“Colombiano” by Rusty Young

Genre: YA/Coming-Of-AgeThe Colombmian
Publisher:  Havelock & Baker
Pub. Date:  Feb. 1, 2020

The Coming-Of-Age and Young Adult genres are often confused. “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn” is a C-O-A classic. “The Outsiders” is a YA classic. Although I enjoy the YA classics, I am not a fan of contemporary YA. At the age of thirteen, I read “The Outsiders,” which began my life-long love of reading. It inspired me to write my own manuscript at a tender age (something that has never seen the light of day).  It was a teenage S.E. Hinton, afterall, who wrote “The Outsiders,” and she did so with a teen audience in mind.  Still, I know of adults who read the book and became invested in the story’s portrayal of class struggle, with its strong dose of Jets vs. Sharks. Hinton’s writing style provides many satisfying nods to an audience beyond teenagers. Readers fell in love with Ponyboy Curtis as they did with Francie Nolan.  I find most of contemporary YA, on the other hand, to lack anything of interest for those outside its target audience. For example, since I am a fan of Gothic literature, I gave the “Twilight” series a try. I never made it past the first book. Though I’m open to hearing any arguments otherwise, it’s hard to find something in the story beyond the central teen melodrama. Bram Stoker’s literary masterpiece would seem to exist on another planet.

So why in the world did I read “Colombiano,” a contemporary novel over 700 pages long?  The answer is the author. That he once chose to spend four months in a Colombian prison to research his 2004 non-fiction book, “Marching Powder,” demands respect. For this gritty and heartbreaking novel, he interviewed Colombian child soldiers. Not your usual YA kind of author. Young’s experiences make the novel feel utterly authentic. The book’s characters are fictional but based on the real-life children he interviewed, all of whom were swept into the never-ending Colombian civil war. To paraphrase the book’s blurb, you have to choose a side: the ruthless guerrilla FARC, or the equally ruthless Autodefensa, their vigilante rivals. “Pick a side, or one will be picked for you.”

As Young stated in a 2017 interview with the New Zealand Herald, “I took the most dramatic, powerful, of each of these stories, and attributed all those stories to one person.”  His protagonist is Pedro, a rural Colombian 15-year old.  He loves his family, his girlfriend, and fishing. When FARC guerrillas execute his peace-loving father, his life is forever changed. FARC will not allow him to bury his father. They banish him and his mother from their family farm, leaving them no way to make a living.  The execution scene is especially powerful because the author manages to show the father’s goodness and courage with minimal dialogue. When they tell him to kneel, he informs his murderers that he will stand. For the first time in his life, he curses at his son, insisting that he take his mother inside and that they both stay there. Pedro’s mother listens, he does not. His father dies in front of him.

When the police can do nothing to help Pedro seek justice for his father, he joins the vigilante group. Here, Young pulls no punches. The brutality that the boys go through in the Autodefensa training was too much for me, personally. I often needed to skim. These scenes were not practically gory, but Young takes pains to convey the Nazi-like disregard for life, friend or foe, instilled in the boys. As the pages add up, Pedro becomes accustomed to torture and death and moves up the chain of command. Even as he becomes part of a world of unspeakable violence, the author manages to keep Pedro an adolescent with teenage concerns.  Will his mother ever forgive him for joining Autodefensa? Can he win his girlfriend back? Will his best friend remain his friend? He is determined to leave the group once he has killed those involved in his father’s murder, but wonders, after that, will there be anything left of the old Pedro. What sort of man will he become?  Would his father be proud or disgusted with him?

