt to crack open the mystery of death, the mystery of evil.

Dong-ho haunts the characters of Human Acts through their memories or knowledge of him. The characters cannot escape the injustices that were done to Dong-ho nor the innocence he embodied. In fact, no character can turn away from the horror surrounding her despite any effort to do so. Even if given the chance to run from the pain or the terror, no one can. They need to absorb it, to be with the horror happening around them. Whether to justify the existence of those who perished or to stand staunchly against ignorance and in unison, Kang never fully reveals.

The desperate search for “why” pervades Human Acts in a way that makes the question also burn into the reader’s mind. Why such terror? Why such hatred? Why such pain?

Han Kang does a superb job of wrapping together her themes without providing an answer to any of the questions she raises. She seems to point to the fact that we are all human: these terrible acts have been committed by humans. Humans who have jobs. Humans who have families. Humans who feel. Humans who love. Humans who hate.

Beautiful, terrifying, and an absolute must read, Human Acts by Han Kang will be released in the United States on January 17, 2017. You can preorder a copy at your local bookstore today.

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 Book of Esther’ by Emily Barton

the-book-of-esther-bartonIn an alternate vein of reality, at the dawn of World War 2, lives Esther bat Josephus, the daughter of the Khazar kagnate’s kender (the leading policy advisor). Esther has seen firsthand, the terror that the Germanii enemy has the potential to rain to on her people, and while her father and country seem to sit idle, Esther feels that she alone must take action in Emily Barton’s latest novel The Book of Esther.

Esther, 16, borrows her father’s mechanical horse, Seleme, some money, some candle sticks for prayers on the road, and her adopted brother and father’s slave Itakh, 9. Esther and Itakh embark on a long and arduous journey to the mystic Kabbalists in the hopes that they can turn Esther into a boy. She knows that only as a man can she lead her people into warfare and save her country.

At the very outset, author Emily Barton sets the tone for a novel of not only magical capabilities, but also of deep introspection. Esther wants to be a boy only so that she can save her country, not because she dislikes being a girl. In fact, she is set to be married in a few months, and is begrudgingly excited about it. Esther is a conflicted woman and a conflicted Jew. There are certain elements of her sex and religion that she feels hold her back from doing her greater duty to her country, and so she seeks ways around those barriers. Esther finds that though these obstructions may exist in her mind and those of her people, perhaps they are not wholly true. Perhaps Esther does not need to be a man to lead an army. Perhaps a Torah Jew need not dismiss another for not being Jewish in the same way.

Throughout the novel the theme of exclusion features prominently. Esther is excluded because she is a girl. The Khazar kagnate is being discriminated against and excluded because of the religion that they follow. Even the Khazar excludes others who are not Jewish. At first, Esther subscribes to some of these exclusionary notions to the extent that they are all she knows, but as The Book of Esther progresses, Barton probes deeper into the disadvantages of exclusion, and she fights to show that inclusion can lead to far greater success.

A book of faith, acceptance, and rebellion, Emily Barton does a superb job of blending history with fantasy and fiction in The Book of Esther. Creating a perfectly conflicted main character, Barton ensures that her readers will stand behind Esther from page one.

Released by Tim Duggan Books on June 14, 2016, you can purchase The Book of Esther 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 Bad Times’ by Christine Kinealy and John Walsh

the-bad-times-walsh-kinealyThe Bad Times by Christine Kinealy and John Walsh is a graphic novel that tells the story of how “music, poetry and dancing died,” during The Great Famine in Ireland. Despite this statement though, through its very existence, The Bad Times stands as a testament to the resilience and revival of Irish culture after such devastation.

The story takes place in Kilkee, County Clare between the years of 1846-1849. Kinealy and Walsh follow three young friends and a dog (Brigit, Dan, Liam and Cu) from the beginning of the famine until its devastating conclusion. Brigit and Dan come from lower class farming families, while Liam’s father owns a shop and ends up profiting from the famine. Yet, despite these differences, their friendship never wavers. In fact, its very durability offers moments of clarity where the reader sees that despite starvation and death there is still a sense of humanity, of understanding and of love that supersedes greed and the need for survival.

Among other themes, Kinealy and Walsh also explore faith and the role of religion in a young person’s life when faced with adversity. The young trio is also confronted with loss, young love, the folly of pride and more throughout their three year journey together. Though the graphic novel doesn’t end quite happily, there is at the very end a grand gesture of generosity, a proclamation of love, and the hope for renewal.

When it comes to the art, Walsh does a fantastic job of fitting the style with the storyline and themes of The Bad Times. The colors are often dark and overcast, with pops of pigment that remind the reader of the possibility that lies beyond the obscurity and gloom. The stylistic choices for depicting the characters also scream “famine” with bagged eyes and a certain feeling of agedness that pervades the young characters.

As for the dialogue, Kinealy intersperses Gaelic phrases along with the colloquial Irish dialect. Though the authors never explain the exact meaning of the utterances woven in, the Gaelic doesn’t detract from the intelligibility of the piece and instead imbues it with a certain resonance, a reminder of what was lost with the death of so many.

The Bad Times is a riveting and momentous graphic novel that teaches readers about the actual historical event of The Great Famine, while also weaving in important elements pertinent to adolescence and humanity at large.

Published by Quinnupiac University Press in 2015, The Bad Times is available for purchase here.

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.