Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Year She Left Us, by Kathryn Ma. HarperCollins, 2014





 “The Year She Left Us’ is both coming of age novel and family drama. The main character is Ari, who narrates much of the novel. She was a Chinese orphan, left as an infant in a department store, adopted by a single woman, a hard working public defender. She is considered not only lucky because she got adopted by an American, but extra lucky because her mother is Chinese-American. No one need know she’s adopted, unlike the many Chinese girls (the children adopted out to America are most often girls, because of China’s ‘one child’ law; abandoning the girl baby allows them to try again for the coveted son) who are adopted by white people. Unlike other Chinese adoptees in the group of young girls (“Western Adopted Chinese Daughters”, aka the Whackadoodles) her mother takes her to for learning about her Chinese heritage, she doesn’t feel lucky. She focuses on the fact that she was abandoned, that she wasn’t good enough to love. She never feels like she fits in, not even with the other adoptees. While on a trip to China – which includes a tour of the orphanages- with the adoptee group, she is approached by a man who claims he is her father, an event that pushes her over the edge and she cuts her finger off.

Things don’t get any better when Ari returns home. Digging around the house one day, she discovers old pictures, ones from about the time when she was adopted, showing a man, along with herself as a baby held against his chest. On the back are the words “Aaron practicing to be a father”. She decides that she must find this Aaron; perhaps this will tell her who she is. She ends up in Alaska for months on this quest, and that isn’t the end of her wandering as she tries to find herself.

Interspersed with Ari’s narrative are third person chapters about her mother Charlie, her aunt Les, and Gran. Men are absent from the lives of these three women, and the women seem to survive just fine- on the surface. Charlie is driven by sympathy for her poor clients; Les is a judge and driven by ambition; Gran feels the past should be thrown away. None of them understand Ari’s need to belong somewhere. Neither, for that matter, does Ari.

The characters are vivid- especially Ari and Gran. Charlie and Les have less depth; they are politically correct and career driven; they are the stereotype of Asian Americans. Gran is a much more colorful person; Ari does just about everything a bad girl can do. I couldn’t work up much enthusiasm for Les and Charlie; they are pretty flat. I loved Gran and wished she had more of a part, and while I didn’t much like Ari I did sympathize with her and her search for answers that can never be found. It’s hard enough to be a teenager without wondering why your parents abandoned you. Why does Ari fixate on this while the other Whackadoodles don’t? We never really find out; people are just different. This book has surprising depth and maturity for a first novel; Ma is definitely a strong new voice in Asian American literature. 



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Sunday, September 21, 2014

The First True Lie, by Marina Mander. Hogarth, 2013





 
Luca is 9 or 10 and lives with his mother and his cat, Blue. He’s never had a father in his life, nor even a father figure as the men in his mother’s life just pass through quickly. His mother suffers from chronic depression, allergies, and a lack of energy, so he’s not too surprised when she doesn’t wake up in the morning. It’s not the first time, but it is the first time she hasn’t been roused when he shakes her. Still, he has to go to school, so he gets himself ready and off her goes. She’ll be okay by the time Luca comes home. But she’s not. She is still in bed and not breathing.

Luca already refers to himself as a ‘half orphan’ because of his lack of a father. He doesn’t want to become a full orphan though; they’ll take him away and make him live in an orphanage and he won’t be able to take his cat, Blue, with him. So he declares himself not an orphan, but a single human being. He shuts down psychologically, refusing to emotionally deal with his mother’s death- for he is aware that she is dead- instead dealing with the immediate physical needs of his cat and himself. There is little food for him or for Blue, but he scrounges up enough money for a run to the grocery store, all the while determined to act like everything is normal. He continues to go to school, he visits with a friend, with his mother quietly rotting and stinking in the bedroom. He is resourceful in the way of children who don’t have parent’s in their lives are, having half raised himself. But how long can he keep up this charade?

The book is short- really a novella- but it has the force of a punch to the gut. It’s grim subject matter, made grimmer by seeing it through Luca’s 10 year old eyes and yet knowing what’s really going on, that at some point reality would come crashing and knock down his denial, and that, even as horrid as his current situation is, it will only get worse. The ending was a bit of a surprise to me; Luca’s choice of action was not the one I expected, but it seemed like a glimmer of hope. 


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The Agincourt Bride, by Joanna Hickson. Harper, 2013




The Agincourt bride is Catherine de Valois, daughter of Charles VI, the mad king of France. Her mother, Isabeau of Baveria, doesn’t care about her children and neglects them until she needs them for her plotting. So when Catherine is born, a wet nurse is needed immediately. Teen aged Guillaumette (Mette) has just had her first child, which does not survive. She is pressed into service to nurse the newborn Catherine. A bond is formed, like that between mother and child. Mette loves Catherine as much as she would her own child- in fact, sometimes it seems like she loves Catherine more than she does her own two children who are born later. She cares for Katherine- and two of her brothers- while she is a toddler, but they are split up when Catherine is sent to a nunnery to be educated. They do not meet again until Catherine is a teenager and is brought back to court to be used as bait for the English king, Henry V. Catherine has Mette brought back to court as her lady of the robes, giving her a post which allows her to be at court. As battles between Henry’s armies and the French forces rage (including the famous Battle of Agincourt where so many French knights were killed) and diplomacy goes back and forth, Catherine is one minute to be given to Henry and the next minute to have an uncertain future. She has to deal with her monstrous mother, and, worse, the Duke of Burgundy, a nasty piece of work if there ever was one. Catherine has few friends- everyone spies on each other- and Mette is the one person who knows everything about her.

