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NW

I opened NW on Friday night and immediately became submerged in this part of London that I’ve never been too.  I closed andIMG_1092 finished it late Sunday night.  My reading was supported by the excellent Penguin audiobook.  The two first-rate audiobook readers added to the tremendous life that Zadie Smith put into writing NW.  Each accent gave me that perspective I needed to relate to the characters but most of all to give me the right tone.  The tone that I imagine Zadie Smith was imaging when she wrote NW.  I found myself comfortably reading and merging into this complex story – “the story of guests and hosts and everybody in between” (back cover of NW, Penguin edition).  Uncomfortable. Challenging.  Shocking.  Colorful.  Sincere.  Brutal.  NW  packs the punch that maybe some aren’t ready to read.

NW is the story of two girls, Kesha and Leah, that have grown up together and been close friends for a long time. One is white and the other is black.  We follow them as young girls who become successful young women.  Their starting point is NW.  NW is their shame, their fond memories, their family, their friends,….  It isn’t far from shopping on the High Street, sightseeing on double-decker buses, and lounging in Hyde Park.  However, it seems to be a place that is important to both characters since it is the place they grew up, their focal point, and it is part of who they are, no matter how much they try to hide it.

The novel is split into 5 parts.  Each part tells the story of inhabitants of NW who may or may not be directly connected to the main characters.  The majority of the second half of the book is a series of short sections that are numbered from 1-185.  What is important is the feeling and ambiance that you’ll get as the story continues.  Contemporary in structure, this sort of stream-of-consciousness writing is captivating and spirited.  It will keep you hooked.  At times, it made me laugh aloud.  Nothing really happens in NW because it is a character driven novel.  Don’t go into reading this thinking it’s just a typical plot that moves from A to Z.  It’s more than that and you’re going to have to work to enjoy and to understand the importance of it.  Imagine trying to piece together a puzzle.  However, everything fits together in the end.  I highly recommend the audiobook, which is extremely helpful with the different accents.  Being American I would have had difficulty imaging them all in my head correctly.  Really, that audiobook made a significant difference.

The writing is continuous speaking, with scattered dialogue here and there.  It’s the first time I’ve enjoyed stream-of-consciousness writing.  I can’t explain it but for me it made sense.  The mosaic of characters, incidents, and life happenings made the story tangible, until I got to the end.  Sure life is abrupt, but the ending lacked a serious amount of reality.  That was the only thing that really bothered me.  I read somewhere that Smith was taking care of her young daughter when she was working on NW so wrote in chunks which is probably what gave birth to the numbered sections in the second half of NW.  All the same, I’m impressed with Smith’s capacity to capture the authenticity of each of her characters no matter how minor they are in dialogue.  It’s brilliant.  I could even imagine what each character might look like even though there weren’t necessarily descriptions.  Dialogue is so important and she is the “Queen of Dialogue”.

Having read White Teeth and The Embassy of Cambodia (loved them both), I read On Beauty and didn’t like it very much.  I wasn’t really sure what to expect with NW.  Well it’s really good, however a challenging read it is well worth it.  I’m rating this one 4,5 stars.  I have to say I’ve fallen in love with Smith’s writing again. The next Zadie Smith’s I’d like to read is Changing My Mind: Occasional Essays and The Autograph Man (nobody ever mentions it).

 

 

 
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Posted by on November 3, 2014 in Book Reviews

 

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Another Country

It’s the late fifties in New York and Another Country begins following the ineffaceable Rufus Scott.  He’s a jazz musician whose luck seems to have run out.  From there the story of Another Country unfolds in three parts to uncover artists on their journey to survive life among racial unrest, misguided friendships, vacillating sexuality, societal pressures, and all while discovering a myriad of unlikable, flawed characters.

Another Country is a slow burn of a story that will suck you in and keep you hooked.  It’s not a story of plot. It is a novel which is purely character development.  Each character is introduced in juxtaposition with another character to stress their faults.  The IMG_0956characters are placed in a setting that can only make their development thought-provoking.  We as readers are like flies on the wall observing this unavoidable train wreck between “friends”.  The tension is continuous.  The language is clever, direct, and depicts a lot of the criticisms Baldwin had on race, sexuality, and life in the United States at that time.

