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The Tattooist of Auschwitzt

Book Review

Author : Heather Morris

Genre : Biographical Fiction

Publisher : Echo/ Bonnier Publishing Australia

Year of Publication : 11th January 2018

Number of Pages : 194

My Rating :4 out of 5

The Tattooist of Auschwitz has been on my ‘to-be-read‘ list for a while. To be honest, it has stayed so long on my TBR list because I really did not want to read a story about the horrors of the Holocaust, having never read one before. The movies and documentaries I watched on the subject gave me quite a chill! I still kept coming across it everywhere, so my curiosity got the better of me and I decided to read it.

This is Heather Morris’ debut novel, originally written as a screenplay before being reworked as a novel. The book has received international acclaim with four million copies sold worldwide (according to Amazon). In the midst of all this success, there has also been some controversy surrounding the book.

This is the story of Lale Sokolov, originally known as Ludwig Eisenberg. It is April 1942 when Lale leaves his home in Slovakia. The German government has demanded that each Jewish family provide an adult child to work for them. Failure to do this will lead to the whole family being sent to a concentration camp. To save his family from this fate, Lale presents himself to the Germans for service, believing his family back home will be safe.

On the gate at Auschwitz are the words ‘Work will make you free’. Lale ponders the meaning of this phrase. A number is tattooed on his arm. He soon learns the true nature of life at Auschwitz where a simple misstep can lead to the loss of a life.

Fortunately for Lale, he gets appointed as a Tätowierer, whose job is to tattoo other prisoners. This puts him in a protected and advantaged position but also at risk of being considered a collaborator, since he now works for the political wing of the SS.

He meets Gita as he tattoos her arm and immediately feels a connection with her. They start a relationship that endures until they separately leave Auschwitz and find each other back home in Slovakia. Heather Morris wrote Lale’s and Gita’s story from Lale’s recollections, more than sixty years after the events had transpired. Lale told her the story after Gita had passed away.

Gita and Lale

I liked the author’s writing style. The story is well written and easy to follow. I was able to easily picture the events as they happened and follow Lale’s thoughts as he lived through the traumatic events. The horror of life at the concentration camp – fear, devastation and suffering – are laid bare in a manner that made me feel like I was watching the events unfold through the characters’ eyes.

Yet in the midst of all that is a powerful story of the resilience of human beings, their ability to survive brutal events and remain hopeful, even when surrounded by suffering and death. Their ability to fall in love and trust that they can build a relationship.

It would have been easy for the characters to just give up but throughout the book, the desire to overcome their circumstances was evident. It amazed me how Lale and Gita were able to find one another and develop such a close bond in such restrictive and devastating surroundings when their future was so uncertain.

Although I really doubted the authenticity of some of their encounters given my (admittedly limited) knowledge of concentration camps, I rooted for them and admired Lale’s determination to be with his beloved. Most of all, I marveled at his courage and ingenuity.

I rate this book 4 out of 5 and recommend it to anyone who loves stories about overcoming adversity. It would have been a 5 but for some discussions I came across online, which resonated with me, given some of my misgivings about the book.

Controversy

Given the historical significance of the Holocaust, any story that is centered on it is bound to attract a lot of attention. Some researchers have questioned the accuracy of some of the details in the book and have stated that some of the events that have been described could not have happened.

Critics have been concerned that readers may take the story as a source of knowledge about life at Auschwitz – Birkenau. In as much as the author clearly states that she changed some facts to further the plot, the story is described as being ‘based on a true story’ and a lot of readers connected with the story because of this.

When questioned about this, the author stated that she wrote “a story of the Holocaust, not the story of the Holocaust.” She told the New York Times that ;-  “The book does not claim to be an academic historical piece of non-fiction, I’ll leave that to the academics and historians.”

My Take on this

This made me ponder on whether writers of historical fiction have an obligation to accurately depict historical events in their books. Is it not true that inaccuracies can mislead and leave readers with a wrong impression of events?

Is it enough for authors to state that their stories are fictional and expect readers not to assume all the historical events are as they happened? What is the line between the fictional and the historical bit? And what is biographical fiction anyway?

I think critics here were so concerned because this is described as a book about real people in a real place at a real time in history. A very sensitive time and place. This would therefore lead most readers to expect the story to be mostly true. And it should be.

How much artistic license do you think an author has when they claim that a novel is based on a true story? Shouldn’t they at the very least get the actual known historical events correct? Let me know!  