The story is written in first person by Mette, who knows how to read, write and do arithmetic because she was brought up in the family baking business. It’s written with a sense of distance from the subject, both in time and proximity. We get to watch Catherine grow and mature and develop an inner self that is like a slim blade of steel. Her family is incredibly dysfunctional; her mother declares her own son a bastard, her father is psychotic, another son has an eating disorder that kills him, and her mother allows Burgundy to do what he wishes with Catherine. Mette looks on with her middle class sensibility that allows us to see the nobility with no varnish of adoration. Interspersed are letters that Catherine wrote but never sent, showing us her heart.

I enjoyed the book, although at times it seemed slow. I suppose that is necessarily so, as much of Catherine’s life is spent waiting to see what will be arranged for her. The book is dense with details that bring the time and people to life vividly, right down to the meals they ate and the clothes they wore. While this era – the early 1400s- is not as popular as the following Tudor era, the Tudors dynasty would have never existed had it not been for Catherine. 



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Thursday, September 18, 2014

A Triple Knot, by Emma Campion. Broadway Books, 2014







Until very recently, royal children were nothing more than political pawns, brood mares and stallions to cement relationships and ensure thrones. Joan, known later as the Fair Maid of Kent, was one such child. Her father was executed for treason when she was only two; even though she was the child of a traitor she was still a royal child and as such worth something in the marriage market. Her marriage would be arranged by the King and his people. For her to marry without royal permission was treason.

“Triple Knot” covers Joan’s life from her childhood until the beginning of her third marriage. Joan grew up with the other royal children, including Prince Edward, who would become known as the Black Prince. At twelve, she is sent across the Channel to Antwerp while her future is determined. While there, the father of a prospective husband for her becomes seriously creepy, making blatant overtures to Joan. Sir Thomas Holland, in his late 20s, steps in to protect her. Joan falls in love with Holland and she conceives a scheme to protect her from a marriage she does not want: she and Holland will wed quietly and consummate the marriage. (note: in that time period, any girl who had started menstruating was considered old enough to bed) Holland leaves for war the next morning, but Joan thinks their private marriage will protect her. Wrong; she finds her claims of marriage unheard and she is married to another man. For almost ten years she and Holland strive to get their marriage made official and her second marriage overturned by the Pope. During this time Joan finds herself hidden and imprisoned by her second ‘husband’. Not much of a life for a teenager, but Joan was a very strong woman. She eventually gets her happy ending- for a few years. A young widow, she ties the third knot- with Prince Edward, her suitor from childhood. (none of this is spoilers; it’s pretty much all on the book cover).

I could not put this book down. Even knowing what events would occur I read eagerly on to see what happened. Much of the book is from the POV of Joan, so we get to know her best, but there are some parts with other POVs that fill in a lot of events. The author expertly showed Joan maturing from child to woman. There is a lot of historical detail, both of big events (the Hundred Years War, the plague) and the minutia of daily life in the middle ages. I would love to see the author write about Joan’s later life, but I suspect the romance of Joan’s first marriage is what drew her to the story. After all, Joan, who became Princess and mother of a king, could have been buried next to the Black Prince, but chose instead to be interred next to Holland. That’s a lasting love. I only have one complaint about the book: Would it kill the cover artists on historical novels to get the clothing right for the period?!?!


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The Illusionists, by Rosie Thomas. The Overlook Press, 2014




“The Illusionists” has a premise that should be great: set in 1885 London, a group of people-stage magicians, a scientist who makes life sized mechanical dolls, an independent woman who leaves her middle class home to become an artist’s model, an artist who makes amazing wax models and props. Add in a highly competitive theater owner and a lot of sexual tension between, well, nearly everyone and it should be a story that one couldn’t put down. Sadly, while the book is okay- I enjoyed it- I can’t call it great.

While the characters are interesting- Devil Wix the fast talking stage magician; his new partner Carol Boldoni, a dwarf who is a world class contortionist and illusionist; Jasper Button the artist and childhood friend of Wix’s; Heinrich Bayer the introverted engineer who adores his mechanical dancer; and Eliza Dunlop, who has a very modern outlook for someone of her class and time and seems a bit of a Mary Sue- none of them has much depth. We get backstory on Devil and Eliza, and a bit on Button, but nothing on Boldoni or Bayer. The setting is wonderful; the decaying theater brought back to life and the hustle of the behind the scenes work- I loved the descriptions of the magical illusions. The pace is odd, though. There are a couple of events of great tension and excitement that would seem to be the climax of the story, but they don’t resolve anything. The first one, around the middle of the book, just happens with no explanation. Why the character does what he did there and what his goal was are never explored. The violence at the end upsets everyone, but it changes no one; they just go on about their lives.

