Thursday, February 27, 2014

Review Coincidence, J.W. Ironmonger

Coincidence by J.W. Ironmonger

Publisher: Harper Perennial
Published: 2014
ISBN:          978-0-062309891
Pages:        284
Rating:       4 out of 5 

Book Summary:   One seagull and four pieces of bread decide the course of one person's life. But is the rest just coincidence? THE COINCIDENCE AUTHORITY combines the ideas of David Mitchell or Hanif Kureishi with the warmth of David Nicholls or Marina Lewycka.

Thomas Post is an expert on coincidence. He's an authority. Every coincidence, he says, can be explained by the cold laws of chance. But why then do coincidences so afflict the life of Azalea Lewis? And why has Thomas Post's orderly life been thrown into such disarray by the coincidences of Azalea? 

This is the tale of two lost souls, each with a quest to understand the secret patterns hidden in a very random universe. It is the story of the short but eventful life of Azalea Lewis, a foundling child discovered at a travelling fair; and it is the unfolding story of Thomas Post who looks for patterns in a haphazard world, and who finds his belief in the fabric of life challenged by Azalea. From the windswept tranquility of a Manx village, to the commuter swarms of London, to the brutal abduction of child soldiers in Africa, this is a search for truth, a search for God, a search for love, and a search for a decent pizza in North London.

My Thoughts:   I thought this was a fantastic book.  On one level it’s a love story between Thomas Post and Azalea Lewis, but too complex to be simply be labeled as such.  Thomas Post is a Lecturer in Applied Philosophy at the Institute for Philosophy in London. He’s nicknamed ‘the Coincidence Man’ because he spends much of his time studying coincidences.  Azalea teaches English literature and poetry to adult learners at this same University.  She usually teaches at night and in a completely different area than Thomas. Their paths don’t cross for many years until one day when Azalea visits Thomas’ office to discuss the many events in her past and in her history that she believes to be coincidences.

Azalea is a likable character who it’s easy to sympathize with after hearing the story of the several tragedies of her childhood.   By the age of thirteen she’d been adopted twice.  She believed for many years her biological mother abandoned her.  She also doesn’t know the name of her biological father.  Azalea eventually learns what happened to her real mother and who might be her biological father.  The information she discovers and the events of her past are fascinating.  When she explains how and why she sees many of the events as coincidences it’s difficult to disagree with her.

Thomas, it seems, doesn’t really believe in coincidences and mostly argues against them.  Azalea, on the other hand, believes everything happens for a reason and places a lot of significance on the coincidences in her life.   When Azalea tells the story of her difficult, painful childhood to Thomas, and the coincidences she sees, he argues against the idea of coincidences.  There are several pages of interesting discussion involving philosophy, the Big Bang Theory, determinism and pre-determinism versus free will, and many different philosophers.  Thomas doesn’t change Azalea’s mind. She still believes things happen for a reason.

There’s a strong connection between Azalea and Thomas but, he more than she, allow their differences about the existence of coincidences to come between them.   He can be quite arrogant and condescending.  Even after everything Azalea tells him about her childhood, he doesn’t really understand why she shies away from relationships.  She takes her time deciding she wants to date Thomas and, even while dating she’s not sure she wants a relationship with him.  She feels he’ll never understand what Uganda and the mission where she spent most of her childhood with her adoptive parents means to her.  And she knows Thomas doesn’t understand why she believes events in her past are definitely coincidences and they are of great significance to her.  So, although she loves him she’s not sure she can spend her life with him.

This book is also compelling for its beautiful and descriptive writing.  The passages regarding Uganda and the mission where Azalea lived with her adoptive parents is vividly described as a lush, beautiful countryside teeming with happy people but a lot of poverty and violence.  Although much of the conversation throughout the book is serious there’s humor and lighter dialogue, especially between Thomas and Azalea.  This helps make the novel glimmer with realism and gets you invested in both main characters, though some of Thomas’ stubborn tendencies made me feel frustrated for Azalea.