Rufus’s sister Ida is Baldwin’s mouth piece.  Every phrase and critic she makes throughout the novel espouses Baldwin’s beliefs on race relations at that time in the United States.  “What you people don’t know ” she said, “is that life is a bitch, baby.  It’s the biggest hype going.  You don’t have any experience in paying  your dues and it’s going to be rough on you, baby, when the deal goes down.  They’re lots of back dues to be collected, and I know damn well you haven’t got a penny saved.” (Another Country, p. 343)  This is what Ida says to Cass towards the end of the novel in a taxi on their way to a club on Seventh Avenue, to see a lowdown man called Steve Ellis.  Steve Ellis looks down on blacks yet he’s quite happy to use black women to fulfil his desires.  Ida’s rage is spewed out on these few pages. She’s confronting Cass who is the antithesis of her.  Cass is white from a privileged family and tries to appear to be sympathetic to blacks when in fact she’s afraid of them.  She lives in the world and doesn’t see what surrounds her – racial injustice.  She is consumed in her own petty life.  Most of the characters in this group are the same way.  Eric is the only character that is honest, who sees the difficulties, and is honest about his role, even when he’s betraying a friend.

Richard, Cass’s husband, is a self absorbent racist, who believes he’s an intellectual and a good writer.  His character is cold, calculating, and unfeeling.  It’s impossible that he could ever really be a successful writer, and he refuses to admit it to himself.  Vivaldo is the character that I liked the most, in spite of his terrible faults.  He’s ambivalent at times about his sexuality, but his love for Ida seems to be real yet unattainable.  Unfortunately, they are on opposite sides.  Ida can never love a white man without taunting him and making him feel some sort of guilt that their relationship is wrong.  She shares a part of that guilt as well.  On the other hand, Vivaldo has a slight fetish for black women so when he says he loves Ida, his jealousy rages and he always seems to treat Ida as property or as if she’s a loose woman – very unsettling.  The thing is he doesn’t even realise it.  Moreover, that’s not all he doesn’t realise.  He seems to make light of the difficulties that blacks have in society and refuses to see the differences.

So as you can see the novel has so many layers with so many themes and the characters are flawed just enough to learn a lot about the time period, about life in New York for artists in the late fifties, and about different backgrounds.  I’d say this is by far my favorite Baldwin novel.  I’m sure to read this one again in a few years.  There are so many new things to discover that I’m sure I may have missed. So far, I’ve read If Beale Street Could Talk, Giovanni’s Room, Jimmy’s Blues and Other Poems, and finally Another Country.  I’m so happy to have had the pleasure to pick up his fantastic work and I urge you all to do so too.  Baldwin was one of the great American writers that isn’t spoken enough about in schools these days and we as readers can learn so much from reading his work.  As my reading continues on the road to discover more of Baldwin’s work, I’m hesitating between picking up Go Tell it on the Mountain or The Fire Next Time.  So have you read any Baldwin? If so what did you think?  What have you read?  What would you like to pick up next?  Which one should I pick up?  If you have read Another Country you can check out the video below where I discuss everything about it with one of my favorite Booktubers, Danielle from OneSmallPaw in a live show.  It’s not spoiler free so only watch if you’ve read the book.  I also recommend checking out Danielle’s James Baldwin series.

 

 

 
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Posted by on October 13, 2014 in Book Reviews

 

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We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves

IMG_0919This is the fist book I’ve picked up from the Man Booker longlist. Yes I had some trouble getting a few of them while I was in the States. In fact, I only managed to pick up two, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour.  Since then I’ve managed to pick up a few others either in e-book form or ordering physical copies online.  Happily the first two I picked up this summer have been put on the shortlist. Is that a sign that I can choose a good book by its cover? Hmmm! Probably not. Trying to acquire a few of these longlisted intriguing novels, I decided to pick up We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves first.