I enjoyed the book but it could have used a good editor to help with the pacing and characters. 


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Monday, August 25, 2014

Land of Dreams, by Kate Kerrigan. Pan Macmillan, 2013





It’s 1942 and twice-widowed Ellie Hogan’s teenaged son Leo has run away from boarding school. It doesn’t take much sleuthing to find out that he’s taken the train across country from New York to Los Angeles: to Hollywood. He’s determined that he will be a star. Ellie immediately jumps on a train and follows him, to discover him living with another young man, Freddie, who is trying to become the world’s first actor’s agent, and Freddie’s girlfriend, Crystal, who fancies herself a starlet. They are holed up at the Chateau Marmont, with little money and no jobs. Ellie allows herself to be convinced that Leo has a real chance at getting a part in an upcoming film, so she takes a room for herself and Leo and figures it’ll only be a few days before this nonsense is out of the way and they can head home. To her surprise, Leo gets a part and is put into acting classes at the studio. Stuck in California for the time being, Ellie rents a house and sends for her younger son, Tom, and her aging friend and housekeeper, Bridie, and settles in for a few months while the film is being shot. She ends up taking in Freddie and Crystal, mothering them just like she does her sons, even though this means they have taken over the room she’d designated as her artist’s studio. For Ellie, being a mother is the most important thing in her life- she admits that she married her second husband in large part so she could be a mother to his son Leo. She is willing to put her own life- both professional and personal- on hold for her sons, feeling that she doesn’t have enough time or love to go around. Whether this means quashing a relationship that seems to have a lot of potential or giving up her painting, she’s fine with it.

Ellie acts like a very entitled woman. She barges in everywhere and expects everyone to listen to her, whether it be a studio executive or the military head of a relocation camp where a Japanese friend of hers is interned. She comes by this trait not from being born into money; she worked her way up from nothing during the Depression. She just feels she has to do her best to try and help her friends and family- even when she doesn’t have all the information and they desperately do not want her to intervene.

The book jacket makes the story sound exciting: it mentions glamour and glitz and having to protect her family from the threat of the war. In reality, Ellie encounters the glitz only occasionally, and the war is little threat to her family, although her own actions make things difficult for both her Polish born boyfriend and her Japanese friend. The story really doesn’t have much action in it. Told by Ellie in the year 1950, a lot of it is backstory (this book is the third in a trilogy) and her emotions and thoughts. I found I could not get really interested in the book; I couldn’t make a connection with Ellie or any of the other characters. They were flat and not fleshed out. Bridie as the Irish housekeeper was very nearly a stereotype. I found myself impatient with the book, wanting to get it read and have it over with so I could go on to something more interesting There is also a (small) problem with some anachronistic language – ‘networking’ and ‘lifestyle’ weren’t used in 1950 that I know of- but that may have been fixed in the final edit. 



I received this book free in exchange for an honest review. 

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Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Gutenberg’s Apprentice, by Alix Christie. HarperCollins, 2014







Author Alix Christie is both writer and letterpress printer, so she seems perfect for the task of writing about the invention of the moveable type press. All most of us know about that subject is that Johann Gutenberg invented it; what most of us don’t know is that the press didn’t spring fully formed from Gutenberg’s mind but was the work of several people.

The apprentice of the title is Peter Schoeffer, the adopted son of Johann Fust, who was Gutenberg’s money supplying partner. At the start of the novel, Fust has recalled Schoeffer from Paris, where he has been working as a professional scribe and enjoying the fleshly delights of the city. Fust tells Schoeffer that he is work for Gutenberg, which does not go over well with either Schoeffer or Gutenberg. Schoeffer feels the press is barbaric compared to hand writing, while Gutenberg thinks Schoeffer will be useless. Soon they realize that they are both wrong; Schoeffer begins to see the beauty and utility of type while also proving himself useful as a font designer and a carver of the metal masters from which the type is cast. He also turns out to be a natural foreman, organizing the men who melt the alloys, work the press, handle the paper and vellum sheets so they don’t smudge, and set the type. But it’s not a peaceful job; Fust and Gutenberg clash frequently over money. Gutenberg is a flamboyant narcissist who trusts no one and makes covert deals behind Fust’s back; he’s a total drama queen. The book covers the two years that it takes to get the first run of Bibles printed.

The book was interesting; I won’t say it was can’t-put-it-down but it held my interest. But it lacked a certain depth; it’s about the event and the technology and less about the people. While the characters aren’t flat, they don’t really make you feel for them, either. We get the story from Schoeffer’s point of view, but even he I didn’t care deeply about. In a book of 400 pages one should feel they know the protagonist down to their toes; this just doesn’t happen here. The love interest takes few pages and seems like an after thought, something thrown in to add tension to the story. I liked the book but didn’t love it. 



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