Without giving anything away, the book is not a fairy tale and not for the intellectually faint of heart. It is heavy and layered in many ways: there’s philosophy, physics as well as romance.  So if you fancy yourself an intellectual romantic or a romantic with an intellectual bent, this book is calling for you to read it.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Review ~ ~ Bingo's Run by James A. Levine ~ ~

Bingo’s Run by James A. Levine 
Publisher:  Spiegel & Grau
Published:   January 7, 2014
ISBN:  978-1-4000-6883-8
Pages:  304 pages
Rating:   4.5 out of 5 
Book Summary:   Meet Bingo, the greatest drug runner in the slums of Kibera, Nairobi, and maybe the world.  A teenage grifter, often mistaken for a younger boy, he faithfully serves Wolf, the drug lord of Kibera. Bingo spends his days throwing rocks at Krazi Hari, the prophet of Kibera’s garbage mound, “lipping” safari tourists of their cash, and hanging out with his best friend, Slo-George, a taciturn fellow whose girth is a mystery to Bingo in a place where there is never enough food. Bingo earns his keep by running “white” to a host of clients, including Thomas Hunsa, a reclusive artist whose paintings, rooted in African tradition, move him. But when Bingo witnesses a drug-related murder and Wolf sends him to an orphanage for “protection,” Bingo’s life changes and he learns that life itself is the “run.” 
A modern trickster tale that draws on African folklore, Bingo’s Run is a wildly original, often very funny, and always moving story of a boy alone in a corrupt and dangerous world who must depend on his wits and inner resources to survive. 
My Thoughts:  Kibera, Nairobi is the setting for James Levine’s second novel, Bingo’s Run.  It’s a place very different from what many of us in “developed” countries know.  Levine paints a vivid picture of Kibera’s appearance: alleys and slums populated with scores of people with no shelter.  Those lucky enough to have shelter are living in squalor: dirt floors and houses with no roofs.  The even fewer lucky enough to have a roof have one made of board or corrugated tin.  Their walls are cardboard, cloth or wood.  Pathways have formed between the huts due to all of the foot traffic.   Many of these paths have become ditches carrying away the filth of humans and animals.  
This is where Bingo and his fellow countrymen live, where so many of the people have nothing.  Their time is spent picking through garbage mounds for scraps of food and anything else they may be able to use.  The mound “grows forever” and the smell permeates everything.  Atop a particularly large and ever-growing mound of garbage stands a man called Krazi Hari, a harmless maniac. Krazi Hari philosophizes and yells at all those who pass-by or stop to watch him or talk and yell back at him.  He screams at Bingo and his best friend and protector, Slo-George.  Bingo doesn’t mind, even enjoys his rants, as when Krazi Hari calls him ‘meejit’ as he often does, because Bingo knows Krazi Hari is crazy.  But Bingo feels offended and angry when other people call him “meejit’.  Bingo and Slo-George often begin their days throwing rocks at Krazi Hari. 
Bingo Mwolo is an undersized teenage boy. He is fifteen years old but looks as if he is ten.  Bingo tells us this is because he is a ‘growth retard’.   According to Bingo, he is also smarter than almost everyone else he knows.  He works for a local drug dealer, Wolf, as a runner delivering “white” to many customers throughout the day. Being a ‘growth retard’ (small for his age) is an advantage for Bingo as a runner.  Bingo has learned to work the “system”, combining his best attribute for what he does, speed, with a code he’s developed that ensures his success. He’s created a list of 13 commandments which he lives by.  Throughout the story, Bingo explains his commandments and how living according to these rules has saved his life more than once.   Bingo has also hidden away the money he’s made in his job in a variety of different locations.  This guarantees he’ll either have plenty of money or not lose too much at any one time should one of his stashes be discovered and pilfered.  He’s also learned the importance of paying respect to those who can kill him whenever they want to, for no reason, and get away with it, a common occurrence in his line of work. He knows many runners who’ve met such grizzly fates.  
