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Orlando Ortega-Medina – The Fitful Sleep Of Immigrants

Book Cover of Orlando Ortega-Medina's the Fitful Sleep Of Immigrants

Orlando Ortega-Medina’s third novel, publishing a few years after the almost psychedelic in atmosphere, semi-religious The Savior Of 6th Street, offers a difference to his previous books. Whereas the others have been quite individual in terms of content and specifics of genre (though they are no less fantastic for it), The Fitful Sleep Of Immigrants sees the author turning 90 or so degrees towards the mainstream; the book, whilst still sporting what could be termed classic psychological and thriller Ortega-Medina elements, offers its story to an additional audience or two.

This new novel looks at a few impactful periods in the life of one Marc Mendes, a lawyer from San Francisco via Los Angeles, via, in heritage, Cuba, Spain, Syria, and Israel. Marc’s religion, and religious and cultural heritage, as well as his sexuality, inform almost every part of this novel, and it’s to stunning effect. In the ‘present day’, which in this book is 1997, Marc is in a happy and long-term relationship with Issac, a political refugee from El Salvador. This starts to change when Marc’s law firm is approached first by a man who has been accused of murder and then, later, when Issac finds himself looking at possible deportation for illegal entry and settlement in the US. Surrounding and informing this present day narrative is Marc’s relationship history, a romance in his younger years that later took a very sorry turn.

Ortega-Medina takes these subjects and many more and handles them with aplomb. Using his unique style of writing – conversational on the surface with a tougher interior – the author takes his character on a personal and relational journey that begins with of all his life’s problems cropping back up at once. It’s fast-paced, and every so often verges on the confusing, which is absolutely on purpose. You are always with Marc and, as Marc is told himself, he can be an unreliable narrator.

The keyword of the title, ‘immigrants’ wraps around everything else in the novel, holding it together with a couple of different glues. The main aspect of the novel in a variety of ways, immigration and its link to asylum and forceful exportation comes into play in Marc’s thoughts of his family heritage and, more so, understandably, Issac’s presence and life in the US. The author’s explanation of Issac’s situation is slow with fair reason; set in the 90s, people in the US especially would have hopefully had some idea of the situation but, more importantly and more notably, Ortega-Medina asks us as readers to decide for ourselves what should be the outcome for Issac based on more than the simple laws because the simple laws do not allow anywhere near enough space for specifics; there is then the point that every case needs to be looked at personally and with empathy in addition to the idea of specifics. And so we see Issac as Marc sees him, as many people see him – a phenomenal person who has triumphed, who has given back in spades to the country he came to live in, and who has made a comfortable long life with a US citizen. When Ortega-Medina does fill you in completely, towards the end, it only adds spades more to how you feel that it is right that Issac be given the lawful right to stay.

So Issac is a wonderful character, and it would be great to hear even more from him, but here we are with Marc. Marc’s life is very messy. A key part of his progression as a character comes in the form of Alejandro Silva, a client who Marc is drawn to due to a resemblance to a past partner, Simon. Alejandro does his best to get Marc’s attention and does so on a number of occasions due to Marc’s conflation of him with Simon, and whilst the plot thread is drawn out possibly to your distraction (but utterly necessarily in terms of the book) it has a particular relevance to Marc’s life that shows itself in time.

Marc has a lot of reckoning to do with himself and as the novel continues on he gets better at it – an incredible shaky start leading to some absolutely ‘bravo!’ moments – and you could be forgiven for wondering how much time there will be for Issac’s conflict arc. Suffice to say when it gets to the climax the pace picks up, the plotting and writing is more incredible than before, and it’s nail-biting. You get a real sense for the immigration system that was in place (still is in place in many ways) and the difficulties therein for the individuals facing deportation. The end itself is a brilliant mix of ends and beginnings and of hope.

The Fitful Sleep Of Immigrants shows that what we thought was great fiction from the author previously, was but an alright opening first serve. This latest work has raised the bar significantly.

Publisher: Amble Press (Bywater Books)
Pages: 265
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-612-94263-6
First Published: 18th April 2023
Date Reviewed: 7th April 2023

I received this book from the author for review.

 
Lisa See – Lady Tan’s Circle Of Women

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Lisa See made a discovery during lockdown. As she was walking past her bookcase, she noticed a particular book she hadn’t yet read, a book about pregnancy and childbirth in Ming dynasty China; it included a woman doctor called Tan Yunxian and when See read about her she knew what she wanted to write about next1.

In Lady Tan’s Circle Of Women, See uses as a base what history tells us about Tan Yunxian, and fills the rest in with appropriate fictional detail. Having a list of cases, a small slither of information about Yunxian’s grandmother (also a doctor), and brief details from the Lady’s great-nephew who republished the book in the late 1500s, See weaves a story of a woman from a wealthy background who learns how to treat women for conditions often confined to women’s bodies, going above and beyond what a male doctor could do due. In creating her narrative, See takes Yunxian to situations that you will have to read the book to find out (it’s far too satisfying to spoil), and looks at a few closely-related aspects of life for wealthy women in medieval China.

