Monthly Archives: January 2020

A LADDER TO THE SKY

Maurice Swift took a notebook from his bag… and began to make some notes.
“What?” asked Erich, “Did I say something particularly wise?”
“I’m writing something down about balance. You seem to have struck a good equilibrium between your work life and your artistic life,” said Maurice.
“You can’t write all the time, Maurice. There’s more to life than words and stories.”
“Not for me there isn’t,” says Maurice.

And believe me, this diabolical sociopath really means it.

In 2018, I was granted an advance copy of a reprint of John Boyne’s A Ladder to the Sky. I have always enjoyed his works including the 2006 young adult book, The Boy in the Striped Pajamas and the wonderful 2017 novel, The Heart’s Invisible Furies.  But somehow this book became buried in my TBR stack. Now that I have read A Ladder to the Sky, I could kick myself for waiting so long to read and review it.

Truth be known, I can’t remember when I intensely disliked a protagonist more than Maurice Swift. I found myself hissing and booing but totally unable to put the book down. We have all met people that are manipulative and taken advantage of us. They have the uncanny ability to upset our resolves and get us to reveal our deepest insecurities or darkest secrets. Sometimes they seem to enjoy causing pain or harm to us for no reason other than they can do it.

Maurice Swift has always wanted to be a writer. And not just any writer. The best of the best. Someone that history will remember as a literary great and whose books will never go out of print. But he has one problem. He can put together the words on paper but he is incapable of generating the original idea; he lacks imagination.

Maurice is well aware of his assets. He was gifted at birth with a Hollywood attractiveness that he used to his best advantage throughout his life. He was also born an undiagnosed sociopath with a innate ability for furthering his long-term goals with charismatic charm, flattery, and deceitful behavior. His early books rejected or published with little success didn’t deter his goal. He just had to find someone with a story and steal it.

The novel offers three views into Swift’s life. The first begins as a novella of an aging German-American novelist. There’s a melancholy edge to his story. Narrated in the first person, Erich Ackermann speaks to us about his childhood, his literary career development and his modest successes. The narrative darkens as he relates meeting a sexy barkeeper who tells Erich that he hopes to become a successful author himself one day. Like a frog placed in a pan of tepid water on the stove, Erich doesn’t sense the danger until he is sucked into Maurice’s dangerous web and is unable to extricate himself. It is too late when he is tricked into sharing a dark secret from his own youth in Nazi Germany. Erich’s worst nightmare from the the past is exposed in Swift’s highly successful fiction entitled, Two Germans.

The second part of the book, to me, was the most interesting. Maurice Swift, accompanying his latest victim, American author, Dash Hardy, unexpectedly met the renowned Gore Vidal at his home in Italian villa, The Swallow’s Nest. This serendipitous encounter exposed Swift’s wiles as he tried to vandalism Vidal’s life and ingratiate himself into his social community; if successful there would be no need to squander his unproductive time with Dash. The world-wise Vidal recognized Maurice’s tactics. The acerbic literary elder sparred with Swift and privately let him know that wasn’t blind to the young man’s game; he couldn’t out-master the master.

Dash, poor defenseless Dash, was obviously besotted. . . Gore  lamented quietly, his heart grieving for the pain that this young man would inevitably cause his friend.

The third part of the novel begins with Swift, now recognized for his successful fiction, Two Germans, celebrating his fifth wedding anniversary with his wife, Edith. After five years, Maurice hasn’t achieved the second of his two life ambitions -becoming a father. Edith has been unable to produce a child having suffered four miscarriages.

To add insult to injury in Maurice’s mind, Edith, also an author, has recently published her first novel, Fear, to rave reviews. It has been eleven years since Maurice published Two Germans and he is beginning to be perceived as a has-been. When Edith announces that she has begun a second novel, the wheels come off the bus.

In the end, Maurice Swift earns his just reward, landing in Dante’s Ninth Circle of Hell after a lifetime of treachery.

I rarely give a book 5 stars. Giving a book a perfect score usually requires me to be transported to a different place and/or time. There were flaws in this book, but I have found myself reflecting on many aspects long after I finished reading it. Why did his mentors, sensing his disloyalty,  turn into simpering snivelers grasping at his ankles as he pulled away. But of more import to me revolved around the question -where do ideas for a book come from? When is it right or wrong to use something overheard or told by someone? And does anyone understand why a narcissistic sociopath would set being a father as a life ambition? Humm.

Recommended.

 

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WESTERING WOMEN: historical fiction

WESTERING WOMEN

Sandra Dallas
St. Martin’s Press
Historical Fiction
January 2020 – ARC Netgalley  ★★★☆☆

If you are an adventuresome young woman of high moral character and fine health, are you willing to travel to California in search of a good husband? Do you want to instill God and Civilization and Righteousness in the westernmost part of our country?

What to do on a rainy day and suffering a 9.0 Richter scale head cold? Snuggle with a book with a simple and entertaining story-line. Sitting in my email inbox that morning, was an offer from St. Martin’s Press to read Westering Women in exchange for my review; a promising choice. Serendipity.

Being an adventuresome old woman, not necessarily of high moral character, I decided to  spent the day traveling with forty-three woman in a train of prairie schooners heading from St. Joe, Missouri to California. The book amused me but I won’t say it made me feel like I connected with the characters. As a woman born at a time when my father had to sign for my first credit card, I could relate to many of the misogynistic scenes; there were times I could see where the use of a good war club might serve as an attitude adjuster.

But there is always a place for a good sappy read that tosses out obvious hints and clues well in advance. It doesn’t take a genius to see where scolding a bratty child repeatedly be careful while crossing a raging river and being repeatedly ignored might lead to tragedy. Staying with that scene, days later the mother just hitches up her skirt and says … Oh,well. Life goes on. She’s with Jesus. I don’t have to worry about her anymore.