There’s quite a bit of corruption and violence in Nairobi Bingo’s Kiberia.  Bingo offers an entertaining and eye-opening explanation of the people and their ‘jobs’.  The man at the top of the corrupt and sinister chain of men Bingo works for is named Gihilihili. In what would be ironic and criminal to westerners, in Kiberia it is as natural as air that Gihilihili is the head of police.  Gihilihili wears several other hats, too, because he does whatever he wants to do.  Under Gihilihili are Boss Jonni and then Wolf, extremely violent and corrupt men.  Wolf, Bingo’s immediate superior, loves violence for its own sake.  To navigate this maze of uncertainty, a life where Bingo lives under a Damocles’ sword in almost as literal a sense as possible, Bingo gets involved in the corruption, running drugs and stealing.   Levine allows the reader to feel for Bingo, if not outright root for him, despite the fact he steals from shop keepers and tourists alike.  To further the irony, Bingo steals not because he needs to, but either for sport or just to keep his “skills” in this area sharp.  He shares honestly with readers what he’s done when he talks with relish about “lipping” tourists’ wallets.  It’s not for gain, but for sport, because the idea is to lip the fattest wallet, the one with the most money.   
It’s difficult to find fault with Bingo when we know what his life has been like.   He was, for example, witness to his father’s, and later, his mother’s, murders.  It’s also tough for the reader to hold Bingo’s choices and actions against him when he tells us about some of the other people, such as Gihilihili and Wolf.  Comparing Bingo’s existence (and his countrymen) with the tourists, for example.  The tourists are pale, fat and gullible.  They are necessary to the economy of corruption in Nairobi.  But they can leave at any time while Bingo and his countrymen cannot.  We’re getting an opportunity to see what life is like here through the eyes of the natives. Levine, as a result, would like us to reassess how we view our way of life and feel about ourselves just because we give a few dollars to charity or spend money in Bingo’s country.   This money is NOT helping the locals or their economy because the corruption is prevalent, designed to benefit only a very few people at the top of the chain who don the appearance of respectability.  Orphans are housed by white priests who are also cogs in the corruption.  The police chief wears western suits and jewelry and pays extra attention to the tourists who can line his pockets:  a thousand dollars for a visa here, a few hundred dollars for a permit there.
Levine astutely reminds us, as smart and charming as Bingo is, he’s still only fifteen years old and virtually alone in this world.  We’re reminded of this when Bingo gets caught in the crossfire between the two drug lords, Boss Jonni and Wolf, as they vie for control of the drug trade.  After the frightening incident between Boss Jonni and Wolf, Bingo reminds us he trusts no one but himself. This turns out to be a good ‘rule’ to live by for Bingo because there’s a lot of deceit and subterfuge surrounding the Boss Jonni/Wolf incident and several people want Bingo’s trust.  In fact, Wolf, who prevailed against Boss Jonni, sends Bingo to St. Michael’s orphanage, ostensibly for Bingo’s safety. 

