Wednesday, April 23, 2014

That Summer, by Lauren Willig. St. Martin’s Press, 2014

‘That Summer’ takes place in two times: 2009 and 1849 (with some brief interludes in earlier years). In 2009, Julia in New York has just inherited an old family house from her great aunt Regina- a woman she doesn’t even remember. Jobless, she decides to go see the house in England and put it in shape for a quick sale. She has family there; some cousins who believe the house should have gone to them and are very eager to help Julia sort through the piles of old things in the house, even bringing in an antiques dealer, Nicholas to value things.

Back in 1849, Imogene is living in a loveless marriage. In her teens she married Arthur Grantham, an older man, who she thought loved her but seems to have only collected her like he’s collected so many other things. His late wife’s sister runs the house; she has no friends. The only light in her life is her step-daughter, Evie. The only light, that is, until three of the pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood come by to look at Grantham’s collection of medieval things, searching for inspiration for their art. Imogene meets Gavin Thorne, the quietest of the trio, and finds he actually talks to her, rather than just seeing her as decoration. At this same time, 16 year old Evie meets Augustus Fotheringay-Vaughn, who seems very taken with her. The third artist is Dante Gabriel Rossetti, one of the PRB founders. These meetings set the rest of the story into motion; the story will have dire effects.

The story jumps back and forth between eras as Imogene’s tale unfolds and Julie strives to solve the mysteries that the house presents- and that the people who come to the house present. It’s a combination historical mystery and romance, and it’s quite well done and has an edge to it. Most romances make me cringe, but this one was handled realistically and with a minimum of “I don’t like yous” going on between the prospective lovers. Some events are foreshadowed but there are surprises, too. An interesting book that would make a good read during a fall evening. 

I received this book as part of the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review. 

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

Neither of these things influenced my review in any way.  

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

China Dolls, by Lisa See. Random House, 2014

Meeting in 1938 at an audition for places in a chorus line at San Francisco’s soon to open Forbidden City nightclub owned by Charlie Low (the nightclub and Low were real), Grace, Helen, and Ruby quickly become fast friends. American’s of Asian parentage, opportunities are few for them in that era. Orientals weren’t hired as singers or dancers in Caucasian establishments; in a lot of states, intermarriage between Orientals and Occidentals (the old term used for whites that See uses throughout the book) was forbidden.

Grace is 17 and has run away from her violent father in the mid-West; she has never met another Chinese person other than her parents until she hits San Francisco. Helen has a well to do father who runs the family compound with an iron fist; her brother escorts her to and from work to ensure her virtue. Ruby’s parent’s live in Hawaii; she lives with her aunt and uncle and is a wild child compared to the other two; when she doesn’t make the cut at the nightclub, she joins a revue at the Exposition that has the girls virtually nude. Despite their differences in personality and origin and blow ups that left them not speaking for years at times, their relationship continues for 50 years. All three have secrets, and those secrets are frequently the source of their problems.

This was the most gripping book I’ve read in some time; it sucked me right in and didn’t let go until I’d finished it, which I did in one day. It’s women’s literature, it’s Asian-American literature, it’s historical fiction. See has, as always, put a huge amount of research into her book. Some of the Chinese-American entertainers from the era are still alive and See was able to interview them and get first hand information about what it was like: the prejudice; the cringe-worthy, self deprecating acts that made the Occidentals laugh; the Japanese-Americans were all treated as traitors after Pearl Harbor. I love this book.

I received my copy of this book from the Amazon Vine program in return for an honest review. 
The above is an affiliate link; if you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. Neither of these things influenced my review.  

Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Vanishing, by Wendy Webb. Hyperion, 2014

When Julia’s husband commits suicide after getting caught bilking people of millions, the courts come after all their assets, and reporters are hounding her, she doesn’t know what to do. So when Adrian Sinclair offers her a chance to come work as his mother’s companion and disappear off the radar, she takes the opportunity and leaves on the spot. But there are a few odd things about the situation; Amaris Sinclair has officially been dead for ten years, for starters. Their mansion is in the middle of untouched forest near Lake Superior, and they own the only town near it. Julia is having trouble remembering the actual trip to Havenwood. Her medications have been dumped. The only phone she’s found in the house vanishes after she makes one call. It’s obvious there are a lot of secrets- and ghosts.

The story starts out rather chilling. The sense that Julia is in danger is palpable, and she doesn’t know who she can trust. But it turns out somewhat fluffy, and many things are never explained- while other things are explained to death, with long expositions that tell rather than show. There are hints of reincarnation that are never explored. The story frustrated me, because it had a lot of potential and I didn’t feel it was done as well as it could have been. Not a great book by any means but if you want some creepies on a dark and stormy night it’s okay. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will pay me a few cents. This in no way influenced my review. 

Saturday, April 19, 2014

No Book but the World, by Leah Hager Cohen. Riverhead Books 2014

Siblings Ava and Fred had a father, Neel, who believed in Rousseau’s saying “Let there be no book but the world”; he did not believe in conventional schooling but felt that children should be encouraged but not taught, allowing them to explore and learn on their own. He did not like books; learning from books was secondary rather than primary learning. Thus they were allowed to run free in the woods on the property of his former school, where they lived, with no instruction. When a new family moved into one of the former school buildings, Ava and the daughter, Kitty, became instant friends, and, when Kitty started to school, Ava insisted on enrolling as well. Given Neel’s insistence on children doing what they wanted, he was trapped into allowing her to do so. Fred followed, but didn’t last long before his behavior returned him to roaming the woods on his own. He showed signs of being on the autism spectrum and possibly developmentally delayed, but Neel refused to take him to a doctor to see what the problem was and if he could be helped. He was not non-verbal, but usually only Ava could understand him.

When as an adult Ava learns that Fred is being held on suspicion of murdering a boy, she attempts not just to find out what happened, but wonders about what obligations his family had to him. Were his parents wrong in how they brought him up? Should June, his mother, insisted on treatment instead of going along with her husband? With their parents dead, was Ava obligated to take care of him? Would Fred have led a better life had he been diagnosed and treated? What obligations does the family have to society?

The story is told in sections: Ava, her husband Dennis (who is also Kitty’s brother and has known Ava and Fred since they were kids), Kitty, Fred, and Ava again. They all have different takes on their childhoods and on Fred’s life. No one sees themselves as other see them. The book asks a lot of questions about responsibility and family ties. It’s engrossing and sensitive. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This book came to me free through the Amazon Vine program. Neither of these things affected my review. 

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The New Countess, by Faye Weldon. St. Martin’s Press, 2013

This is the final volume in Weldon’s trilogy set in the Edwardian era and featuring the wealthy Dilberne family. In this go round, the King invites himself – along with hiss wife, Queen Alexandra AND his mistress, Alice Keppel- to a shooting weekend at the Dilberne’s country house, which creates a panic in Lady Isobel. The country house is run down; the King – and his mistress- will be expecting flush toilets, electric lights and heaters, and up to the minute d├ęcor. This causes a hemorrhage of cash and a strain on the marriage. Meanwhile, their son Arthur is having problems with his American heiress wife, Minnie- he’s more interested in automobiles than in sex. Arthur’s socialistic sister has returned from Australia a well to do widow, and is living with a bohemian brother and sister duo and preparing to publish a book on the sex habits of the Australian aborigines, which horrifies her family. It’s all high-strung soap opera in a historical setting.

Although supposed to be along the lines of ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’, showing the lives of both the high class and the servants, only the first volume really featured the downstairs. They do appear momentarily in this volume, but are not fully formed characters.

I didn’t care for this volume as much as I did the first two in the trilogy. I liked Lady Isobel in the first two books; not so much this go-round, nor did I care much for Robert this time. The characters seemed harsh, mean spirited, and self centered. There is a rather bizarre little coda at the end, like a speculation in the first person while the rest of the book is told in the third person. And, sadly, the title gives away the event that I suspect was supposed to be a shock.