After reading the description on the back cover I was worried that it would be contrived and gimmicky.  Some say the description is a big spoiler however I found the book was more than what was described on the back cover and anyway everybody has heard or knows the basic principle of the novel.  Fowler created a story full of anxiousness, mystery, and sensitivity.  We follow a dysfunctional family through the eyes of the main character, Rosemary Cooke.  Or is she the main character?  Rosemary is quirky,  slightly guarded, highly intelligent, and honest.  She is quite the reliable narrator, which we can see clearly when she second guesses some of her memories as she recounts the first few years of her life living with her “sister” Fern and brother Lowell.

The novel opens with the voice of a character who is hiding herself and her pain.  A pain that she has held within herself for many years.  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is Rosemary’s attempt to come to terms with all that is and has been wrong with her family since the addition of a baby chimpanzee to their family called Fern.  Who would have known the consequences of this addition to the family?

Rosemary’s parents are distant and acting as they see fit or as they would think is necessary.  Rosemary’s relationship with her father seems strained beyond repair.  As the story continues, it becomes clear where the problems lie.  The entire family has strained relationships with each other due to Fern’s appearance. It’s as if Fern became the focal point of the family and no other member of the family saw the other family members’ needs.

Fowler constructed the story in a way that you don’t get the full picture until the very last page.  Starting in the middle of the story, clues about the Cooke family are strewn through the pages almost as if it were a journal.  Rosemary is witty and at times brutally honest.  She gives us all the information we need to know, facts included.   The language Fowler uses and her writing style contribute to the novel’s emotional power.  I was marvelled at Fowler’s brilliance in choosing certain vocabulary and expression.  Communication and language were two of the primary themes in this novel and we as readers got to have a closer look at these themes from many angles.  Communication and language are what initially separates the Cooke’s, however it is what drew them closer to Fern.

I couldn’t help it but I found myself searching for information on chimpanzees that had been raised with humans and ran across a few You Tube videos.  There was something seriously unsettling, eery, and lugubrious about it all.  It just didn’t seem right from the child’s point of view and certainly not from the chimpanzees’.  I found this book incredibly  moving and informative.  I think it might have a good chance to win the Man Booker but who knows since I haven’t read any of the other shortlisted ones yet.  However, this one is a must read and is very difficult to put down.

Karen Joy Fowler is known for having written sixteen books in total including The Jane Austen Book Club, which was adapted to film in 2007.  Some of her other novels are Wit’s End, Sarah Canary, Sister Noon, Black Glass, The Sweetheart Season, What I Didn’t See: Stories, and many more.  She broke into writing with her well-known collection of science-fiction short stories called Artificial Things in 1986.  She also won the Pen/Faulkner Award 2014.  She’s been lucky to have been chosen for the Man Booker shortlist, for the first year that the competition was open to authors outside of the Commonwealth, as well as being nominated for a 2014 Nebula Award.  We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves is definitely a five-star book not to miss out on.

 
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Posted by on September 16, 2014 in Book Reviews

 

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May-June 2014 Reviews of Graphic Novels

Reading graphic novels is such a pleasurable experience and can be an excellent way to convey simple to complex ideas.  Many avid readers have a tendency to ignore graphic novels for they are perceived as maybe too simple and not profound enough.  Reading them is surely very different from reading books, but it’s all a welcome challenge and can even pull readers out of deep reading slumps.

In May and June I read quite a bit but only 3 graphic novels.  The first on the list was Storm.  You guys must know who Storm is. She the black superhero featured in the Marvel comics’ Ex-Men.  With her white long tresses and blue IMG_0373eyes, we find out the life of Storm as a young twelve-year-old trying to survive with a group of young people stealing in the streets, somewhere on the plains of Africa.  They are being led by an adult master thief, Storm calls Teacher.  Storm is already aware of some of her powers but not all of her capacity.  She is learning slowly but surely about who she really is and what she is capable of.

The story was written by bestselling author Eric Jerome Dickey.  He’s an African-American author who is known for having written contemporary fiction novels with relationship themes containing African-American characters.  Some of his popular novels are Milk in My Coffee, Sister, Sister, Between Lovers, and the four-part Gideon series(detective series).  I felt that Dickey was an interesting choice to breathe some life into this neglected superhero.

