The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen

the-sympathizerSometimes you have complicated feelings about a book. I certainly do about this Pulitzer Prize winning novel about the Vietnam War narrated by a Vietnamese communist sleeper agent. Wonderfully written, dark, evocative, satirical and suspenseful; there is much to savor and enjoy, but looking at yourself through the lens of someone who is less than sympathetic can be exhausting. This is not to say that it isn’t well worth reading, just that it takes fortitude and some grace to really see how white privileged Americans are perceived. In that sense it probably should be required reading in this new age that dawned on January 20, 2017!

The book is written as a confession by a Vietnamese communist sleeper agent who was the aide-de-camp to the Vietnamese general leading the anti communist forces in Saigon and with whom the United States had a close relationship. When the story begins we know that our narrator is being held in an unknown prison and is required by the Commandant of the prison to write a confession. The confession begins in the days shortly before the evacuation of US personnel from Saigon and we soon realize that the narrator has been a spy for the communists throughout the war and his accumulated efforts have led to the downfall of Saigon. The agent of course was looking forward to being rewarded and celebrating the communist take over but instead, because of his close relationships and his excellent English ability they ask him to evacuate with the general and his family to the United States. Although our narrator resists this assignment, he is eventually persuaded that keeping close tabs on any potential resistance the general might drum up in the US is the best use of his talents. But once in the US and far from his ideological base. we slowly begin to see that the agent really is of two minds and that his talent for seeing things from both sides, which at one time might have been a virtue, is now interfering with his ability to be loyal and to sustain his motivation for his cause.

Some of the most biting satire and perceptive insights occur when our narrator is recruited to be in a movie about the Vietnam War, directed by a famous American.  The narrator’s ability to skewer the insanely one sided viewpoint of the movie’s story line and reveal the offensive treatment of the Vietnamese movie extras is both hilarious and embarrassing. I don’t think I will ever watch a movie about the Vietnam war in the same way again.

Nguyen’s goal, he says in an interview, was to write a novel that “directly confronts the history of the American war in Vietnam from the Vietnamese American point of view… I wanted to be very critical of the Americans in Vietnam and not adopt the usual position of Vietnamese Americans, which is either to be grateful to be rescued by Americans or conciliatory, and not directly confrontational…” He has more than succeeded in doing that but in doing so he has also humanized all the factions and actors and has cleared away the simplistic one sided motives of the US’s participation and replaced it with something more complicated, yet more true.

Brenda’s Rating: *****( 5 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Keith, Marian and Ken.

Book Study Worthy: Yes! (Plan extra time!)

Read in ebook format.







Posted in Fiction, Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Prize Winner, Spy/Covert Operatives, Suspense | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

When Books Light up the Silver Screen- An occasional Post

Books don’t always stay in print form. In fact I think more people
“read” books by watching movies or TV than we might realize. The transformation of books to the screen is not without its challenges, however. There have been some terrible adaptations like Dune (1984) which tried to cram a massive book with complicated plot lines into a two hour movie or The Scarlet Letter (1995) starring Demi Moore which seemed to be more interested in steamy loves scenes than actually engaging with the themes of the book.  On the other hand there have been wonderful adaptations like The Lord of the Rings Trilogy or Forest Gump where the essence of the book has been synthesized without slavishly following the text and yet the movie feels whole and true to the book.

So this week I am introducing the first of an occasional series of reviews on books-to-movie or book-to-television production.  I hope these reviews might help you decide whether it is worth seeing the movie or TV adaptation of a book that you have read or were thinking of reading!

movie-oveWhich brings us to the to movie adaptation that I want to review which is A Man Called Ove . (See the movie trailer here.) I recently reviewed the book of the same name and then over Women’s March weekend, I watched the movie on demand with my family.

I wasn’t sure that anyone could do this book justice.  The main character, Ove, is so crucial to the story and yet he is taciturn, grumpy and sometimes actually down right mean. I though it would be hard to bring such a character with that kind of personality to life without alienating the audience or creating a caricature that would seem insincere and unbelievable.  But the adaptation of this book was done extremely well and the actor, Rolf Lassgård, who plays Ove brings a sense of underlying humanity and sorrow to his character that helps the audience see past his gruff exterior.  As with most good adaptations the movie is not adhere slavishly to the book but changes things to fit a different medium, which highlights the author’s intent and themes. This was a Swedish film but even with subtitles there was not a dry eye at the end.  You can’t ask for more!

Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 out of 5 Stars)

Watched on Demand


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Redemption Road by John Hart

redemption-roadJohn Hart is a damn good author! The fact that he won back to back Edgar Awards, the only author to do so, should have clued me in, but now after having read two of his books, I know I must read them all!  He can create a sense of place and community and develop his characters within that framework so that it almost feels that you know these people and the town they live in. Additionally, he seems to have an innate ability to create suspense and urgency by including twists and turns in his story line that keep you turning the pages late into the night.

