Book Review: The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian

Title: The Lioness
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Publication date: May 10, 2022
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.

A luxurious African safari turns deadly for a Hollywood starlet and her entourage in this riveting historical thriller from the New York Times bestselling author of The Flight Attendant

Tanzania, 1964. When Katie Barstow, A-list actress, and her new husband, David Hill, decide to bring their Hollywood friends to the Serengeti for their honeymoon, they envision giraffes gently eating leaves from the tall acacia trees, great swarms of wildebeests crossing the Mara River, and herds of zebra storming the sandy plains. Their glamorous guests—including Katie’s best friend, Carmen Tedesco, and Terrance Dutton, the celebrated Black actor who stars alongside Katie in the highly controversial film “Tender Madness”—will spend their days taking photos, and their evenings drinking chilled gin and tonics back at camp, as the local Tanzanian guides warm water for their baths. The wealthy Americans expect civilized adventure: Fresh ice from the kerosene-powered ice maker, dinners of cooked gazelle meat, and plenty of stories to tell over lunch back on Rodeo Drive.

What Katie and her glittering entourage do not expect is this: A kidnapping gone wrong, their guides bleeding out in the dirt, and a team of Russian mercenaries herding them into Land Rovers, guns to their heads. As the powerful sun gives way to night, the gunmen shove them into abandoned huts and Katie Barstow, Hollywood royalty, prays for a simple thing: To see the sun rise one more time. A blistering story of fame, race, love, and death set in a world on the cusp of great change, The Lioness is a vibrant masterpiece from one of our finest storytellers.

Chris Bohjalian proves once again that he can tell a story with any subject, in any genre, and make it unputdownable. The only reason I didn’t read The Lioness straight through was the pesky issue of needing to sleep. (And even once I stopped for the night, did I dream about kidnappings and safaris? You bet I did.)

From his devastating, engrossing novel about a Puritan woman accused of witchcraft in 1660s Boston (The Hour of the Witch), the author shifts tone and subject matter completely with The Lioness, bringing us a tale of Hollywood glamor, deadly Cold War proxy wars, and the terror of being utterly defenseless in a place that has far too many ways to kill a human.

Katie Barstow is the biggest movie star of 1964 when, at age 30, she marries art gallery owner David Hill, then brings their closest friends and family with them on a luxury African safari. Led by renowned “great white hunter” Charlie Patton, they’ll travel through the Serengeti viewing wildlife and taking photographs, “roughing it” with canvas bathtubs filled by porters and living in tents, while protected by rangers and having their every need catered to. For Katie, a warm-hearted friend and sister who truly cares about the people with her, it’s the adventure and experience of a lifetime.

But within a few days, things go very, very wrong. The expedition’s camp is attacked by armed men — white men with Russian accents and over-the-top firepower — who kill several of the group’s guides ruthlessly before taking the Americans hostage. As the group is divided in two, they’re left at the mercy of their kidnappers, who don’t hesitate to use violence. The deeper they’re taken into the Serengeti, the worse their odds of survival look: Even if they do manage to escape their captors, then what? Unarmed, without provisions, alone in the wild, how long could they survive the leopards, hyenas, and other predatory animals who stalk their every movement?

In chapters that shift perspective amongst the nine members of Katie’s entourage, we follow the events of the kidnapping as they unfold, but also see each character’s thoughts and memories of their lives before the trip and the events leading up to this point. We come to understand their inner lives, their early struggles, and the individualized fears they carry with them into this moment of extreme crisis.

I won’t say too much more about the plot. It’s complex and includes twists and red herrings, but we’re always fully present in the moment with the characters. We experience the terror of these events alongside the characters, never knowing from moment to moment what might be happening to the others, what the kidnappers’ plans are, or whether what’s coming might be even worse than what’s happening at that very moment. The characters must react and choose what to do based on very limited information, always weighing the odds of survival — is it better to attack their kidnappers, or to wait and hope for rescue or ransom? Which way offers the best chance of living for one more hour, one more day?

I did find myself lacking some key information about the state of affairs in East Africa in the mid-1960s, and relied on many quick Wikipedia searches to shore up my historical knowledge enough to get better context for the plot developments. The plot is so character-driven that the historical details are really more background than essential, but it helped me a lot to have quick access to the information I needed, and helped round out the stakes, the players, and the settings of the Cold War machinations that drive the story from behind the scenes.

