Returning to Cambodia in Vaddey Ratner’s Music of the Ghosts

Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner

Music of the GhostsFormat/Source: eBook/Netgalley
Published: 11 April 2017
Publisher: Simon & Schuster
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Fiction/historical
Rating: ★★★★½
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I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Leaving the safety of America, Teera returns to Cambodia for the first time since her harrowing escape as a child refugee. She carries a letter from a man who mysteriously signs himself as “the Old Musician” and claims to have known her father in the Khmer Rouge prison where he disappeared twenty-five years ago.

In Phnom Penh, Teera finds a society still in turmoil, where perpetrators and survivors of unfathomable violence live side by side, striving to mend their still beloved country. She meets a young doctor who begins to open her heart, immerses herself in long-buried memories and prepares to learn her father’s fate.

Meanwhile, the Old Musician, who earns his modest keep playing ceremonial music at a temple, awaits Teera’s visit with great trepidation. He will have to confess the bonds he shared with her parents, the passion with which they all embraced the Khmer Rouge’s illusory promise of a democratic society, and the truth about her father’s end.

Vaddey Ratner, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime of 1970s Cambodia, has penned an extraordinary tale in Music of the Ghosts. She writes with grace about “questions of responsibility, atonement, forgiveness, and justice in the more everyday settings in which survivors find themselves(from the afterword). In exploring such questions, Teera, the Old Musician, and young doctor Narunn reflect on personal identity in the face of immeasurable loss. They have been shaped by survival, when so many of those whom they loved did not survive. Music of the Ghosts is a moving tale of resilience and reconciliation.

I have not read Ratner’s first book, In the Shade of the Banyan Tree, but I am certain this book must be a worthy successor. The first aspect of this book that struck me was the vivid prose. Ratner writes with a particular cadence that soothed me from the beginning, despite the subject matter. She does an excellent job at setting a scene. One small scene in particular stood out to me. She described two young monks practicing English at a temple, with a storm approaching. I could hear the sounds she described – rarely do I find prose that successfully reaches beyond the visual to the auditory for me.

The characters are what really gives life to the prose. I found Music of the Ghosts to be a deeply powerful and moving tale. Teera in particular tugged at my heartstrings and brought a few tears to my eyes. She felt like a real woman to me, not a stone cold caricature of a ‘strong’ one. I adored Narunn, a sincere man trying to do the best with what he has. These characters will draw out your compassion. Teera’s dealing with the complexities of survivor’s guilt moved me. In one scene, she wants to stop her car and give money to numerous beggars on the street, in a location so far from anything she can’t imagine how they’re surviving out there. I felt as Teera did in this moment – how can I have so much when others have so little?

The character’s past connections to the Khmer Rouge (as either perpetrators or victims) demonstrate how good and evil cannot be simplified to black and white. The lines between victim and perpetrator can blur. A person can easily shift from being one to the other. Partway through chapter three, I already found the story to be very intense in this manner. Later on in the book, I had a moment of, “Imagine if everyone listened.” What if we listened to voices other than our own? If everyone heard the voices that are too often silenced or ignored? Reading a good story, like this one, can so easily teach empathy to an open mind. Through reading, we can learn about what we didn’t know we didn’t know. This concept, I think, is part of the reason why reading own voices is so important.

I have one mild criticism of the book. The story feels a bit dry at times. I wondered when Teera’s story would pick up again. I set the book aside for a few days, not feeling any rush to finish. But the haunting tale pulled me back as I wondered what the Old Musician would reveal to Teera.

The Bottom Line:

On her website, Ratner notes that Music of the Ghosts address universally significant questions such as, “How do we account for the crimes we have committed knowingly, and for the suffering we contribute to perhaps without knowing? What does it take to atone? What is possible to forgive?” Music of the Ghosts clear and emotional take on these questions make it a read worth your time.

Further Reading:

Read Diverse 2017

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Mad Richard by Lesley Krueger

Mad Richard
My first attempt at book photography…

Author: Lesley Krueger
Title: Mad Richard
Format/Source: Paperback/Publisher
Published: 14 March 2017
Publisher: ECW Press
Length: 326 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: ★★★½
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I received a copy from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Called the most promising artist of his generation, handsome, modest, and affectionate, Richard Dadd rubbed shoulders with the great luminaries of the Victorian Age. He grew up along the Medway with Charles Dickens and studied at the Royal Academy Schools under the brilliant and eccentric J.M.W. Turner.

Based on Dadd’s tragic true story, Mad Richard follows the young artist as he develops his craft, contemplates the nature of art and fame — as he watches Dickens navigate those tricky waters — and ultimately finds himself imprisoned in Bedlam for murder, committed as criminally insane.

In 1853, Charlotte Brontë — about to publish her third novel, suffering from unrequited love, and herself wrestling with questions about art and artists, class, obsession and romance — visits Richard at Bedlam and finds an unexpected kinship in his feverish mind and his haunting work.

