Monday, December 30, 2013

When Even the Smallest Moments in Time Make All the Difference

Perfect by Rachel Joyce

Byron Hemmings is a clever boy with an equally clever best friend James Lowe. When they hear about adding an extra two seconds, the idea astounds them both. But then Byron notices his watch moving backwards at the exact time the accident happened, and nothing will ever be the same. Together, these boys attempt to put things right during that spring and summer of 1972. 40 years later, the mental institution that Jim has been in and out of since he was 16 is closing its doors. Now Jim has to figure out how to live in the real world, and how to protect it from any harm he might cause. In this fascinating story, told in chapters that alternate between 1972 and 40 years later, Rachel Joyce (The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry) once again takes us on a uniquely personal journey in her second novel "Perfect".

What makes this book different from her first novel, is that although Harold Fry's cross-country trek includes one of self discovery while he goes to a woman he knows is going to die, there is throughout the book a feeling of a positive journey. Here, however, from the onset of this story, the childhood innocence of the actions of Byron and James is leading towards something dark and sinister. On the other hand, while this is unfolding, the parallel story of Jim 40 years later has a more hopeful feel to it, despite his painful OCD and reclusive manner. In addition to this change in atmosphere, Joyce also had to slightly change her style of writing. This is because the parallel stories take place during different times. But while the chapters about the boys are told in past tense, and the ones about Jim are in present tense, she still remains true to the third person voice that worked so well with Harold Fry.

However, there is a lot that we recognize from Harold Fry in this story. I found that in her previous novel, Joyce was writing a type of coming-of-age story, despite the advanced age of the protagonist. Here too we get this, but this time Joyce investigates this in several different ways. To begin with, both the boys Byron and James go through an experience that takes them into a type of adulthood that they were not prepared for. This is equally true of Byron's mother Diane, whose reaction and actions after the accident are pivotal to how she changes. In fact, practically everyone involved with or even associated with the accident have some type of epiphany or another that changes them all forever. But that's not all since Jim too, goes through his own coming-of-age with his story (which I cannot elaborate upon without spoiling it for you).

It seems then, that this is Joyce's central theme and one which she sees in far more than just the single dimension of a child experiencing something which begins their process of growing up. Instead, Joyce seems to look at this in many different ways, as if it is a multi-faceted diamond that will give off a different set of rainbow colors with each tiny turn in the light. Here too, she uses her elegant prose, which takes on an almost lyrical lilt to it when she describes the spring and summer of 1972. This gets a slightly harsh edge to it in the chapters about Jim, which take place in the harsher light of the commerciality of today's Christmas season. But what really got me - and what brought tears to my eyes - was how Joyce brings these two tales together, in an emotional climax that I dare you to be stoic about. And with it, we get yet another aspect of how seemingly insignificant incidents can stay with a person as well as change their lives forever.

I have wracked my brain to find some kind of criticism of this book, and I have to say that I just can't find anything. The only thing I can think of is that I didn't get to read this sooner. That's only because if I had, it would certainly have gotten into my list of favorite 2013 books. With this second novel "Perfect", Rachel Joyce has firmly shown just how talented she is, and I can hardly wait to read what she gives us next. I can't give it less than a full five stars out of five and highly recommend it (and suggest you have a box of tissues on hand when you get towards the end).

"Perfect" by Rachel Joyce, published by Random House Publishing Group, released in the UK via Doubleday on July 4, 2013 and in the US on January 14, 2014. "Perfect" is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook or audiobook from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), or from an IndieBound store near you.

I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advance reader's copy of this book via NetGalley for this review, which originally appeared the website Curious Book Fans. This review also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

My Top Five (or Six) Books of 2013

My Choice for the Most Worthy Reads of the Past Year

It seems that everyone is putting up their "best of 2013" lists right now. On the one hand I find this slightly premature. What if something amazingly noteworthy happens between now and midnight on the 31st of December? Won't we all feel a bit silly having missed including that in our yearly round-up? On the other hand, who am I to tilt at such long-standing windmills?

