Book Review: The Condor Song

DNyznyk_Book Cover_WebI have two compelling reasons for you to purchase The Condor Song by Darryl Nyznyk.

First, for every copy of the book purchased from Amazon on JULY 1st, author Darryl Nyznyk will donate $1 to The Sierra Club.

This is a great incentive, to be sure.   But if that doesn’t convince you that you need to delve into this suspenseful novel, then please make note of my second reason:

It’s excellent.

Many thanks to PR By The Book for sending an advance reading copy of The Condor Song.  I had not yet read the work of Darryl Nyznyk, and therefore did not have any expectations.  About 5 pages in, however, I was completely hooked.

The Condor Song is a thriller that juxtaposes a smart legal premise with daunting environmental concerns.  These themes are paired seamlessly, and masterfully.  This was more than a story about a down-on-his-luck lawyer who gets a shot at personal and professional redemption.  The Condor Song has a clear message about the environment, and how its preservation depends on the very people who are capable of destroying it.

Sean Donovan has been beaten by life.  Thanks to his decision to take a moral stand on an issue at his old law firm, he lost his prestigious job, his reputation, his wife and his children.  Left with a stuttering law practice 13 years later and few prospects, Donovan battles depression and constant self-doubt.  The salt in his wound is the fact that the morally bankrupt lawyers at his previous firm are now the top names in the Southern California legal community.

After reading about this shell of a man, you wonder how he could possibly carry a plot.  He meanders through life just waiting for the next bit of bad news.  When hope presents itself, he dashes it with self-pity.  When a new love interest reaches out, he pushes her away.  For lack of a better word, Sean Donovan is tragic.  How could it be that this man was once a leader of his legal profession?

Thanks to his mother, a potential new case suddenly presents itself, and Donovan reluctantly finds himself in the midst of a tumultuous legal battle that has thus far spanned a decade.  He initially resists getting involved; how could it be worth his while if it’s just the legal issue of an old family friend?  Peel a few layers back, and the case is clearly much more.  This elderly family friend owns a large piece of land in an untouched area of California, and there are people who desperately wish to get their hands on it.

A Walt-Disney-like company wants to build the pinnacle of ski resorts high in California’s Sierra Nevada mountains.  They’ve made every legal promise they can think of to preserve the pristine surroundings while doing so.  The trouble, however, is that it cannot be done, and The Sierra Club knows this.  Moreover, this ski resort will do more than disrupt the delicate balance of nature, it will block the survival of a bird that is teetering on the edge of extinction: the California Condor.

The resort people and their lawyers maintain that there are no wild-bred condors.  There are only those that have been bred in captivity and released into the wild, thanks to the government’s captive breeding program.  Even with the program, however, fewer than 200 of these enormous creatures exist, and the understanding was that none of them had actually bred in the wilderness.  To find proof that wild condors existed would certainly jeopardize the position of the developers.  Those with a vested interest in the project have absolutely no desire to see evidence that wild condors exist.

Cue the body count.

A renowned environmentalist who may suddenly be able to confirm their existence, and hikers who are able to capture the creatures on film are individuals who become… problematic.  Anyone, in fact, who develops a link to the endangered condor somehow manages to become as fragile as the species itself.  When there are millions of dollars at stake, is murder a crime, or simply the cost of doing business?

While Sean Donovan grapples with his personal demons, this higher calling surfaces.  This is the case that will not only make or break The Sierra Club’s battle over the Sierra Nevada mountains, but it will make or break Donovan.  With so much at stake, how will this gifted but gloomy lawyer rise to the challenge?  Is the proposed development of the area a sound idea, or a sinister plot?  Who gains?  Who loses?

Beyond the gripping plot (which propels forward with the speed of a runaway train), is a novel with characters that are extremely well drawn.  Not only did I find the flawed protagonist immensely likable, but the surrounding cast was also clever, and multidimensional.  They all worked well together, including the menacing jackals who would stop at nothing to line their wallets.  In the category of legal thrillers, The Condor Song performs beautifully.  More specifically, I didn’t find the plot formulaic, which is a genuine treat in the literary world of cookie-cutter lawyer stories.

The fact that this novel revolves around an environmental theme was an enormous plus for me.  I loved the focus on undisturbed wildlife, and the extraordinary challenge of keeping development at bay.  Keeping the wilderness pristine is no easy task, and I found myself silently cheering for Sean Donovan and The Sierra Club throughout the novel.

No matter what your literary love is, suspense or conservation, The Condor Song will be the perfect addition to your summer reading list.  This novel gets 5 stars from this Hoarder, and enthusiastic praise that proceeds from book sales on July 1st go to such a worthy cause.

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Audiobook Review: The Obituary Writer

ObituaryWriterThanks so much to Blackstone Audio and Audiobook Jukebox for allowing us to listen to The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood. The telling of this tale, which bounces back and forward from the early 1900’s  to the early 1960’s, was beautiful in its narration by Tavia Gilbert. I did find the story to be quite predictable but with Ms. Gilbert’s help and the strong characters of Vivian and Claire I did find myself enjoying it more than I thought I would. It also helps that all of the 60’s scenes reminded me a lot of AMC’s Mad Men, which I am totally obsessed with right now!