The Lioness is a totally engrossing read, I was low-key anxious and/or terrified throughout my reading experience. We know right from the prologue that most of the characters will not survive — but it’s not clear who survives or how events wind up until the very end. Meanwhile, we get to know each of them as individuals, and while not all are people I’d want to actually hang out with, it’s still tragic and terrible to see how, one by one, those who die meet their ends.

I rarely give 5-star ratings — I think of 5-star books as being those where I wouldn’t change a thing. And with that in mind, I couldn’t give The Lioness any less than 5 stars. I was immediately captivated, and then couldn’t look away. My emotions and my brain were engaged right from the start.

This isn’t an easy read — the subject matter is very tough to take — but the book itself is impossible to put down once you start. I’m a big fan of Chris Bohjalian’s books, and The Lioness doesn’t disappoint in the slightest. (In fact, despite having an e-ARC, I think I’m going to need a hard copy for my shelves as well).

Don’t miss The Lioness. I have a feeling it’s destined to end up on many of the “best of” lists for 2022.

Top Ten Tuesday: Top ten books on my TBR list for spring 2022

Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is about our spring 2022 reading plans. So many exciting new books to choose from!

Here are 10 books I’m especially looking forward to this spring:

  1. Leviathan Falls (Expanse #9) by James S. A. Corey
  2. The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
  3. Nettle & Bone by T. Kingfisher
  4. The Lioness by Chris Bohjalian
  5. The Emma Project by Sonali Dev
  6. Reputation by Lex Croucher
  7. To Marry and To Meddle by Martha Waters
  8. The Younger Wife by Sally Hepworth
  9. Spear by Nicola Griffith
  10. Something Wilder by Christina Lauren

What books will you be reading this spring? Share your links, and I’ll come check out your top 10!

Book Review: The Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian

Title: The Hour of the Witch
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Publication date: April 20, 2021
Length: 416 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

A young Puritan woman–faithful, resourceful, but afraid of the demons that dog her soul–plots her escape from a violent marriage in this riveting and propulsive historical thriller from the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Flight Attendant.

Boston, 1662. Mary Deerfield is twenty-four-years-old. Her skin is porcelain, her eyes delft blue, and in England she might have had many suitors. But here in the New World, amid this community of saints, Mary is the second wife of Thomas Deerfield, a man as cruel as he is powerful. When Thomas, prone to drunken rage, drives a three-tined fork into the back of Mary’s hand, she resolves that she must divorce him to save her life. But in a world where every neighbor is watching for signs of the devil, a woman like Mary–a woman who harbors secret desires and finds it difficult to tolerate the brazen hypocrisy of so many men in the colony–soon finds herself the object of suspicion and rumor. When tainted objects are discovered buried in Mary’s garden, when a boy she has treated with herbs and simples dies, and when their servant girl runs screaming in fright from her home, Mary must fight to not only escape her marriage, but also the gallows. A twisting, tightly plotted thriller from one of our greatest storytellers, Hour of the Witch is a timely and terrifying novel of socially sanctioned brutality and the original American witch hunt.

I have read quite a few books by Chris Bohjalian by now, and without fail, they’re always interesting, unusual, and thought-provoking. And while most of the books I’ve read by him have been contemporary fiction, I’ve also read two terrific historical novels (The Sandcastle Girls and The Light in the Ruins), both of which shed light on important and disturbing historical periods and show these periods through the eyes of ordinary people.

In The Hour of the Witch, the author goes several centuries into the past to bring us a story set in the Puritan settlement of Boston in the 1600s. If you’ve read stories of the early Colonial days, then the moral code and rhythm of the community’s life may feel familiar.

Mary Deerfield, at age 24, is married to a truly awful man, Thomas Deerfield, a miller. Thomas often comes home “drink-drunk” and berates her, intimidates her, and beats her. His violence escalates over time, as does his verbal cruelty — but apparently no one sees his abhorrent behavior but Mary. Their servant girl Catherine appears to be enamored of Thomas, and Mary feels such shame about her marriage that she hides her bruises and keeps the violence a deep, dark secret.