According to my Goodreads profile, I read 35 books during 2013. That may not seem like a whole lot to most of you. However, for someone who has a demanding full-time job (as well as a couple freelance editing gigs), is mildly dyslexic (and therefore reads slower than most people), and spends no small amount of time writing, publishing and promoting my book reviews, I think that's a pretty good number. What's more, there are two more books I'm half way through already, and will probably finish at least one of them (if not both) before they play the last chords of "Auld Lang Syne." All of these books were published over the past year, so I feel reasonably assured that I can be considered an amateur authority on the subject. Finally, since it isn't likely that I'm going to find the next Pulitzer Prize for Literature before the year ends, here goes my 2013 countdown …

5. Bellman & Black by Diane Setterfield

Despite William Bellman's humble beginnings, his intelligence, hard work and business acumen made a success out of everything he touches. However, much like the rooks that dance in the skies, death was always swooping in and out of his life. This haunting tale is a truly compelling read and Setterfield is a very exciting talent. She has the ability to mold and shape a story together with her characters and settings that all blend in together to make one, complete vibrant picture. (This is available as an iBook or Audiobook from iTunes.)

4. Going Out in Style by Daniel Kelley

This is a delightful collection of stories, all of which focus on something ending, and each one looking at a different type of how things finish (including how sometimes, that can lead to a beginning). Kelley's talent makes each story fully rounded and complete, with believable, sympathetic characters we can identify with and plots that hold our interest. By using a common theme, there is also a cohesive feel to this collection, rather than just a bunch of stories thrown together.

3. The Universe Verses Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

When it comes to "coming of age" novels, the first one that comes to mind is always Catcher in the Rye. But that was written in the 1950s and one wonders if it isn't a bit out of touch with the times. Then along came Alex Woods, who could very well be the Holden Caulfield of the 21st Century. I would even be so bold as to say that perhaps this book should replace Catcher in the Rye in our schools as mandatory reading. It almost goes without saying that with this debut novel, Gavin Extence has shown himself to be an author we should all be on the lookout for. (This is available as an iBook or an Audiobook from iTunes.)

2. Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

It is March 1912 and David Graham is a University student in Urbana, Illinois. He's just read a book of poetry by Elspeth Dunn, who lives on Scotland's Isle of Skye. Impressed, he decides to write to her, and thereby begins a correspondence that will change both their lives. If you think epistolary novels are a hackneyed way to tell a story, you must have read the wrong ones. This is an unbelievably beautiful novel that spans two world wars, half a globe and thousands of letters. It was so engaging I literally couldn't put it down! (This is available as an iBook or an Audiobook from iTunes.)

1. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

We've all read books where the first thing we've wanted to do when we finished reading the last page was to start over again from the beginning. This is certainly one of those books; but it also isn't one of those books. While it is almost certain you will be enchanted by this novel, you might get the feeling that a second reading could change the way you were initially affected by the story. This is partially because you won't be the same person you were when you first started reading. It may also be because the story itself will be different - either for you, or that the story itself will change. This might not make a whole lot of sense - at least not until you've read this book, and read this book, you MUST! Oh, but don't just take my word for it; this book was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize for 2013. (This is available as an iBook or an Audiobook from iTunes.)

Of course, no self-respecting "best of" list comes without at least one honorable mention, and mine is Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb. It is very appropriate that Webb chose to include the quote "one is not born a woman; one becomes one" (Simone de Beauvoir) before she embarks on this amazing tale. In fact, Webb has embodied this throughout her story by putting the development of the woman behind the history at its very core. What's more, she does this with an elegance of prose that fits perfectly with both the time and the personality of her main character. From the very first paragraphs we are both swept up into the era and welcomed into her very heart, mind and soul. It didn't make this list because I could only give it four and a half stars out of five, but it still deserves note. (This is available as an iBook from iTunes.)

