Review: The Devil’s Prayer by Luke Gracias

The Devil's Prayer
The Devil’s Prayer by Luke Gracias

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received this in exchange for an honest review from NetGalley. Thank you to the author, Luke Gracias, and the publisher for this opportunity.

The first half of this book was a solid 4 stars full of suspense, twists and intrigue. The second half, however, was a shaky 1.5 stars and completely pulled the book down.

Pros:
– Its fast pace and constant twists and turns will keep you hooked for the majority of the book
– The story is intensely creative and has a great shock impact – you won’t want to read any spoilers for this book, its surprises in the first third are the best part!
– It’s super easy to get emotionally involved in this book, the sheer suspense alone leaves you feeling like a nervous wreck desperate to know more.

Cons:
– The book should have ended in the middle with the latter part condensed into an epilogue or a companion book perhaps. There is a huge disconnect between the first part of the novel and the second part, it’s the biggest gap I’ve seen in a fiction book and it just completely derails the whole novel by giving a racy thriller a rather information-dense, bland ending.
– I found it really hard to care about any of the characters, making them more likeable would give this book a lot more impact, particularly when it comes to Denise’s friends and her daughters.

This book is a struggle to review. The majority of the book is fantastic, it has everything you could ever wish for in a fast-paced thriller and then some. It took me a little time to get into it but once I got past the initial story-building (which seems disjointed from the rest of the novel until you can make more sense of it), I couldn’t put the book down…until the second part.

The second part of the book is where things get a bit woolly – we’re given a lot of information. Seriously, a lot . It begins to read like a dry academic history textbook and as a university student studying history, I’ve endured a fair few of these. It’s clear that Gracias is incredibly passionate about the authenticity of the history presented in the book and that it is well-researched but shoehorning this into the main narrative just pulls the rest of the book down. It’s not that the latter part is particularly badly written (which it isn’t), it’s that it just doesn’t fit in with the rest of the book and it’s as though the author decided to add another book on the end of the original one. It puts a complete spanner in the pace of the reading as instead of racing through the pages on tenterhooks with suspense at every turn, you’re suddenly given a lot of dense historical information that is completely out of tone with the first part of the book.
I think this is done to try and add some realism to some of the more far-fetched elements of the main story but it just doesn’t mesh well and instead of adding to it by showing the reader that the story is grounded in historical research, it gives the effect of bombarding the reader with information that is tenuously linked to the story and doesn’t belong in the main book. As I said earlier, if this information was condensed and made more accessible so it was as easily read and understood as the first part of the book, it would make a solid epilogue or even a companion book for readers who want to find out more.

All in all, it’s a good book so long as you don’t mind skipping large chunks of the latter part or battling through it. The first part is a brilliant read and I sincerely hope the author seriously considers reshaping the novel so the first part can be read on its on merit because it’s a gripping thriller that’ll keep you up reading into the early hours of the morning. Its clever twists and the care taken to reveal the story in bitesize amounts to keep you guessing throughout are well-worth giving this book a chance and popping it on your TBR list.

I probably wouldn’t read it again unless it was reformatted in some way, I bet knowing the plot points will make it significantly less interesting the second time around too. I’d recommend this book to anyone who reads the likes of Dan Brown for its history/mystery/religion and/or Martina Cole’s books for their suspense/grittiness but with the advice that, unless the book has sparked an interest in the history of religion, they could skim most of the book’s latter part.

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Review: Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation by Michael Rothberg

Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation
Traumatic Realism: The Demands of Holocaust Representation by Michael Rothberg

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A truly enlightening book for anyone interested in the memory of the Holocaust and how it has been interpreted by survivors, academics and creatives alike in recent years.

Pros:
– Rothberg’s analysis is straightforward to understand and insightful
– Far from expecting his readers to know the in-and-outs of Maus, Schindler’s List, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (which I’m sure, many of them will), Rothberg takes care to provide context

Cons:
– The initial chapters on realism and postmodernism are complex to read as you would expect on those subject matters but the rest of the book is easygoing in comparison – don’t be put off by them!
– This is personal interest but I would’ve enjoyed the book a great deal more and given it that precious 5-star mark had there been more analysis on how the Holocaust is presented in contemporary culture. Rothberg limits the analysis to several things including Maus, Lanzmann’s Shoah documentary, and the ‘year of the Holocaust’ on Saturday Night Live (in the mid-1990s) and though it’s very insightful, analysing a few more sources would’ve been helpful.
– On a similar note to above, this is personal interest rather than a criticism – the chapter on the Americanisation of the Holocaust was fascinating and I wish Rothberg had written more on the subject.

