Review: Life and Other Near-death Experiences by Camille Pagan

Libby Miller has always been an unwavering optimist—but when her husband drops a bomb on their marriage the same day a doctor delivers devastating news, she realizes her rose-colored glasses have actually been blinding her. With nothing left to lose, she abandons her life in Chicago for the clear waters and bright beaches of the Caribbean for what might be her last hurrah.

I found Libby funny, brave and, at times, absolutely exasperating – maybe these are the reasons why I liked Life and Other Near-death Experiences so much. Camille Pagan made me feel for Libby, get angry with her and for her stubborn insistence that cancer diagnosis is a certain death-sentence.

Libby Miller has 6 months to live, but as it turns out the doctor’s devastating blow is the impulse for her to start living her life fully. She throws out her husband, with whom she’s been together for 18 years and who happens to be gay, quits a job, sells the apartment and flies off to Puerto Rico to see the island where her parents went on their honeymoon. In Puerto Rico she realizes that instead of accepting inevitable death, she could choose to fight. Libby is afraid, of course, anyone would be… Her mum died of cancer and one of the reasons she stubbornly refuses to get treatment is that she does not want to start a fight she fears she will loose. She goes to Puerto Rico to disconnect from everything and enjoy her life for a month, on her way she meets a pilot that nearly kills her (or saves her, depends how you put it) and helps her see that the way forward is to keep fighting. It takes true bravery to accept your fate, it takes even more bravery to try and change it.

Life and Other Near-death Experiences is funny, beautifully-written and realistic, one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.

Overall: 4*

Crimson Peak Edith poster horizontal

Review: Crimson Peak novelization by Nancy Holder

When her heart is stolen by a seductive stranger, a young woman is swept away to a house atop a mountain of blood-red clay: a place filled with secrets that will haunt her forever. 

Crimson Peak novelization is no literary masterpiece and after watching Guillermo del Torro’s mesmerizing film, it reads like a fan fiction of sorts. Nancy Holder’s excellent writing reveals the character’s thoughts and some of the background details excluded from the cinematic production. However, it is what it is – a book based on a movie script – forever prisoner to the constant book-to-screen feelings vs. visuals dilemma.

While I do not – ever – read novelizations, this purchase can truly be blamed on del Torro’s directorial talent, Tom Hiddleston’s charm and Jessica Chastain’s insanely-good acting.  The film left me in a state of raw cinematic hangover that wouldn’t leave me for several days and the darkly romantic novelization was another chance to linger in the haunted Crimson Peak. Entertaining as it was, it is book that would indulge a true fan’s cravings, but not a book that I would re-read. Bring-on the DVD!

Overall: 4*

Review: West with the Night by Beryl Markham

West with the Night book cover Beryl MarkhamBeryl Markham could write rings around all of those who consider themselves writer. Ernest Hemingway thought so. “I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer’s log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer.”  If this did not intrigue you, nothing would.

The events described in Beryl Markham’s biography are as remarkable as the writing itself, and even though, as any autobiography, it was embellished to a certain degree, and may have been ghost-written by one of her husbands, one fact stands to be true – Beryl Markham’s life was one hell of a adventure story. Markham describes her life in a language that is vivid and delightfully poetic.

Africa is mystic; it is wild; it is a sweltering inferno; it is a photographer’s paradise, a hunter’s Valhalla, an escapist’s Utopia. It is what you will, and it withstands all interpretations. It is the last vestige of a dead world or the cradle of a shiny new one. To a lot of people, as to myself, it is just ‘home.’ It is all of these things but one thing – it is never dull.

Beryl Markham grew up in Kenya, and while her illustrious love-life could put all of us couch-potatoes to shame (the Royal family paid her off to end an affair with the Duke of Gloucester), the greatest love of her life was Africa. She grew up on her father’s farm, learned to hunt with the local tribesmen, played midwife to her father’s racehorses and was attacked by a neighbor’s pet lion. At 16, she was married off (a subject she does cover in her autobiography). At 17, she starts working with race horses, becoming the first female trainer in Kenya. She then turns to Pegasus’ of the air, learning to fly as one of the first commercial pilots in Kenya. In 1932, she became the first woman to fly the Atlantic west to east, hence the title West with the Night. 

One of the most note-worthy elements of  West with the Night is the fact that Beryl Markham treats the locals with utmost respect, at one point noting with sadness that her childhood friend will never get the same privileges as her due to race. Beryl was the only white child at her farm, and the friendship with the native children liberated her from much of the prejudice of the former colonizers. She mentions some of the native customs and superstitions and describes a number of fascinating characters, such as Makula who “could track a honeybee through a bamboo forest.”

Another fascinating character is a Benghazi brother-keeper, a woman of indistinguishable origin who was abducted as a child somewhere in Europe and brought into prostitution by her captors. She tells Markham and Blixen her story at her cockroach-infested brothel, where Beryl and her companion are forced to spend the night on their way to Europe.

Beryl Markham was a woman that followed her heart and lived in the moment, she lived a life of change, but a remarkable one all the same. I don’t know if this was her secret, but this line really struck a chord:

“I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesterdays are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.”


Review: Letters from Skye by Jessica Brockmole

Letters from Skye is, truly, unputdownable, one of the rare novels that sweeps the reader away and does not let go. In 1912 Elspeth Dunn is a published poet, living as a recluse on the Scottish island of Skye. Skye is her world, Elspeth never traveled beyond, fearing to cross the waters separating the remote island from the British mainland territory. She is astonished to receive her very first fan letter from Chicago (of all places) college student David Graham.  Elspeth and David strike up a long-distance friendship, which, after years of correspondence, turns to love, even though the two never met in person and Elspeth is married. As the first World War rages in Europe and Elspeth’s husband Iain goes missing, David signs up as a volunteer ambulance driver to the French front.

In 1940, Elspeth is a secretive single mother, living in Edinburg with her daughter Margaret. As Elspeth and Margaret quarrel over the latter’s apparent feelings for a RAF pilot, Elspeth insists that nothing good may come of the search for love in war time. The second World War reopened Elspeth’s old wounds; Margaret starts to question what happened with her mother during the last global conflict, a bomb hits their street and Elspeth disappears, leaving behind a single mysterious letter from an American named Davey to a woman named Sue. Margaret begins the search for her mother and starts to unravel the secrets that shook Elspeth Dunn’s family during World War I.

Letters from Skye is a marvel-of-a-novel that has now conquered a very special place in my reader’s heart. It’s a historical novel, but also one of the most touching and poetic love stories a reader may get a chance to encounter. Elspeth and Davey are soulmates, divided by distance and consequence.  They haven’t met each other, but you are with them as they fall in love, and there’s a tremendous beauty in their story, they’re smart, funny and full of life. In short, they feel real. As the timeline skips back and forth between the 1910s and the 1940s, you understand that something dreadful happened during the first World War, but all of my guesses came short of what really took place.

Overall: 5*


“I have learned that if you must leave a place that you have lived in and loved and where all your yesteryears are buried deep, leave it any way except a slow way, leave it the fastest way you can. Never turn back and never believe that an hour you remember is a better hour because it is dead. Passed years seem safe ones, vanquished ones, while the future lives in a cloud, formidable from a distance.”
Beryl Markham