That's my list, and I hope that this inspires you to take a closer look and read at least one of my choices.

Almost all of these books are also available in print version from the Book Depository, or Nook format from Barnes & Nobel, or from an IndieBound store near you (links below). 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

A Girl who is Part Mystery, Part Fantasy

The Girl On The Landing
Reading Paul Torday's novel "The Girl on the Landing" makes one want to paraphrase Joseph Heller's quote from "Catch 22" to read: "Just because you're [being treated for] paranoid [schizophrenia], doesn't mean they aren't really after you”.  The story here is about Michael and his wife, Elizabeth. They've been married for ten years and have a relationship that is best described as "they get along well together." That is, until a strange incident in Ireland when Michael sees a girl on the landing of the house they're staying at. Soon after that, Michael seems to change – he’s suddenly become more affectionate and loving. This makes Elizabeth ignore his slightly erratic behavior. But just when it seems that Elizabeth is finally finding the man she always hoped for, their whole lives begin to fall apart.
This story is actually part mystery and part fantasy. The mystery comes in when Elizabeth begins to see the changes in Michael. Despite her wanting to just enjoy it, she realizes that it isn't all rosy and begins investigating what is the cause behind the change. The fantasy part is Michael's visions and his being tortured by them. Then we find that Michael suddenly stopped taking medication that Elizabeth wasn't even aware he was taking. So there is a medical background to Michael’s changed behavior. Even so, Torday seems to suggest that perhaps Michael isn't crazy at all, and what he's going through is something very real. As we toggle between their two stories, we slowly become acquainted with them, together with the intensifying situation. In this way, Torday melds the plot together with the characters so that they seem to drive the story forward with almost equal power. This is because Michael's almost Jekyll and Hyde situation makes the character himself become part of the plot. Of course, adding to this is Elizabeth and how all this effects her and her world.
What the reader will find with Torday's work, and in particular this novel, is that he truly knows how to get to the heart of a story quickly and then pull his readers in. This not only makes them very fast reads, but fascinating ones as well. In fact, you might get so involved with this story that you'll hardly notice the 300 plus pages going by, since it's so jam-packed with action. What's more is that Torday does it in such an easy-going and comfortable language.  Since this novel is two different accounts of the same story as told by this couple in an almost diary entry form, it isn't hard to imagine that the tone of the writing is very conversational. The primary reason for using this method is to keep from using descriptive passages that sound dead and boring, since you are basically reading the narrator's thoughts straight his or her head.
Fans of Torday's who have read his first novel "Salmon Fishing in the Yemen" will know of his ability to find an absurd situation, bring in a good dramatic climax while keeping the reader smiling. However, this novel has little to no humor in it at all. In fact, it is very dark which makes it almost difficult to believe that these two novels were written by the same person. However, there is one similarity in these two stories. That is, the inclusion of something which one can't say couldn't actually be realistic, even though it does seem highly unlikely. In the case of this story, while it is highly unlikely that Michael is having anything more than hallucinations, can one discount the evidence that there might be something real behind it all. The answering of that question is the last element Torday has used to truly capture the reader.
After all this praise, one must come to the ever-present "however…" section. The most major drawback has to do with Elizabeth. In this day and age, it seems unusual that any woman would "settle" for someone that she knew she didn't love in order to have financial stability and comfortable companionship. This would seem especially true for someone as attractive and intelligent as Elizabeth. Furthermore, since Elizabeth is a career woman, it isn't like she had to be gold-digger. So this marriage seems a bit more Jane Austin-like than 21st century. However, Torday does allow that Elizabeth was initially attracted to Michael when they first met – and not to his money. Still, was this enough to make this something the reader can accept, and more importantly, is it okay for a character's back story to be only "possibly realistic, despite being unlikely"? Perhaps, in this case it was somewhat necessary. Still, it might have been more realistic and far more likely had Elizabeth really loved him to begin with. This also would have made her frustration in the marriage more understandable, as well as her reluctance to figure out why he was changing. This made Elizabeth less of a sympathetic character than she could have been.
The other problem is that Michael seems a bit less fleshed out than he should be. Seeing as everything in the story revolves around his personality change, he could have had a bit more focus. One can only think that either Torday thought it would be better to keep him clouded in mystery as much as possible, or that he wasn't sure how to chronicle the thoughts of a man as he takes steps he knows might drive him crazy.
All told, Paul Torday's novel "The Girl on the Landing" is a well crafted novel that will appeal to a large audience. While the characters are on the quirky side, they are interesting, although they seem to lack in certain places. However, the plot is dark, fascinating and gives one food for thought about mental illness and if some types of disturbed states might not have some basis in the outside world. However, Torday does know how to grab his readers, and his style is one that makes reading his books a pleasure. For all of this, "The Girl on the Landing" deserves four out of five stars, and is recommended.
"The Girl on the Landing" by Paul Torday published by Phoenix (an imprint of The Orion Publishing Group Ltd) released October 16th 2008 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UKBarnes & Noble, Kobo, as an iBook or an audiobook from iTunes, or in paperback from The Book Depository.

