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Book Reviews

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Only Killers and Thieves

By Paul Howarth

“...all of this he saw in a strange tableau, like a painting on a wall, and his eyes filled at the hopelessness of this world in which they found themselves, a world he wanted no part of and yet here he was, orphaned and alone…”

There is a melancholy that hounds my mind when I think about this book. But I believe it is the right kind of melancholy, the sentiment that Paul Howarth sought to exude from his riveting novel, Only Killers and Thieves. Undoubtedly, it leaves you marked, changed by what you have read and experienced through the eyes of fourteen-year-old Tommy McBride.

Set in Australia in the late 1800s, this historical fiction tale rips away the façade of imperialism. Rife with betrayal, injustice, and the genocide of the First Nations peoples, Howarth holds nothing back. Two brothers become wrapped up in a web of lies, and the ensuing events display the chaos and horror of the Australian outback at the turn of the century.

Read this book if you want to be educated on Australian frontier life, better understand the conflict between First Nations peoples and white settlers, and engage deeply with the concept of justice.

You will love this book if you enjoy historical fiction thrillers that don’t shy away from the horrors of their day, yet maintain heart throughout. Follow Tommy as he tries to find his footing and his place, in the endless expanse of the Australian outback.

“The dust cloud swept over the ranges in an immense orange flood, engulfing them in a roiling, rumbling wall of dirt and sand and earth stretching a mile into the sky and many more wide, pluming upward and outward as it moved. And it was moving, quickly. To the naked eye it seemed almost motionless, like some terrible monolith newly raised from the ground, but anytime Tommy picked out a landmark it was consumed almost immediately, and lost.”

AT A GLANCE

  • Genre: Historical Fiction

  • Setting: The Australian frontier

  • Key Topics: Genocide, Coming of age

  • Themes: Justice, betrayal, loyalty

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The Saints of Swallow Hill

By Donna Everhart

“He couldn’t inhale deeply anymore and became so light-headed, he saw stars like he’d hit his head. With his face tipped up, his breathing grew shallow, and he focused on the opening, that small square of blue sky, willing someone, anyone, to appear. Sweat and tears blurred his sight. He wasn’t ready to die.”

 

Donna Everhart weaves a story of humanity at its best and worst moments. The book takes you to the Great Depression, in the South, where the turpentining industry dominated the region. Devastating realities are brought to the surface; quality of life during the 1930s, a post-Civil War America, and the limited options for women. It does not shy away from harsh truths and paints a vivid picture of the desperation during those tragic years.

 

The entire cast is fascinating and dynamic, taking shape before your very eyes. Narrated from two distinct perspectives, Everhart shows her mastery at developing characters. You see inside the minds of both protagonists, whose paths cross by a strange twist of fate. Slowly you come to understand who they are, and who they have the possibility to become. 

 

“She gathered the shorn hair where it lay around her feet, like some sort of boneless, skinless animal, and took it to the fresh mound near the line of old catfaced trees. She tossed it softly across the fresh dirt of his grave, as if scattering seed, leaving him this one last thing, a small token of her love.”

 

Read this book if you are curious to learn more about the Great Depression, life in the South, or the turpentining industry.

 

You will love this book if you want a gripping narrative and heart-wrenching story, with a thoroughly satisfactory ending. Told from the perspective of two complex and flawed individuals. 

 

AT A GLANCE 

  • Historical Fiction, Great Depression Era 

  • Turpentining longleaf pine trees in the Carolinas  

  • Dual POV

  • Tragic + heart-warming

  • Love story 

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Journey to Portugal

By José Saramago

“What he does know, beyond a shadow of doubt, is that he has already seen this image of São João de Tarouca: he must have dreamt it once, as he has dreamt of so many other landscapes for which he has so far not found any correspondence in the real world, perhaps simply because he has not visited everywhere.”

 

This non-fiction book is a dense yet remarkable piece of history. It is a journey lived by the lone traveler (the author) in his search for Portugal’s past, which—in 1979 when he began his travels—he believed was being lost to the slow decay of time. The Portugal described in this book chronicles places that may no longer exist as they were seen through the eyes of the traveler. 

 

This quest takes the reader through countless churches, museums, monasteries, chapels, sepulchers, castles, and other forgotten corners of the traveler’s homeland. His desire was to uncover what may have never been cataloged elsewhere, and in so doing ensure its place in the pages of history. And throughout these pages, through the heart, the people, the places described—by an admittedly subjective perspective—is the soul of a country preserved. 

 

Known as one of the most important international writers of the 20th century, José Saramago received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1998. In Journey to Portugal, with a fantastical nature bordering on magical realism yet grounded wholly in what is true, or believed, Saramago takes the reader on a journey from which they may never recover. And I believe he would argue that all the better it would be for you, if you do not

 

“Ruins are generally melancholy places, but for some reason this one—perhaps because of all the work going on—is a very pleasant spot. It’s as though time had been foreshortened: the day before yesterday the Romans were here; yesterday it was the turn of the monks of São Cucufate, today it’s the traveller: a slight confusion, and they would all have turned up at the same time.”