The newspaper headlines said it all: Hero Cop or Angel of Death?  Elizabeth Black knew that she was in trouble and that this time it wouldn’t be easy to get out of it.  But at least Channing, the teenage girl she had saved from that dungeon was now safe, and the men who had held her there were gone. As a cop that was all that mattered to Elizabeth but now there were allegations of police misconduct because the men had been shot eighteen times. The timeline that Elizabeth had provided the cops hadn’t quite lined up with the evidence, and Channing was being an uncooperative witness. Elizabeth wondered whether this time she might have hit the wall and end up in jail.

Cops did go to jail. Adrian Wall had been a cop and now after thirteen years in prison he was going to get out. He had been Elizabeth’s mentor but something went wrong and he was charged and found guilty of murdering a local woman with whom he was having an affair. Elizabeth could never quite believe that he had done it. Over the years she had picked at the case, but she could never quite get a hold of anything that would exonerate him and that bothered her.

But even before Adrian gets into town after having been released from prison, someone tries to kill him, and then a serial killer strikes again. As the various strands seem to intertwine Elizabeth discovers  that she is caught up in something much more sinister that she could ever imagine, distorting everything she knows about herself, her family, the police department and her town.

Brenda’s Rating: ***** ( 5 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Sharon, Marian and Keith

Books study worthy: Yes

Read in ebook format.



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The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly

There is something verywrong-side addictive about the Harry Bosch series by Michael Connelly. I eagerly await for each new release and when it comes out I snarf it down immediately and then can’t wait until the next one comes out!  Harry is such a complicated character, honorable, but flawed, smart but sometimes blind, and he is terrible at relationships, whether it is with his daughter or his colleagues. What sets these books apart in the detective genre is the excellent writing, the unique plot lines and the ongoing revelation of Harry Bosch and book 21 is no exception.

Harry, whose lawsuit against the LA police department for wrongful termination (among other things) is still ongoing, is now volunteering as a detective in the small town of San Fernando. He also has a small private detective business on the side which helps pay the bills and keeps his daughter in college. After the busy crime scenes of LA it is a bit of a come down, but Harry and his partner Bella have been tracking a serial rapist who has managed to elude them for awhile and Harry has found that his skills are more valued than ever before.

In the middle of the investigation however, Harry gets a surprising phone call inviting him to a meeting with Whitney Vance, one of the richest, most reclusive men in California.  Weak and in failing health, Vance wants to hire Harry to find his long lost lover and to determine whether or not he fathered an heir. Under extreme secrecy, and with a promise from Harry that he will not discuss any of his findings with anyone except Vance, Harry begins his search.  But there are competing forces at work who do not want a new heir to suddenly appear and Harry soon suspects that his every move is being monitored and that his very investigation may jeopardize the lives of any family Vance might have had. Distracted by the cat and mouse games he must play to protect his search for an heir, Harry finds that he is not paying as much attention to the rapist case in San Fernando, leaving his partner Bella to investigate it more and more on her own.  Less understanding than Bella about Harry’s distractions, the rapist strikes again and this time Harry must focus all his knowledge and skills to bring him to justice.

Brenda’s Rating: *****(5 Out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Marian and Sharon

Book study worthy? Just Enjoy!

Read in ebook format.


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Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift

mothering-sundayOn March 30, 1924, on what was known then as Mothering Sunday, Jane’s life changed dramatically.

It was a gorgeous day, more like June than March and the Nivens were having the cook pack a large picnic hamper in anticipation of spending the day celebrating with the Hobday’s the upcoming marriage of their daughter. Traditionally on Mothering Sunday the staff of the great houses were given the day off to visit their mothers, and even though the numbers had now dwindled considerably, Jane, as a maid was still offered the day off. As an orphan, Jane had no mother to visit and had told Mr. Nivens, when he inquired, that she would likely spend the day reading a book from the estate library, which he allowed her to use on occasion. And that was indeed her plan until she got the phone call from Paul.

After the Nivens left, Jane took her book and the bicycle that they let her ride and left the estate. But instead of going to her favorite place to read, she instead rode her bike to the neighboring estate and there she met Paul Sheringham, the heir and fiance to Emma Hobday whose upcoming wedding her employers were celebrating.  Jane and Paul had been lovers for some time, but today was the first time that Jane had ever been in his room or wandered the halls of his great house. It was also time to end their affair since Paul’s wedding was fast approaching. But events unfold in a vastly different way than Jane expects on that Sunday afternoon resetting the trajectory of her life in a way that she could not have anticipated.

Like Ian McEwan or Julian Barnes, Swift, writes eloquently of a time that we can barely imagine. Yet Jane leaps off the pages, vibrant and alive, confronting both the hard truth’s about her position in life and grabbing a hold of opportunities when and where she saw them. Told from alternating perspectives of time, Jane offers us her feelings of that Sunday from her perspective as a twenty year old and as an older woman looking back at that day and her life afterwards. At just under two hundred pages this is really more novella than novel, but despite its short length it is a profound meditation on love, and the importance of seizing life and living into its fullness.