(This has been adapted from my original review published on Dooyoo.)

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Making of a French Empress

Becoming Josephine by Heather Webb

It took 30 years for Marie Josèphe Rose Tascher de La Pagerie to go from being a young Creole girl from Martinique, to being Rose de Beauharnais and finally becoming Josephine Bonaparte and the first Empress of the French Empire, before she was divorced from Napoleon. Her life and experiences were well documented by historians. In her debut historical novel, "Becoming Josephine," Heather Webb looks beyond the facts to find what made this girl into such a legendary woman.

It is very appropriate that Webb chose to include the quote "one is not born a woman; one becomes one" (Simone de Beauvoir) before she embarks on this amazing tale. In fact, Webb has embodied this throughout her story by putting the development of the woman behind the history at its very core. What's more, she does this with an elegance of prose that fits perfectly with both the time and the personality of her main character. From the very first paragraphs we are both swept up into the era and welcomed into her very heart, mind and soul.

But this isn't the only thing that makes "Becoming Josephine" such a compelling read. Webb has done an incredibly wonderful job with the pace of this book. It starts out at a comfortable canter just to get us going, and then quickly builds to a full-blown gallop. As a slow reader, I found myself just devouring page after page, and finishing it in record time (only five days). This is not simply unusual for me in general; it is also something that doesn't happen in particular when reading historical fiction. I've found that often this genre can get overly bogged down by the historical side of things. This happens more if the factual information about the person is extensively available. However, in this instance, all of the facts seemed to meld beautifully into the fictional/personal side of Josephine, making the reader feel like they were actually reading her diaries or standing beside her, listening in on her thoughts. In short, Webb made Josephine into a truly three dimensional character.

After all that praise, it would be very difficult to come up with much criticism of this book. If there is anything I'm not completely sure of it is the way it started off and the very ending. Webb starts the book with a short vignette that takes place near the end of Josephine's life. From there, Webb flashes back to begin telling the story from Josephine's youth, just before he leaves Martinique for Paris. We then go completely chronologically through her life, and finish with her leaving the Palace after her divorce from Napoleon. This all works very nicely, and I'm glad it wasn't a collection of flashbacks.

However, after I finished the book, I went back to read the prologue again. It was then that I realized that I didn't understand it, and had to look up what happened in 1814 to Napoleon in order to figure out (or guess at) what she was referring to. While I liked the idea of this quick glimpse into the end of Josephine's life before we started to read about her beginnings, I wish I understood it better. I also found that the very end of the book - meaning what happened after her being crowned empress - didn't seem to fit with the rest of the narration. I realize that this might sound contradictory, but for me this part both dragged and felt slightly rushed, which slightly lessened the impact of the story. My only suggestion would have been to end with the coronation and then have a jump to 1814 again, with some explanation of the opening, and maybe her death.

