Thursday, 31 March 2016

In The Land of Armadillos by Helen Maryles Shankman

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In The Land of Armadillos by Helen Maryles Shankman
Pages: 304 (Hardback)

Genre: Magical Realism, Folklore, Holocaust, Short Stories
Publisher: Scribner
Source: Publisher via NetGalley

Recommended for fans of:
David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas, Sun-Mi Hwang's The Hen who Dreamed She Could Fly

A radiant debut collection of linked stories from a two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, set in a German-occupied town in Poland, where tales of myth and folklore meet the real-life monsters of the Nazi invasion.

1942. With the Nazi Party at the height of its power, the occupying army empties Poland’s towns and cities of their Jewish populations. As neighbor turns on neighbor and survival often demands unthinkable choices, Poland has become a moral quagmire—a place of shifting truths and blinding ambiguities.

Blending folklore and fact, Helen Maryles Shankman shows us the people of Wlodawa, a remote Polish town: we meet a cold-blooded SS officer dedicated to rescuing the creator of his son’s favorite picture book, even as he helps exterminate the artist’s friends and family; a Messiah who appears in a little boy’s bedroom to announce that he is quitting; a young Jewish girl who is hidden by the town’s most outspoken anti-Semite—and his talking dog. And walking among these tales are two unforgettable figures: the enigmatic and silver-tongued Willy Reinhart, Commandant of the forced labor camp who has grand schemes to protect “his” Jews, and Soroka, the Jewish saddlemaker and his family, struggling to survive.

Channeling the mythic magic of classic storytellers like Sholem Aleichem and Isaac Bashevis Singer and the psychological acuity of modern-day masters like Nicole Krauss and Nathan Englander, In the Land of Armadillos is a testament to the persistence of humanity in the most inhuman conditions.

What I Thought:
These intertwined short stories take place in Wlodawa, a small village in Poland during WWII during the nazi occupation and include:

1 In the Land of the Armadillos, narrated by a nazi officer;
2 The Partizans;
3 The Messiah;
4 They Were LIke Family to Me;
5 The Jew Hater, the second story narrated by a nazi officer.

I adored everything about this book from the cover artwork (the author's own) depicting two of the 'fictional' characters from the titular story of the book, to the exquisite prose and narrative of each of the interconnected short stories.

Holocaust written as magical realism fiction ! ... Surely that cannot do justice to the horrific mass murder of so many during this evil period in history.  However, Helen Maryles Shankman has written a beautiful rendition full of mysticism and religious folklore about her characters and married the horrific reality with magical realism perfectly. In an interview with review blogger, Jeffrey Keen, she says; "...Magic is the only way I can approach the horror of what happened across Europe in 1945. Without it, all that is left is grim, inexplicable reality..."

Source: Review and interview:

The stories in this book so affected me that they tore a hole in my soul and I literally cried as the emotive scenes played out, but ultimately I also felt a spark of hope and faith in the eventual power of good triumphing over evil. I held my kindle to my chest on numerous occasions after reading such powerful passages.

In The Land of Armadillos is a book that sucked me in, halted me in my tracks and made me think and evaluate, even reevaluate the actions of certain individuals ... simply stunning, moving, and uplifting ... I want everyone who has a heart to experience this masterpiece. An awe inspiring book that will stay with me for a very long time.

You can read more about In The Land of Armadillos and Helen Maryles Shankman here:

Disclaimer: A complimentary copy of In The Land of Armadillos was provided by Scribner via Netgalley in exchange for an honest unbiased review.


Beneath Still Waters, Cynthia A. Graham
Genre: Contemporary/Historical/Murder Mystery/Deep South/PTSD
Pages: 224
Publisher: Blank Slate Press (31 March 2015)
Source: TLC Book Tours/Publisher


The swamps and bayous around Cherokee Crossing, Arkansas have always been dark and mysterious, but on this summer day two boys stumble across the remains of a baby girl, headless and badly decomposed.

Hick Blackburn, a reluctant sheriff with a troubled past is called to the scene. With nothing to go on except the baby’s race and sex, the task of discovering who she is and how she died challenges all of Hick’s investigative skills. But Hick faces a deeper challenge. The vision of the infant has left him shattered, a reminder of a war crime he has tried to lock away, a crime that has begun to eat away at the edges of his life, destroying him one relationship at a time.

With the aid of his deputies, Hick will begin to piece together his investigation, an investigation that will lead him to question everything. As he is forced to examine the town he grew up in, he will come to terms with the notion that within each of us lays the propensity for both good and evil. His investigation will turn up lies and ignorance, scandal and deceit, and the lengths a mother will go in order to hide her shame.
Book Description

Graham has written an engrossing and deeply thought provoking southern gothic tale about the good and bad in human nature and of the demons which haunt and torment the particular characters in her novel, and of how they cope (or not) and justify their, at times misguided, actions.

