Review: “Lucky Us” by Amy Bloom

bloomLeft on her father’s porch at the age of twelve, Eva suddenly finds herself living in the shadow of her half-sister, Iris, though the two love each other dearly. Eva follows Iris to 1940s Hollywood as Iris pursues her dream of being a star. When things there go awry, the girls travel across the country to New York, to start new lives. Iris’ beauty and talent continues to overshadow Eva, who only wishes for the family she was never allowed. There is joy and success, but also loss and heartbreak for both girls.

I was really excited to read this book. It has already gotten a lot of praise, and  Amy Bloom has gotten a lot of recognition for her past books. Also, I’ll admit that I probably first judged it by its cover, which is pretty cool. But it turns out that this book was just bland. There were one or two interesting characters, but in general I found the cast difficult to like. The two main characters, in particular, were impossible to sympathize with. What’s more, the plot was uninspired.

TL;DR: I’m not sure what Bloom was going for in this book, but she didn’t achieve it. Unless you’re a die-hard Amy Bloom fan, I’d skip this one.

2 stars

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Review: “Paris Syndrome” by Tahir Shah

paris syndrome [From the publisher] On the morning of her fifth birthday, Miki Suzuki’s aged grandfather gave her an unusual gift – the fragment of a story. The tale told of a magical realm where all the women were beautiful, dressed in the finest gowns, and where the men had the looks of movie stars. The trees were covered in ivory-white blossom all year round, and everyone was joyful and proud. This place, young Miki learned, was a city in far off Europe – a city called Paris.

The story took seed in Miki’s mind and, over twenty years, she became quite obsessed with the French capital. Having studied its history, language, and traditions, she vowed that one day she would venture there.

Winning a competition at her work, where she sold low-grade beauty products door-to-door, Miki embarked on the journey of a lifetime to her dream destination.

Feverishly excited, and exhausted after a long flight, she hit the ground running, in her desperation to see every last tourist sight in town. But, as the others in the tour group looked on in horror, the telltale signs of a rare condition began to manifest themselves – a condition known as ‘Paris Syndrome’.

Made crazed by a stream of unfavourable events, Miki went on a riotous rampage, which ended in her mooning the sales clerk in Louis Vuitton – an assault that gripped the French nation. And so began the treatment in the most bizarre of clinics – a refuge for fellow sufferers of Paris Syndrome. All this set against a backdrop of vigilante groups, trade wars, bounty hunters, and true love.

Both hilarious and toe-cringing, Miki Suzuki’s psychological rollercoaster ride gets under the skin like nothing else, as the novel explores the real condition that afflicts dozens of Japanese tourists each year.O

I was lucky enough to be contacted by Mr. Shah’s agent about reviewing this book for him. I had previously read and reviewed his In Search of King Solomon’s Mines and loved it, so was happy to be able to read another of his books.

Before reading Paris Syndrome, I had never heard of the “condition.” However, a Parisian friend of mine was well-acquainted with it and told me all about it. Essentially it occurs when someone has idealized Paris in their minds, but when they finally visit the city, it is not what they imagined it to be. Because of this, the person may become temporarily mad and is only “cured” by leaving the city. It’s curious to me that the primary sufferers are Japanese people; I don’t know what in their culture would make this so, and would like to see a study sometime that looks into it.

The book was interesting in the way that it showed the progression of Miki’s Paris syndrome. She experiences one unfortunate after another and eventually becomes an international sensation for her crazy actions. Unfortunately, I think the book lacked the humor and voice of In Search of King Solomon’s Mines (and possibly other of Shah’s books). The book seemed a little disorganized, like maybe it was rushed and not as well thought-out as it might have been. An explanation could be that Shah is more accustomed to writing non-fiction than fiction. I’ll certainly be reading more of his non-fiction. Still, I enjoyed Paris Syndrome.

TL;DR: Enjoyable, though not as good as Shah’s In Search of King Solomon’s Mines.

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Review: “Drifting” by Katia D. Ulysse

driftingDrifting is a collection of interwoven stories surrounding the lives of several Haitian men, women, and children, hinging on the devastating earthquake of 2010.

From the publisher:

Ulysse’s characters are everyday people: a ruthless entrepreneur who ferries peasants out of the countryside, promising them a better life in Port-au-Prince; the office worker who learns that the amount of money and time off she receives depend on her boss’s definition of family; a mother of three who is desperate to leave Haiti to join the husband who left her behind; young girls who fall prey to a trusted schoolteacher who advises them to “work smart, not hard.” And readers meet the desperate elderly woman who seeks the help of a vodun priest to help “fix” her dying husband.

I read this one quickly, in about 2 days. The characters were well-developed, believable, and easy to sympathize with. The descriptions were vivid and well put together. Though not a feel-good book by any means, it’s very informative and important.

TL;DR: All-in-all a good, worthwhile read, especially for those interested in modern Haiti or American immigration.

