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This week we travel to Cambodia past and present with reviews of Vaddey Ratner's The Music of The Ghosts and Samuel Ferrer's The Last Gods of Indochine; and then we go "beyond the book" to find out about traditional Cambodian musical instruments, and the rise and fall of the Khmer Empire.

In addition, our members have been busy reviewing two just published books. The first is The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve, a powerful story of loss and self-discovery set during the devastating Maine fires of 1947. The second is Manderley Forever, a biography of Daphne du Maurier by Tatiana de Rosnay; her first foray into nonfiction after many successful novels including Sarah's Key.

Special Offer: These are just four of the 24 books featured in the latest issue of our twice-monthly online magazine. If you're interested in reading the issue in full, and exploring all that BookBrowse has to offer, do take advantage of our One-Month Free Trial!

Your Editor, Davina 

manderleyFirst Impressions: Members Recommend

Each month we give away books to U.S. resident members to read and review (or discuss). Members who choose to participate receive a free book about every three months. Here are their opinions on two recent releases.

 Manderley Forever by Tatiana de Rosnay

 Publisher: St. Martin's Press
 Publication Date: Apr 2017
 Biography, 352 pages

 Number of reader reviews: 26
 Readers' consensus: 4.0/5.0 

Members Say

"I thoroughly enjoyed Rosnay's biography of Daphne Du Maurier, one of my favorite authors when I was younger. I knew nothing about Du Maurier's family or her life story and found this account fascinating, especially her love of houses." - Linda W. (Summit, NJ)

"I really liked this book...The story reads so clearly and friendly, almost like a fiction story instead of a very concise biography of an author who really didn't get the respect she deserved. I believe I will also look into Sarah's Key by de Rosnay. I enjoyed her style." - Deborah M. (Auburn Hills, MI)

"For those who love Daphne Du Maurier's books, Manderley Forever is a chance to understand her. Reading more like a novel than a biography, it gives insights into her life from beginning to end including information about her books. De Rosnay does a wonderful job presenting her life in an easy to read and compelling way. Great read for anyone who loves Ms. Du Maurier!" - Shawna (TX)

More about this book | Read all the reviews    Buy at Amazon | B&N | Indie 
starsFirst Impressions: Members Recommend

 The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve

 Publisher: Knopf
 Publication Date: Apr 2017
 Historical Fiction, 256 pages

 Number of reader reviews: 34
 Readers' consensus: 4.3/5.0 

Members Say
"In October 1947, fires in Maine destroyed thousands of acres of forested lands, decimated a number of coastal towns, and left more than 2,500 people homeless. In her latest novel, Anita Shreve uses these real events to weave a powerful story of loss and self-discovery." - Mary H. (Ocala, FL)

"I've read many of Anita Shreve's books, and I think this is her best yet." - Paula Jacunski, Bath Maine

"I absolutely loved this book. Ms. Shreve's description of the fire was so intense and believable I felt like I was living it with Grace and her children. The resilience of Grace is unbelievable. Her determination to make a new life for herself and her children is unstoppable. This gritty and poignant novel is filled with so much hope, love, despair and finally redemption." - Christine B. (Scottsdale, AZ)

"I think there is a great deal to discuss in this novel and intend to recommend it to my book club." - Dorothy L. (Boca Raton, FL)

More about this book | Read all the reviews    Buy at Amazon | B&N | Indie 
musicEditor's Choice

Music of the Ghosts by Vaddey Ratner

Hardcover (Apr 2017), 336 pages.
Publisher: Touchstone.
BookBrowse Rating: 5/5, Critics' Consensus:  4.8/5
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Review and article by Chris Fredrick

Review: Music of the Ghosts is about healing and forgiveness, but it is also about identity and the revival of Cambodian culture. The novel follows Vaddey Ratner's highly acclaimed debut and similarly focuses on what she knows personally: Ratner herself survived the Khmer Rouge. Led by Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge held power in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979. They forced a mass exodus from cities into rural areas, killing or causing the deaths of least 1.5 million Cambodians in the fields, thus dubbed "the killing fields." It was an atrocity from which the country is still recovering. As Ratner says in the author's note: "If my first novel, In the Shadow of the Banyan is a story of survival, Music of the Ghosts is a story of survivors."

The book opens to Suteera, a thirteen-year-old girl who is confused and scared as she and her aunt navigate the corpses and landmines that riddle the Cambodian countryside. They are attempting to escape the Khmer Rouge by crossing the border into Thailand. Though Suteera knows her mother and baby brother died on the journey, her father's fate remains a mystery.