AT A GLANCE

  • Non-Fiction

  • Dense & detailed

  • Historical literature

  • An examination of Portugal--it's people, culture, & history 

  • Whimsical

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L'Alchimiste  

By Paulo Coelho

Note: I read the book in French and have thus included the quotes in French. Directly below are the English translations.

 

“C’est justement la possibilité de réaliser un rêve qui rend la vie intéressante…”

 

“It’s the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting…” 

 

The Alchemist touches the human soul in a way not many books can. There is a reason that it holds the Guinness World Record for most translations of a book by a living author. The story is a journey, physical and spiritual. You quickly find yourself wrapped up in the life of a young shepherd who has sold all he has in search of a treasure he is meant to find. There’s no telling if he’ll reach it, but what he gains along the way is ultimately more valuable. 

 

Poignant in its simplicity, The Alchemist masterfully unveils how to view all of life in a new light. No longer is life about obtaining the treasure at the end of the journey; it’s about taking in what’s around you. It’s about listening to the voice within you guiding you towards peace and joy. It’s about not letting fear dictate your decisions, but to persevere despite the odds. This story is for every person, no matter where you are. It encourages you to not give up but to embrace the beauty—and the challenges—that life inevitably offers. 

 

“Dis-lui que la crainte de la souffrance est pire que la souffrance elle-même. Et qu’aucun cœur n'a jamais souffert alors qu’il était à la poursuite de ses rêves, parce que chaque instant de quête est un instant de rencontre avec Dieu et avec l’Éternité.”

 

“Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself. And that no heart has ever suffered when it goes in search of its dreams, because every second of the search is a second’s encounter with God and with eternity.”

 

AT A GLANCE

  • Fiction

  • Allegory

  • Spiritual 

  • Themes: realizing your dreams, listening to your heart, self-growth, embracing what’s around you 

  • Heart-warming​

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Madhouse at the End of the Earth 

By Julian Sancton

“By the time the Belgica departed, the literary link between polar obsession and insanity had been firmly established. The forbidding, unexplored poles served as perfect settings for whatever lay beyond human comprehension."

 

My understanding of Antarctica is forever altered. 

 

Julian Sancton, in his bestselling novel, Madhouse at the End of the Earth, delivers an incredible account of the Belgica's journey to earth’s final frontier.

 

As Twain said, “Truth is stranger than fiction.” This sentiment rings true as you follow De Gerlache, Lecointe, Amundsen, and the rest of the Belgica’s crew; the first humans to ever winter–and survive–in Antarctica. The tale would be unbelievable if not for Sancton’s expert research and delivery of a story that is equal parts thriller and historical fact. 

 

Using excerpts from the journals kept by many of the crew, the author lets you hear the story through the voices of its characters. The tale unfolds slowly, sharing ample details about the circumstances surrounding the voyage. It is not until nearly halfway through the narrative that the spine-chilling thrills begin, but it is worth the wait. Once the Belgica becomes trapped in the pack ice, dooming its crew to be the first humans to winter the Antarctic night, you won't be able to put this book down. 

 

You will love this book if you love stories of exploration, survival, and the limits of human endurance. If not for the innovative and ingenious ideas of the ship’s doctor, Cook, the crew would have undoubtedly been lost. 

 

Read this book if you want to learn more about Antarctica and the impact that the Belgica’s journey had on the scientific community, and the discoveries it made about the–at the time–uncharted continent. 

 

AT A GLANCE

  • Non-fiction

  • Historical

  • Thriller

  • Themes of exploration, the limits of the human body and psyche, and the folly of man

  • In-depth

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Waiting for Snow in Havana 

By Carlos Eire

Haunting and whimsical, what I loved about this memoir is its story-telling. The author expertly unravels the beauty of his youth, and how the rug was pulled out from under him as la Revolución took over. His tone is equal parts poetic and wistful, where vivid images etch themselves in your mind. 

 

Throughout the tale is the dark undercurrent of disillusionment; desengaño.

 

“They threw me as far as they could, and so it was that I was driven into exile, along with my older brother. Threw me across the turquoise sea, all the way to our own Egypt, all the way to the United States, the vault of everlasting illusion." 

 

You will love this book if you want to know more about Cuba’s devastating history, its beauty, and its people. The characters are as deep and diverse as the sea; the imagery, stark. It is a story full of passion. Something that the author tells us about Cubans is that they are loud, mourning as vocally as they celebrate. 

 

Read this book if you want to see Havana, pre-Revolution, through the eyes of a child. Rampant with beauty, danger, and injustice, the author holds nothing back in unveiling a Havana that no longer exists. Witness the after-math of what was meant to be a temporary solution for 14,000 children. The result? An endless exile. 

AT A GLANCE 

  • memoir

  • anti-communist

  • themes of exile, loss, and redemption

  • imagery: lizards, turquoise seas, tangerine sunsets

  • intricate and deep characters

  • tone of a childhood lost, as the now-grown author seeks peace for a life lost

  • hauntingly beautiful, reminiscent of Isabel Allende's magical realism

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