I opened this book looking for some short and sweet analysis to put in an essay I was finishing that needed to pack a little more of a punch before I submitted it two days later. Instead, I spent a good chunk of that essay-writing time poring over the pages completely fascinated by Rothberg’s analysis of Holocaust representation, particularly his analysis of Maus and of the Americanisation of the Holocaust.

This is an insightful book for anyone interested in that field of research and Rothberg’s thoughts on how the memory of the Holocaust is being used to propagate American values is both chilling and intriguing.
For an academic text, this book manages to be both highly comprehensive and very readable which is a hard balance to manage, particularly when it comes to talking about postmodernism and the effects of the memory of historical events in contemporary culture and politics. It’s well worth a read and I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest, whether casual or academic, in how the Holocaust is being represented and why this representation is of vital importance to its memory and the place historical trauma has within modern society when it comes to commercialism, globalisation, identity politics, and the media.

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Review: Once (Once, #1) by Morris Gleitzman

Once
Once by Morris Gleitzman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

There are some books that don’t let go of you once you’ve lived through their story. Once is certainly one of them, this haunting, bittersweet story managed to tell so much in a mere 160 pages that it has captivated me as a re-reader for life.

Pros:
– Gleitzman does an astounding service to both the readers of the story, by protecting them from some of the more extreme aspects of the Holocaust, and to the history, by not allowing protection to discredit the historical realities of the trauma suffered during, and as a result of, this time.
– This short book is so powerful it made me weep.
– One of the main characters, Barney, is based on an inspirational person, Janusz Korczak.
– The prose is simple but this can be misleading, this is a book with many layers of meaning making it suitable for all but very young (under 13 or so) readers.

Cons:
– Although the book is short, Felix’s initial naivete can be irritating in the first couple of chapters. Stick with this, it makes much more sense as you see his character develop.
– Though not a criticism of the book itself, its marketing and presentation make it appear as though it’s for young children. I don’t believe it should be read by anyone under the age of 13 without an appropriate adult mediator or learning support to supplement the material and discuss its content.

This book is incredible in what it achieves. I firmly believe everyone should read and discuss this book, particularly people interested in trauma and childhood, and I don’t say that lightly. Gleitzman’s brief novel promotes a great deal of deep thinking about the Holocaust, trauma generally, and children’s responses to trauma.
I’ve read this book twice within six months and after analysing it (alongside other books) for an essay on the representation of the Holocaust in children’s/YA fiction, I can’t emphasise enough what a compelling book it is. Saying too much more could ruin it or dampen it’s effect so I’ll avoid that and instead, ask that you read and reflect on Once. This book that can be read in under two hours will have a lingering, albeit haunting, effect on you.

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Review: The First Christmas Tree by Henry Van Dyke

The First Christmas Tree
The First Christmas Tree by Henry Van Dyke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This would be a dull and unmemorable read if it wasn’t the beautiful and poetic language used throughout.

Pros:
– You could read this book in under an hour
– The language and imagery are a stop-and-stare kind of brilliant
– If you’re interested in attitudes towards religion in the late nineteenth-century, this would be a useful read.

Cons:
– The storyline is pretty flat and very preachy. There’s a good chance it’ll get on your nerves.
– The ‘non-Christians are all evil’ aspect of the book makes reading it from a 21st century standpoint pretty cringe-worthy.

It’s easy to see this book holding a lot more sway in the late 19th century when it was published. The heavily religious tone and all of the prejudice against non-Christians makes it a bit of a painful read (in a cringe-worthy way) when read from a 21st century perspective. That being said, it also makes this book a particularly interesting source for contemporary views on religion – especially when looking at its reception. It’s very short length comes in handy here as you don’t have to spend much time unpacking the writer’s agenda.

What really makes this book worth a brief look over is its language. Several times I found myself chewing over a particularly nice quote while writing it down in admiration. The imagery goes a long way in redeeming this book’s otherwise boring story, for example:

“Withered leaves still clung to the branches of the oak: torn and faded banners of the departed summer. The bright crimson of autumn had long since disappeared, bleached away by the storms and the cold. But to-night these tattered remnants of glory were red again: ancient bloodstains against the dark-blue sky.”

For this alone, I’d recommend it to anyone who is a bit of a language nerd and loves them some imagery. Though, don’t expect anything groundbreaking from the story.

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Review: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

Man's Search for Meaning
Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A short yet insightful account of a psychiatrist’s observations inside the Auschwitz concentration camp and Frankl’s subsequent views on logotherapy.