The comic was beautifully published and the story was interesting, however some explanations aren’t fully clarified.  Nevertheless, the comic did its duty which was to help me escape and provide me with a light read.  The artwork is detailed and colourful, while the artistic depiction of Storm as a twelve-year-old left me perplexed.  She looked to be 20+ years old.  I don’t know why, but comics are usually drawn by men who enjoy all their women in comics depicted with overtly shaped bodily features (even if they are supposed to only be 12).  Even though, check it out.  Storm is such a wonderful character that deserves to have her own X-Men film. Hint! Hint! For anyone out there that could actually make that happen.  Please do.

My next adventure read had me travelling through space to a futuristic world in the popular growing comic Saga vol. 3.  Hesitant to jump on IMG_0282this bandwagon at the beginning of this year, I decided to give it a try.  The first volume introduces the reader to Marko and Alana. These 2 fantastic characters are described as the Romeo and Juliette of space.  Although I feel that analogy is a simple version of a well put together graphic novel that combines societal commentary, science-fiction, creative uncanny characters, and high quality artwork.

The story is being recounted by Hazel the daughter of Alana and Marko.  So, we know that in the end she will survive all the trials and tribulations of her parents, who are having a relationship that is forbidden and trying to escape from all the people who want them dead.  Alana is from the Continent and Marko is from the Crown.  In this real futuristic world they aren’t meant to be together.  Hazel is a product of their love (a miracle she’s survived) and they spend each volume trying to protect her and to give her a good life.  On their journey they encounter many strangely unique looking characters that give the story sentience.  Through each episode we get closer to understanding the worlds of Marko and Alana and why their people are warring and have been for aeons.  We root for them to finally find peace and happiness in this tragically war ridden world.  Their adventures are what keeps the reader wanting more.

Volume three opened up so many new angles to the story that when it was over I would have liked volume 4 to already be by my side ready to devour.  The artwork is done by Fiona  Staples and the story is written by Brian K. Vaughan – the Dynamic Duo if you will!  Definitely a series to pick up if you’re not squeamish about sex in comics and stories that take place in far off futuristic worlds.

The last but absolutely not the least of the graphic novels/comics I read in May and June 2014, was Chroniques de Jérusalem (Chronicles of Jerusalem in English) by Guy Delisle.  This is a non-fiction graphic novel about Delisle’s stay in Jerusalem with his wife and children.  While his Médecins Sans Frontières= Doctors IMG_0156without Borders wife performs her medical duties in Gaza and other citiess in Israel, Delisle discovers the complexities and idiosyncrasies of this vibrant, in constant movement country Israel.  Delisle tries to record events and places through travel and meeting people, but soon realises that things are never as simple as they should be.  He conveys to the reader the good, the bad and the ugly of Israel and he does it with a certain sense of humour that keeps the reader wanting more.  I could have read this graphic novel in one day but it was so interesting and informative that I found myself reading slower to savour the moment.  I visited Israel for about a week 16 years ago and there were stories that brought back memories for me. I also learned a lot about the culture that I didn’t know and hadn’t heard of before.

Delisle’s black and white simple style of drawing puts the accent on what he’s trying to say, but is pleasing to the eye.  His artwork isn’t dark and gloomy like a lot of black and white comics.  He’s managed to capture the essentials of the story harmoniously in 333 pages.  This is a must read for everyone, especially those that don’t know much about the Middle East conflict.  Check out this five-star winner of the best graphic novel in the Angloulême, France competition in 2012.

So what about you? Are you lovers of graphic novels, comics, or manga? Let’s chat below on why you are or aren’t.  I definitely prefer graphic novels to comics, but hate manga. Shhh! Don’t let my daughters hear me saying that.

