Book Review: Return to the Aegean

return to aegeanThank you to E.J. Russell for sending Return to the Aegean to us in exchange for a review. I quite enjoyed reading it and it was a story that had my attention from the very beginning. Here was a fine story of a twin sister returning to her homeland to uncover the truth behind the death of her beloved brother. Return to the Aegean tells of a wonderful story of a sister’s pain and heartbreak and quest for true understanding of a traumatic event that occurred in her family 13 years prior.

Return to the Aegean is the story of Thalia, the child of Russian emigres to Greece, and of her return to the Greek island of her childhood to uncover the mystery surrounding her brother’s and mother’s deaths. Following these traumatic events she fled the island in an attempt to forget about it while pursuing a career as a marine archaeologist.  However, Thalia increasingly finds herself unable to put the past behind her and feels unsettled that something is amiss about that night they found her brother.

That wound healed long ago, but my brother’s absence never did. This love is scarred and flawed, it ripples around me, echoing the ebb and flow of my consciousness. I can’t abandon my brother’s memory to half remembered fictions any more. I need the truth.

Although it causes much pain and discomfort for Thalia and those that have remained on the island, Thalia is determined to piece together the events that led up to and included that terrible night when her brother was found dead and her mother missing. Not everyone is pleased to see Thalia’s return however and once she discovers it was murder that took her beloved brother from her, she becomes all that more determined to uncover the truth. The truth however, may not be what Thalia truly wants to discover. In the end, she is boldly able to confront those that victimized her family and covered up the truth of what happened to her mother and brother that one fateful night. In doing so, Thalia realizes the island is her true home, and putting aside those inner demons she once again fully embraces her life as it is meant to be lived, on that little island in Greece.

“Lambi had been my twin, my best friend, my protector, my inspiration to be better. Without him on the island, I foolishly believed there was no reason to stay. “

Russell adeptly draws you immediately in to the story and I found I was intrigued to continue from the very first pages. She wonderfully conveys the love, importance of family and community in the Greek culture along with the beauty of the Greek islands, and superbly describes each of her characters involved.

If you are looking for a solid story with hints of mystery, I do recommend Return to the Aegean. While there are parts containing some erotic writing, they do not overpower the story and can easily be skimmed over if they are not your taste, as I did. 🙂 Thank you again Ms. Russell, it was indeed a pleasure to read!

Book Review: Wichita

Wichita, by Thad Ziolkowski, was chosen for the Opinionless Virtual Book Club meeting for August. Originally, it was chosen solely on its title, as Opinionless member Michelle threw it out there saying she lived for a short period of time in Wichita and was very interested in reading the book. And then we received the news that Thad Ziolkowski would join us online for our August meeting, so Wichita was confirmed!

We often say here at the Literary Hoarders, that the Opinionless club has consistently challenged us in reading books we normally would not have considered, and Wichita was no exception. And, as we again often say, we do appreciate the challenge because it often provides a reading gem that might have been missed if we had stuck to an earlier impression. Wichita is not something I would consider a favourite or anything, but I would be lying to you if I told you I didn’t enjoy it at all. There’s just something that makes you feel better about your family and its quirks and quarks when you find another family that is way off the rails, such as the one Wichita presents to us in the Chopiks. There are many moments throughout this story too that made it something I was glad to have had the opportunity to read.

Also, just after this book club meeting, ran an interview for its author series with Thad, and you can read that here. The interview does touch upon some of what was discussed during our Skype meeting, but I don’t think it captured what a real pleasure it was to speak with Thad. And to find out that so many of the characters are based on his own family members made the book all that more interesting. Speaking with Thad on that Tuesday night added a great dimension to this book. The opening chapter and the final 3-4 chapters truly make this book a good one to pick up. You can really feel the deep feelings and emotions for Seth that Lewis has, despite the chaos and conflict that follows him wherever he goes. And to learn that Seth is very much based on Thad’s real brother made you feel that much more closer to Lewis and understand that even though Seth caused so much pain, he was Lewis’ only brother and he truly loved him.

Again, I do have to say the final chapters of this book really make the story and Wichita has one of the better endings I’ve read in a novel in quite some time. Given the added benefit of speaking with Thad too, and discovering how much of this novel is autobiographical, it makes it easier to move beyond the parts of the story that dragged, or were repetitive in nature. I mean, there is only so much drug-induced craziness I cared to read about and it was clearly understood that Seth is an unbalanced person, I just felt I didn’t need to read several different versions of it. Therefore, I’m giving this one a 3 star rating.  The ending really makes it, it really does.