While at the orphanage Bingo meets Mrs. Steele, an American.  Her “real” purpose for being in Nairobi is somewhat mysterious. She says she wants to adopt Bingo and bring him to America.  Bingo is enamored of her and sees her as a mother figure.   Despite being alone for so long and trusting only himself, Bingo cannot help but be excited about the prospect of living in America. Bingo then discovers Mrs. Steele is an art dealer with an interest in the artist, Thomsa Hunsa.  She wants to secure a contract with him.  Bingo doesn’t like this idea.  He’s the only person Thomsa Hunsa trusts after some American art dealers burned him badly years ago.  Bingo thinks he should be Thomsa Hunsa’s dealer.  

Bingo is confused and unsure. Is Charity, the hotel maid where Bingo is staying with Mrs. Steele, telling him the truth about Mrs. Steele and her “selfish plans”?  What about the information the maid is relating to Mrs. Steele about Bingo?   Because there is so much corruption in Kiberia, Bingo cannot help but decide he won’t trust Mrs. Steele.  Rather, he wants to use Mrs. Steele and her greed (as he sees it) for Thomas Hunsa’s art to make his one big score that will free him from his life in Nairobi.  He plots and takes on the different roles he needs to, willing to use friends and other locals to advance his schemes.  He plays dumb. He plays obedient.  He lies. He steals.  He plans to cheat and hurt whoever he needs to in order to get what he wants.   However, it’s important to remember that Bingo is at heart still a boy, despite his  experiences that most people wouldn’t have over several lifetimes that have jaded him.  The reader hopes Bingo will come to realize what’s really important, and not go so far that he throws away his chance at happiness. 

We feel and root for Bingo because his life is shaped by such malevolent forces.  He is the “good guy” in a world where morals are non-existent and survival is all that matters.  Those lucky enough to have come to power have done so through terrorizing their compatriots. So if Bingo’s plans include taking them down, it gives us yet another reason to hope for his success.   The means may be immoral in and of themselves, but they are justified by the ends. But Bingo’s trust issues may stand in his way.   

Levine has created in Bingo a boy wise beyond his years, and interesting and human enough to give us no choice but to care about him. When we see him with Mrs. Steele, we see a boy who misses his mother and on a very basic level wants a mother’s love. Mrs. Steele (appears to be) offering this to him.     We don’t overlook the terrible things he does, even though he couches them within a set of self-styled commandments he always adheres to.   Whether forced or by choice, we are made to understand why he does these things.  It is because of where he lives and why he has come to be a drug runner.   Bingo was also left an orphan at a young age and did what he had to do and could do to ‘save’ himself. Though Bingo can’t do anything about being a native of Kiberia or being an orphan, he could opt not to be a drug runner. But if he did, he would be starving.  He would not have any clothes or a place to live. His life would have no purpose except to try and survive each day, one at a time.  He would not be able to help his friend Slo George.   As it is, because he is a runner, he has money and other substantial advantages so many of his other native countrymen do not.

It’s not possible to go into much more detail without giving away the book.  Suffice to say that it’s a good read with very interesting characters.  There are indeed many instances of clear-cut “bad guys” we want to see get it in the end, and if that comes via Bingo’s machinations, all the better.  I’ve never believed, except in extreme circumstances, that good and evil specifically are so clearly delineated.  I found it refreshing and realistic that the rest of the book follows along those lines.   Many of the ‘moral’ aspects of the book are muddled: the “good guys” aren’t riding in on white stallions with white hats, saving the day in the end.  Some of the “good guys” are seemingly plain nuts, railing from atop mounds of reeking garbage.  Some are drug addicts who create art while high as a kite.  Others see themselves as “growth retards” and allow themselves to see only the worst in people, almost to the point where it’s too late to make things right.   If you want to read a book that takes you places you never even knew were out there and ways of life that are fascinating because they are so desperate and different, you should read Bingo’s Run.

Thank you to Giselle-Marie Roig at Random House  for sending me a copy of Bingo’s Run to read and review.

Monday, February 17, 2014

This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash

This Dark Road to Mercy by Wiley Cash 

Publisher:  William Morrow
Published:  January 28, 2014
ISBN:  978-0062088253
Pages:  240
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Book Summary:  The critically-acclaimed author of the New York Times bestseller A Land More Kind Than Home returns with a resonant novel of love and atonement, blood and vengeance, involving two young sisters, a wayward father, and an enemy determined to see him pay for his sins. 