On top of the misery of this abusive behavior, Mary has not conceived, despite five years of marriage. Her “barren” state subjects her to even more abuse from Thomas, not to mention public scorn and mistrust. If she’s barren, it must be God’s will — and could that be because she’s in league with the Devil?

“Women who are barren often act strangely. It would be like an owl that couldn’t fly: it would be antithetical to our Lord’s purpose, and the animal would, by necessity, go mad.”

Mary’s troubles grow further when she innocently accepts a gift from her father, a successful importer — a set of silver forks. But in the Puritan view, these are “the Devil’s tines”, since a three-pronged implement resembles a pitchfork, and those who use the Devil’s tines must therefore be suspect of inviting in evil.

When Mary finds a pair of forks buried in her garden, she suspects that someone is trying to curse her, and when Catherine observes her in the garden with the forks, Catherine immediately suspects that Mary herself is in league with the Devil.

Thomas’s violence eventually causes severe injury and Mary flees to her parents, taking the unprecedented and dangerous step of petitioning the elders for divorce. In the book’s two sections, we see two different trials, each giving us a horrifying view of what passes for justice at that time. The magistrates follow their own set of rules, accept as evidence hearsay and superstitious signs, and have no respect for women — especially not a barren woman like Mary, who, by their logic, must be guilty of something bad in order to be deemed unworthy of bearing children.

If it sounds like a no-win situation for Mary, as well as any woman who’s unusual and perhaps not quite meek enough, that’s because it is. You can see where Mary’s situation is headed, even when she doesn’t quite believe it, and we readers know early on that Mary’s legal case as well as her domestic situation will go from bad to worse.

The Hour of the Witch presents a fascinating view of Puritan life, although it doesn’t exactly feel new or different to me. I’ve read enough history books and articles about the period to have a pretty decent sense of what a woman’s life would have been like at the time, and the notion of an outspoken woman being accused of witchcraft isn’t exactly startling.

The Puritan phrasing makes the dialogue feel slow and heavy throughout the book, with characters exclaiming such things as “Thou canst not believe that!” and “Do what thou likest” and “I thank thee”. Maybe that’s supposed to be authentic speech, but it feels awkward, especially when a character later in the book says “I feel bad that she has been dragged into this”, which could be something said in a 21st century heart-to-heart.

I did really like Mary as a character, although she makes some unwise choices along the way — but for the most part, these just illustrate how very little control a woman of the time would have had over her own life, and how even the slightest step out of line could lead to life-threatening consequences.

The Hour of the Witch feels a little simple in comparison to some of the more twisty-turvy plots I’ve read by this author, but I still enjoyed reading it. Despite the sometimes slow pace, I was invested in the outcome and had to know Mary’s fate.

If you’re interested in this era in US history, then I’d definitely recommend checking out The Hour of the Witch!

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Affiliate disclosure: As an Amazon affiliate, I may earn commissions from purchases made at Amazon through a link on this blog.

Buy The Hour of the Witch at Amazon

Top Ten Tuesday: Most Anticipated Book Releases for the First Half of 2021

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Top Ten Tuesday is a meme hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl, featuring a different top 10 theme each week. This week’s topic is Most Anticipated Book Releases for the First Half of 2021.

I highlighted some of the upcoming releases I’m most excited for in my winter TBR post from a couple of weeks ago — but it’s always fun to look ahead and make even more reading plans! So, here are ten MORE books releasing between now and the end of June that I’m super excited to read.

  1. The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah (2/2)
  2. A History of What Comes Next by Sylvain Neuvel (2/2)
  3. Later by Stephen King (3/2)
  4. An Unexpected Peril (Veronica Speedwell, #6) by Deanna Raybourn (3/2)
  5. Whisper Down the Lane by Clay McLeod Chapman (4/6)
  6. Hour of the Witch by Chris Bohjalian (4/20)
  7. Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir (5/4)
  8. People We Meet on Vacation by Emily Henry (5/11)
  9. The Soulmate Equation by Christina Lauren (5/18)
  10. Malibu Rising by Taylor Jenkins Reid (5/25)

What new releases are you most looking forward to in 2021? Share your links, and I’ll come check out your top 10!

Book Review: The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian

Title: The Red Lotus
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: March 17, 2020
Length: 400 pages
Genre: Thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.