One of these is the isolation that came with being a wealthy woman – being inside Yunxian’s head (the novel is told in a wonderful first person narrative) and See’s focus on the aspect, allows you to see the incredible downsides to such a social standing that you likely have at least some knowledge of already, here amplified to a near constant consideration. This is apt; Yunxian makes decisions always in the knowledge of what she can and can’t do, and what she can do isn’t very much. A woman in her position is a possession of men and her wants and needs are also controlled by senior women, such as her mother-in-law. See shows the restriction and limitation – as a child, Yunxian cannot leave her home. She will only leave the family compound when she marries, after which she will not leave her marital home. And then there is the fact that women who are wealthy, or who are not wealthy but destined to be bought as a concubine, must have their feet bound in order to please their future husbands, which makes the women literally unable to run. These considerations and thoughts See compares to the lives of poorer women, those with ‘big feet’, whose professions are often seen as dirty, but who can at least go wherever they want. Yunxian relies on ‘lesser’ women to give her a taste for what she is not allowed to see.

This, together with the first-person narrative, leaves a pronounced effect on the reader as you are essentially limited in your experience by the fact of being always in Yunxian’s head. But this is no bad thing; See uses this fact to remarkable effect, providing you with exactly what you have been wishing for as and when the appropriate time comes. You may well be able to close the book where Yunxian couldn’t change her life, but the unfolding of the story is highly pleasurable. Perhaps it’s not unexpected – See has been doing this writing thing for many years – but it’s no less fantastic when it happens.

This leads us to another aspect looked at closely – friendship and effective sisterhood. Yunxian makes a friend in childhood who is poor, which allows for both constant comparison of economic situations as they go through life, as well as the subject of jealousy. Jealousy has been included with a foundation of Chinese birth years – both Yunxian and her friend, Meiling, are Metal Snakes, creatures known for their stubbornness, conceitedness, but also their goodness, and See employs a variety of Metal Snake personality traits in the development of the two characters.

Sisterhood effectively extends to several other characters in the book. Lady Tan’s ‘circle of women’ includes, over various years, her grandmother, Meiling, Meiling’s mother, Miss Zhao (Yunxian’s father’s concubine), and Miss Chen (one of her father-in-law’s concubines). The lives of these women all add extra matter to the plot, which in turn leads to its epic atmosphere.

The world-building is rather electric. Yunxian’s world is so cloistered and yet there is never a dull moment, with See always keeping the days full of different conversations and the hustle and bustle of the household. You can feel the life of the household beyond the walls of any particular scene.

As said before, See gives the reader what they are after. This also applies to every question you may have and every plot thread that is begun; make no mistake, leave your question on the page and See will absolutely get back to you. No thread is ever left untied and the only things that are not completely explained are things that don’t really need to be explained.

Lady Tan’s Circle Of Women reminds us again of why Lisa See is so loved. It is another story brilliantly planned and written, an absolute joy to read despite the pain it may cause at times, and a great introduction for new audiences to a woman whose work still influences Chinese medicine today.

Publisher: Scribner (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 339
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-982-11708-5
First Published: 6th June 2023
Date Reviewed: 30th March 2023

I received this book from the author and publisher in preparation for a podcast recording.

Footnotes

1 Library Journal (15th March 2023) “New York Times Bestselling Author Lisa See Discusses Her New Novel Lady Tan’s Circle of Women”, accessed 30th March 2023

 
Kristin Harmel – The Forest Of Vanishing Stars

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Publisher: Gallery Books (Simon & Schuster)
Pages: 356
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-982-15893-4
First Published: 6th July 2021
Date Reviewed: 10th August 2022

Yona was raised by Jerusza in forests in central and eastern Europe; at twenty, Yona knows how to survive. With war beginning, she comes across a girl in the woods who has been injured; the girl is Jewish and, once better, she leads Yona to her parents, the three of them escapees from a ghetto established by the Nazis. Yona has always been alone and not lived in a society, but this is the start of years spent helping others to survive against the odds.

The Forest Of Vanishing Stars is a wonderfully told story of bravery amongst awful circumstances. Told with care, Harmel presents a story grounded in true history, showing a situation not often covered.

The history is that of over a thousand Jews who survived the war by hiding and learning to live in a forest, people who escaped death and banded together. Harmel takes the concept as her basis and includes the group as reference, creating a different, smaller group effectively led by her fictional resident of the forest, Yona.