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The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives

  • Book Review

Author : Lola Shoneyin

Genre : Literary Fiction

Publisher: Serpent’s Tail

Date of Publication: 2010

Number of Pages: 245

My Rating : 5 out of 5

Yes, I somehow ended up with two copies of this book. I think I bought the first one and whilst it was still on my ‘to read’ list I came across it again and bought a second copy!

Lola Shoneyin is a Nigerian poet. The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives was her debut novel published in 2010.  Lola was nominated for the Orange Prize for Fiction in 2010 for this book. She won the PEN Oakland 2011 Josephine Miles Literary Award and the 2011 Ken Saro-Wiwa Prose Prize.

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives features the Alao family, made up of Ishola Alao (Baba Segi) and his four wives – Iya Segi, Iya Tope, Iya Femi and Bolanle. Iya is the Nigerian term for ‘mother of’ so they are named after their respective first born children. Baba Segi is, of course, named for the oldest child of the first wife.

The book opens with Baba Segi contemplating a problem that he has had to deal with before. The latest addition to his family, his wife Bolanle, has not yet conceived a child. The last time he faced this problem, he found the solution at Teacher’s shack, where men gather and discuss different topics over whiskey.  

Teacher recommended a visit to a herbalist. Not long after taking the prescribed powder, his first wife got pregnant and Segi was born. Now with seven children from his three wives, he is again concerned because Bolanle has not yet conceived, after almost three years of marriage.

Bolanle is different from the other wives. She has gone to university and is educated, whereas they are not. She refuses to see a herbalist. Teacher advises Baba Segi to take her to a hospital.  

Bolanle married Baba Segi against the wishes of her family and friends, who do not understand why she would marry an uneducated polygamist. Baba Segi’s other wives resent her because she is educated. As a result, they refuse to let her in on the secret that they all share, hoping to get rid of her.

When Baba Segi decides to visit the hospital with Bolanle, he sets in motion a course of events  that will change their lives in unimaginable ways.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. It gives us a good view of life in a polygamous family and the power dynamics that influence it. The role of the first wife and how it evolves as the husband gets more wives is explored. I enjoyed seeing the different personalities of the characters and how they affect their relationships.

Baba Segi believes he is fully in control of the family and tries as much as he can to be fair to all his wives. Iya Segi is cunning, wise and controlling. Iya Femi is spiteful and vengeful. Iya Tope is lazy and not so bright, yet she is also kind. Bolanle is lost and carries deep-seated pain.

Lola tells this story in an engaging way. She lets the main characters tell us their backstories and show us their feelings by using a first person narrative. In other places, she uses the third person to further the story. These characters are well developed and authentic. I empathised with them, even when I did not like their actions.

The book tackles themes such as polygamy, violence, infertility, prejudice and other social injustices. It is a beautiful narrative that both entertains, questions and challenges. It is a tale of how far people will go to get what they want and to maintain their livelihood.

It shows how easy it is to misjudge people and not appreciate their strengths. How our prejudices can make us blind to what should be obvious. Perhaps the most important lesson of all is – always be wary of karma!

I rate it 5 out of 5 and recommend it to lovers of African literature.

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Purple Hibiscus

Book Review

May contain spoilers…..

Author : Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Genre: Literary Fiction

Publisher: HarperCollinsPublishers

Date of Publication: 2004

Number of Pages: 307

My Rating : 5 out of 5

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award (Best Debut Fiction Category) in 2004 and the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book in 2005 for Purple Hibiscus. Purple Hibiscus is Chimamanda’s debut novel, published in 2004. I read it after reading Americanah which resonated with me because of all the stories I had heard about the lives of immigrants in the US.

Purple Hibiscus is a heartbreaking story about fifteen year old Kambili and her family. Kambili’s father, Eugene, is a wealthy Nigerian businessman. He is also a religious fanatic who does not allow any dissent in his family. Everything has to be done his way. He exercises tight control over their lives, planning and intricately scheduling every minute including family time, reading time, eating time and prayer time. There are prayers before and after meals, with a prayer before meals taking twenty minutes. Any dissent is met with horrific acts of violence.

Eugene is fastidious about rituals and prayers but fails in kindness and compassion, yet he is blind to his many faults. Typically, he blames others for his wrongdoing and makes them go for confession when they have done nothing wrong.

There are a lot of lessons to be glimpsed from the book. Chimamanda shows us how violence begets violence. Eugene was exposed to violence for behavior that was deemed ‘sinful’ by a priest he lived with while in school and metes out similar punishment to his family.