From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Midwives and The Flight Attendant comes a twisting story of love and deceit: an American man vanishes on a rural road in Vietnam, and his girlfriend, an emergency room doctor trained to ask questions, follows a path that leads her home to the very hospital where they met.

The first time Alexis saw Austin, it was a Saturday night. Not in a bar, but in the emergency room where Alexis sutured a bullet wound in Austin’s arm. Six months later, on the brink of falling in love, they travel to Vietnam on a bike tour so that Austin can show her his passion for cycling and he can pay his respects to the place where his father and uncle fought in the war. But as Alexis sips white wine and waits at the hotel for him to return from his solo ride, two men emerge from the tall grass and Austin vanishes into thin air. The only clue he leaves behind is a bright yellow energy gel dropped on the road.

As Alexis grapples with this bewildering loss, and deals with the FBI, Austin’s prickly family, and her colleagues at the hospital, Alexis uncovers a series of strange lies that force her to wonder: Where did Austin go? Why did he really bring her to Vietnam? And how much danger has he left her in?

Set amidst the adrenaline-fueled world of the emergency room, The Red Lotus is a global thriller about those who dedicate their lives to saving people, and those who peddle death to the highest bidder.

The Red Lotus is a thriller that moves between Vietnam and New York, ratcheting up the tension until it’s impossible to put down.

We open with our main character Alexis, an ER doctor, waiting anxiously at a luxurious hotel for her boyfriend Austin to return from a solo bike ride across difficult terrain in Vietnam. He’s late, and getting later. Eventually, she reports him missing to their bike tour guides, the local police, and the American consulate, which dispatches the resident FBI representative to assist with the search.

After many hours, Austin’s body is finally found. He’s apparently been killed in a hit and run on a steep mountain road.

But we know there’s more to the story, having read a chapter from Austin’s point of view, in which he’s stopped on the road, taken blindfolded to an undisclosed location, and interrogated. Forcefully. Austin is clearly involved in something sketchy, and just as clearly, he’s in way over his head.

After identifying Austin’s body, Alexis sadly returns alone to New York, but certain inconsistencies nag at her. His injuries can’t all be accounted for as due to a hit and run accident. And why did he lie to her about his father and uncle’s service records in Vietnam? She should probably let it go, but one of her skills as an ER doctor is pattern recognition — spotting key facts and connecting the dots to find out what’s really going on. For her own peace of mind, Alexis has to know the truth about Austin and the real reason he insisted on their trip to Vietnam.

I really don’t want to give away anything more about the plot. There are many different point of view characters, and the intricacies and clues pile up quickly.

Early on, we’re aware that there’s something awful going on behind the scenes involving medical research and murky, disturbing science. How this involves Alexis and Austin is one of the driving mysteries of The Red Lotus.

Even as early as about a third of the way into the story, I just couldn’t stop reading. I had to know if my guesses were right (and some were! yay, me!), how the crazy plotlines would unravel or come together, and whether Alexis herself would end up in mortal danger (she does).

Chris Bohjalian is a master storyteller, and his books never fail to surprise me with their intricate plots and compelling characters. I loved how seemingly secondary characters in this book still got their own backstories and, in the case of the PI Alexis hires, a rich life story full of challenges, love, and loss.

Maybe I just didn’t read the synopsis thoroughly before picking up this book, but I was expecting something more focused on the aftermath of the Vietnam War — and while that does come into play, the true pulse-pounding aspect of the story is along the lines of a medical thriller.

As I said, there’s not much more I can say without giving out major spoilers, so I’ll stop! The Red Lotus is a fascinating, disturbing read, and I just couldn’t look away.

If you enjoy medical thrillers with an international setting and a brave, intelligent lead character, check this one out!

The Monday Check-In ~ 4/1/2019

cooltext1850356879 My Monday tradition, including a look back and a look ahead — what I read last week, what new books came my way, and what books are keeping me busy right now. Plus a smattering of other stuff too.

Life.

I just got back from a trip to the East Coast. It was a jam-packed week seeing family and friends, lots of fun, but I’m glad to be home and sleeping in my own bed.

And just a little highlight — while in New York for a day, I wandered by (and into) The Strand bookstore, which is such a happy place to be. This is from outside the store:

What did I read during the last week?

Hatchet by Gary Paulsen: Terrific survival story. My review is here.