 
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Posted by on July 8, 2014 in Book Reviews

 

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Super Sad True Love Story

IMG_0284It’s the future and our world has turned into a giant social media mess.  From +800 statuses, to +1500 credit ratings, to communicating with äppäräts, teening, and staying young.  Gary Shteyngart creates an hysterically frightening in-your-face plastic world that is nothing more than society today exaggerated.  From the first pages of the novel we meet Lenny Abramov, a 39-year-old who works in the Post-Human Services Division of Staatling-Wapachung Corporation.  This corporation is trying to make it possible to live forever, young, and seemingly at all costs.  It’s through Lenny’s diary where we learn everything about him including what’s happening, who his friends are, what he’s feeling and doing.  Lenny is verging on “old”, suffering from male patterned baldness, has too much LDL cholesterol, and to top all of that off reads smelly books. We are introduced to his first thoughts and those are on a certain Eunice Park, who as he puts it “will sustain me through forever” (Super Sad True Love Story, p. 2)  Eunice is a 24-year “young”, sexy Korean girl who has no real prospects on life other than finding hot guys and spending her father’s money on online shopping.  She’s trying to pass the LSAT but really wants to work in retail. Super Sad True Love Story is told in a succession of diary entries, emails, text messages, and some face-to-face episodes. Henceforth, the reader is plunged into this futuristic world, do or die. The unsuspecting meeting of Lenny and Eunice is Shteyngart’s commencement to critiquing today’s society’s relationship with social media and our relentless obsessional, rapport with being young and never ageing.  Their love story is central to the novel but the real story is all that is surrounding them.  Shteyngart has developed a world in which he can critique, American society (immigrant and racial stereotypes), social media and its contagious world growth, however he puts so much into the world building that the characters of Lenny and Eunice appear flat and not defined enough.  By page 100 I didn’t care about either of them. Shteyngart’s writing style is very staccato.  Each page is filled with so much information that sometimes I had to reread some of the passages to make sure I understood everything.  There are myriads of eccentric characters and situations that happen that are crucial to understanding the plot of the book.  You will be surprised by Shteyngart’s creativity with words and sometimes you will smirk.  Knowing and understanding pop culture and intellectual culture will help in getting the jokes.  If you’re squeamish about sex, abstain.  The references could be considered very vulgar. I read the book in 3 days and at the end I was exhausted.  Super Sad True Love Story is 329 pages but by 200 you just want it togary shteyngart end, especially since the ending is predictable!  The overt use of racial stereotypes as a writing technique annoyed me enormously.  I feel using stereotypes just reinforces them and unreservedly does not make them go away.  On the whole, I would have liked this book a lot more if it would have been shorter.  In spite all the bad and exasperating, I’m glad I picked it up so that I could see what all the love for this book was about.   Not so sure I’ll pick up Shteyngart’s other novel, Absurdistan, because it sounds similar to this one humour wise,(gets old when 200+ pages) but I might pick up Little Failure so that I can see where he’s coming from with his writing.  I gave this 2 stars over on Goodreads, but that’s probably 2,5 stars to be exact.  If you read this one or any of Shteyngart’s other books, did you like it? Would you read any of his other books? If so, which ones?  Love hearing from you guys!

 
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Posted by on June 29, 2014 in Book Club, Book Reviews

 

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The Enchanted

IMG_0184I read The Enchanted the second week of last month (May).  It took me three days.  Once I got started I felt I needed to read it quickly or I’d stop reading it and never finish.  This is the story of prison, prisoners, the people who work there, and the system.  It starts with a beautiful passage introducing us to this enchanted place.  “This is an enchanted place.  Others don’t see it but I do.  I see every cinder block, every hallway and doorway.  I see the airways that lead to the secret stairs and the stairs that take you into stone towers and the towers that take you to windows and the windows that open to wide, clear air.” (The Enchanted p. 1)  From there this mysterious prisoner recounts the ins and outs of this “enchanted” place and the people in it.

The rest of the story is recounted in a third person that remains omniscient, even though we know this prisoner is real, even though we don’t his name (until the end).  He knows everything about the prisoners and the people who work there.  This is not really plausible but the reigning of magical realism scattered throughout the story allows for this.  By page 60 I was already a bit detached from the story because of this.  It didn’t help either that some of the main characters didn’t have names. They were referred to as the Lady, the Priest, and the Warden.  This made me detached from them.