With that aside, I still think that Webb has done a stellar job with this novel and subject matter. She's taken on a huge task that must have included enormous amounts of research. Even so, she was able to make it feel like it just flowed from her pen as if she had lived through it all herself. The prose absolutely sparkles as we are swept along by this fascinating story. This is a masterful debut novel, and I cannot give Heather Webb's "Becoming Josephine" less than four and a half stars out of five, and heartily recommend it.

"Becoming Josephine" by Heather Webb published by Plume Press (Penguin Group) released December 31, 2013 is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository, or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advance reader's copy of this book via NetGalley.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Teaching Men Manners is No Laughing Matter?

Cassandra French's Finishing School for Boys by Eric Garcia

Cassandra French is a character that any woman would envy. She's beautiful, has a lovely home and what seems to be a great job - she's a lawyer for a Hollywood studio. Mind you, she doesn't get the really big cases, being in the Business Affairs department, but what does that matter when you meet stars every day? Besides, Cassandra has a vocation. Cassandra knows exactly how all women really want to be treated. But that may not be an advantage, if she and her friends can't find men who will treat them right. So she's figured out what men need to learn. And she's began her one-woman crusade to teach at least some of those boorish men (but just the ones with some potential) how to treat women properly. That's when she "opened" her Finishing School for Boys.

Mind you, that finishing school is in the basement of her house, and the boys she's got there are hardly there of their own volition, but what difference does that make? The ends should justify the means, no? If you're not sure, perhaps you should read this book. Of course, you might not get the answer you thought you'd find, because that's what author Eric Garcia is all about. And when author of the book "The Matchstick Men" (which became a movie starring Nicolas Cage) decided to satire of the "chick-lit" genre, he knew he had to pull out all the stops. The result is one of the funniest books you'll ever come across.

First off, yes, Eric Garcia is a man, and it's not often that a man can write a believable female character. But Eric has done so, and beautifully, despite his gender. (By the way, for the UK audience Eric's publishers actually considered calling him Erica, just because they feared readers might not accept a man writing this story. They changed their minds, however, since Eric has some followers in the UK and they didn't want those fans to be put off.) In reality Eric has lived all his life in houses full of women. In fact, all of the female characters in this book are so alive and real to the reader, that you can easily picture each and every one of them. We become interested in all of them, watch them do things we don't expect them to do, and develop as the story unfolds throughout. One could even go so far as to say that the male characters are less vibrant then the women - but not by a whole lot.

That said this is the type of book that readers can really appreciate. As mentioned, it is very much character driven. And yet, the plot is fascinating and keeps the attention of the reader from beginning to end with all its unpredictability. In addition, the humor is totally hysterical - really laugh-out-loud stuff. One could expect no less from a writer who has given us such twisted plots as Matchstick Men, and totally silly stuff (with plot twists) as his Rex detective series. What's more, Cassandra is also an extremely fast read, probably because you'll get so involved you'll not want to put it down.

Speaking about the plot - admittedly there were times when Eric stepped just a touch over into the unbelievable. But Americans can be a very strange group of people, and we are talking comedy here. That's why any plot holes there may be in this book can easily be forgiven as they were there for the sake of the joke, and how many of those do you know of that are based totally in reality? Moreover, at least it's a story that hasn't been done to death - it is definitely an original idea, which we also don't see all that much of these days.

But the real artistry of this book has got to be its humor. You see, there's a talent in saying something that sounds ordinary but having it come out funny. This is where Eric shines - his dialogs are fast-paced, witty and most importantly, intelligent. What's more, he really knows how to set up a laugh so that you can't help yourself from bursting when you read the punch line. And there's hardly a page where you won't at least smile, guffaw or chuckle, if not find yourself rolling on the floor! In fact, there were times when my sides ached while reading this book, and that hasn't happened to me since I read "The Princess Bride".