It is Yona who makes the fiction. Taken from her German parents by an old woman with a sixth sense who sees a bad future for the then toddler if she’s left there, Yona grows up with an effective mystic who teaches her everything about survival but doesn’t stop her from learning about the outside world, just from living in it. Yona can speak many languages, can read, and knows about religion and history. She also knows how to kill.

This all means that the majority of the book takes place in the forest and Harmel does well in keeping you reading, knowing when to change things up. The fiction she weaves around the history is compelling and, when appropriate, satisfying. And Harmel tells you everything no matter how horrible – this book has one of the worst scenes of death in WW2 books I’ve read so far.

Harmel’s success, then, lies not only in the telling of her story but in the specific choices she makes. There are moments that seem very fictional but you never need to suspend your belief for them to work, however little the odds were of them happening. And the author’s care in itself, as an element on its own even, is also a big reason for the success.

Whilst the plot is inevitably highly important, character development is more so. You see the individuals, always, and you see the very human thoughts and impulses that go on even in survival mode. And again, Harmel’s dedication to her relatively small group of primary characters helps make this novel as good as it is. Whilst things do come to a head at points, and there is some spillover into the wider world, that is still small, and the vast majority of the book concerns the group living away from the war itself, in it but also outside it.

The ending is potentially a surprise depending on your own reading of the book. Either way, it provides a very suitable conclusion to the entirety. There are ‘big’ heroes and ‘small’ heroes and all help the whole.

The Forest Of Vanishing Stars is excellent. It pulls at your emotions, it involves fascinating history, it delivers satisfaction, and it’s written beautifully.

 
Megan Nolan – Acts Of Desperation

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Publisher: Jonathan Cape (PRH)
Pages: 279
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-787-33249-2
First Published: 4th March 2021
Date Reviewed: 21st June 2022

Our unnamed narrator recounts the time of her long-term toxic relationship a short while previously, showing us exactly why things happened and what happened, whether or not she fully understands it yet herself.

Acts Of Desperation is a compelling tale; the plot is scant and not much actually happens, however it is in the telling of the story that the interest lies – Nolan’s writing, both the literal words and the way she imparts meaning and uses subtext to very often show more to the reader than the narrator may even know herself, takes this far beyond the simple plot and character development it has (character development’s scant also) and elevates it to something unique, different, and of page-turning quality.

Others have produced a similar effect before but on a different ‘pathway’; the book that most reminded this reviewer of what she was reading in Nolan’s prose was Rebecca, the comparisons being in the extremely self-minded narrative (I hate to say ‘self-concerned’ because that’s not quite right) and the way the background context is so important. (There are no ‘ghosts’ in Nolan’s book and whilst there’s the equivalent of a first wife, it’s not something to be used in a comparison. Indeed liking the du Maurier is in no way a factor in how much you may or may not enjoy Acts Of Desperation no matter my comparing them.)

The book at hand is, then, the story of a young woman who is obsessed with the initial feelings of falling in love – or what she misinterprets her feelings of addictive ‘romance’ to be – who falls for a toxic older man who she thinks is a catch (unnecessary spoiler alert: he isn’t) and finds herself at the mercy of his whims. The ending that you hope for from very early on is the one Nolan delivers – that the plot is predictable may indeed be part of the author’s point.

On points, the predictability shows that women and people in general are apt to fall for the personality that we see in Ciaran (he is graced with a name when the narrator is not – likely another point), and arguably the biggest point of the novel is to show how often it happens, that it’s understandable, and to present the reasons why young people in particular get caught up in it, as well as showing hope for the future, even if that hope is tempered by the fact that true healing and personal growth away from the mindset that allows that kind of thing to happen (and its been noted many times that women are taught by society to expect certain things for a relationship to be true, so I won’t continue there) can take a while, much like this sentence. The narrator is not a completely new person at the end. She may make mistakes again – it’s likely. But they won’t be the same mistakes and it’s unlikely that she will fall for the same personality in future. We hope.

So our narrator is annoying, childish, ruminating, and utterly hard to enjoy reading about. She’s also someone to root for, understandably immature, and ‘writes’ well enough that you will speed through the book.

Is this story a thinly-veiled memoir? It’s difficult to say that it could be; unlike other novels that are situated in thoughts, there is a study here that suggests a lot of planning and research, a lot of consideration of many stories. It also doesn’t really matter.

The shortness of this review is owing to the plot and character development which, as said, by design is contained. Which is, especially considering a book tends to at least have one or the other if not both, a testament to Nolan’s talent. Is Acts Of Desperation actively enjoyable in that escapist way? No. Is it a stunning example of the literary fiction genre and enjoyable in that vein? Absolutely. This is a particular book for a particular mood and time, and you have to match those correctly. But do that and you’ll have an exceptionally literary experience.

I received this book during the promotion of the Young Writer of the Year Award.