Beneath Still Waters is a murder investigative tale with a troubled love story running parallel and historically through it. Although not as dark or violent as some crime novels I've read it does have disturbing themes such as infanticide and its relative autopsy details which in my view was done sympathetically and very realistically without being too gross or in anyway excessive.  However, because some readers may find such issues disturbing, I wouldn't recommend it to those sensitive to such topics.

One quibble I did have was that the last 10% or so was used to tie-up, 'all of', the loose ends, including ribbons and bows. This resulted in the previous easy pacing becoming rushed, and for me had a 'Miss Marple' convenient ending. Some of the less fleshed out characters from this point onwards became fuller bodied and it is with respect to these characters that I think it would have been best left for the follow-up book.

Even with my one 'teeny tiny' quibble, I enjoyed Beneath Still Waters very much and am looking forward to reading Graham's follow-up novel, Behind Every Door, which takes place a few years later, (publish date, 22 March 2016).

Disclaimer: A complimentary digital copy of Beneath Still Waters was provided by the publisher via TLC Book Tours in exchange for an honest unbiased review.

About Cynthia A. Graham:
Cynthia A. Graham has a B.A. in English from the Pierre Laclede Honors College at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. She was the winner of several writing awards during her academic career and her short stories have appeared in both university and national literary publications. Cynthia is a member of the Historical Novel Society, the St. Louis Writer’s Guild, the Missouri Writer’s Guild, and Sisters In Crime. Beneath Still Waters is her first novel.

Cynthia A. Graham's TLC Book Tours TOUR STOPS:

Thursday, February 11th: Buried Under Books
Wednesday, February 17th: Bewitched Bookworms
Thursday, February 25th: Bibliotica
Monday, February 29th: Stranded in Chaos
Wednesday, March 2nd: Life is Story
Friday, March 4th: From the TBR Pile
Monday, March 7th: Kahakai Kitchen
Tuesday, March 8th: Kritter’s Ramblings
Wednesday, March 9th: Patricia’s Wisdom
Thursday, March 10th: FictionZeal
Friday, March 11th: Luxury Reading
Monday, March 14th: SJ2B House of Books
Tuesday, March 15th: Mockingbird Hill Cottage

The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman by Robin Gregory

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The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman
Robin Gregory

Genre: Teenage/Young Adult, Magical Realism & Coming of age
Publisher: Mad Mystical Journey Press
Source: Digital ARC via instaFreebiedotcom
Pages: 310 (Paperback)

Unfinished - DNF at 38%
Moojie Littleman has never been much good at controlling his spiritual healing powers. Abandoned at birth to a convent in 1892, he amuses himself by magically snuffing out candles with the blink of an eye, or by sending objects into flight with the power of his mind. When he doesn't get his way, he causes the wind to rip off the nuns' veils and flash their knickers. He is not much good at being part of a family either.

Adopted before his first birthday, his parents soon realize that he cannot walk or talk or learn like most children, and he has a whopping temper. When Moojie is eight years old, he performs a healing miracle, and also loses his mother to a freak accident. His disapproving father sends him to live at St. Isidore's Fainting Goat Dairy with his grandfather, and then disappears.

Moojie's outcome lies in the balance as he strikes up a forbidden friendship with an otherworldly clan of outcasts who call themselves the Light-Eaters. When a natural disaster strikes, Moojie must decide whether to escape through a portal into another universe with the clan and the girl he loves or save the only family he has, therefore fulfilling a surprising destiny.

What I thought:
I loved the eye catching beautiful cover for this one and thoroughly enjoyed the first few chapters. The characters were well penned and an intreaguing plot-line looked promising. I prepared myself for full immersion into Moojie's magical realm.

Moojie's character developed from being a disabled and weak child into a more mature, much stronger individual drawing strength from his weaknesses. At about the 100 page mark the narrative seemed to lose its way becoming disjointed and began to drag. Conversations between the Light-Eaters and Moojie I found perplexing and rather irritating. I didn't 'get' the Light-Eaters...either what they were or what their purpose was, and quite frankly I felt alienated to such an extent that I lost interest in reading any further.

It maybe that had I persevered with the story I would have been rewarded with a truly magical fantastical adventure just as the majority of readers say they had. However due to my lack of involvement with certain characters and the puzzling elements of the storyline I aborted my reading of it around 38%.

Disclaimer: I'd like to thank the author for providing me with a complementary digital copy for my honest thoughts on this book. Although not entirely to my liking I believe it will be a real treat for other readers.

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The Improbable Wonders of Moojie Littleman is Robin Gregory's debut offering and although I didn't finish reading it, I did think it shows huge potential and would certainly like to see what she writes next.