So what have we got here? We have a very funny story, great characters, a plot that's never been done before that keeps our attention and overall fascination from start to finish. I can find absolutely nothing to fault it and will highly recommend it and give it a full five stars. Yes, Eric - you do spoil us, but at least Cassandra doesn't spoil her students! Or did she?

"Cassandra French's Finishing School for Boys" by Eric Garcia is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), or new or used from Alibris or Better World Books. This review is adapted from my originally published article on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady, and also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Friday, December 13, 2013

One Family, One Holiday, Many Generations of Women

Thanksgiving by Ellen Cooney

Patience was a newlywed, pregnant with her first child on that cold November morning of 1662. When she went outside in search of her husband, she saw a turkey fly into the oak tree in her yard. The fateful killing of that bird ended up being something to be truly thankful for. It also was where the legend of the Morley family of Massachusetts began. This novel follows the Morley women over 350 years, using their ancestral home and the food they prepared for this holiday as the focal points.

This story of the Morley family women unfolds like a flower coming into bloom. As the years go by, we learn how the house grows in shape and size. The house itself starts out as nothing more than a wooden shack, without even glass in its windows. Over the decades, it gets added onto almost as often as it gets filled up. Of course, as times change and younger generations leave to find their fortunes, the home also empties out. But there is always one Morley who comes to make this their permanent residence, through to the day he or she ends up under a gravestone in the family plot.

I know what you're thinking - 350 years is a very long span of time for a novel to cover. But the genius here is that Cooney does this in only 22 chapters and less than 250 pages. How she does this is by jumping anywhere from eight to 29 years between Thanksgiving holidays. What's more, each chapter focuses on a different element of the festivities. Of course, since food is central to this holiday, most of the chapters are devoted to one of the items on the menu that fills the Morley's traditional table, and each one seems to focus on a different stage of preparing for the meal. Together this becomes an ingenious idea which has been very gently executed.

While reading this book, I wondered if Cooney had some special experience to inspire her. The cover photo is probably one of them - that being the Fairbanks home, the oldest standing American timber-framed house, located in Dedham, Massachusetts. A chance tour of that house would certainly have been enough of a muse. But what would have made me even more inspired would have been visiting that graveyard with all the old stones and names of the ancestors, with the dates of their lives going back so many years. Turning these bits of reality into a fictional story must have been a labor of love.

Moreover, this shows in the writing. Cooney's style here is very introspective, with an almost dream-like quality to it. Conversations are perfunctory, and included only to move from one action to another. Major historical incidents that affect this family are included here, but more in passing rather than taking center stage (which would have meant long descriptive paragraphs). Instead, we get into the heads and thoughts of these Morley women. We feel their connections to the other people in their lives, their emotions regarding the preparations they're undertaking, and their attitudes towards the house and all its history. Along with all this, we also get a glimpse into how this family turned their culinary skills into holiday traditions. If I have one criticism of this book, it would only be that the voices of many of these women sound just a bit too much alike - and remember, many of them have no genetic connections to each other.

Overall, this book just oozes charm and warmth, much like a welcome homecoming for any beloved holiday should. For all this, Ellen Cooney's book "Thanksgiving" deserves a hearty four and a half stars out of five, and I recommend you read it soon!

"Thanksgiving" by Ellen Cooney, released September 5, 2013 by Publerati, is available from Amazon US, Amazon UK, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (USA, Canada and Australia) and iTunes (in iBook format), or new or used from Alibris. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy of this book via NetGalley. This is a version of my review that originally appeared on Curious Book Fans, Dooyoo (under my username TheChocolateLady), and previously appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Not Seeing the Trees for the Forest

All Russians Love Birch Trees by Olga Grjasnowa

Maria (aka Masha), was born to turmoil as a Jew in Baku, Azerbaijan, who fled with her family to Germany in the 1990s. From birth she was always been an outsider. And no amount of her learning so many languages - including Russian, Arabic, German and French - ever made her feel like she fit in. The other outcasts she knows - Beirut born Sami who has problems with his visa to the US, and Cem the German born Turk who she cannot love - don't make things better. But with her German boyfriend Elias - or as she calls him, Elisha - she has found some refuge. So when he breaks his femur playing soccer, and the subsequent complications kill him, she's thrown into turmoil that she can't cope with, together with the guilt she can't escape.