Whilst this is no excuse, it helps us get a better understanding of his character. His family lives in silence and fear. This has greatly affected Kambili who rarely talks. When she does it is in a voice that is barely audible. Their mother, Beatrice, tries to prevent the violence by deflecting Eugene’s attention when she sees his temper rising, though she rarely succeeds.

When Kambili and her brother, Jaja, visit their Aunt Ifeoma at the University campus in Nsukka where she works and lives with her family, they are surprised at how different life in her house is. Though Ifeoma’s family lacks the abundant resources that Kambili’s family has, they enjoy cheerful banter during meal times.

Ifeoma’s house is full of music and laughter, which is alien to Kambili and Jaja. To their surprise, their aunt tells them that there is no need to follow their father’s strict schedule while they are at her house.

At Nsukka, Kambili meets Father Amadi, a young catholic priest whose amiable behaviour is unlike anything her father would approve of. Father Amadi quickly notices that Kambili is different and pays her special attention. Kambili develops a crush on him. Though we do not see any inappropriate behaviour on Father Amadi’s part, he manages to draw Kambili out of her shell. She is able to open up and relax due to the way he treats her. Eventually she falls in love with him, even though she knows nothing can come out of this relationship (sigh………).

Another theme that is explored in this book is how the wealthy are allowed to get away with ghastly behavior. Eugene is extremely generous. He is the main benefactor of his church. This gives him the confidence to stand in judgment of other worshippers, regarding those who missed communion on two consecutive Sundays as ‘having committed mortal sin’.

Villagers flock to his rural home when he goes there and he gladly dishes out money. He is a highly regarded member of society, even though he permits his children only fifteen minutes to visit his own father whom he regards as a ‘heathen’.  

He refuses to have anything to do with his father. When they fail to report that they spent time with their grandfather at Aunt Ifeoma’s house, Kambili and Jaja are punished for knowingly being in the same house with a heathen. This in spite of the fact that their grandfather is only brought to Nsukka due to his deteriorating health.

Eugene is not even moved when his father dies, his only comment is that a priest should have been called to pray for him and convert him. This does not stop him from sending a lot of money for the funeral, though he doesn’t bother attending it.

Neither the villagers nor Father Benedict are shown as being at all concerned about the way he treats his family, though it must be clearly evident that something is off as others easily pick up on this. The only person who dares defy him is his sister, Ifeoma, who goes as far as to refuse his financial assistance because he tries to control her life in exchange for his support.

Another theme that Chimamanda brings out is how society tends to turn a blind eye to things that make us uncomfortable. Nobody asks Kambili how she got hurt when she lands in hospital after her father repeatedly kicks her, not even Father Eugene or the doctor. The only person who dares broach the subject is her cousin, Amaka, who mentions it in a way that makes it obvious that she is already aware of what happened.

How long can people really survive such treatment? Kambili’s mother, Beatrice, seems weak and helpless, as victims of domestic abuse often appear to be. She tries to protect her children but seems trapped by circumstances. She goes back to her abusive husband even after Ifeoma begs her not to go.

Ifeoma often tries to talk some sense into her brother, although ultimately, she concludes that he is broken, perhaps beyond redemption. Jaja is wracked with guilt because of his inability to protect his mother. He is eventually able to take a stance against his father, and we see his character begin to develop. Unfortunately, the cycle of violence is doomed to continue as victims of violence often retaliate.

All in all, this book was a poignant look at religious fanaticism and domestic violence. It is heartbreaking and distressing. It made me mad and frustrated. I wished I could enter into the book and shake some sense into some of the characters.

I found the story well-paced and superbly written. The characters are well developed and easy to understand, even those that I did not like – Eugene and Father Benedict. I felt sorry for Kambili, celebrated Jaja’s growth into manhood, and empathized with Beatrice. I understood Ifeoma’s anger and frustration with her brother and even Amaka’s attempt at rationalizing her uncle’s behaviour.

The story is told against the background of political instability and a military coup in Nigeria, which provides some useful information on what is going on in the characters’ lives.

I love how Chimamanda uses the blooming of the newly planted and rare purple hibiscus  to depict a new beginning for the family and how the characters are at last able to move on. The story is told from Kambili’s point of view and her emotional turmoil is brought out beautifully.

I appreciated the way Chimamanda contrasts religion as depicted by Ifeoma’s family and Father Amadi, as opposed to Eugene and Father Benedict. The same religion expressed very differently. We see how Kambili feels isolated from her religion because of her father’s fanaticism, whereas her cousins embrace their religion and have a friendly and casual relationship with their priest, free from judgment.