There was a healthy dose of Christianity sprinkled everywhere like holy water. Not a surprise to the reader as the trip was sponsored and led by two preachers. At the same time, the travelers’ faith comforted them and sustained them through, what was surely true in 1850s dash across the continent, soul bending moments.

As expected, not every woman on the journey headed out through hell and high water to get a husband. The twelve or so main characters each have a hidden secret that is revealed in the fullness of time.

There were the inevitable accidentals, cholera death, and clashes with Native Americans. Fragile women escaped brutal husbands and every man they encountered on the journey seemed to want “carnal knowledge” or provide a sound beating to the woman who dared to escape their wrath; justification in my mind to head west to start over leaving bozos behind – but as expected, the bozos just had to track down the women and give them grief; bad move guys. Don’t attack a pack of feisty women.

Let it be said that this old gal did raise a hand in salute at the strength and determination of the women to form a cohesive sisterhood; broken women can heal like a broken bone – stronger in the end.

Sandra Dallas fans will enjoy the story. As I said in the beginning, I enjoyed the read. Didn’t strain the brain and was an easy read that I never felt I had to just put it down. I will admit to a couple of -“on come on, really?” moments.

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A Lightless Sky


I have only half an understanding of the routes that I have traveled; and then there are some moments that are etched in my mind forever. These are the ones I know I will never forget. – Gulwalhi Passarlay, Author of Lightless Sky

Gulwalhi Passarlay was born in 1994. His early childhood, as a son of the local doctor and the grandson of a nomadic sheepherder, was remarkably filled with love and strengthened by a strong connection to his Islamic faith. Beginning at four-years-old, he spent summers high in the mountains with his beloved grandfather, living a subsistence lifestyle, learning life and survival lessons while tending the flock; life skills that undoubtedly helped him a few years later. Inside his young mind he thought life was just about perfect. As do most of us at that tender age in a self-centered universe.

When he was around seven-years-old, the United States was attacked and retaliated against Afghanistan for harboring Osama Bin Laden. At the time of the invasion, his Uncle Lala, was a high ranking Taliban secret officer. The Passarlay family’s earlier association with the mujahideen during the recent war with Russian brought the Americans to Gulwalhi’s home suspecting stored weapons. Tragically, the American raid left his father and grandfather dead.

By 2006, Gulwalhi, now twelve-years-old, and his thirteen-year-old brother, Hazrat, were caught in an untenable position – the Taliban wanted them as soldiers or martyrs and the Americans wanted them as spies. Facing a no-win situation, Gulwalhi’s mother feared for the lives of her sons. She made the heartbreaking decision to send them away to hopefully save their lives. Scraping funds from the extended family, she paid a network of human smugglers to deliver the boys, together, to safety in Europe for a better life.

The boys were sad to leave but somewhat excited about the journey. The promised two week journey began with deception. The boys were immediately separated.  Gulwahli found himself among streams of constantly changing refugees, mostly older adult men, some who shielded and protected him as best they could under the circumstances.

The actual journey took the heartbroken and terrified Gulwalhi a harrowing year through nine different countries. He suffered torture and imprisonment three times in adult prisons  – Iraq, Bulgaria, and Turkey, and with the wiles of the innocent and dumb luck, escaped three times. He, incredibly, survived each leg of the journey, barely, suffering physically from starvation, dehydration, hypothermia, heat exhaustion, and a myriad of unimaginable conditions laced with beatings, mental cruelty, and  constant threat of danger. The refugees seen only a paycheck and viewed as chattel – subhuman.

He was mentally and emotionally burdened with loneliness, terror, and depression; attempting suicide more than once. He traveled by car, lorry, train, plane, boat, horse, bus and long painful foot marches; passed along from one unscrupulous underground agent to the next – each assuring these refugees that their next leg of the trip is guaranteed.  Finally reaching England, Gulwalhi discovered that even in the perceived promised land nothing is guaranteed.

Guaranteed. That word again. In my experience, nothing on this journey was ever guaranteed.

Imagine yourself as twelve-years-old. Your family shattered by war yet you are still surrounded and loved by what remains of your culture and family. Abruptly you find yourself thrust onto an airplane among strangers with total control over your life.

Gulwalhi’s story, is told from memories of his stolen childhood. It is a hard read and sometimes from the safety of my “taken-for-granted” life I wanted things to move along more quickly. Then, I would remember this was an unaccompanied child thrust in a world completely foreign to him. How did he survive when so many of adult refugee men that cycled in and out of his journey did not? Those life skills learned in the mountains with his grandfather gave him a heads-up. In a recent British video interview, he stated that in today’s world, the same journey would not be successful. As children, we all feel immortal, take chances, make poor choices, and face dangers with innocence.

He was a plucky daredevil who stayed true to his Islamic faith yet realized that the world is not one-size-fits all. By the time he reached England he had matured and recognized the need to open his heart and mind to the diversity of world cultures and customs.

His greatest reason for telling his story is to humanize the plights of those willing to face death in the unknown journey rather than stay in a country where is death was certain. The world has changed- and not for the better. More and more people struggle to stay alive, chancing death every day to live in safety.

The world has changed- and not for the better. More and more people struggle to stay alive, chancing death every day to live in safety. He wants to the world to open their hearts and minds to see that most, certainly not all, refugees are looking for a hand-up not a handout. He realizes the pressures placed on countries where refugees are flocking to for help are struggling to handle the influx. He just wants the refugees to seen human and treated humanely while in transition.

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