The story then moves to the present, where we hear from two protagonists in turn, both of whom are haunted by the past. The first voice is 38-year-old Suteer - now Teera - who has been living in the United States since her escape years ago and is now on a plane back to Cambodia. Her aunt has recently died and Teera is bringing half of the ashes with her.

Teera also holds an intriguing letter from a man identified only as the Old Musician. He is the novel's second narrator. In the letter he has told Teera that he has three musical instruments that were her father's-and that he wants her to have them. This gives Teera hope that she may find answers about her father.

Fracture and division permeate the descriptions of these main characters. The Old Musician is blind in one eye and has limited vision in the other. A scar runs across "the gorges and gullies of his disfigured face." There is a brokenness in Teera too. Her new name, now Americanized, is only a part of what it once was. As she sits through the long flight, she sees her fellow passengers as more legitimately Khmer than herself. While they are going home, "Teera feels herself hurtling. Toward what, she doesn't know. The future and past lie in borderless proximity." Her identity hangs between two worlds.

Throughout Music of the Ghosts, Ratner is thematically focused on the healing from "the killing fields"-for individuals, the country, and the culture. This recovery requires a balance of punishment and forgiveness. Certainly there are individuals who are guilty and need to be brought to justice. But how many others lie somewhere between guilt and innocence? Before rising to power, the Khmer Rouge was a communist guerilla group that gained momentum in part because the political unrest in Southeast Asia allowed an overzealous leader such as Pol Pot to emerge. ... continued

Full access to our reviews & beyond the book articles are for members only. But there are always four free Editor's Choice reviews and beyond the book articles available.   
godsEditor's Choice

The Last Gods of Indochine by Samuel Ferrer

Paperback (Sep 2016), 422 pages.
Publisher: Signal 8 Press.
BookBrowse Rating: /5, Critics' Consensus:  4.8/5
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Review and article by Claire McAlpine

Review: Historical fiction novel The Last Gods of Indochine is told in dual third person narratives - one in 1921, viewed through the eyes and voyage of Jacquie Mouhot, a British woman of French origin; and the other in 1294 just before the start of the Khmer Kingdom's long decline, from the viewpoint of teenage friends, Paaku and Jarisi.

After volunteering during World War I, Jacquie is beset by nightmares, both of the horrors of the wards where she cared for wounded soldiers and, more recently, of terrifying images of human butchery, a young man wearing a loincloth, and a jungle boy from an ancient kingdom. Now en route to the French colony of Cambodia (which was the heart of the ancient Khmer Kingdom), she reads the journals of her grandfather, French explorer Henri Mouhot, and follows his path, thanks to a VIP invitation from a group hosting an upcoming colonial exposition in Marseille. "I feared entering a world where everyone is a stranger," she says. "The truth is, I am escaping from a world where everyone knew me too well."

In the second narrative, near the medieval village of the lotuses in the Khmer Empire, Paaku and Jarisi taunt girls playfully at the river. They are oblivious to the drama and intrigue of the royal palace until they are lured into participating in a festival event that will change their destinies, revealing Paaku's true origins and the curse that haunts the King. "This kingdom is desperate for miracles, and yet, I fear what may happen once miracles are given to them."

Samuel Ferrer creates mystery and intrigue through Jacquie's dream sequences and her grandfather's history, and as the novel unfolds we sense their connection to the events unfolding in the 13th century Khmer Kingdom, on the cusp of crisis. Through his female protagonist, Ferrer touches on the colonial European tendency to explore exotic outreaches, to want to name and claim territories and species, to live apart from local people, to ignore their customs and curses and see them as in some way lacking, but also to be enraptured by their art, architecture and affiliations. It is ironic that Jacquie escapes one fascination of man (war) only to become enmeshed in another (exploration of far flung colonies), although Ferrer is wildly imaginative in portraying her experience, avoiding colonial cliché.

While most of the characters and the story itself are fictional, many of the names referenced, including Jacquie's grandfather Henri Mouhot, and her romantic interest, the White Russian soldier and historian Victor Goloubew (1878-1945), are real life historical figures (See Beyond the Book). The novel takes a surprising turn as Jacquie theorizes to Victor, who is studying the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat, how she knows the stories and characters contained within the stone carvings. Elements of magic realism add to the surreal nature of events in the novel's closing stages, which can feel a little out of place in what is otherwise a relatively conservative character. ... continued

Full access to our reviews & beyond the book articles are for members only. But there are always four free Editor's Choice reviews and beyond the book articles available.   
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