Category Archives: book review

Review of Swamplandia!, by Karen Russell

I borrowed an audio-copy of Karen Russell’s Swamplandia from the local library.

Description from Goodreads:
The Bigtree alligator-wrestling dynasty is in decline, and Swamplandia!, their island home and gator-wrestling theme park, formerly #1 in the region, is swiftly being encroached upon by a fearsome and sophisticated competitor called the World of Darkness. Ava’s mother, the park’s indomitable headliner, has just died; her sister, Ossie, has fallen in love with a spooky character known as the Dredgeman, who may or may not be an actual ghost; and her brilliant big brother, Kiwi, who dreams of becoming a scholar, has just defected to the World of Darkness in a last-ditch effort to keep their family business from going under. Ava’s father, affectionately known as Chief Bigtree, is AWOL; and that leaves Ava, a resourceful but terrified thirteen, to manage ninety-eight gators and the vast, inscrutable landscape of her own grief.

Against a backdrop of hauntingly fecund plant life animated by ancient lizards and lawless hungers, Karen Russell has written an utterly singular novel about a family’s struggle to stay afloat in a world that is inexorably sinking. An arrestingly beautiful and inventive work from a vibrant new voice in fiction.

Oh, I am well and truly torn on how I feel about this book. For one, it took me over a year to listen to it all. I borrowed it from the library and didn’t finish it before it was due, even after renewing it. Returned it and just wasn’t in any hurry to check it out again. It was almost a year later before I did. On the positive side, I was able to pick right back up where I left off, with no confusion. So, the story is easy enough to follow. On the negative side, I wasn’t invested enough to care that I didn’t know the ending for almost a year and I spent a lot of that time cringing and dreading where Ava’s narrative was obviously going. I REALLY hoped I was going to be surprised on that plot point, but predictably I was not.

I thought the setting was vivid and interesting, but the plot was kind of lost in it and the ending was so loose and anticlimactic I felt a little let down. The writing is very pretty though. I adored Kiwi’s narrator, David Ackroyd, but honestly I didn’t much care for Ava’s, Arielle Sitrick. She felt a little too stiff to me. All in all, I’m glad to have finished it, but also very glad to actually be finished.

Review of Blood Stained Tea (The Yakuza Path #1), by Amy Tasukada

I was sent a copy of Amy Tasukada‘s Blood Stained Tea for review.

Description from Goodreads:
A bloody past haunts him. A devastating present calls him back…

Nao hides from his violent past in the Japanese mob by opening a teahouse in Japan’s cultural center, Kyoto. His past comes flooding back when he discovers a gravely injured man with a tattooed chest, a bloody knife, and a Korean business card.

Saehyun would’ve died if not for Nao’s help. He knows nothing of his savior’s connection with the local mafia, but Saehyun has his own secrets. He commands the Korean mafia, the mortal enemy of Nao’s former syndicate.

As Nao and Saehyun grow closer, so does the strength of the Korean mob. A shocking murder pulls Nao back into a past he’d all but abandoned. War is looming, and Nao must choose between protecting Saehyun or avenging the honor of his old mafia family.

Blood Stained Tea was a fun book to start the year with. I really appreciated that it contains a romance featuring a Japanese and Korean man, one of which is bi-sexual. Plus, being set in Kyoto, Japan is a nice change. Overall, I quite enjoyed it. I liked both the main characters, appreciated the difficult positions they found themselves in and was left wanting more when it ended.

However, Nao’s logic often made no sense to me, nor did his constant assumptions about Saehyun. In fact, they were made so frequently and asserted so firmly that I felt very much like the author was trying to convince me of something I should be able to sense without being told (repeatedly). It was like they were both keeping themselves willfully ignorant and I’m afraid that just wasn’t something I could buy into, considering how much both of them had at stake. Even when all but incontrovertible proof was presented, the two of them (Nao especially) somehow remained clueless. I just couldn’t believe it, which meant a lot of the plot felt contrived.

Similarly, the decision and twist at the end was utterly unbelievable for me.  When the book was presented to me for review it came with this note: “…this is a m/m thriller. Though there is a love story throughout the novel it’s NOT a romance, nor is it for the faint of heart. Lots of bloody violence and death.” So I get that this event at the end is what makes the book a thriller rather than a romance. But I think the story tried too hard to straddle the genres and compromised itself. It would have been stronger, in my opinion, to pick one or the other. Especially since so many readers will be disappointed. Romance lover will be let down by the ending and thriller fanatics will likely be put off by the romance.

Because for 99% of the book the romance is front and centre, even if is practically an insta-lust. Honestly, if not for the ending, I would call it an M/M romance using the Yakuza and Jo-pok for plot. Admittedly, a romance of the tragic, Shakespearian sort—very Romeo and Juliet—but a romance all the same. In fact, I’d call this a mix of Romeo and Juliet and The Godfather. Nao makes a very convincing Michael Corleone.

The writing is pretty good. The first chapter or so is a bit rough, but it smooths out fairly quickly. The editing also never grabbed my attention, which is what editing should do, and it was well-paced. All sex is off-page, so it’s not particularly steamy, and the book has an awesome cover. Lastly, I totally agree with Nao about Oolong tea. It’s my favorite too, especially the darker, heavily oxidized ones. Yum. I look forward to reading more of Tasukada’s work.

Review of The Mortifications, by Derek Palacio

I received a copy of The Mortifications, by Derek Palacio from Blogging for Books.

Description from Goodreads:
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.

This is what I would classify in my own taxonomy as a Book Club Book. It’s one of those books that takes itself very seriously, is beautifully written and every single person in it is miserable from start to finish. The specifics of their misery might change in the course of the book, counting as growth for a character, but everyone’s still miserable. That is The Mortifications  for you.

Despite how it might sound, I did like the book. More so now that I’ve finished than as I crawled through it. (It’s quite slow, inhabiting the characters mental space more than anything else.) But I can’t say reading it was as enjoyable for me as having digested the story as something to contemplate. I liked Ulises and Williams and I liked their relationship to the women in the novel. But the women are the objects of the book, while Ulises and, to a lesser extent Williams and Uxbal, are the subjects, in my opinion. And I could never quite wrap my head around the decisions and personalities of Soledad and Isabel.

The writing is beautiful, though entirely told, rather than shown—to such an extent that there are no quotation marks in the book. Nothing is said directly, the reader is just told that someone said something. It took a little while to get used to the style. But I did eventually and it was very cleverly done.

If you have a book club or happen to like book club books, this is worth picking up.