The author took seven years to write this novel, complete with its glossary of Spanish terms and slang. I believe Young’s debut novel, “Colombiano” has the makings of a YA classic. It has enough action, romance, historical fiction, and a coming-of-age plot to please a wide breadth of readers.  Yet, I found the book to be too long. I love many long novels, but each battle in “Colombiano” is explained with such rigorous detail that repetition becomes inevitable. Sometimes, it reads more like history than historical fiction. Still, I find the novel to be a compelling and eye-opening read on Colombia’s history from the 1960s to the present. An intellectual page-turner for readers of all ages.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The New Husband” by D.J. Palmer

Genre:  Mystery and ThrillerThe New Husband
Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:  April 14, 2020

Mini Review

After minor hand surgery, I wanted an easy read to keep my mind off the discomfort. (Please forgive me if this review is not up to par; typing is still a challenge).  I wanted easy, but this book is, well, sophomoric.  I know many other ARC reviewers enjoyed this one, but once again, I am in the minority.  However, this time I am not completely alone. As Goodreads reviewer Meredith puts it, this book reads like a Lifetime movie.  Those were my exact thoughts on this one.  (I had already written this before reading her review). You know what I mean, with movie titles such as “Sleeping with the Devil” or “Escaping My Stalker,” etc. you know you are watching a film that will be somewhere between a weepy melodrama and a campy thriller focusing on the various ways women suffer by men who first charm them until they show their true colors.

“House” revolves around a single mom with two kids.  Her husband has been missing for two years.  His family and the police assume he is dead.  The wife lets a new man into her life.  He moves in, gets along with her teenage son, but not with her middle school-aged daughter. That is really all you need to know because, from the moment, the new husband begins keeping her from her friends, you know exactly what you’re reading. Of course, there are twists, though, in my opinion, unbelievable ones.  Like a Lifetime movie, this novel can feel like mindless entertainment to be read when you want to keep your mind off real life.  Since the novel accomplished this for me, as lame as it is, I feel obligated to give it two out of five stars.

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“The Dutch House” by Ann Patchett

Genre: Domestic FictionThe Dutch House
Publisher: Harper
Pub. Date: September 24, 2019

After reading a mystery, a feel-good story, and a psychological thriller, this reviewer felt overjoyed to sink my teeth into literary fiction once again.  I can and do appreciate some contemporary reads, but this mythical novel felt like coming home, especially since the story explores the meaning of home itself.  It is not a spoiler to point out that this is a family-saga disguised as a dark fairy tale revolving around a house. The author breathes as much life into the house as the characters. It is not farfetched to say that the house itself is the main protagonist.

The book begins in1946 when a real estate mogul buys a fully furnished, Gatsby-like mansion, as a surprise for his wife.  Turns out that she hates the house, but his five-year-old daughter loves it.  Their son is born 8 years later.  The narrative jumps around in time through the son’s voice.  When the boy is three-years-old, his mother deserts the family, leaving the siblings devastated.  This is how his older sister becomes his main caretaker.  The bond between them is unwavering, even when the boy is a grown man.  Their closeness puts a strain on his marriage. When the siblings are 12 and 19 years old, their father marries a young widow with two little girls of her own.  The wicked stepmother from Cinderella has arrived. When the older sister visits home during a college break, she discovers that her stepmother has given her bedroom—which is the best room in the house—to her little stepsisters. An unused room in the attic is now her bedroom.

The author does a good job of showing rage through humor throughout the novel.   When the older sister learns about the room change she laughs and says, “It’s just like ‘The Little Princess!’ when the girl (Shirley Temple in the movie version of the book), loses all of her money and so they put her in the attic.” She demonstrates this skill with all of her characters, including the loving and long-suffering nanny, cook and housekeeper. The only small room in the house is the kitchen. As the cook says, “that was because the only people ever meant to see the kitchen were the servants.”

It would be wise to remember that you are reading a fairytale, if not the book will feel unrealistic. Put in the fairytale genre the story is as fascinating as the author’s 2011 novel, “State of Wonder,” which also has a mythical feel.  “House” stayed with me after I finished the book. I deliberately did not read the initial reviews. (I missed the ARC reviewers’ suggested deadline on this one). I came to believe that the book is mostly a coming-of-age story, as well as a reflection on one’s childhood as an adult. The author seems to ask the question, ‘Why do we repeat the same mistakes as our parents?’ In addition, wonders, ‘Why do some of us have childhoods that could have been written by the Brothers Grimm?’ Finally, ‘What one may need to accomplish to change our life story’s ending?’