 
Amanda Geard – The Midnight House

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It takes a village… going back to it.

Publisher: Headline Review
Pages: 418
Type: Fiction
Age: Adult
ISBN: 978-1-472-28370-2
First Published: 12th May 2022
Date Reviewed: 2nd June 2022

Ellie has moved back home to her mum’s farms in County Kerry; a ruined engagement and career have left her running for a retreat to a slower-paced location. Given a box of secondhand books by her mum’s friend, she finds an old letter hidden in one of them; a woman in the 1940s tells someone she’s able to get away and where she’ll be going. There’s an unsolved mystery to do with the family at the big house nearby and as much as Ellie’s come back to Balinn to get away from anything like this, she can’t resist it.

The Midnight House is a triple third-person narrative tale of secrets, the restrictions of class – upper, here – and, arguably, the value of community in Ireland. Told via a wholly historical war-time narrative, a not-as-historical 1950s narrative, and a contemporary narrative, the book explores its issues and questions with a careful hand, ending in a highly satisfactory conclusion with a couple of ending pages that are a wonderfully pleasant surprise and beg a literary consideration of what a happy ending can comprise of.

Geard has made an interesting and ultimately highly successful choice in the way she goes about revealing details of her mystery – the vast majority, particularly in terms of the historical mystery (I think we can call Ellie’s reason for being in Ballinn a ‘reader’s’ mystery) are given pretty freely. We’re not talking predictability here, nor red herrings that are easy to guess – Geard offers you the information on a plate, almost as though it wasn’t supposed to be a mystery. The success, then, comes in the last pieces of information, which you don’t get until a while later. I realise it may seem too open to write about it but I reckon Geard’s plans are good enough it won’t spoil it – the last pieces you are left with seem quite mundane at first but this is perhaps part of the plan; with your guard entirely down, Geard comes in with answers to pertinent questions you likely haven’t thought of before. It’s entirely thrilling and well done, effectively causing you to re-examine and consider what makes a mystery narrative and whether you might be just that bit too used to a general formula.

We’ll leave that there.

What is left out completely in these ‘easy’ servings is the raison d’etre of the contemporary plotline, Ellie’s homecoming. The details help to ‘place’ the novel but their early introduction could well have given too much away about the novel’s structure and would have spoiled the journey of Ellie’s character development. This is important because whilst Charlotte – the main character who doesn’t get a narrative – isn’t the same as Ellie, couldn’t be, due to their respective societies and time periods, there are enough similarities to mean that Ellie’s discovery of Charlotte but, more so the reader’s discovery of Charlotte (because no present day character can find out everything a reader can) affects her own plotline, the part that is informed by her ‘detective’ work but is not critical to it.

On the narratives, then, we have one from Nancy in the 1940s (beginning in 1939), Nancy’s daughter, Hattie, in 1958, and Ellie’s 2019 narrative. They’re all pretty similar in terms of narrative strength; there’s perhaps less time for Hattie but that’s simply due to her overall role, and she appears elsewhere, balancing it out. Nancy’s is perhaps the most important – it deals with particular details and is where the historical information can be found.

Through Nancy’s narrative we learn a bit about the difference in approach to WW2 – Britain’s entry into it, Ireland’s neutrality – and a bit about the elite from the regular person’s perspective. While neither are the focus, they do add to the charm of the narrative, helping it further stand out from the others.

Community is a big part of the novel. Ellie is very, very, often at the coffee shop, she’s very often seeing the same secondary characters, characters who are sometimes (not always) there purely to facilitate this. In most other novels this wouldn’t work, but with Geard’s setting and the overall idea in place of coming home to a more friendly, closer-knit location, it gives the book that added reality, especially as reality often means hanging out at the same places.

We really need to talk about Charlotte, the main character who does not get her own running narrative and only appears in the novel from others’ perspectives – Charlotte is the subject. She’s always there; the novel is effectively hers. As you’d expect, she’s got quite a personality, wants to be more ‘regular’, wants real love and to work and to do the rest that the working classes do. And to some extent she does.

A now-repeating phrase: let’s leave it there.

I can’t finish this review without mentioning the epilogue. It’s fantastic, and I don’t think it’s revealing too much (because I don’t want to spoil it here) to say it does an excellent job of asking you to consider what happiness means; it’s a happy scene for the character in it. Top marks to Geard; this and the couples of pages prior are absolutely grand, the kind of satisfying and literary ending you want.

The Midnight House, then, does some subverting, some surprising, and some questioning. With Geard unafraid to be open with her answers in order to play the long game you get a good pace – easy reading at first and great speed at the point of reveal. It has the cosy mystery as well as the thrilling whodunit all in one book and an ending to savour well beyond the last page. Great stuff.

I received this book in preparation for a podcast.

 

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