Pros:
– A must-read for anyone interested in how the victims of Nazi concentration camps coped both during and after their ordeal
– The second part of the book on logotherapy is insightful and applies what Frankl observed in concentration camps to everyday mental health
– It’s hard not to be in awe of Dr Frankl’s intelligence, knowledge and his work, especially when you consider the trauma he endured during WWI

Cons:
– The descriptions of the conditions in the concentration camps are written for the most part in a very detached and quite report-like way. This isn’t in any way a problem but it might not suit a reader looking for a more personal account.
– The section on logotherapy has a lot of technical language and references to field of psychotherapy that makes it hard to navigate as a layman.

Dr Frankl’s account of the living conditions within Nazi concentration camps is suitably harrowing and insightful. It was immensely refreshing to see a focus on the psychology of the victims and the neglected focus on the immediate aftermath of being liberated from the camps.
This book is a great companion to read alongside Saul Friedlander’s history of Nazi Germany and the Jews as it personalises the victims giving greater perspective on Friedlander’s celebrated accounts. As a history student, I’d recommend it to anyone interested in genocide history as the mindset of the victims relates to a few other first-hand accounts about genocide I’ve read and certainly gives you a greater understanding of how people manage to mentally cope with some of the worst of traumas.
On the same note, this book is an immensely powerful read for anyone undergoing any sort of mental health problem as it underlines an increasingly common cause of disorders. The type of thinking that encourages a person suffering in an infamously horrific concentration camp to find some sort of meaning out of their experience (and by extension, their life) is one all of us could do with learning from or at very about.

If you see a copy of this, make sure you don’t let it slip you by. You might need to do a bit of digging around the internet to get to grips with the aection of the book on logotherapy but it is worth the effort.
The short length of this book makes it a brief yet powerful read that will stick with you for some time.

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Review: Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

Slammerkin
Slammerkin by Emma Donoghue

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A Raw but Gripping Page-Turner.

I couldn’t help but race through this book and get absorbed in the murky world of Mary Saunders’ 18th Century England at any available opportunity.
Though there’s no clear storyline as per se, there doesn’t seem to be any significant end point or climax as you’re plodding along through the pages, I was still completely gripped by this book. Emma Donoghue’s depiction of this historical world is somewhat bleak and raw in all of its grimly detailed glory but it’s the perfect background to explore a character as peculiar and unique as Mary Saunders.

I’ve noticed that its Mary’s character herself that seems to be the make or break with most readers of the book with many hating her but just as many readers having their hearts go out for her. I was among the latter crowd – seeing Mary as a somewhat troubled young adult being introduced to a harsh reality all too soon was truly moving. It’s understandable why some readers would turn against her unlikable nature, at times I was sitting book in hand almost tearing my hair out in exasperation as she made yet another clumsy move landing herself in more trouble. However, that was a key part of the very appeal that kept me invested in the story, hooked on page after page. What would it be like for a person like this trying to find their place and advance themselves in such a cut-throat world? It’s an interesting question that was explored wonderfully by Donoghue’s talents.

The richly created characters in this novel are addictive through the lens of young Mary’s shrewd calculation as she grows increasingly suspicious of everyone and everything around her. Through Donoghue’s clear talent in character development, this distrust grows more cumbersome on Mary’s life to heartbreaking effect. I found myself constantly second-guessing how Mary felt about the situation around her due to the way Donoghue portrayed her emotions indirectly through other characters’ reactions to her, it was a brilliant way to depict Mary’s world without sensationalising everything that happened around her. Without that technique, I think the bleakness of events would have definitely became overbearing given there already depressing content for the most part. This also managed to show off (again, to great effect!) the intricacies of the other characters in the novel as it left the reader having to puzzle out their motivations.

As much as I enjoyed this novel, there were a couple of things I did have a problem with.
Firstly, I believe a few storylines were left uncomfortably hanging and one in particular could have definitely done with some closure to really add a greater impact to the ending. I’m guessing this was intentionally avoided so as to emphasise the abruptness of the end of the book but an epilogue would have been so satisfying.
Secondly, what was with the chopping and changing of viewpoints in the second half of the book? It was distracting and really detracted from Mary’s story without adding a great deal. With a deft hand and great attention to detail, this could’ve been done a lot better without the jumping around from character to character in short bursts.
And lastly…the ending. Okay, it took me completely by surprise and I just couldn’t put the book down after its big, entirely unexpected, climax but it saddened me a little that it didn’t quite mesh with everything we thought we knew about the characters involved. Something just wasn’t right there and it felt like Donoghue had to over-explain it in order to try and make it work. That being said, it was one hell of a shock and gave it a unique twist that will probably linger in my mind for a long time.

Make sure you give this book a go – it may be bleak and gritty but its an immersive story like no other.

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