When their mother dies unexpectedly, twelve-year-old Easter and her six-year-old sister Ruby are shuffled into the foster care system in Gastonia, North Carolina, a town not far from the Appalachian mountains. But just as they settle into their new life, their errant father, Wade, an ex-minor league baseball player whom they haven't seen in years, suddenly appears and wants to spend more time with them. Unfortunately, Wade has signed away legal rights to his daughters, and the only way he can get Easter and Ruby back is to steal them away in the middle of the night. 

Brady Weller, the girls' court-appointed guardian, begins looking for Wade, and he quickly turns up unsettling information linking Wade to a recent armored car heist, one with a whopping $14.5 million missing. But Brady Weller isn't the only one hunting the desperate father. Robert Pruitt, a shady and mercurial man nursing a years-old vendetta, is also determined to find Wade and claim his due.

My Thoughts:  Wiley Cash’s debut, A Land More Kind than Home was an extraordinary book.  It was dark and violent but beautifully written, filled with mysterious, scintillating characters and, ultimately, it was uplifting.  It’s not uncommon for an author’s second book to pale, at least somewhat, in comparison with a phenomenal debut.  Wiley Cash is too gifted a writer for this to happen.  His second book is different from the first and not at all disappointing.   I thought This Dark Road to Mercy was a fantastic book.  

This Dark Road to Mercy  is dark but not as dark as A Land More Kind Than Home.  The two books share some similar themes and a few other common elements but they are two very different books. This book is set during the summer of 1998 when the baseball players, Sammy Sosa, from the Chicago Cubs, and Mark McGwire, from the St. Louis Cardinals, were competing to break New York Yankee, Roger Maris’, 1961 home-run record.  This setting added some fun to the book and lightened the story up in parts. It also added to the story-line's tension, helping to bring it all to a head towards the end of the book.   If you’re not a fan of baseball, don’t worry, the book isn’t baseball-intensive.  Cash connects the baseball theme through several characters, including 12-year old Easter Quilby, who is rooting for Sammy Sosa.  Easter is one of the main characters in this book.  She’s amazing and a major reason I recommended reading this book. Baseball and the home-run competition is one of the few things that excites and puts a smile on Easter’s face throughout much of the story.  Easter is one of three people who tell this story.  The others are Brady Weller, Easter and Ruby’s court-appointed guardian and Robert Pruitt, the bad guy.  Easter describes Robert Pruitt to her father, Wade.  It’s a child’s description but boy is it creepy-scary! 

Easter is more mature than most kids her age and very responsible.  She’s kept an eye on and cared for her younger sister, 7-year old Ruby, even before their mom died. When Easter and Ruby are put in foster care, Easter becomes especially watchful over Ruby.  Easter is also wise, funny, suspicious of others and cautious around people.  She’s observant and careful.  But she’s also a 12-year old girl who likes a boy in her school, Marcus, wishes she had dark brown hair and misses her mother.   When her long-estranged father, Wade, shows up at the foster home in North Carolina, Easter isn’t happy to see him.  She doesn’t trust him, with good reason, and part of her doesn’t want to see him.  She tries to push him away and get him to leave. But there’s a part of Easter that also wants a father and his love.   

Easter and Wade’s relationship changes and grows over the course of the story. Easter learns more about Wade when he takes Easter and Ruby out of the foster care home, possibly for good. As Easter begins to know Wade better and realizes he loves her and wants to be her father, Easter begins to warm up to him.  I really enjoyed ‘watching’ Easter’s relationship with Wade improve.  We get a couple of opportunities to see Easter as the 12-year old little girl she would be if she had a father around.  She smiles easier and faster, giggles and laughs.  She breathes easier because she doesn’t have to be mature and responsible all of the time. Easter also understands, better than many adults would understand this, that a relationship with Wade, even as her father, means accepting him as he is.  Easter knows Wade is her father whether she wants him to be or not. Now she knows, after a few days with him, that he wants to be her father.  Easter allows herself to begin feeling love for Wade.  She realizes that it’s best for Ruby if Easter gets along with Wade and treats him as her father.  Easter’s only twelve but she understands if her relationship with Wade is going to work, Easter’s going to have to help it work.  Easter’s not only smarter than her father, but more ‘worldly’ than Wade.  Towards the end of the novel, we learn from Easter’s behavior, she’s made a decision about Wade. 