Masterfully slipping through time and memory, Mad Richard maps the artistic temperaments of Charlotte and Richard, weaving their divergent lives together with their shared fears and follies, dreams, and crushing illusions.

ECW Press, an independent Canadian publisher, has become my go-to for finding new fiction that expands my reading horizons. The linking of two historical figures not popularly known to have interacted and the “questions about art and artists, class, obsession and romance” drew me to Mad Richard. Written by Richard’s “first cousin-in-law five times removed”, the book apparently draws on the author’s knowledge of “family information unknown to biographers” (author bio in book).

Mad Richard shares two protagonists, painter Richard Dadd and author Charlotte Bronte. I found Richard to be a likable character – well-rounded, considerate, and yet somehow not dull, haha. I specifically noted my fondness for Richard on page 113, where he awakens from a fainting spell, has a small epiphany about his art, then states “I’m famished. Don’t imagine I could have a chop?” I knew just a smidgen more about Charlotte than I did about Richard going into this book. Mad Richard brings her to life in a way I’ve not experienced Victorian writers before. They have always felt so distant from writers I know of today or even from the 20th century. Krueger portrays Charlotte’s hopes and fears in a relatable manner.

Krueger’s prose often impressed me, particularly in the ways she chose to detail her characters. I find myself asking – “How can see people like that? How could I be so observant, to write something like this?” (as I often find myself asking when I read good literary fiction). This bit about Elizabeth Gaskell particularly struck me:

Mrs. Gaskell’s famous charm lay in her unaffected interest in people; her entire absence of self-regard. She didn’t know why she should speak about herself. She knew all about herself. She would rather hear other people’s stories. A beautiful, tall, solid woman, a tree trunk, she would fold herself into whatever chair was empty, and her “How are you?” to whomever she found beside her was so obviously sincere, her silences so attentive, her wit so fertile, she could draw even a pedant into the liveliest of conversations. Even Charlotte. (184)

My primary qualm with Mad Richard is that the story moves very slowly. The book begins with Charlotte’s visit to Richard in Bedlam. They interact only once. The remainder of the book tells Charlotte’s story from that moment onward, while telling Richard’s story from his teen years to the time he commits a murder. Charlotte and Richard’s stories were less interconnected than I expected. The connection is more in the parallels in their situations.

I found the passages about Richard often stretched on for longer than necessary. I wasn’t bored, per se…The Victorian setting and ruminations about the process of creating art kept me interested, but there was only so much of the style I could manage at a time, resulting in me taking three weeks to read the 330 page book. The story dragged at times, bogged down in details and minor happenings. I did not feel that Charlotte’s passages dragged on, though her story line was arguably no more riveting than Richard’s. (I imagine one familiar with Charlotte’s life might have found it more dull, knowing how her romances played out?)

The Bottom Line:

An enlightening work of historical fiction, although dry at times. Recommended for those interested in people creating art during the Victorian age.

Further Reading:

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Review: Minds of Winter by Ed O’Loughlin

Minds of WinterAuthor: Ed O’Loughlin
Title: Minds of Winter
Format/Source: ebook/Netgalley
Published: 7 March 2017
Publisher: Quercus
Length: 496 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Why I Read: Browsing NetGalley, cover + topic caught my attention
Rating: ★★★½
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I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Fay Morgan and Nelson Nilsson have each arrived in Inuvik, Canada, about 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Both are in search of answers about a family member: Nelson for his estranged older brother, and Fay for her vanished grandfather. Driving Fay into town from the airport on a freezing January night, Nelson reveals a folder left behind by his brother. An image catches Fay’s eye: a clock she has seen before. Soon Fay and Nelson realize that their relatives have an extraordinary and historic connection — a secret share in one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of polar expedition. This is the riddle of the “Arnold 294” chronometer, which reappeared in Britain more than a hundred years after it was lost in the Arctic with the ships and men of Sir John Franklin’s Northwest Passage expedition. The secret history of this elusive timepiece, Fay and Nelson will discover, ties them and their families to a journey that echoes across two centuries.

At 500 pages long, Minds of Winter dwarfs the kind of books I usually prefer to read. Had I known that, I might not have requested it. Still, I wanted to give it a go because of the focus on Arctic exploration. I hadn’t read any fiction about the Franklin expedition. Knowledge of the disastrous undertaking stuck in my mind from a video I watched a few times throughout grade school and from the recent discoveries of Franklin’s ships. Minds of Winter is far more the story of lost explorers than it is of Fay and Nelson. Their story serves as a framing device. Nelson and Fay piece together documents gathered by Nelson’s missing brother, connecting mysteries and the lives of various historical figures.