Even though a lot of violence is depicted, and I could clearly see how inhumane and traumatic this is for the characters, I did not find it at all graphic.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, even when it made me sad, and rate it 5 out of 5. I recommend it to lovers of African literature.

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The Patient

A Net Galley Book Review

Author: Steena Holmes

Genre: Psychological Thriller

Publisher: Lake Union Publishing

Date of Publication: October 15th 2019            

Number of Pages: 317

My Rating: 3 out of 5

“I think one of my patients is a serial killer. I just don’t know which one.” That is the great setting against which this book opens. Danielle Rycroft is a therapist living in Cheshire, a town dedicated to Alice in Wonderland.

Wonderland is Danielle’s childhood comfort blanket and anchor, where she took refuge as a child when her parents argued. Now as an adult, she desires to help her three patients – Tyler, Ella, and Savannah, rebuild their lives and get past the issues that plague them.

When the town of Cheshire is rocked by violent murders, subtle signs from her patients lead Danielle to suspect that one of them may be responsible for the gruesome murders. She is worried that she has not been able to help them in the time that she has been seeing them. This leads her to seek support from her own therapist in order to get herself back on track.

This is my first time reading a book by Steena Holmes. I found this book well written and easy to follow. She uses different points of view which let us into the minds of the characters and also give us insight into the lead character’s backstory.  

The story is heartbreaking and tormenting. The plot is consuming and I had to pause at certain points when I pictured the events too keenly for my comfort.

Whereas I liked the book and found it interesting, I was able to figure out who the culprit was pretty early on in the book. It was almost like the author wanted us to know as there were very many red flags leading me to deduce what was going on. That removed most of the suspense and anticipation from the book for me. I continued to read as I still wanted to see how it would all unfold.

That said, I was intrigued by the ending. It felt like there was still more to the story than I was able to figure out, which I suppose is the best part of a psychological thriller.

I rate it 3 out of 5. It would definitely have rated much higher had I not figured out the story so soon. I recommend it to adults who enjoy reading psychological thrillers.

Thanks to the publishers and Net Galley for a complimentary copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

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Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating

Book Review

Title : Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating

Genre : Contemporary Romance

Author: Christina Lauren

Publisher: Piatkus

Date of Publication: September 4th 2018

Number of Pages: 320

My Rating : 4 out of 5

I bought this book after reading The Unhoneymooners, which I found engaging, delightful and full of humor. I’m always on the lookout for new authors to read, so when I come across a good book, I invariably check out all the author’s other books.

Josh and Hazel’s Guide to Not Dating did not disappoint, well, not totally. Hazel met Josh Im at a party in college, where she promptly vomited on his shoes – immediately after propositioning him.

Almost a decade later, Hazel is attending a party at her new best friend’s house, only to discover that Josh is the brother to Emily, her best friend.

Josh is a physical therapist with his own business whilst Hazel is an elementary school teacher. Sensible careers right? That’s where their similarity ends. Josh is smart, neat, easy going and calm, whereas Hazel is loud, has no filters, does ridiculous things and is a hot mess.

Whilst Hazel thinks Josh is the blue print for perfect, she strongly believes that he would never date her, due to some catastrophic encounters they had in college. And sadly, it was not just the vomiting.

This does not stop her from declaring that they are going to be best friends. She reckons that since she is undatable, there is nothing to get in the way of their developing a close relationship as best friends. No harm done, right?

Josh thinks :– it might be fun to have her around. Like keeping interesting beer in the fridge that you’re always surprised and pleased to find. Okay……

The two start hanging out together and the rest, as they say, is history.

In as much as Hazel is quirky and a little weird, she is also warmhearted and full of energy. Unfortunately, most men are not able to manage her energy and find her behavior embarrassing.

Given the history these two have from college, I find it a bit strange how when Hazel proclaims that they are going to become best friends, Josh accepts so easily. This despite finding out that Hazel had not changed at all.

I tried really hard to appreciate Hazel as a character, but sadly, I could not fully empathize with her. Right from the start when she described herself as ‘lazy and broke’, among other things, there was zero indication of her wanting to improve herself. Am I being as judgmental as her former boyfriends? Maybe.

I’m all for one accepting oneself as they are, but surely there is room for character development and growth? More to the point, Josh is her polar opposite, the perfect character with no flaws. Whilst commendable, is it really realistic? Is anyone really perfect? Yet somehow, these two end up together, as one would expect in a romance.