Wade, for all his faults and flaws, and he has a lot of them, loves Easter and Ruby. He wants to be and behave as their father and he wants to treat them like his daughters.  The problem with Wade is he makes many bad decisions and has a lot of bad habits.  He is unable to see how his actions might have some troubling future consequences. He’s in no position, right now, for instance, to rent or buy a place to live with Easter and Ruby because of something stupid he’s done.
There’s a second plot-line in this book that I didn’t discuss.  It’s dark, ugly and violent. Easter, Ruby and Wade are all in danger and Easter and Wade have been threatened.  This is also due to a bad call on Wayne’s part.  Easter knows Wade’s in trouble.  But together, Easter and Wade have made sure Ruby has no idea anything’s amiss.  This other aspect of the story is fascinating and explains more about Wade. Cash does a remarkable job bringing the two parts of the story together close to the end of the book.  Tension has been growing and the atmosphere is ripe for an ‘explosion’.  You don’t want to miss it!  This book is short, just 240 pages.  And that’s my only complaint.  Still, I highly recommend, This Dark Road to Mercy. It’s worth reading.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

~ ~ First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros ~ ~

First Chapter First Paragraph Tuesday Intros is a weekly meme hosted by Diane at Bibliophile by the Sea every Tuesday.  Participants share the opening paragraph or two of a book they decided to read based on that paragraph. I’m participating in the reading dare ( it's not a reading challenge!) The TBR Triple Dog Dare at the blog, James Reads Books. The dare is the reason I am finally, finally reading this book. This is an author whose books I’ve wanted to, and meant to, read for a long time.  I have this book in audio and paperback so I’ll be “reading” both.  I’m really looking forward to this book and plan to read it at my leisure, probably on the annoying Access-a-Ride van for the disabled on the way to my Dr. appts., or while sitting in doctors waiting rooms, or at night before I fall asleep or when I can’t get to sleep. (You get the idea!) But I won’t be surprised if it turns out to be one of those books I cannot put down and I end up reading in a few days!  

Drop by Bibliophile By the Sea to read Diane's selection this week, it’s always a good one, and to see who else is participating. You'll probably get some good book titles, too! 
Case Histories
Kate Atkinson
Case History No. I 1970
Family Plot 

How lucky were they? A heat wave in the middle of the school holidays, exactly where it belonged. Every morning the sun was up long before they were, making a mockery of the flimsy summer curtains that hung limply at their bedroom windows, a sun already hot and sticky with promise before Olivia even opened her eyes. Olivia, as reliable as a rooster, always the first to wake, so that no one in the house had bothered with an alarm clock since she was born three years ago.
Olivia, the youngest and therefore the one currently sleeping in the small back bedroom with the nursery-rhyme wallpaper, a room that all of them had occupied and been ousted from in turn. Olivia, as cute as a button they were all agreed, even Julia, who had taken a long time to get over being displaced as the baby of the family, a position she had occupied for five satisfying years before Olivia came along. 
Rosemary, their mother, said that she wished Olivia could stay at this age forever because she was so lovable. They had never heard her use that word to describe any of them. They had not even realized that such a word existed in her vocabulary, which was usually restricted to tedious commands: come here, go away, be quiet,.and -most frequent of all -stop that. Sometimes she would walk into a room or appear in the garden, glare at them, and say, Whatever it is you're doing, don't, and then simply walk away again, leaving them feeling aggrieved and badly done by, even when caught red-handed in the middle of some piece of mischief -devised by Sylvia usually. 

What do you think?  Would you keep reading?
I included an extra paragraph just because I thought it was good & cute & you'd enjoy it. I hope you do!