If you would like additional opinions on the novel, please find Aaron’s (well written)review here and Wichita was featured in the New York Times Sunday Review, which you can read here.

Review & Discussion Details: The World Without You

The world without you. Is it really any different now that you’ve gone? In Joshua Henkin’s latest novel, The World Without You, the Frankel family gathers in their summer Berkshire home for a memorial to their lost son, brother, uncle and father. Leo was the youngest, the only boy in the family, and a journalist covering the Iraq War. He was killed on July the 4th. It’s been one year since this tragedy and his wife, sisters, nephews and parents have not seen each other much over the past year following the funeral. Over the holiday weekend, they will travel from all over to come together and hold a memorial service marking the one year passing.

Inside the pages of The World Without You, Mr. Henkin unveils some of the most authentic and fascinating characters in Gretchen, Lily, Noelle, Clarissa, David, Thisbe, Amram and Marilyn (there are others too, but these are definitely the most notable!). And through Leo’s spouse, siblings, and parents the question of, is the world really any different without you, is sought. Does it take bringing the family together again as a way to recognize and realize the tragedy of their individual lives and to base their despair solely on the loss of Leo? Or was it just a matter of time and would they have fallen to pieces with or without him alive in their world?

The World Without You also features some of the best and well-written sibling rivalry between sisters and interaction between the daughters, their spouses and parents I have read in a long, long time. Again, extremely authentic. So authentic to me I actually thought I was standing in the doorway watching my own family come together during a holiday dinner!

All I know, Gretchen says, “is that I’m surrounded by blood relatives, but it’s the people who have married into this family who have shown the most character.”

The Opinionless Virtual Book Club held our own Q&A with Joshua on the evening of July 30 where we had the great pleasure in asking him questions about the novel, his inspiration, and his upbringing, to name just a few. We asked him questions about growing up with sisters as he writes with exceptional insight and predominantly from the female point of view? (he simply nailed that dynamic!) and shockingly, no, he grew up with all brothers!

We also touched upon the subject and any connection to Daniel Pearl by creating the character of Leo as a journalist instead of a soldier, during the Iraq war. Joshua notes he was quite aware of the connection yet there was no concious decision concerning Daniel Pearl, he was not writing about him specifically. He simply didn’t want Leo’s death to be about cancer, or a car crash. The Frankels are a politically astute family and therefore this scenario was a much better fit. He also touched upon the point about Leo dying on July 4th, a date when most Americans are celebrating, not mourning like the Frankel family.

Thank you Mr. Henkin for a wonderful hour spent chatting with you! Your insight and charm were a delight! Random House also held a Q&A session with Joshua and you can read this here, for further insight.

I’m now quite interested in reading his previous novel, Swimming Across the Hudson!

For other opinions of The World Without You, please visit these sites: Opinionless; Bagels, Books & Schmooze and

Review: American Dervish

Since both Penny and Jackie read American Dervish for our Wink 3 Book Club, we decided to provide our reviews under the same post. Let’s see if we are of the same opinion.  🙂

Synopsis (From Goodreads) Hayat Shah is a young American in love for the first time. His normal life of school, baseball, and video games had previously been distinguished only by his Pakistani heritage and by the frequent chill between his parents, who fight over things he is too young to understand. Then Mina arrives, and everything changes.
Mina is Hayat’s mother’s oldest friend from Pakistan. She is independent, beautiful and intelligent, and arrives on the Shah’s doorstep when her disastrous marriage in Pakistan disintegrates. Even Hayat’s skeptical father can’t deny the liveliness and happiness that accompanies Mina into their home. Her deep spirituality brings the family’s Muslim faith to life in a way that resonates with Hayat as nothing has before. Studying the Quran by Mina’s side and basking in the glow of her attention, he feels an entirely new purpose mingled with a growing infatuation for his teacher.
When Mina meets and begins dating a man, Hayat is confused by his feelings of betrayal. His growing passions, both spiritual and romantic, force him to question all that he has come to believe is true. Just as Mina finds happiness, Hayat is compelled to act — with devastating consequences for all those he loves most.

Penny’s Thoughts on American Dervish: Wow. And I think that can sum it up entirely. Wow. Or another one: Intense. Very intense. It was intense and powerful and wonderful too. I am going to give it 5 stars. I thought, hmmm, 4.5? But no, let’s just go ahead and assign the full 5 here. According to our new and improved rating system, it reads that a 5 star is one of the best books I’ve ever read. Okay, so a 5 star may be strong, but this was seriously one intense book and I really really liked it a whole lot. It left me breathless, anxious and a few times I had to put it down, get up and walk around to shake it off.