Monday, 21 March 2016


My absolute favourites with ratings of 5/5 are, In The Land of Armadillos and Man Falls in Wilmslow with The Crow Girl, The Last Policeman and The Bottoms with ratings of 4/5.

That leaves Fellside with a rating of 3.5/5 and I have to say that after the phenomenal success of The Girl with all the Gifts I was a little disappointed with this one.

Monday, 7 March 2016

The Devil All The Time by Donald Ray Pollock

The Devil All The Time
Donald Ray Pollock
Publisher: Vintage Publishing
Source: Purchased (Waterstones)

*Content: Scenes of violence, mental and physical abuse, & truck loads of swearing*


So glad that I've read a run of really good books lately. I get a little disheartened when I try not to but have to abandon more than two books in a row. The latest few have been seriously good in my opinion and I will endeavour not to gush overly, which will, believe me, be hard not to do.

First up is, Donald Ray Pollock's debut novel, 'The Devil All The Time':

..."Unless he had whiskey running through his veins, Willard came to the clearing every morning and evening to talk to God. Arvin didn't know which was worse, the drinking or the praying. As far back as he could remember, it seemed that his father had fought the Devil all the time.”...

The Devil All The Time is unbelievably, the debut novel from Donald Ray Pollock. I couldn't fault it in any area. This gritty, perverse tale of interlinked short stories flows seamlessly from one narrative into another, then back again.  Written in the 3rd person narrative it is a deliriously twisted intensely gratuitously violent tale with deeply religious and Gothic under­tones.

It is an insightful character driven story about several complex tragic, manipulative and predatory personalities who live in and around rural southern Ohio and West Virginia during the late 1950's and 1960's.

One of the narrative perspectives is of Willard Russell, a traumatised WWII veteran returning from the bloody battle front at the end of the war.  On his journey home he sees a beautiful waitress at The Wooden Spoon Restaurant. He is instantly smitten, pursues and ultimately asks her to marry him.  It is during Charlotte's agonising terminal illness that he becomes increasingly unbalanced and resorts to disturbing prayer rituals and sacrifices in order to bring her back to her former health.

Caught in the middle of all this is Arvin, Willard and Charlotte's son who is forced to participate in the rituals. Despite an increasing intensity of praying and sacrificial offerings Charlotte dies and after further tragic events the traumatized Arvin is sent to live with his grandmother.

The imagery is strong and highly emotive with descriptions of Willard's traumatic experiences during the war witnessing at one juncture a crucified soldier, and later of the sacrificing of a dog. Pollock teases us with plots and sub plots. Gives faint glimmers of people about to do right and then dashes your hopes when they do not follow through with their good intentions.

Nothing good ever seems to happen to anyone and I was constantly waiting to find out about the next piece of bad luck or misfortune to befall the next victim.  Its like road crash tv, you want to, OK...feel as if you should, turn away but are just too compelled to witness what these sad, miserable and often violent individuals will do next.

Amongst the multitude of compelling characters are:

Carl and Sandy Henderson, husband and wife who like to pick-up hitchhikers during their road trip vacations. Torture and then kill their prey whilst taking photographs for keepsakes;
The town's corrupt sheriff Lee Bodecker;
& travelling theatrical preachers Roy, and his crippled sidekick guitarist Theodore;

I don't want to detail too many of the townsfolk as I don't want to spoil the thrill of finding out about them as their woeful tales unravel.  However all the narratives are entwined and story lines converge in the novel's grand finale, which at long last may give a tiny glimmer of hope, for one individual at least.

The Devil All The Time is an uncomfortable tale about the darkness of human nature and the lengths people are prepared, willingly or reluctantly to go to when there is poverty, lack of education, loss of faith and little hope of ever escaping from such a miserable existence.

The Devil All The Time will not sit comfortably with everyone especially if you do not like violence, or a serious amount of swearing but if you enjoy extremely well written, clever plot lines about skank hillbilly townsfolk, serial killers, and a plethora of other perverted undesirables, I highly recommend it for those who can stomach it.

Favourite quote: "Some people were born just so they could be buried",
Lee Bodecker, Sheriff

Character most liked: A difficult one. I guess Arvin as he had an unimaginably miserable childhood and I desperately wanted his life to turn out better for him.

Character most disliked: Too many to choose from but I'll say it has to be Carl Henderson a psychotic, manipulative personality. Such an unsavoury slob of a character. Pollock's superb depiction of grotesque behaviour and mannerism of this character evoked such vivid imagery and that the smell of his bad breath and foul unwashed body odour almost had me gagging as it seeped from the pages.

'Knockemstiff' Pollock's collection of short stories published before The Devil All The Time is, in my opinion even more stomach churning. At least some redeeming features can be gleaned from the resident folk in The Devil All The Time.

Looking forward to reading Pollock's second novel,  'The Heavenly Table' published by Harvill Secker (14th July 2016).