But I suppose that’s the premise of the whole story, how such diverse characters can find love and how no one is ‘undatable’, we just need to find that one person who understands us and accepts us for who we are, quirks and all!

This is also an interracial story, as Hazel is American and Josh is American Korean. Though there are no major interracial issues brought out in the story,  we do get to see a bit of Korean culture, especially on family dynamics and relationships.

The book was interesting enough to keep me engaged. I found it well written and easy to follow. The authors use first person to narrate the story, switching from Josh to Hazel.

I liked this style of writing as I got to know what each of the lead characters was thinking throughout the book, making it easier for me to connect with the story. I liked The Unhoneymooners more, but this one is good as well.

Due to the above, I rate this book 4 out of 5 and recommend it to lovers of contemporary romance novels. Hazel may be hard for me to take, but some may find her endearing…….

Do you think it’s possible for ‘polar opposites’ to find lasting love together? Let me know!

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The Unhoneymooners

Book Review

Title : The Unhoneymooners

Genre : Romantic Comedy

Author: Christina Lauren

Publisher: Piatkus

Date of Publication: May 14th 2019

Number of Pages: 288

My Rating : 5 out of 5

The Unhoneymooners features Olive Torres “Ollie” and opens with her twin sister’s wedding. Amelia “Ami” is the lucky twin, who manages to win all raffles and promotions whilst Ollie is the not-so-lucky twin.

When Ami is unable to go for her nontransferable nonrefundable honeymoon, she suggests that Ollie should go on the all-inclusive trip to scenic Hawaii. Ami’s new husband, Dane, likewise offers the trip to his older brother, Ethan.

The only problem is that Ollie and Ethan can’t stand each other. The reason may have something to do with fried cheese…………. or it may not.

This is a delightful story that I loved right from the beginning. The good thing is that it kept on going at the same pace and not once did I want to put it down. The chemistry between Ollie and Ethan is unmistakable and their banter is witty and engaging.

Given that they were on a honeymoon in picturesque Hawaii (someone else’s, but still), was there any way that they would not fall in love?

Even knowing that these two would end up together, I still found myself eagerly following along to see how it would happen.

I also found myself wondering how the conflicts in the story would be resolved, given that this is a story of twins falling in love with brothers. I wondered if maybe it might be a bit weird?

To their credit, so did the characters, but the authors managed to overcome this and make the story endearing enough for me.   

There are many romantic comedies that promise to keep you engaged and are described as ‘laugh out loud’ but somehow fail to keep my interest. Some begin well then falter at some point. This is not one of those!

The characters in this book are lovable and easy to relate to.  The authors are the writing duo of Christina Hobbs and Lauren Billings, writing under the name Christina Lauren. I have not read any of their books before, and I’m glad to have found them. I really like their writing style and will check out their other books.

This book is best read on a sunny day by the pool or on a beach – preferably with a fruity cocktail by your side!

I rate this book 5 out of 5 and recommend it to lovers of romantic comedies.  Many thanks to the authors for providing us with this lovely gem of a book.

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And Now There’s You

A NetGalley Book Review

Title : And Now There’s You

Author: Susan S. Etkin

Publisher: Spark Press

Date of Publication: 24th September 2019  

Number of Pages : 326

My Rating: 3 out of 5

Leila Brandt is a widow in her mid-fifties. Her daughter, Hillary, and business partner, Michelle, feel that she needs to start dating again as she has been alone for five years. To get this going, they give her an interesting birthday gift – they sign her up with a matchmaker.

In the meantime, Leila meets Ayden, who is the architect contracted for her latest interior design project. Though she feels a keen attraction to him, Ayden has been divorced for many years and she doubts whether he can give her the sort of relationship she is looking for.

I was drawn into this story by the premise of love at a later stage in life. I wanted to see how the story would progress and how the dynamics of previous spouses, full engaging careers and family would play out. The story started quite well and I loved the way the author described Leila’s character and her state of mind at the beginning.

Unfortunately, after that, the story dragged on a bit. It took quite a long time to develop and I felt like there wasn’t much to hold my interest. While well written and easy to follow, I found some of the detail distracting, I guess I’m not used to being told everything characters in a book eat and drink in such detail!

Whilst the premise was interesting, the story ended up being too predictable for me without much to distinguish it and keep me interested. I found myself wishing the characters were just a little more complex to give the story that edge that would have made it a great love story.

This is Susan S. Etkin’s debut novel. I rate it at 3 out of 5 and recommend it to anyone who loves romance or has an interest in interior design as it features that too.

Thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.