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Akin” by Emma Donoghue

Genre:  Domestic FictionAkin
Publisher:   Little, Brown and Company
Pub. Date:  Sept. 10, 2019

This novel has shades of Fredrik Backman’s, “A Man Called Ove.” “Akin” also revolves around a lonely, elderly widower who learns to broaden his definition of family. In Emma Donoghue’s latest book, she gets the reader to think about the meaning of love, freedom, and family. If you read the author’s “Room,” you probably won’t forget the 5-year-old boy’s perspective of being held captive with his kidnapped mother in an outdoor shed. In her latest tale, she returns to the story of a child and an adult trapped—this time figuratively—together. It takes a while to make that connection between the novels since the circumstances this time are unusual, but not bizarre.  “Room” was a horror novel laced with sweetness. “Akin” is a sweet novel laced with the horrors of living in poverty. Donough’s latest novel is good but, “Room” is the stronger of the two books.

The protagonist is a newly retired 79-year-old chemistry professor. He is preparing for a week-long visit to Nice, France, where he was born. He hasn’t seen his birthplace since he was shipped off to America as a child to escape the Nazis. Days away from his trip, he receives an out-of-the-blue phone call from a social worker. The author does such a good job nailing the harried life of those who work in social services. “She turned out to have a caseload of twenty-four…when asked how she remembered who was who, she laughed darky and said that she and her colleagues were just doing triage.”  The reason behind her call is that a boy’s grandmother, who he was living with, just passed away.  His father died of an overdose and his mother is incarcerated. She informs him that the boy is his eleven-year-old great-nephew and needs a temporary home or he will be placed in foster care. The distant relatives have never met. They live in different worlds. The uncle has a privileged and cultured lifestyle residing in the upper west side of NYC. The boy’s world consists of poverty, drugs, gangs and police corruption that can be found in some areas of Brooklyn, NY.

The uncle takes his nephew with him to France (if he didn’t there wouldn’t be a story) with the intention of returning him to the social worker once they are back in the States.  As you can probably guess, there are funny scenes written into the dialogue and interactions between them.  In a way, Donoghue gives us a 2019 version of “The Odd Couple.”  They wander around Nice, irritated with each other and aggravating everyone who comes in contact with them.  The boy regards his new guardian as a dinosaur, while his video games, selfie stick, cursing, and horrendous grammar drive the uncle crazy. There is a side plot devoted to the man’s long deceased mother.  The old gent has reasons to suspect that his mother was a member of the Nazi party. Man and boy go on a quest to learn the truth. The author may have stumbled here. Not by adding in a historical fiction component but, with their thoughts on what may have happened. Their repetitive mental guesses become annoying and interfered with an otherwise touching tale. “He and this boy were quite alien to each other, yet, in an odd way, akin.” You might have also guessed that by the end of the book the boy’s life isn’t the only one being rescued.

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“Little Secrets” by Jennifer Hillier

Genre:  Mystery & ThrillerLittle Secrets
Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date:  April 21, 2020

Mini-Review

The story is a decent read regarding a young child’s abduction. It could have been a very good read. It is written as a mystery. This makes sense because when the child is kidnapped and there is no ransom note what else can it be other than a mystery? But, the story is written basically as a thriller with all sorts of twists. (I guess I should have looked at the cover). This is where the author lost me. Other ARC reviewers seem to love this book. I guess I should have paid more attention to the genre. I thought I was reading a family tragedy story, not a twisty tale. Still, the author did a good job regarding the heartbroken parents, especially the mother’s overwhelming pain and guilt. The missing-child support group scenes are very well written. You can feel just how brutal it must be to not know if your child is dead or alive.  It is these scenes that I found fascinating, not the mixing of genres. But if you want a Jillian Flynn read then this is the book for you.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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