After Elias by Eddy Boudel Tan — book review

49218727.jpgFrom its heartbreaking first pages, to its lump-in-your-throat epilogue, After Elias is an emotionally charged novel.

“People can bring you pain, but nothing will hurt more than the pain you inflict on yourself.”

Grief, guilt, regret, and fear dominate Tan’s narrative. Coen Caraway and Elias Santos are meant to have a fairy-tale wedding and live happily ever after. One week before their big day, the airplane piloted by Elias crashes into the Arctic Ocean, leaving Coen, who had just arrived on the idyllic Mexican island that was meant to host their wedding, bereft.
When the authorities begin speculating whether the crash wasn’t accidental, Elias becomes a prime suspect. His cryptic final words, “Pronto dios” (“soon god”) disconcert an already grieving Coen.
While his family and friends plead for him to return home, to Vancouver, Coen refuses. His stay on the island however does not keep his doubts at bay. In spite of his insisting that “he is fine”, Coen finds himself spiralling. In the passing days he tries to make sense of this unimaginable tragedy and of his own relationship with Elias.
As the narrative moves from past to present, readers begin to gain a picture of both Coen and Elias.

“Life is nothing more than an elaborate house. It starts out small, a simple shelter. Then we build upon it, room by room, believing in the necessity of every expansion, every renovation. By the time we realize it is no longer a shelter but a tomb, it’s too late.”

Coen’s grief, confusion, and uncertainties feel strikingly authentic.Tan allows his readers to witness and understand the depth and magnitude of Coen’s discordant feelings. Coen’s thoughts, emotions, and impressions are articulated in a subtle yet lyrical language.
I was often surprised, and spellbound, by Tan’s arresting imagery.

“The only sounds in the room are my pounding heart and fitful breathing. I am Lazarus returning from the land of the dead, a corpse trapped by life.”

Tan renders Coen’s pain with exceptional compassion, without sensationalising Coen’s—and other characters’—grief and desperation. What particularly struck me was how ‘real’ Coen felt. His fears and anxieties are depicted with incredible authenticity. The way he simultaneously wants and doesn’t want to confront the darkest aspects of his relationship with Elias, his dormant yet inherent conviction that he will never be happy, his inability to express how he feels…everything about him felt real.
Other characters, such as his two best friends, Vivi and Decker, his brother, Clark, the hotel’s bartender, Gabriel, are just as believable. Decker in particular has a complex relationship with Coen, one that will undoubtedly make some readers tear up (I certainly did). These characters are flawed yet capable of change. While readers may not come to know them as well as they do Coen, they will get an impression of what kind of person they are (or want to be).

Although Tan doesn’t provide lots of descriptions when it comes to the appearance of his characters or the island itself, his narrative is remarkably atmospheric. Tan’s discerning prose relays the mood or quality of a certain conversation or moment.
The distinctive and deceptively dream-like setting of the island, as well as Coen’s own dreams, reminded me of certain novels by Ann Patchett, in particular State of Wonder and The Magician’s Assistant. The way in which Tan approaches painful themes bear resemblance to Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s own approach in his more adult novels, such Last Night I Sang to the Monster and In Perfect Light.

Through his prose, which is in turns lucid and opaque, Tan showcases his capacity for empathy and compassion. He offers insights into grief, loneliness, abuse, mental illness, and trauma.
After Elias is an artful and heart-wrenching novel. Although it doesn’t make for ‘easy’ reading material, its cathartic narrative and underlying message of hope are guaranteed to leave a lasting impression.

PS: I’m so grateful to NetGalley for having accepted my request to read After Elias. I’m not sure I would have ever read this novel if I hadn’t spotted on NetGalley’s ‘recently added’ page.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars

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An Honest Man by Ben Fergusson — book review

In Ben Fergusson’s An Honest Man our narrator Ralf revi51QJeS5BD+L._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgsits a particularly significant year in his life. The year is 1989 and Ralf is eighteen and lives with his family in West Berlin. Growing up in a bilingual household (his mother is English), Ralf has always felt like a bit of an outsider. In a few months him and his friends will part ways and go to separate universities (Ralf whose passion is geology plans to study in England). Until then they spend their days and nights relaxing: they go to the swimming pool, on nature excursions, drink together etc. Ralf’s routine is interrupted by Oz, born to Turkish parents and a few years older than him.
As Ralf struggles to reconcile himself with his growing attraction, and feelings, towards Oz, he also learns that Oz is keeping tabs on one of his neighbours, Tobias Rose. When Oz asks him for help Ralf finds himself uncovering life-altering secrets. As Ralf’s relationship with Oz deepens he is forced to question where is own loyalties lie, and who is willing to betray.

