Monday, July 28, 2014

The Third Son, by Julie Wu. Algonquin Books, 2013





 Saburo is born the third son in a large Taiwanese family and has the misfortune of being the child least favored. His brothers are spoiled while Saburo is beaten regularly; they are given the prize foods while Saburo suffers from malnutrition; he is not allowed to sit in with their lessons; even his sisters are valued more than he is- unusual in a culture where boys are prized. The only family member who treats him humanely is cousin Toru, a doctor.

But Saburo isn’t stupid like his family claims. Although he doesn’t do well in elementary school, he learns from what few books he can get his hands on. Eventually he passes an exam that allows him into a prestigious college and teaches himself English, in hopes of getting a visa to study in the US. During this time, the Japanese have been defeated and the Chinese Nationalists have taken control of Taiwan and they prove to be as bad as the Japanese. Life is a chess game of pleasing the right people. One thing that sustains Saburo through all this is a girl he met when he was eight: Yoshiko. They meet during an air raid and become friends, but soon to be torn apart. Later as teenagers they meet again and friendship turns to love. But huge obstacles stand between them and happiness. What they want isn’t the same thing their families want- especially Saburo’s mercenary father and brother. Financial obligations, family jealousy, Nationalist spies, and more all must be overcome. Saburo’s life is one endless stream of difficulties to overcome, like a Dickensian tale set in Asia.

I enjoyed the book; it’s a great tale of getting what one wants through persistence, boldness, and hard work. Some of what Saburo does to succeed is brilliant; he ends up working on the US space program, which was interesting to read about. But I have to say that after awhile the constant stream of bad things got a bit tiring by the end of the book; the tale goes somewhat flat. But one must remember that this is Wu’s first novel. It is suspenseful, wondering when one of the bad things will be too big to overcome; wondering if he is writing his tale from a Nationalist prison. I give it four stars, and will look out for Wu’s next book. 



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I was given this book free by Library Thing Early Reviewers program in return for a fair review. 

Neither of these things affected my review.  


Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Hatmaker’s Heart, by Carla Stewart. Faith Words, 2014




 
Twenty-one year old Nell Marchwold is the hat maker of the title. At the start of the novel, she’s been working in a millinery shop for two years, and is starting to do her own designs. When one rich client comes in and her daughters insist on two of Nell’s hats, suddenly there is a rush of business in the shop, all clamoring for Nell’s hats. Nell’s dream is to make hats that bring out a woman’s beauty and working for in this shop seems like the best way to manage that. But when the shop owner, Oscar Fields, begins to get possessive of Nell, things get weird. When a business trip to England- Nell’s home country- brings her into contact with her childhood crush, Quentin, Fields is disparaging and changes plans so that Nell is kept from spending any time with Quentin. Is Fields priming her to be a new designer or to be something else?

Nell is almost too good to be true. She’s hard working, supports herself, has a brilliant sense of design and the ability to bring the design to fruition, cares about her family and friends selflessly, and apparently is as pure as the driven snow, with no interest in the drinking and dancing of the 1920s. But she stutters, which Fields mocks her for, and she’s told it will hold her back as a designer. She didn’t always stutter; as a young girl she spoke freely. Her quest to uncover what changed her provides a subplot, a little mystery that brings Nell’s family into the story.

The story is reasonably engaging and I liked Nell; she developed a backbone during the novel and we got to watch her grow. I loved the descriptions of the dresses and hats of the period; I’m a vintage clothing lover and this is why I asked for the book. But the book didn’t seem to have a lot of depth; most of the characters were rather superficial. I felt no connection with them. Nell is all goodness and Fields is all badness, which isn’t how it usually works in real life. It’s enjoyable fluff. 


The above is an affiliate link; if you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. I received this book as part of the Library Thing Early Reviewers program in return for an unbiased review. Neither of these things affected my review. 



Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir, by Jenny Lawson. Amy Einhorn Books, 2012






Lawson is known on the internet as The Bloggess, and she has quite a following. It’s easy to see why; she’s extremely funny, her life seems to have been made for comedy, and she’s open about all her problems. She grew up with the strangest father ever (not a bad father, just one with odd notions at times, like that it would be a good idea to toss a live bobcat into the lap of Jenny’s long suffering husband the first time they met. Not maliciously, just sort of ‘welcome to my home, here have a bobcat’ like another person would offer a cup of coffee), has a physical disability, and mental illness. You would think these things would get a person down, but, no, she takes it all in stride and shows it to the world so we can laugh with her.

This book takes her from her childhood to adulthood. It covers her father the taxidermist who worked out of the house, their poverty, high school, courtship and marriage to her husband Victor, and having their daughter. It also covers her mental illness (anxiety & panic attacks), and how this anxiety leads to (among other things) babbling about inappropriate subjects when out in public. This book convinced me that my life wasn’t the weirdest one ever and that one can love the life they are given.

I found the book extremely funny; despite my using “LOL” on the computer a lot, I don’t often actually laugh out loud when reading. This book made me do so. I should warn you that she swears a lot and writes about 
inappropriate subjects. I like these parts, but then, I have the sense of humor of a 10 year old boy. 



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Faery Tales & Nightmares, by Melissa Marr. Harper, 2012





This anthology of fantasy stories about half stories set in the world’ the author created in ‘Wicked Lovely’, using characters from that story. Some show back story, some things that happened after the last of those books, some are things that took place off stage. The other half are set in different realities, and these were the ones I really liked.

‘Love Struck” is about a human and a selchie falling in love and trying to avoid the traps that such couples usually run into. ‘Transistion’ shows us vampires, territorialism, and how frustrating it might be to be immortal. ‘Flesh for Comfort’ is a disturbing tale of what people will do for power and admiration.

The ‘Wicked Lovely’ stories are entertaining even if you (like me) haven’t read the books, but they lack the impact of the others. They seem to fill in spots of characters lives rather than having earth shaking consequences.

One thing all the stories have in common is that they are about change and coming to terms with those changes. Both humans and supernatural beings are forced to realize that to get the lives they want they will have to sacrifice some things and learn new methods of dealing with things, ways different from what the old ways dictate. In most of the stories these changes are for the good; in some, like ‘Flesh for Comfort’, maybe not so much. Beautiful prose that reminded me a lot of old fairy tales.



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Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man, by Mark Hodder. Pyr, 2011







 
This is the second book in the alternate history/fantasy/steampunk series featuring Sir Richard Francis Burton and his sidekick, poet Algernon Swinburne. In the first book, a time traveler altered time. Queen Victoria was assassinated and Prince Albert was made king. Steam mechanisms of all kinds – including flying chairs (helicopter style) are being invented and used. Genetic manipulation is being put to use, too, creating jumbo horses, parakeets that deliver messages in between bouts of fluent obscenities, huge swans that tow passengers through the air after themselves and hyperactive delivery dogs. It’s also a world where the supernatural is real.

In this volume, the long lost heir to the Tichborne estate turns up alive and ready to get his hands on the family fortune. The problem is that, while his face looks roughly like the heir and he has the proper tattoo on his arm, this person doesn’t resemble the lost heir in any other way; he is slow of speech, his face has sutures around it, and his right and left arms don’t match. He has strange lumps under his scalp and most people immediately take to him and believe whatever he says. Soon he has the working class stirred up and rioting against the upper classes. Meanwhile his brother has been carried by spirits through solid walls and through a window to his death. And some infamous black diamonds have been stolen; gems that have metaphysical properties. And then there’s the family curse of the Tichbornes…

This is one of the most action filled books I’ve ever read. There is always something going on or some new marvel being introduced. The personalities are bigger than life. In the midst of all the action and fantasy the author finds ways to make social commentary- but not with too heavy of a hand. The book can be read without reading the first one, as Hodder fills in the background well enough. If you like steampunk, you’ll probably like this book. 



