Review: “Gemini” by Carol Cassella

17742914[From the publisher] Dr. Charlotte Reese works in the intensive care unit of Seattle’s Beacon Hospital, tending to patients with the most life-threatening illnesses and injuries. Her job is to battle death — to monitor erratic heartbeats, worry over low oxygen levels, defend against infection and demise.

One night a Jane Doe is transferred to her care from a rural hospital on the Olympic Peninsula. This unidentified patient remains unconscious, the victim of a hit and run. As Charlotte and her team struggle to stabilize her, the police search for the driver who fled the scene.

Days pass, Jane’s condition worsens, and her identity remains a mystery. As Charlotte finds herself making increasingly complicated medical decisions that will tie her forever to Jane’s fate, her usual professional distance evaporates. She’s plagued by questions: Who is Jane Doe? Why will no one claim her? Who should decide her fate if she doesn’t regain consciousness — and when?

For such a long summary (I left out half of it), I found this book lacking. I enjoyed it, sure. But I didn’t enjoy it as much as wanted to. It was exciting, yet predictable. What I did enjoy was how Cassella developed the intertwine in relationships between characters, and she did a good job of alternating between past and present (something I usually hate in novels).

TL;DR: Fans of love stories and medicine might like this one. Otherwise I think it was over-hyped when it was released.

3 stars

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Review: “Nine Hills to Nabonkaha” by Sarah Erdman

8340728[From the publisher] The village of Nambonkaha in the Ivory Coast is a place where electricity hasn’t yet arrived, where sorcerers still conjure magic, where the tok-tok sound of women pounding corn fills the morning air like a drumbeat. As Sarah Erdman enters the social fold of the village as a Peace Corps volunteer, she finds that Nambonkaha is also a place where AIDS threatens and poverty is constant, where women suffer the indignities of patriarchal customs, and where children work like adults while still managing to dream. Lyrical and topical, Erdman’s beautiful debut captures the astonishing spirit of an unforgettable community. 

I picked this book up because I’m desperate to gather as much information as I can about what my experience with Peace Corps in Ethiopia may be like. And I’m really happy that I did. The book is full of beautiful details about the lives of the people living in a small village in the Ivory Coast. It brings to life a community that we in the West can’t possibly imagine.

TL;DR: A terrific read for anyone interested in Peace Corps or life in West Africa.

4 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: “Shanghai Baby” by Wei Hui

600526Set in the centuries-old port city of Shanghai, the novel follows the days, and nights, of the irrepressibly carnal Coco, who waits tables in a café when she meets her first lover, a sensitive Chinese artist. Defying her parents, Coco moves in with her boyfriend and enters a frenzied, orgasmic world of drugs and hedonism. But, helpless to stop her gentle lover’s descent into addiction, Coco becomes attracted to a boisterous Westerner, a rich German businessman with a penchant for S/M and seduction. Now, with an entourage of friends ranging from a streetwise madame to a rebellious filmmaker, Coco’s forays into in the territory of love and lust cross the borders between two cultures — awakening her guilt and fears of discovery, yet stimulating her emerging sexual self. Searing a blistering image into the reader’s imagination, Shanghai Baby provides an alternative travelogue into the back streets of a city and the hard-core escapades of today’s liberated youth. Wei Hui’s provocative portrayal of men, women, and cultural transition is an astonishing and brave exposure of the unacknowledged new China, breaking through official rhetoric to show the inroads of the West and a people determined to burst free. [From the publisher]

I fell in love with the city of Shanghai when I lived there for a year. In fact, I have a deep interest in most things Chinese. Unfortunately, a lot of traditional Chinese literature bores me to tears. Until recently the most common form of literature was family epics, which do little for me. I chose to read Shanghai Baby because it breaks that tradition, not to mention it caused a commotion in China because of its racy content.

