Saturday, September 28, 2013

FLASH REVIEWS: Recent Audio Reads with an International Flavor

As I mentioned in my last post, my pleasure reading of late has been almost entirely limited to audiobooks. It's been a while since I finished some of these, but here are some quick reviews of international-themed books I've been reading/listening to over the past few months:

Running the Rift by Naomi Benaron
Rating: 4/5 Stars
Audience: Adult/YA Crossover
Genre: Coming-of-Age Story/Political Fiction/War Story

This stunning coming of age novel tells the story of Jean Patrick Nkuba, a young Rwandan who dreams of running in the Olympics. He is a kindhearted and slightly naive boy, but as he grows older he becomes increasingly aware of the stark ethnic divide in his country and the challenges his Tutsi heritage will present to achieving his dream. Gripping and frequently distressing—this is one of the few novels that has made me cry—Running the Rift is nevertheless a story of hope, love, and perseverance. Benaron does not shy away from the escalating violence that eventually leads to the Rwandan genocide, but the story is not sensationalistic in any way. Instead, through the fictionalized account of Jean Patrick, it brings a relatable voice to an unimaginable tragedy and shows that there is much more to the country and its people than can be surmised from political reports and news stories. In contrast to the unflinching portrait of violence and moral complexities are Jean Patrick’s genuine love of his sport, his country, his family, and a young woman for whom he would do almost anything.

The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
Rating: 3.5/5 Stars
Audience: Adult
Genre: Literary Fiction/Political Fiction/Dystopia

Set in the real-world dystopia of North Korea, this Pulitzer Prize–winning novel takes readers on a weird and wonderful journey along with its anti-hero protagonist. Jun Do begins life with the unlucky reputation of being an orphan—although in actuality he is not—and through a series of strange circumstances and fateful choices he finds himself filling unlikely roles, from professional kidnapper to national hero to romantic rival of the Great Leader himself. Set in a world where the “story” is so much more important than truth—where the story becomes truth—Jun Do seizes opportunities to reinvent himself over and over, and yet the nature and politics of North Korea can easily take him on a detour that will rewrite his story all over again. Perhaps because the world it explores is so very alien, I must admit that I initially found this book a bit difficult to connect with. I also wonder whether my occasional dissatisfaction might be related to the audio format. There are multiple voices and frequent interruptions from propagandist loudspeakers that perhaps did not translate well in this audio adaptation. But while it becomes a bit tedious at times (whether due to format or subject matter), The Orphan Master’s Son is also frequently brilliant, fascinating, and surprising.

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo
Rating: 4/5 Stars
Audience: Adult
Genre: Nonfiction/Social Issues/Travel Writing

In this intimate and poignant book, a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist creates a extraordinary portrait of India's urban poor. By focusing on Annawadi, one of dozens of tiny slums that exist alongside the modern new airport and luxury hotels of Mumbai, Katherine Boo is able to bring to life the everyday realities faced by so many. While the story centers on the accusations of a woman who set herself on fire and the repercussions for the family accused of harming her, several key residents of the small undercity are examined. From petty squabbles that escalate into tragedy to a murdered garbage thief left ignored on the side of the road, death and survival in Annawadi is brought to vivid life by Boo’s compassionate yet clear-eyed reportage. There is Abdul, the quiet, diligent garbage collector; Asha, an ambitious kindergarten teacher determined to work the corrupt system for her own betterment; and Manju, Asha’s disapproving, intelligent daughter who hopes education will be her way out. Readers are left both frustrated by the actions of some residents and cautiously hopeful for the futures of others; but, in the end, the people of Annawadi are portrayed at complex individuals, not as collective objects of pity but as human beings fighting for survival and carving out a life in a flawed and corrupt system.  

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

REVIEW: Overseas by Beatriz Williams

Rating: 3/5 Stars
Genre: Love Story/Fantasy/Time-Travel
Audience: Adult

Summary: In modern day Manhattan, newbie Wall Street analyst Kate Wilson is mystified and intrigued when billionaire Julian Laurence begins pursuing her after little more than a passing glance. But their love story is not an easy one: Julian's pursuit blows hot and cold despite their irresistible attraction, and he also seems to be keeping secrets. Interspersed with this tale are scenes from World War I–era France, to which modern-day Kate has somehow traveled on a mission to find Captain Julian Laurence Ashford and protect her lover from the future.

Tracy's Thoughts: As regular Books News & Reviews readers may have already guessed, I've been in a bit of a reading slump of late. I've been enjoying audiobooks on my commute to and from work, but it's been difficult to find the time and focus for any pleasure reading beyond that. I've started several (print) books over the last few months, but sticking with them has been a different story. And yet I finished Overseas in two days, staying up till 2 a.m. on a work night in order to finish. Overseas isn't great literature or even particularly original, but it held my attention and made me care about the characters. I simply enjoyed it.

At times, it reminded me of Fifty Shades of Grey with less angst and a time travel twist. Overseas doesn't feature erotic sex scenes—love scenes are more in the fade-to-black tradition, though Kate and Julian's relationship is certainly passionate. Julian isn't nearly as tortured as Christian Grey, but he does have secrets. Also, the writing is better (thankfully, none of the characters have bickering conversations with their "subconscious"). So as much as I hate the habit of comparing recent reads to the latest big-hit book phenomena, the push-pull dynamic between the characters and the development of their relationship did call to mind James's trilogy.

The two entwined settings of Overseas make for a suspenseful, perfectly-paced story that answers one question only to raise another. The reader is able to piece just enough together to feel informed and invested, and yet all the the whys and wherefores remain a mystery until the perfect moment. Overseas is a charming and imminently readable love story that will likely appeal to fans of The Time Traveler’s Wife, Outlander, and perhaps even Fifty Shades of Grey fans who are interested in the powerful man/ordinary girl relationship dynamics but who are not necessarily looking for BDSM or erotic fiction.
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