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It is 1961 and Claire is married to Peter, who is a wonderful provider to her and their young daughter Kathy. She tries really hard to be the perfect little wife– dressing to the nines each day, having dinner and drinks ready and waiting when Peter comes home from work, reading up on current events in Life Magazine so that they will have something to discuss at the dinner table, keeping the house in tip-top shape and pretending that she is mad about raising Kathy in their happy little home. But the truth is Claire is bored! Bored with her house, bored with her kid and definitely bored with her husband. The abduction of a neighbourhood boy prompts Claire into a bit of a sexual awakening and she has an affair with a man she meets while campaigning for JFK. Peter finds out about the affair after Claire discovers she is pregnant– she is not sure who the baby daddy is!

Meanwhile Vivian is a young, free spirit living in San Francisco in the early 1900’s. She meets up with a married man (David) when in her early 20s and they connect instantly. They move in together quite quickly (which is TOTALLY against the grain of the times) but they are madly in love. Their whirlwind romance is frowned upon by her BFF, Lottie– “he will never leave his wife, you know!”– but he will never get the chance. As he leaves for work one morning the devastating San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 strikes. David is never seen again and Vivian never recovers. She becomes a ghost of her former self and “falls” into the job of obituary writer to cope with her grief– she understands loss totally and completely and her obituaries become famous.

Of course, these 2 characters are somehow connected (it becomes quite clear early on in my opinion) and both stories are revealed in bits and pieces. There was just enough in each chapter that you were anxiously awaiting for more and more to be revealed. There were no HUGE shocks (well, maybe one) but it was very well written. There was a scene with Vivian and Lottie that just broke my heart in two (it had me bawling into my tomatoes– I was listening while gardening one Saturday!) and the details of both time periods were lots of fun to read (the descriptions of the Napa Valley and post earthquake San Francisco were particularly wonderfully drawn)! A bit of a cheesy story but sometimes a little cheese is delicious! 3.5 stars from me.

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Book Review: The Honey Thief

honeyMany thanks to Viking Penguin for sending a copy of The Honey Thief; a narrative that warms your heart as it shares a timeless side of Afghanistan.

The Honey Thief at first may feel like a series of self-contained short stories, but upon further delving, the reader quickly appreciates that it is an interwoven love letter to the Hazara people.  The lore of The Honey Thief spans thousands of years, and illuminates the pain and triumph of people who love their land and their traditions.  The book hinges on a long history of oral storytelling among the Hazara, and offers a glimpse of true spirit in what can be a very harsh world.

Most importantly, what of the mystery of our Afghanistan?  Is there not great beauty in the mystery?  For we are a very mysterious people, we Afghans.  We come from the long-ago, our roots go down so deep in the sand and soil and rock that we can be said to be as much a part of the land as the gundy trees and marsot bushes; we are both wild and gentle, full of anger and full of love.  (p. 253)

The Afghani culture is rich with myths and folklore.  The stories that Najaf Mazari shares in The Honey Thief may be from many years ago, but their messages are still relevant today.  This is what struck me while I was reading; that while these tales may have been passed down over generations, their lessons are still beautifully powerful.

It’s difficult to say which of the chapters were my favorites.  I had several.  I found two to be especially poignant: The Wolf Is the Most Intelligent of Creatures, and The Music School.  The Wolf chapter shared a remarkable tale of a boy, his grandfather and a wolf.  I won’t offer too much detail, but will say that I had tears in my eyes at the chapter’s close.  I loved the link that was shared between the generations, and especially between man and nature.  It was masterfully told, and I found myself reading sections of it more than once.

The Music School chapter will also stay with me for a very long time.  In this tale, a local “madman” teaches a young mute boy how to play the rubab; a lute-like musical instrument that is native to central Afghanistan.  The bond that forms between teacher and student is inspiring.  When the mute student falls in love with a girl in his village, he’s anxious to share his affection through his mastery of the instrument, but only the teacher will know when he’s ready for such a public performance.  This is a sweet chapter on countless levels, and your heart will soar when the boy finally finds his voice.

I would be remiss if I didn’t share that some of the tales in The Honey Thief are not happy ones.  There are those that will peak your compassion, and those that will stoke your anger.  Stories of warriors, ruthless dictators and death are part of this folklore, and part of the nation’s history.  Similar to life though, inner strength can be found from trials, and no matter what happens, there is always an opportunity to learn.  This message is consistent throughout the novel, and I thank Mazari and Hillman for taking such time and care to impart this wisdom.

In Afghanistan, memories are not made of air and light and colour; memories are made of iron and stone. (p.54)

The close of this book is particularly charming.  Here, you’ll discover an array of observations about the traditional foods of Afghanistan, and some of the comments actually made me laugh out loud.  In addition to describing everything from dill to tabil, there are also wonderful recipes, which invite you to experience the culture first hand.  Truly, this book was full of surprises, and I highly recommend it.

4 heartfelt stars for The Honey Thief.  I’m now anxious to pass this book along, because the stories must be told over and over.