Wingspan by Chris Bohjalian: I read this and two other flight-related short works this week. My thoughts are here.

The Island of Sea Women by Lisa See: Powerful and beautiful. I’ll post a review once I catch up on some sleep!

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: What a gorgeous book. This was my book group’s classic read for the past two months — and while we still have two chapters left to read and discuss as a group, I couldn’t wait, and read through to the end. I’m so glad we chose this one to read together!

In audiobooks, I finished my re-read of Trail of Lightning by Rebecca Roanhorse. I’m ready for the sequel!

Pop culture goodness:

I’m sad about Crazy Ex-Girlfriend coming to an end! The series finale is this coming Friday. The current season hasn’t shone for me the way the earlier ones did, but it’s still creative and goofy and just all-around terrific. Here’s a clip from last week’s episode that made me giggle:

Fresh Catch:

Subterranean Press was having a $10 sale, and I treated myself to two books:

And this isn’t a book, but it’s book-ish — my daughter sent me a super cute Jane Austen game!

Now I just need her to come home for a visit so we can play it.

What will I be reading during the coming week?

Currently in my hands:

A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World by C. A. Fletcher: Really great so far!

Now playing via audiobook:

Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs: It’s time for a Mercy re-read! The new Mercy Thompson book comes out in May, which means that April will be my month to revisit the most recent book in the series (and then the most recent Charles and Anna story too). And if you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out the first Mercy book, Moon Called. Maybe you’ll discover why this is one of my very favorite urban fantasy series!

Ongoing reads:

My Outlander book group is continuing our Lord John read-along with two Lord John (or Lord John-adjacent) stories from the Seven Stones to Stand or Fall collection. We’re starting the story Besieged this week — and while I’ve read it already and didn’t exactly love it, I’m hoping to get some new appreciation for it by reading it with the group.

So many books, so little time…

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What not to read before flying! Three shorts about airplane travel

It’s really not that bad…

I’m getting on a plane today, flying home from East Coast to West — so what did I read yesterday? Why, just three different short stories about air travel. And why did I choose to do that on the day before a flight? No idea, really… because they were there?

In any case, they didn’t all freak me out. They’re not all scary, but still — an odd choice, given the timing.

Here’s what I read:

 

Wingspan by Chris Bohjalian: This is a one-act play by an author who’s always terrific. The action centers on two flight attendants, one young and inexperienced, one closer to middle age and with enough years of flying and life to be both practical and somewhat jaded. As they prepare for takeoff, the younger woman’s fear of flying is obvious, and as they talk, she begins to reveal her long-held secrets that led her to this point. The dialogue is sharp and clever, showing the slow development of trust and support between the two characters. Wingspan is not frightening from a flying perspective, but it is disturbing in terms of what is revealed and what the younger woman has experienced. This is a great short read (32 pages), available as an e-book standlone. Definitely recommended.

 

Next, two shorts by the amazing Seanan McGuire, both originally Patreon stories:

Carry On: Published on Patreon in 2016, available to read online at Nightmare Magazine (https://www.nightmare-magazine.com/fiction/carry-on/):

A creepy tale that’s not too implausible. Airlines charge for legroom, carry-on bags, food, earlier boarding, the privilege of choosing seats… what’s next? Carry On takes that question to an answer that’s not all that far-fetched. Instead of making larger people buy two seats while having skinnier folks get to sit in comfort by virtue of their smaller size, why not charge by total weight? You buy a ticket based on the combined weight of you and your carry-ons — and you’d better hope you pass the pre-flight weigh-in!

Emergency Landing: Seanan McGuire’s newest Patreon story (not available elsewhere at this point):

Wow, this is one creepy story! It’s not terrifying from the flying perspective — nothing bad happens to the engines or the rest of the plane. But what happens when you’re in the air on a routine flight and learn that the rest of the world has maybe just been wiped out? This story is horrifying and disturbing in all the best ways.

So, really, nothing to put me off flying too badly, and all great reads!

And hey, at least I didn’t dive into this collection, which keeps showing up in my recommendations list:

A collection of 17 horror stories about… yes… flying, edited by Stephen King, with this tasty hint in the description:

All the ways your trip into the friendly skies can turn into a nightmare, including some we’ll bet you’ve never thought of before… but now you will the next time you walk down the jetway and place your fate in the hands of a total stranger.