Remember those sayings about taboo subjects for conversation? As in the only safe conversation is about the weather? And you never ever bring up religion or politics? Well, Mr. Akhtar here brings that point home with crystal clear clarity. Wow, does religion ever stir up so much emotion, controversy and intensity.

There are so, so, so very many passages in here that have my sticky notes attached, passages that I wanted to include here, but I’m afraid I would make this review 3 pages long and Jackie wouldn’t have any room left! I don’t want to do that to her. But honestly I’ll just advise you to read the whole book yourself. You will not be disappointed.

Around page 200 was when the liberal sticking of sticky notes began to fly! I honestly had to get up and walk around the room and take a break because the intensity with which the story was progressing was incredible and again intense. It’s a word I can’t stop using to describe American Dervish. And around this page 200 is when you clearly realize that Mr. Akhtar has very harsh, furious and sharply critical things to say about devote Muslim men and their “sheep-like” following of their religion. And that he casts a clearly sympathetic viewpoint towards Jews and women.

The interpretation of the Quran by the men is harshly criticized and written to show their interpretation as ignorant and cruel, yet Mina’s teaching of the Quran to Hayat is done in a beautiful magical way, more to demonstrate the underlying beauty of its teachings.

Mina says to Hayat repeatedly, “Remember what I always told you. Intention. That’s all Allah cares about.”

These conflicting interpretations are what Hayat agonizes over and results in an event that changes Mina’s life forever and is one that Hayat feels is entirely his fault and everyone’s undoing is entirely because of his actions. He is deeply confused by the two varying interpretations.

Just as Souhef had said Jews were. So ungrateful that it made him blind to the very truth he had heard that afternoon and that could have saved him. What I was seeing before me, I thought, was the very reason that Allah turned his back on Bani Israel. The Quran is right, I thought. They will never change.

Akhtar does not let the story peter out in the final chapters either, oh no, he’s just getting started here! It becomes an (again here comes that word) intense flurry of cruelty and emotion and superb storytelling.

It’s an amazing journey we take with Hayat and it’s one that I can’t get out of my mind.

Recently, a story in our own city, and university (shamefully) took place that demonstrates these underlying emotions religion can evoke. You can read the story here.

Jackie’s thoughts on American Dervish: Well, I just closed the book and still have a tear to wipe from my eye! Yes, this was an extremely powerful book! Very intense and very eye-opening. Add Ayad Akhar to the growing list of authors whose first novel has turned out just FANTASTIC. I will definitely be interested in reading more from this guy!!

What I loved most about this book was the balance. Akhar was able to perfectly illustrate how there can be both beauty and ugliness in the religion of Islam– just as there can be in any organized religion when taken to the extreme. The Quran, like the bible, was written by man, with man-made ideas and interpretations– most often benefitting man himself and not the “god” they supposedly worship. Both the Prophet Muhammad and Jesus Christ lived their lives on earth spreading the message of love, peace and tolerance– how that message ever got twisted into violence, abuse and persecuting others that don’t share the same beliefs is a mystery to me!

Remember what I always told you. Intention. That’s all Allah cares about. ~Mina

The character of Hayat illustrated so well that the idea and intention of religion is complex. He starts out with a childlike vision of god and heaven from his beloved Auntie– that learning the Quran would help him to find love through Allah in everyday things and if he truly followed the teachings he would be guaranteed a spot next to her and his parents in the afterlife. He hears a totally different version of its interpretation at the mosque and within the Pakistani community– one that is much more full of hatred and intolerance. This leaves Hayat to question which version is right. When he is made to feel a fool publicly because of his interpretation by “leaders” of the community and sees the suffering his Aunt has to go through because of her beliefs Hayat’s bubble is so sadly burst that he abandons the religion he has loved so much for a long, long time to come.

Apart from the religious turmoil in Hayat’s life I also had to feel sympathy for this boy’s rocky family life. His parents’ constant fighting and their insistence of putting him in the middle just broke my heart! I could feel sympathy for his mother for living with the philandering ways of his father but I could not STAND the way she would go over every detail with her son! To force a child to divide loyalties between parents makes me completely sick! I know way too many people in real life who do this sort of thing and then wonder why their kids have trouble coping. Sad, sad, SAD!

This was really a great read! It was just long enough to evoke the proper emotion but it was not too long to that you started to skim to get to the end– you wanted to savour every word! (I was so glad to see Nathan again at the end– even tho not all was revealed, it did provide a great closing to a great story!) I can agree with Penny on the rating– I was going to say 4 but can easily bump it to a 4.5 and then round up to a 5– how’s that for a mathematical and logical overall rating?? LOL. Read. This. Book.