I always seem to have a problem with magical realism in novels when its purpose is not defined correctly in the story.  The problem with the magical realism in this one is that it seems to be nothing more than a device to soften the horrors of the story.  Reading about violence and sexual abuse for 233 pages was difficult for me.  It didn’t get better as it went along.  It got worse.  The unfolding of the traumatic backgrounds of the different characters reinforced the points they have in common. There seemed to be no optimism or light at the end of the tunnel anywhere.   Denfeld obviously had an agenda when she wrote this novel and I felt slightly manipulated while reading it.  She used her personal experience to give realism to the story and that coupled with excellent prose adds a certain strength to the novel.  Unfortunately, I’m sure I wouldn’t have picked this book up if I would have known what it was really about.  It was very heavy and there were passages that were difficult for me to read.  The abuse and violence seemed to be unfaltering.  However the writing is very astute and to the point.  It is one of the strongest points about the book.

Rene Denfeld is a death penalty investigator, so she deals with death row clients as well as working with at-risk adolescents.  She has written a few other non-fiction books and articles in magazines.  She will most likely get much recognition for this novel because of the importance of the subject.  The Enchanted is fiction and deals with prison life differently than what is normally expected for this kind of work.  Her novel is already being hailed as possibly the best novel of 2014.  So, if you’ve read The Enchanted comment below and tell me what you thought about it?  Do you think it’s the best novel of 2014? Did you like the ending?

 
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Posted by on June 15, 2014 in Book Reviews

 

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In the Shadow of the Banyan

13057939I read In the Shadow of the Banyan at the beginning of the month.  It took me three and a half days to read but then plunged me into a week + worth of thought.  We’re nearing the close of the month of May and I still can’t get this book off my mind.  I figure my reading for the month of May was all worth it because I had the pleasure of experiencing my second 5 star book of the year 2014.  Now if you’ve been following me here or over at frenchiedee you know that I absolutely don’t have a habit of giving out 5 star ratings.

In the Shadow of the Banyan is the fictionalised story of Vaddey Ratner’s four-year ordeal living through the genocide that took place in Cambodia once the Khmer Rouge took over in 1975.  The main character is called Raami and she is seven years old when the story begins.  The first few chapters we are introduced to her family and their lifestyle.  They are a wealthy and privileged family.  They are a royal family in Cambodia and her father is a poet as well.  Soon there after we learn that the Khmer Rouge have taken over the country and are driving the population from the city to the countryside.  There they are made to work in the rice paddies, surviving on little food.  The Khmer Rouge are enforcing Marxist philosophy on the population and forcing them to forget life as it was before.  People of privilege, professors, scientists, teachers, artists, musicians, etc. are hunted down and killed.  They are perceived as enemies to the Organization.

This story is more than just a retelling of a historical event and of Ratner’s experience.  It is a story of human survival.  One wonders how they would behave if they had to go through such a situation.  I thought through it so much and feel as though I would have caved in and hoped for a swift death.  Ratner shows the limits of human beings and how survival is not necessarily dictated by what one may think.  Raami thinks a lot of her father, the things she remembers that he said to her, and of his poetry.  Sometimes it’s the simplest things that can help someone to survive.

The writing in In the Shadow of the Banyan is absolutely beautiful!  That Ratner could write such beautiful prose about such a blight on Cambodian history and on her family is remarkable.  Since we see this story through the eyes of a seven year old, things are recounted with much detail.  This detail may be perceived as wordy but I assure you that it is not the case.  The descriptions are there so that we as readers are literally transported to Cambodia.  We see, feel, and taste what Raami describes.  There were passages that were difficult to read, but Ratner’s writing becomes a metaphor for the insidious behaviour of the Khmer Rouge. In the beginning the people don’t understand what is happening to them but quickly things change and they realise they are trapped in horror.  Even Raami develops over the 410 pages tremendously.  In the beginning, she is naive young and joyful despite her handicap, but her character development is portrayed with the right flow of the story.

Another interesting aspect of this story is the relationship between mother and daughter in such a traumatic life/death event.  Their relationship at the beginning of the story seems fairly undefined but thrown into the uncertainty of this historical event, mother and daughter learn a lot about each other and marvel over each others’ strengths.  This is one of the most touching parts of the story.  I just can’t gush enough over this novel.  It’s a must read.  Pick this one up because you won’t regret it.  Check out Vaddey Ratner below talking about In the Shadow of the Banyan.

 

 
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Posted by on May 28, 2014 in Book Reviews

 

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