I actually wouldn’t mind reading this — but not today, thanks!

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Sleepwalker by Chris Bohjalian

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

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Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

When Annalee Ahlberg goes missing, her children fear the worst. Annalee is a sleepwalker whose affliction manifests in ways both bizarre and devastating. Once, she merely destroyed the hydrangeas in front of her Vermont home. More terrifying was the night her older daughter, Lianna, pulled her back from the precipice of the Gale River bridge.

The morning of Annalee’s disappearance, a search party combs the nearby woods. Annalee’s husband, Warren, flies home from a business trip. Lianna is questioned by a young, hazel-eyed detective. And her little sister, Paige, takes to swimming the Gale to look for clues. When the police discover a small swatch of fabric, a nightshirt, ripped and hanging from a tree branch, it seems certain Annalee is dead, but Gavin Rikert, the hazel-eyed detective, continues to call, continues to stop by the Ahlbergs’ Victorian home.

As Lianna peels back the layers of mystery surrounding Annalee’s disappearance, she finds herself drawn to Gavin, but she must ask herself: Why does the detective know so much about her mother? Why did Annalee leave her bed only when her father was away? And if she really died while sleepwalking, where was the body?

Conjuring the strange and mysterious world of parasomnia, a place somewhere between dreaming and wakefulness, The Sleepwalker is a masterful novel from one of our most treasured storytellers.”

My Thoughts:

Chris Bohjalian is one of my favorite authors, and The Sleepwalker doesn’t disappoint. He can always be relied upon to deliver a read that’s compelling, hard to put down, and with the most unusual of premises. Here, it’s a mystery with a little-known and extreme form of sleepwalking at its core. Told through the character Lianna, Annalee’s 21-year-old daughter, The Sleepwalker takes us inside a seemingly ordinary and happy family to reveal the pain and conflicts wrought by Annalee’s affliction.

Lianna is an interesting point-of-view character, still on the cusp of adulthood in some ways, leaving behind her stoner approach to life when her father and sister need her most. She’s both her mother’s daughter and her own person, challenging the facts and the investigation to uncover the truth behind Annalee’s disappearance, even when she realizes that the truth may be much more painful than she’s prepared to handle.

The Sleepwalker is a domestic story with a narrower focus than some of the author’s more recent books. It doesn’t have the weightiness and overwhelming horror of last year’s The Guest Room, with its focus on sex trafficking, or the historical sweep of earlier novels such as The Sandcastle Girls or The Light in the Ruins. Still, this story of a family’s suffering is absorbing and tightly constructed, and while I tried to figure out its riddles, I found myself barking up the completely wrong tree. I won’t say more, but wow — what an ending!

Bohjalian’s books always leave a mark. The emotional impact just doesn’t let up. You really can’t go wrong with any of his books (no, I haven’t read them all, but I’m working on it!), and if you enjoy contemporary mysteries and family dramas, definitely check out The Sleepwalker.

Note: A prequel story, The Premonition, is available as an e-book download. The Premotion recounts events from four years prior to The Sleepwalker. I recommend reading The Premonition first. It doesn’t spoil anything in the main novel and gives a good introduction to the characters and setting. If you prefer not to , though, you’re fine. The Sleepwalker stands perfectly well on its own.

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The details:

Title: The Sleepwalker
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday Books
Publication date: January 10, 2017
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: I received a review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley… and then I won a hard copy of the book in a giveaway from Reading With Robin!

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Book Review: The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian

Guest RoomThe Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian is a dark, disturbing look into the world of sex trafficking, as well as a meditation on love, marriage, and the tests a relationship can withstand.

Richard Chapman — 40 years old, a well-off investment banker with a beautiful Westchester home, a lovely wife, and terrific 9-year-old daughter — has the best of intentions when he agrees to host a bachelor party for his younger brother at his home. His brother is a careless, selfish sort with a bunch of equally immature friends, but Richard figures having the party at his house is better than ending up in a strip club. And sure, everyone espects that there will be a stripper showing up — but what they don’t expect is two beautiful, young strippers who seem willing, for a price, to do much more than strip. And they definitely don’t expect the two intimidating guys who seem to be the girls’ handlers, bodyguards… or something even shadier.