3 stars

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Review: “I’ll Be Right There” by Kyung-Sook Shin

shinWhen Jung Yoon suddenly receives a phone call from her ex-boyfriend after eight years, she finds herself thrust back into her college years filled with conflict and loss. She recounts her mother’s long illness, and the anger she felt when her mother pushed her out of the house to live with her cousin, claiming it was better for the young girl. This is the story of Yoon’s childhood and how it connects with who she became in college, where she met two fascinating people who became her close friends, despite the darkness of their past. The entire story is set during South Korea’s contentious student protests and government suppression of the 1980s. I’ll Be Right There is a beautiful book, even if it’s heavy. There is a lot of heartbreak and loss, but there are lessons to be learned here. The book is inspiring and heartfelt, and I wish it had lasted longer than it did. Shin is a wonderful writer, with a style similar to Haruki Murakami in the sense that they both have great insight into human nature and are wonderful at describing the complex relationships between people. As far as I can tell, this is only the second book of hers to be translated into English, which is a shame. But I’ll be sure to check out the other one, Please Look After Mom, which I hear is also heavy.

TL:DR: I’ll Be Right There crosses cultural borders to speak to anyone willing to listen. While heavy, it’s steeped in references to great literature and music, and overall is just very well put together. This is sure to be one of the best-known works of South Korean literature in translation. Available now from Other Press.

4 stars

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Review: “Chasing the Sun” by Natalia Sylvester

sunFrom New Harvest:

Andres suspects his wife has left him—again. Then he learns that the unthinkable has happened: she’s been kidnapped. Too much time and too many secrets have come between Andres and Marabela, but now that she’s gone, he’ll do anything to get her back. Or will he?

Set in Lima, Peru, in a time of civil and political unrest, this evocative page-turner is a perfect marriage of domestic drama and suspense.

I took interest in this book because I have a certain affinity for all things Peru. It’s my favorite country and it has a fascinating modern history, which this story is a snapshot of.

Sylvester has a talent for character development, giving the reader a sense of closeness to the protagonist as the story progresses. I felt Andres’ hope when he thinks his wife may soon be home, and his devastation when those hopes are dashed.

The one character I most disliked, ironically enough, is Andres’ wife, Marabela. She had little sympathy or understanding for how hard her husband worked to bring her home or the agony he endured while she was gone.

This could be a natural reaction on my part, though, since the majority of the book is told from Andres’ perspective. Also, I can’t pretend to know how it would feel to be kidnapped and held indefinitely, not knowing what’s going on at home. Sylvester’s bio suggests that someone in her family was kidnapped when she was young, and so she obviously has a better understanding of how someone may feel in that situation.

TL;DR: Overall, a well-developed and interesting read. Especially good for those with an interest in recent Peruvian history.

Chasing the Sun is available today from New Harvest.

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Review: “Running Through Beijing” by Xu Zechen

beijingJust released from prison for peddling fake IDs, 25-year-old Dunhuang finds himself having to start over from scratch in Beijing. His first night in the city he meets a woman who happens to sell pirated DVDs, giving him an “in” for a new way to earn a living. Now he needs to work to get back on his feet in order to save enough money to rescue his friend from prison. Throughout it all, Dunhuang must learn how to navigate through complex human relationships while still focusing on what’s most important.

I was very pleasantly surprised by how much I liked this book. I’ll admit that I didn’t expect much from a book by an author I had never heard of published by a relatively small publisher. Most of the Chinese books I’ve read were long and tedious – two things that this book is not. It’s fast-paced and enthralling, with well-developed, likeable characters and a solid plot.

A story about a pirated DVD peddler is just what I needed. Having spent 13 months living in Shanghai, I’ve seen plenty of these guys. I know how much the DVDs cost, what movies I’m likely to see, and what tricks they use to convince you to buy. And I was tickled to find all that in the book. I know these characters, but had never gotten a glimpse into their lives before. Besides that, the book captures the everyday petty corruption and tedious bureaucracy that is such a part of life in China. And it’s nice to hear a Chinese national also complain about landlords that demand three months rent at a time.

TL:DR: Running Through Beijing is definitely worth the short amount of time it will take to read it, and certainly worth the $12.95 list price. It’s a great insight into modern China for those who have never been there, and an amusing, familiar story for those who have.

It’s available today from Two Lines Press!

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Review: “The Paris Herald” by James Oliver Goldsborough

19486590An account of the people behind the most famous American newspaper in Europe (now the International New York Times). It follows the lives of various men and women as they maneuver Paris during the 1960s, an unstable period in America as well as in Europe. They fall in and out of love, move out of the country and back, and hurt each other and themselves in the process.

I’m a sucker for books about newspapers….but this one was really, really difficult to get through. There were just too many characters introduced, all poorly drawn. Goldsborough tried to take on too many people, which resulted in half-baked story lines.

Most of the book is about American men and women cheating on their spouses, a subject I find very distasteful. It would be one thing if that was the story line of one of the characters…but it dominated the entire book. The few characters I had empathy for in the beginning of the book I lost all feeling for by the end.

The most frustrating thing about this book, though, is how it builds and builds…to a climax that never happens. A wife is cheating on her husband and hears him coming up the stairs, about to open the door on her and her lover – and the next thing we hear about them, they’re divorced. A man is considering moving to Málaga, away from his wife and children – the next we know of him, he’s been living there for an indeterminate amount of time. Literary blue-balling…it’s something I’ve never experienced before, and I don’t like it.

On the back cover of the book the publisher writes that it’s “the best story of Americans in Paris since Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast.” Hardly. That’s not even a very big genre, and I still disagree. Even Sarah’s Key was much better.

If I were Goldsborough, I would have written a good non-fiction account of The Paris Herald during this time period, if he was so interested in it. I might have enjoyed reading that if it were done well. But this historical fiction piece just does not work.

TL;DR: Skip it. That’s all I have to say.

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