While the story does delve into espionage, the focus remains primarily on Ralf. His relationship with Oz sees him embarking on a journey of self-discovery. The approach of university also alters his perceptions about who he is and who he wants to become. When a shocking discovery jeopardises what little normalcy his life contained, Ralf becomes further enmeshed in a web of deceit.
The story is very much a coming of age. To begin with Ralf is a rather sheltered and somewhat naive boy, and as the story progresses, and he starts seeing with new eyes his family and friends, he becomes more of an adult.
Ben Fergusson portrays believably fallible characters. Ralf, somewhat understandably given that he has a lot to contend with, can be rather self-centred and bratty. More than once I experienced second-hand embarrassment at what he says or does. His relationship with Oz is filled with a young sort of longing, with plenty of awkward flirting (they talk about their favourite pasta shape) and even some tender moments. Oz’s introverted nature lends him an air of mystery, and readers, alongside Ralf, will find themselves wanting to learn more about him.
Ralf’s group of friends was also solidly depicted and we get to see how his relationship with each one of his friends differs. His friends all have their own backstory and clear-cut personalities.
Ralf’s relationship with his family plays a big role in the narrative. Although we might not like or forgive Ralf’s parents, Fergusson does give these characters some nuance.
What Fergusson truly excels at is brining West Berlin to life. The setting is vividly rendered, and Fergusson creates and maintains a rather bittersweet atmosphere. Ralf’s narration is filled with youthful descriptions and observations. His narrative is sensuous, as he always seem to loose himself in the bodies of those around him (noting the way the light illuminates someone’s hair or face).
The ending was a bit rushed for my taste, and part of me wished for a more satisfying confrontation between Ralf and certain other characters.
Although this is a slow-burn kind of story, I finished this novel in one day. Ralf’s story is absorbing, and Fergusson examines complex themes in a compelling manner. If you enjoy coming of ages, books by John Boyne, or stories set in times of political divide (such as Confession with Blue Horses and Swimming in the Dark), chances are you will like this book.

My rating: ★★★★✰ 3.5 stars (rounded up to 4)

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Skyward by Brandon Sanderson — book review

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I more or less inhaled this book.

“You get to choose who you are. Legacy, memories of the past, can serve us well. But we cannot let them define us. When heritage becomes a box instead of an inspiration, it has gone too far.”

This is easily my favourite book by Brandon Sanderson. A few years ago I read and was deeply impressed by his epic-fantasy novel Elantris…so I can sort of understand why some die-hard Sanderson fans might not find Skyward to be as intricate or as profound as his adult fiction.
Personally, however, I found Skyward to be a pure blast.

Within the first few chapters I fell unabashedly in love with this novel. This is undoubtedly thanks to Spensa Nightshade, also known as Spin. Her first-person narration is completely unreserved and utterly entertaining.
Growing up as the daughter of “the coward”, Spensa is desperate to prove herself. The planet in which she was born and raised is constantly under attack from the Krell. To survive humans have built communities underground. Pilots, who are considered to be the elite of this new society, train and live on a base on the ground surface of this planet where they try to defend themselves, and the rest of humanity, from the Krell’s attacks.

To become a pilot is no small feat. Many are killed or leave before their training is complete.
Spensa however is keen to fly and kill some Krell. Her reputation however makes her a persona non grata at the base so not only she has to catch up to the teammates who were raised by pilots, and have been training since they were born, but as the daughter of “the coward” she also has to put up with many other disadvantages. Time and again she struggles between wanting to prove to others and to herself that she is no coward and surviving. In a community which glorifies self-sacrifice and violence it isn’t easy to reconcile oneself with notions of courageousness and cowardice.

Spensa was an extremely likeable character. Her propensity for dramatic and grisly declarations (such as: “When you are broken and mourning your fall from grace, I will consume your shadow in my own, and laugh at your misery”) might make her seem somewhat ridiculous but we soon realise that being constantly seen and treated in the light of her father’s actions has made her this way.
She was funny, brave, and surprisingly vulnerable. Sanderson does a great job with her character arc. Spensa soon realises that to be a pilot is not all about being brave.
The dynamics she has with the rest of her team are compelling and entertaining as I found all of the characters to be just as nuanced as Spensa. Sanderson reveals some of the fears and desires that have shaped or are shaping who they are and what they want. There are no good or bad people and being a hero is not all that’s cracked up to be. Some characters retain a sense of mystery, which makes them all the more intriguing.

The action is more or less non-stop. It vaguely reminded of certain mecha anime (except we have ships instead of giant robots). The fight scenes, which were intense and adrenaline-fuelled, kept me on the edge of my seat.
The world-building and society imagined by Sanderson are interesting and richly detailed. He keeps quite a few card close to his chest, so that readers, alongside Spensa, are always left wanting to know more about the Krell and the circumstances that landed a human ship on this planet.

Perhaps my favourite thing about this book was the relationship Spensa has with a certain M-Bot. Their conversations were a pure delight to read. I was also pleasantly surprised by the sort of friendship she forms with a certain Jerkface.

The only thing I would have liked to have been different is a certain revelation towards the end. Part of me wishes it could have been more showing and less telling. Still, that was a very minor thing in an otherwise faultless novel.

Final verdict:
I loved this novel and I have already bought a copy of Starsight as I can’t wait to be reunited with Spensa&co !

My rating: ★★★★✰ 4.5 stars (rounded up)

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