Brenda’s Rating: ****(4 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Sharon, Marian Lauren and Keith

Book study worthy? Yes

Read in ebook format


Posted in Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction, Romance | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

The Kept Woman by Karin Slaughter

the-kept-woman_Karin Slaughter is one of my favorite authors and I have been following her characters, Will Trent, a cop with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and Dr. Sara Linton the GBI’s coroner for awhile now.  I am always excited to see what Slaughter has is in store for her characters and this book, number ten in her Will Trent Series, was no exception. For those of you who have not read Karin Slaughter, I encourage you to start at the beginning of the series to get the full impact of her style and character development.

Will has a complicated past; an orphan with a learning disability, he has now become a great investigator because of his ability to see through people and understands the ways evil works. Part of his past is his dysfunctional relationship with Angie, a fellow orphan who was also in the system with Will. But now that Will has found Sara and they have become lovers, Will has become more resistant to Angie and her manipulative ways much to Angie’s chagrin and anger.

Our story begins when the body of an ex-cop is found covered in blood in an abandoned building. The blood is not the dead cop’s but is from an unidentified woman who has disappeared from the scene of the crime. Given the amount of blood however, there is a very good chance that if if she is not found quickly she will die as well.  Further complicating this case for Will is that the site where the body was found is owned by a rich, powerful and well connected professional athlete who Will had been investigating for a brutal rape. Despite Will’s best efforts, however, he has been unable to make the case stick and the investigation has stalled.  Needless to say the athlete and his lawyers are hardly in the mood to help the GBI, given this recent history, and the cooperation the GBI gets from them is perfunctory at best. Despite these roadblocks however, Will begins to tease apart the various strands of the complicated crime scene, when suddenly he stumbles onto connections to Angie that he can’t ignore.  As his credibility within the GBI and with Sara begins to crumble, Will stakes his career and the one true thing in his life, his relationship with Sara, to find the truth and to bring a vicious murderer to justice.

Slaughter’s pacing is impeccable with twists and turns in the plot that are unexpected.   But Slaughter’s true gift is her ability to create full dimensional characters with all their flaws and brokenness, who are somehow able to surmount their limitations. Will, in particular, has had to find ways to work around his learning disability and trust issues and Sara has had to recover from the brutal murder of her husband. In this book we see Angie in a new and different way, not just as the disruptive force in Will’s life, but as a resilient, clever woman who will stop at nothing to get what she wants. Making Angie a multi dimensional character was a difficult task, since in prior books Angie has been nothing but spiteful and manipulative, But Slaughter manages to take that background and use it to create a more fully realized character, even if we still cannot quite like her or trust her. I think this is a sign of a great writer; creating a character that we might understand and see as a fully realized person even if we can’t quite like or even identify with them and maybe it was because of that that I found this to be a most satisfying read!

Brenda’s Rating: **** ( 4 out of 5 Stars)

Recommend this book to: Marian and Sharon

Book Study Worthy? Just Enjoy!

Read in ebook format.









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Year End Wrap Up for 2016

It feels impossible that another year is on the verge of ending and a new one beginning, but when I look back on this year with a wedding, some medical challenges, and some extra vacations, I can see where the time has gone and why it seemed like it went so fast!

Now on to the highlights of my 2016 reading life. The following books are my top recommendations for this year.

Confession of the lioness_I started the year with A Confession of the Lioness by Mia Couto. Set in Africa, the story follows the efforts of a hunter hired to kill a lion that is attacking villagers and oil workers. However as the hunter begins to try and track the animal, nothing is what it seems and there seem to be other malevolent forces at work that need to be confronted before the killing stops. Wonderfully written and rich with unique cultural insights, this was an impressive book.

A Little Life _A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara was a thoughtful and poignant story of friendship and the limitations of love. Following the lives of four young men as they graduate from college and try to make it in New York, Yanagihara’s  seem to burst from the pages. With lilting prose, and a plot built from the complicated relationships of these four men, Yanagihara plumbs the depths of friendship and love in such a powerful way that long after you finish, it is still apart of you.

jane-steele_Jane Steele was a complete and utterly special surprise. Based somewhat on Jane Eyre by Bronte, Jane Steele contains a much more modern sensibility even though it is set in the same time period.  “Of all my many murders, committed for love and for better reasons, the first was the most important,” says Jane Steele in the first paragraph and with that you are hooked until the final page!

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance was a powerful non-fiction book about one young man’s struhillbilly-elegy_ggle to make it out of Appalachia. Promoted widely as a way to understand why white working class voters in the fly over states were so disaffected in this election, it painted a disturbing  but real picture of the cultural and economic dynamics which create their dissatisfaction and feelings of being left behind by the new economy. Drug abuse and addiction is another part of this heart wrenching story, but despite it all, Vance was able to make it out and create a different life for himself.

ove_Finally I ended the year with A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. This is a tender and heartwarming story of a incorrigible curmudgeon whose plans for his life are foiled time and time again; first by a new family who moves next door and keeps needing him to help them and next by a stray cat who decides to move in permanently after almost freezing to death by his front door.  It seems that everyone needs Ove  just when Ove thought no one would need him at all. Funny and sobering, Backman makes us see the true humanity of Ove as he struggles to find a new purpose for his life.

Thanks for reading this blog and I hope that I will have more to share with you from my reading life in the New Year! Happy Reading from my bookshelf to yours!




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