Characters who actually existed include Francis Crozier, Roald Amundsen, Jack London, and “the Mad Trapper of Rat River”, whose true identity remains unknown today. The years in which each chapter takes place range from 1841 to 1957 (plus 2009 for Nelson and Fay’s storyline). Many of the characters I had a passing familiarity with. One character I didn’t know turned out to be a strong thread throughout. The beginning of the book had me constantly looking things up on Wikipedia to discern fact from fiction (more so I was just confirming things that I suspected were ‘real’). Apparently there are some notable deviations from known fact, but none that I could recognize. That doesn’t really matter anyway. This is historical fiction; let’s have some fun. Either way, the story is based in quite a lot of fact. O’Loughlin did his research, as his acknowledgements confirm.

Fun fact: Of all the fact-based storytelling in this novel, I assumed that the chronometer had to be a contrivance, as it just fit so neatly into the plot. I was shocked (and pretty amused) to learn that the chronometer is real and that the 2009 Guardian article about it that appears in the book is also real. You can read that article here.  Kudos to O’Loughlin for tying so many elements of history together.

The story finally comes together in the epilogue. That’s pushing it for me (I would have liked things to start making sense earlier). The stories didn’t come together in the way I anticipated. However, the epilogue pleased me so much that I forgave the later half of the book, which I thought dragged on a bit. When I rated the book on Goodreads, I was sure I would calm down after a couple hours and go back to whining about how long the book was. That’s why I gave it three stars instead of a euphoric four. Yet that good feeling remains a week later, and so thankfully I can give three and half stars on my own blog. Some readers won’t like the ending, if not because it doesn’t hand out easy answers, then perhaps because it’s too blunt in its message.

The Bottom Line:

Minds of Winter may not satisfy those who want to uncover secrets about Franklin’s voyage, but it will likely satisfy those who love tales of Arctic exploration or hefty historical novels.

Further Reading:

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Two Fiction Reads to Borrow from the Library

Neverhome by Laird Hunt

NeverhomeShe calls herself Ash, but that’s not her real name. She is a farmer’s faithful wife, but she has left her husband to don the uniform of a Union soldier in the Civil War. NEVERHOME tells the harrowing story of Ash Thompson during the battle for the South. Through bloodshed and hysteria and heartbreak, she becomes a hero, a folk legend, a madwoman and a traitor to the American cause. Laird Hunt’s dazzling new novel throws a light on the adventurous women who chose to fight instead of stay behind. It is also a mystery story: why did Ash leave and her husband stay? Why can she not return? What will she have to go through to make it back home?

 

  • I added this book to my TBR after reading Shannon @ River City Reading’s review back in August 2014. She quoted the first line – “I was strong “I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic”. That opener was enough to capture my interest.
  • I enjoyed the prose. Ash’s manner actually felt kind of soothing, as opposed to a distracting dialect. Early example:
    • “There was an old lady outside Ketering fetched me up a drink of water from her well, took a long look at me as she handed it tome, and told me I needed to watch my step. No one else outside that lady saw what I was. I slept just exactly like a pine plank on that walk. I sent Bartholomew my first letter from Dayton. I sent him about the same one from Cincinnati. I wrote that I missed him fierce. I wrote that I was fierce happy too” (3).
  • The basic nature of the story line (woman disguised as man so she can fight for the Union in the Civil War, in place of her husband) kept me intrigued. The story lost steam for me when Ash became separated from her troop. I kept reading because I liked the mood, but that was a situational feeling – I might have dropped the book if I had read it at a different time. The conclusion was sadder than I anticipated.
    • By the end, I realized that I had been following an unreliable narrator. I dislike such narrators. Instead of understanding their reliability as a story telling technique, I just feel like I trusted someone and they abused that trust, haha. Ash reminded me a bit of the protagonist from Evie Wyld’s All the Birds, Singing.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

The Uncommon ReaderWhen her corgis stray into a mobile library parked near Buckingham Palace, the Queen feels duty-bound to borrow a book. Discovering the joy of reading widely (from J. R. Ackerley, Jean Genet, and Ivy Compton-Burnett to the classics) and intelligently, she finds that her view of the world changes dramatically. Abetted in her newfound obsession by Norman, a young man from the royal kitchens, the Queen comes to question the prescribed order of the world and loses patience with the routines of her role as monarch. Her new passion for reading initially alarms the palace staff and soon leads to surprising and very funny consequences for the country at large.

 

  • I read this cute novella one afternoon during my family’s winter holiday.
  • The Uncommon Reader had been on my TBR for a very long time, though I don’t remember how I discovered it. I wanted to read it because it sounded like a sweet story celebrating reading. That’s exactly what I got.
  • The story eventually shifts to focus on writing. I understand the relationship between reading and writing, but I thought the story was going to focus solely on reading. The Queen ‘evolves’ from reading to writing, leading to a humorous and abrupt (though fitting) conclusion.
  • A few clues scattered throughout, mostly in reference to relatives, indicate that this Queen is our Queen Elizabeth II.

I borrowed both of these titles from the library. Though I enjoyed them both fine enough, I wouldn’t call them must buys. But if you spot them at your library – know they are solid reads for a quiet afternoon. Have you read any ‘library recommendation’ books recently? 
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