Despite what I read about this book from the publisher's blurb, I didn't find this story to have much humor or irony in it. In fact, I found it to be a very harsh and difficult tale, which was at the same time an extremely compelling read. This may be partially because, from what I can discern, quite a bit of this story is autobiographical. But just because you have an unusual background, doesn't mean you know how to tell a good story, and this is something that Grjasnowa certainly knows how to do. What is more, she does so without trying to whitewash anything, while at the same time keeping a serene undertone to her voice that almost belies the chaos that Masha is going on around her, and in her head.

This contrast is a perfect parallel to Masha herself. On the one hand, it seems like Masha is someone who - under normal circumstances - would be a completely likable and congenial person. She attracts perfect strangers like flies to honey, and practically everyone she meets becomes somehow attached to her within moments. However, whatever it is about her that brings people into Masha's life, she seems to only pretend to become involved with them. On the outside Masha allows these people to carry her off to places new and unknown, but on the inside Masha is deeply troubled, having imprisoned herself in her own personal hell. And while some of the things she encounters along the way are hellish, nothing seems to be quite as disturbing as her own history.

While most of this book is a portrait of a woman who is slowing losing it even as she's desperately trying to find herself, Masha's story isn't without a real journey. In this case, we go from the horrors of her last memories of Baku and growing up in Germany, to her running away to Israel after the living through Elisha's injury and death.

What is most striking here is how Grjasnowa mixes the chronological aspect with Masha's past. Here too the contrast comes into play. On the most basic level, this book tells Masha's story starting from the morning Elias goes to his soccer match, and along all the events that bring her to a climactic point while she's in Israel. Grjasnowa then merges into this all sorts of pieces from Masha's childhood, past relationships, and recent indiscretions. The fact that these flashbacks come at random, and even in the middle of paragraphs that describe the immediate action, without ever confusing the reader, is proof of Grjasnowa's talent.

Grjasnowa certainly has a very strong voice, which she has applied to a very ambitious and seemingly personal subject, to give us an admirable debut novel. Even so, this book isn't without its faults. To begin with, I found a few unfortunate mistakes regarding Israel (that only Israeli readers will catch). Some of this might have to do with the translation, which aside from this, was masterfully done by Eva Bacon. I also felt that the third part of the book lost some of the strong focus on Masha. This is when Masha arrives in Israel and meets two very dynamic people - Ori and Tal - who are brother and sister. While I understand that their inclusion was important to Masha's character development, I think we could have done with less of their idiosyncrasies than we were given, simply because Masha is herself so unconventional. Thankfully, this was mostly resolved in the concluding fourth part of the book.

As for the significance of the title, it too is a contrast of sorts. This comes from one of the characters in the book who rattles it off along with a list of other stereotypical statements about various people from different countries. What makes it such an apt title is that there is absolutely no one portrayed here that could possible fit into any of the usual ethnic clichés. I found this to be a pure stroke of genius. All this shows that Grjasnowa is a truly gifted writer, and with a touch more polishing, has a very bright future ahead of her. I'm giving "All Russians Love Birch Trees" by Olga Grjasnowa a solid four out of five stars and strongly recommend it.

"All Russians Love Birch Trees" by Olga Grjasnowa was published by Other Press in January, 2013, is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo Books (for other eReader formats), iTunes, The Book Depository (free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, Better World Books or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me a review copy via NetGalley.

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