Things get out of control, and quickly. And before the night is through, one of the strippers has stabbed one of the guards in the throat, the other guard has been shot, and the girls have run off, leaving behind a group of shocked and terrified men, a house that’s a bloody mess, and at least one husband with a lot of explaining to do.

Richard’s world is immediately turned upside down. He has to explain to his wife that while he was tempted by the offer of sex (and in fact, went upstairs with one of the girls), he did not actually have sex with her. He has to face the fact that the girls involved may have been minors. He has to deal with the immediate tabloid headlines about orgies in the suburbs and the subsequent damage to his reputation. And on top of all this, he can’t get the girl named Alexandra out of his mind. He went upstairs with her, even took off his clothes, but was somehow so touched by her youth and vulnerability that all he wanted to do was protect her.

At the same time, each chapter ends with a segment told from Alexandra’s point of view. Alexandra is not her real name, but it’s the name she’s used for the past five years, ever since she was lured away at age 14 from her small town in Armenia by the promise of ballet lessons in Moscow. What she got in Moscow was not ballet, but rape, imprisonment, and forced sexual slavery. Deprived of all access the to outside world, Alexandra was brutalized and forced into a life as (as she puts it) a “courtesan” and a “sex toy”. She and other girls her age are kept locked up, kept pretty, and trained to please the endless stream of wealthy and powerful men whom they service. There’s no other word for it — it’s horrifying.

The intersection of Richard’s world and Alexandra’s world blows both of their lives apart. Richard’s marriage is in crisis, his daughter is disgusted, his home feels violated, and he’s been placed on leave by his banking firm, which wishes to distance themselves from the lurid, sordid details that the press is delighting in sharing. Richard’s brother’s friends are being shady, and while Richard is not in legal trouble, he has plenty of reason to worry about his future.

Meanwhile, Alexandra and the other girl, Sonja, are on the run, but without resources — no place to turn for help, no ID or credit cards, nothing but the clothes on their backs, the cash in their pockets, and the guns they’ve taken from the dead guards. They know that they can’t stay in New York, with the Russian gangsters who own them wanting them dead, but they have no experience being free or making their own way, and have no one they can trust.

To say that this book is upsetting is an understatement. I couldn’t put it down or look away, but it left me feeling so bleak and full of despair. The fact that Alexandra’s story is fictional doesn’t mean that these sorts of things aren’t taking place in the real world. The Guest Room provides a peek into the world of sexual slavery, and it’s grim and dirty and depressing as hell.

Which is not to say that The Guest Room is not a good read. It’s actually completely engrossing, and once I started, I couldn’t stop reading. The main characters are all so well-developed that we get to really understand them as complex people, not cookie-cutter characters. Richard screws up, but he’s still a good person. He loves his wife and child, and wants to do the right thing, and still, inadvertently, brings all sorts of horror and chaos into their previously perfect lives. Richard’s wife Kristin is humiliated and hurt, but she also loves her husband and values their life together. She doesn’t always do what’s expected, and the author avoids the more clichéd roads with Kristin by showing the deeply thought-out choices that she makes.

Alexandra is a tragic, fascinating character. Seeing the world through her eyes in the parts she narrates, we get to understand what hopelessness truly is. Her voice is distinct and feels very real, and it’s incredibly disturbing to enter into Alexandra’s intensely awful existence and understand why she thinks and behaves as she does.

The Guest Room is powerful, upsetting, and impossible to put down. Chris Bohjalian is a masterful writer who seems to be at home in any genre. This book is a crime thriller, but it’s also a character study and even, in an odd way, a story about what makes a good marriage. I can’t say that it’s a pleasant read, but it’s certainly a great one.

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The details:

Title: The Guest Room
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: January 5, 2016
Length: 336 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction/thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley

Book Review: The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian

lightHave I mentioned lately how much I love the Outlander Book Club? Without the OBC’s Book of the Month discussions, I might have procrastinated about reading this book for a while longer… but instead, I read The Light in the Ruins by Chris Bohjalian for our February BOTM pick, and loved it!

The Light in the Ruins is historical fiction set in Italy, with two alternating timelines: 1943-1944, when we meet the Rosati family and learn of their experiences during World War II, and 1955, when the surviving members of the family are being hunted down and brutally murdered by a serial killer with a vendetta.