Shanghai Baby has received a lot of pitiful reviews, and I can understand why. It really is scarcely-concealed erotica and laowei worship (the author really seems to love the Western world). The predominant message of the protagonist is, “It’s such a burden being beautiful and desired.” Despite that, there’s a complexity of emotion in the book that is absent in other Chinese literature. It could possibly be described as what the Japanese call an I novel; a novel that is essentially the story of the author’s life, yet remains fiction. I value the new breed of Chinese literature that is more than a family epic; it’s modern Chinese giving a portrait of modern China.

TL;DR: I’m conflicted about this book, but would recommend it to those interested in modern China.

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Review: “The Hired Man” by Aminatta Forna

17237713From the publisher:

“Gost is surrounded by mountains and fields of wild flowers. The summer sun burns. The winter brings freezing winds. Beyond the boundaries of the town an old house which has lain empty for years is showing signs of life. One of the windows, glass darkened with dirt, today stands open, and the lively chatter of English voices carries across the fallow fields. Laura and her teenage children have arrived. A short distance away lies the hut of Duro Kolak who lives alone with his two hunting dogs. As he helps Laura with repairs to the old house, they uncover a mosaic beneath the ruined plaster and, in the rising heat of summer, painstakingly restore it. But Gost is not all it seems; conflicts long past still suppurate beneath the scars.”

It’s been a long time since a book so engrossed me that I was kept up past my bedtime to read it. But with The Hired Man, it was effortless. What I liked was the small cast of characters, which allowed each to be richly developed and complicated.

The story alternates between the present and Duro’s past, telling the story of friendships gone wrong and illicit love that developed at precisely the wrong time.

TL;DR: It’s not an elaborate story, but it is beautiful and emotional (I almost cried, and I almost never cry during a book). It would be a great addition to a summer reading list for those who don’t want to read trash!

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Review: “Burmese Days” by George Orwell

1072932Burmese Days is the story of an average Englishman who has spent the past fifteen years living as a policeman in Burma. Contrary to his countrymen also living in Burma, Flory is mostly accepting of the native people, even interested in them. He is bored with the ceaseless, banal chatter that goes on in the Club (restricted to white men), and distressed at the rate in which his youth is fading. When a beautiful young English girl arrives in the village to stay with her aunt and uncle, Flory realizes that his days of loneliness and boredom may have come to an end.

This book is essentially about racism, and few authors can make blatant racism so humorous at times. Orwell writes about each side of the equation (Englishmen and natives) wanting to keep the other in their place – Flory’s servant is uncomfortable with his master acting differently from the other white men. One of the white men tells the Club butler not to speak such flawless English.

426px-OrwellBurmaPassport

Orwell during his time in Burma.

Though fiction, the book serves as a sort of autobiography chronicling Orwell’s own experience as part of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma during the 1920s.

One of my favorite scenes in the novel features the protagonist’s love interest, Elizabeth, speaking with her aunt. Elizabeth had only recently come to Burma after living in Paris for two years. Her aunt begins by asking how she could have left Paris unmarried, and Elizabeth replies:

‘I’m afraid I didn’t meet many men, Aunt. Only foreigners. We had to live so quietly. And I was working,’ she added, thinking this rather a disgraceful admission.

‘Of course, of course,’ sighed Mrs Lackersteen. ‘One hears the same thing on every side. Lovely girls having to work for their living. It is such a shame! I think it’s so terribly selfish, don’t you, the way these men remain unmarried while there are so many poor girls looking for husbands?’ Elizabeth not answering this, Mrs Lackersteen added with another sigh, ‘I’m sure if I were a young girl I’d marry anybody, literally anybody!’

These two paragraphs exemplify precisely what I loved about this novel. The characters are mostly awful, racist people, as well as being rather ignorant and simple. But Orwell so ingeniously mocks these characteristics that I can’t help but love the entire book.

As readers of Orwell staples Animal Farm and Nineteen-Eighty-Four will be familiar with, the ending is not at all a happy one, so that’s something to take into consideration when deciding whether to read it.

TL;DR: Burmese Days is forgotten these days in the overwhelming presence of Orwell’s classics. But I do recommend it for being funny, engaging, and all-too truthful.

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