Audiobook Review: Iscariot

judasThank you Audiobook Jukebox and Simon & Schuster for sending us the audiobook Iscariot; a fascinating and very original take on the life of one of the most despised men of the Bible: Judas.

I had some reservations before delving into Tosca Lee’s tale.  How in the world could she take this reviled historical character, and attempt to humanize him?  Would it change my understanding of who Judas was?  Would I look upon “Judas” as a man, rather than the ultimate traitor?  Would I view him as someone who deserved empathy?

I had not read Tosca Lee’s work before.  Her previous novels have included stories about Eve, and Lucian the demon, both of which have received very high praise.  With Iscariot, Lee challenges the reader to see Judas in a different light.  This is certainly no easy task, which means her writing must be well researched and compelling.  It’s an understatement to say that Iscariot is both.

The character development in this novel is mesmerizing.  From the clarity of John the Baptist’s eyes to the gaunt nature of Jesus’ first appearance, Lee drew the people of the Bible with a clear and respectful hand.  I was transfixed.  While Judas was Lee’s primary focus, she paid just as much attention to every surrounding figure.  When it comes to knowing the people of the Bible, readers will not go wanting.

The time of Judas revolved around righteousness.  Washing away sin, prayer, strict obedience to religious law… all of these things represented an impossible code that people used to measure their daily failures.  Most worked to be pure, which by description, seemed near impossible.  Even during a time of great strife thanks to the ruthlessness of the Romans, people judged character by levels of piousness.  A person’s worth was determined by his or her strict adherence to holy law.

Judas was an “unclean” character from the start.  When Judas was a young child, he saw his father’s tortured and lifeless body.  After his father’s death, Judas’ mother was forced to degrade herself to keep a roof over their heads.  Judas had a half-brother.  Despite the fact that these were things that were beyond a child’s control, Judas knew that he was “unclean” because of them.  Such circumstances plagued him, and made him question his ultimate worthiness.  As an adult, Judas did everything he could to be an honorable member of society.  But when he lost his wife and unborn child to a vicious Roman attack, he was devastated, and lost.

A chance at redemption appeared when he encountered John the Baptist.  Longing for a cleansed soul, Judas was baptized by John.  Not long after, Judas met Jesus, and everything changed.  Judas once again found himself possessing a true purpose, and that purpose was to follow Jesus.

Judas witnessed Jesus’ miracles.  He listened to Jesus’ stories.  He called Jesus his master.  He devoted his life to following this man he adored, while simultaneously describing Jesus as a paradox.  Many of Jesus’ teachings, actions and proclamations confused Judas.  He was often at a loss.  His own perceived unworthiness kept him in constant turmoil, even while Jesus advised that he was there to help sinners.  Judas never shared his personal dilemmas with Jesus.  In Iscariot, he could not bring himself to explain to Jesus why he was an ill-suited follower.  Regardless, Judas loved his master.  He was also the only disciple that Jesus called his “friend.”

As time wore on and Jesus’ enemies accumulated, the cracks in Judas’ character started to appear.  In his mind, he started questioning Jesus and his actions more and more.  Like the accusers of Jesus, Judas could not comprehend why Jesus would not perform miracles on cue to satisfy the non-believers.  Eventually, Judas’ observations were solicited by people of the church.  They wanted to know who Jesus really was.  Was he the Messiah?  Would Judas proclaim him as such?

You know how the story ends.  You know that it is written that Judas betrayed Jesus for thirty silver shekels.  In Iscariot, this was not Judas’ intention, and he wept his way through the trial and condemnation of his beloved master.  As these events unfolded, Tosca Lee’s writing brimmed with emotion.  The heartbreaking details of Jesus’ capture were almost too difficult to bear.  It was a raw and unflinching look at the death of Jesus Christ, and it was incredibly powerful.

As for this reader, do I now feel differently about the infamous Judas?  Do I now see him as a helplessly flawed man, who made the horrific mistake of trusting Jesus’ fate to the wrong people?  In his efforts to protect his master, did his own character flaws propel the death of the Messiah?  Do I now see him with a sympathetic eye?

I’m afraid not.

Despite the author’s formidable story, and her efforts to portray Judas as a loving but hapless disciple, Judas’ inherent cowardice always seemed to shine through.  After everything he witnessed, after everything that was shared with him, after he was given the gifts of trust and love, he did the unthinkable.  Yes, Jesus came for the sinners.  Yes, Jesus loved Judas despite his knowledge of what was to come.  Yes, Jesus trusted.  Yes, forgiveness is something that Jesus taught.

But even after hearing this new version of Judas’ life story, he will always be the man who betrayed Jesus with a kiss.  That’s hard to forget.

5 stars for a remarkable account of Judas.  Iscariot will stay with me for a very long time.

This audiobook was narrated by Jason Culp, and he was brilliant.  I loved the emotion that he breathed into the characters, and the perfect tones that he attributed to each.  He embodied a tortured man when speaking for Judas, and a soft-spoken loving teacher when speaking for Jesus.  This was certainly no easy task, but with Iscariot, it was beautifully done.