The Rosatis own a beautiful, luxurious estate, Villa Chimera, in the Tuscan hills, where they live in upper class splendor, enjoying their vineyards, horses, swimming pool, and sweeping vistas. They are linked to museums in both the local town nearby and in Florence by the discovery of Etruscan tombs on their property. The tombs attract the attention of the Nazi officials whose job it is to steal rare and valuable Italian artwork for the benefit of the Reich (or, as they put it, to “protect” the artwork from the war by sending it all back to Berlin for safekeeping).

One Rosati son, Vittore, is a museum curator, and the Germans he works with begin to visit the villa more regularly, at first just to view the tombs, but then as a place to take visitors and enjoy some pampering. The Rosatis are viewed with suspicion and more by the neighboring villagers and gain a reputation as collaborators. Were they forced and intimidated into entertaining the Nazis, or are they enjoying the extra rations and other benefits of staying on the Nazi officers’ good sides?

Meanwhile, youngest daughter Cristina enters into an ill-advised love affair with a young German officer, and daughter-in-law Francesca, known for her sharp tongue and abrasive ways, waits anxiously with her two small children for news of her husband Marco, fighting on the front lines against the Allied invasion.

Cut to 1955, and the Rosatis are being gruesomely murdered, one by one. I won’t go into detail about which family members have survived the war and which are the murder victims. You’ll find all this out in short order if you read the book, and it’s all quite devastating. The investigating police detective is a woman named Serafina, who fought as a partisan during the war and whose wartime experiences and awful injuries intersect with the fate of so many members of the Rosati family.

Meanwhile, in between the 1943 and 1955 chapters, we get snippets of first-person narration told by the killer in a chilling, detached voice, explaining just how he or she butchered his first victim and what he or she has in store for the rest.

The Light in the Ruins has a grim, inevitable feel to its escalating tragedy. The war story is the more compelling of the two storylines, and it becomes increasingly difficult to read as we progress through the books. From the 1955 chapters, we know fairly early on which family members died during the war, and we spend the rest of the book building up to the awful events resulting in their deaths. The writing is all the more powerful because of the dread in each scene; we know something very bad is coming, and can even guess some of it, but it’s still shocking and horrible to read when it arrives.

That said, The Light in the Ruins is an incredibly well-written and smartly paced book. The plot is constantly moving forward, despite the time shifts, and the clues and revelations pile up in a way that feels organic and well-ordered. Interestingly, I didn’t particularly like many of the characters, even the ones we theoretically should feel more sympathetic toward, but that in no way meant that I didn’t feel horror at their fate and their suffering.

Perhaps the only story thread that I didn’t particularly care for was the love story involving Cristina and the German officer, but it’s only one of many pieces of the whole. Otherwise, I found the connections and relationships among the many characters fascinating. If anything, I’d have liked to know a bit more about Serafina, and would be curious to know what her future holds.

The author does not shy away from describing the terrible events that occur in either timeline, and I suppose some readers will feel that the descriptions might be too graphic. I didn’t feel that way — I felt that it was important to know and understand exactly what happened in order to experience the terror of the characters and get a full sense of the tragedy. Still, for readers who are more squeamish or prefer not to see every last detail, this might be good to keep in mind.

As I was reading The Light in the Ruins, I was often reminded of the wonderful book A Thread of Grace by Mary Doria Russell — and was delighted to see Chris Bohjalian’s praise of that book in his acknowledgements. For more reading on Italy during WWII, I highly recommend A Thread of Grace.

Summing it all up: Is there anything Chris Bohjalian can’t write? I’ve now read, written by him, a legal/medial drama (Midwives), a post -disaster first-person story with a teen girl narrator (Close Your Eyes, Hold Hands), one of the spookiest ghost stories I’ve ever read (The Night Strangers), and with The Light in the Ruins, outstanding historical fiction. Clearly, I need to read much more of his work and see what other worlds and genres are contained within his books!

Meanwhile, for an excellent but heart-wrenching slice of historical fiction, I absolutely recommend The Light in the Ruins.

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The details:

Title: The Light in the Ruins
Author: Chris Bohjalian
Publisher: Doubleday
Publication date: July 9, 2013
Length: 309 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Found at a book swap!