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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Extreme Medicine: How Exploration Transformed Medicine in the Twentieth Century, by Kevin Fong, M.D. Penguin, 2012






The subtitle of this book is a little misleading; while the medicine described is (or was when it was first developed) extreme, very little of it was actually brought about by exploration. The first chapter, ‘Ice’ starts with the exploration of Antarctica, which did teach us a lot about dealing with extreme cold and hypothermia, which eventually led to the use of hypothermia during radical surgeries and other treatments. ‘Fire’, which tells about the beginnings of plastic surgery and skin grafts, is based in WW 1 and how many pilots were burned beyond recognition when their planes burnt around them in battle. ‘Trauma’ shows us the first ambulance use in the Napoleonic Wars and how the trauma protocol was invented by a doctor who crashed the small plane he was flying with his family as passengers. Polio led to life support machines and ICU style care- supporting vital systems to give the body time to heal itself. Still, even though the title isn’t accurate, it’s an interesting book. The author jumps around a lot; it’s not a smooth narrative. Sometimes he gives a historical account, sometimes he writes about his own experiences (and he has had a lot of experiences; he got a degree in physics before he turned to medicine and has worked with NASA), sometimes he tells us about what happens to the body in these extreme situations. Those were the parts I found most fascinating, especially in the ‘Ice’ chapter, when he recounts how a skier went hypothermic to the point that her heart stopped, but because she was so cold, brain damage did not occur even though she went three hours without a heartbeat. An interesting book but it wanders a bit.


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Sunday, July 13, 2014

When the World was Young, by Elizabeth Gaffney. Random House, 2014






“When the World was Young” starts off to be a grand story, opening on V-J Day and the Brooklyn Heights neighborhood spontaneously celebrating together, marching around making noise. Nine year old Wally Baker starts that day happy but that isn’t to last long.

Wally is the daughter, granddaughter and I think great-granddaughter of female M.D.s; it’s the family tradition. Her grandmother Gigi runs the family with the aid of Loretta, her black live-in maid of all work. Loretta basically raised Gigi’s daughter Stella and is now raising, for the most part, Wally, along with her own son, Ham. After a childhood of studying ants with Ham, Wally is determined to study insects, not become an M.D. no matter what Gigi wants. She comes of age during the Korean War (oops ‘police action’). She’s extremely smart. She has relationship issues.

The story moves back and forth between times, sometimes showing us Wally’s timeline from seven year old to college student, and sometimes Stella’s past. It touches on the use of the atom bomb to end WW 2, racial prejudice, and sexism but it touches so lightly that it seems like they were just little problems that didn’t really affect people. No one will call Stella ‘Dr. Baker’; it’s always ‘Mrs.’, even from other doctors, but she is given no problems as an intern other than that. There are a couple of incidents of prejudice against Ham when he is with Wally, once when they are children and once when they are grown, but neither is serious despite the fact that during that era (and for a long time after in some areas!) being an interracial couple could bring very serious physical repercussions. Most things work out fine for Wally with little effort. The things that don’t work out for her – even very serious things- don’t seem to bother her. Things just bounce off her.

I have a problem with this. A lot of things happen in the story, but it doesn’t have any depth. The characters seem shallow and seem stereotypical; Wally is the do anything American Girl, Loretta is the Magical Negro, Wally’s father is the Absent Father who has nothing to do with Wally’s upbringing, Gigi is the Strong Matriarch. You would think that a novel dealing with race relations, suicide, marital infidelity, loss, and more would be exciting and that the characters would have a lot of emotions, but alas, no. Stella is the only one whose emotional life is explored very much. The book was a fast read and rather enjoyable, but it’s more like it’s an outline than a novel, waiting to be completely filled in.  



The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. 

I obtained this book free from the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review. 

Neither of these things affected my review.