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way affected my review. 

Saturday, April 12, 2014

This House is Haunted, by John Boyne. Other Press, 2013

Set in 1867, this Dickensian novel actually starts with an appearance by Dickens himself. He gives a public reading of a ghost story, setting the mood for what follows. Eliza Crane, 21 years old, tells the story, adding an intimate touch. When her father dies, she seeks to get away from the home they’ve shared and takes a governess job in Norfolk, sight unseen, at Gaudlin Hall. After a couple of mishaps at the train station, Eliza is mystified to find herself met at the hall only by the children, Isabella and Eustace Westerley. At first it seems there are no adults in the house at all; inquiries made in town are stonewalled. Where are the parents? Why is there no staff? Almost immediately strange things start happening to Eliza; curtains move when there is no breeze, invisible hands grab and push violently.

The book is written in the style of the 1800s; it’s very much a Victorian gothic novel, right down to the language. As the story unfolds, some things have very mundane explanations but others clearly don’t. There’s a Hitchcockian twist at the end that will leave the reader with a feeling of dread. It’s not the greatest ghost story I’ve ever read, but it’s a solid one that sticks to supernatural fright rather than defaulting to slashing and gore like so many these days.  

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way affected my review. 

Monday, April 7, 2014

An Unofficial Rose, by Iris Murdoch. Viking Press, 1962

‘An Unofficial Rose’ is a family story- a very dysfunctional family. The matriarch has just died, and the day of her funeral starts the book. With Fanny dead, Hugh Peronett is now free to rekindle an old relationship with Emma. His son, Randall, wants to be free of his wife, Ann, so that he can pursue Emma’s companion, Lindsey. Hugh’s grandson by his absent daughter, Penn, is visiting for the summer, and he pursues Randall and Ann’s daughter, Miranda-and he is in turn pursued by another character.  Meanwhile, members of another family also pursue various members of the Peronett family. Everyone wants someone else and there is not one simple relationship in the whole thing. This is a very flawed cast of characters; only Ann and Penn seem to be unafflicted with the urge to manipulate people that the others seem to have so strongly.  

The book, written in 1962, is of course a product of its time. Ann is encouraged by the priest to stay married to Randall, even though he has deserted her for another woman, because marriage is forever and she can help Randall-even if he never comes back- by forgiving him and praying for him. A straight woman and a gay man stay together in an open marriage of convenience. It’s all right to have Randall, when asked by Lindsey what he would do if she changed her mind about having sex with him that night, say “I shall probably beat you and certainly rape you” and she accepts that rather than run screaming into the night.

In the end, the identity of the prime manipulator is a surprise. While there are some clues throughout the book,  it’s still not what you expect; it must have been a bit shocking in 1962. 

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way affected by review.

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way affected my review. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Tastemakers: Why We’re Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue, by David Sax. Public Affairs, 2014

In ‘Tastemakers’, Sax examines food trends from all angles. He visits farmer’s markets, the research facility of Dole, and a man who is bringing back the older breeds of rice (while I knew there were a lot of strains of rice that we never see here in the US, I had no idea there were so very many!); talks with celebrity chefs, people who have made chia seeds a health food rather than a Christmas joke present, and people who own food trucks. He tells us that the current cupcake megatrend was started by a very short scene in ‘Sex in the City’- 20 seconds where a character eats a cupcake. Some food trends are created on purpose, as Dole is attempting; some are accidental like the cupcake one. The bacon trend started as a way for pork producers to use up something and for chain restaurants to have something cheap that they could charge a premium for when they put it on a burger, and morphed into a huge movement that affected all strata of food producers from home cooks to cheap chains to celebrity chefs. (Sax questions whether it’s a good idea to infuse bacon into everything; I have to say that, yes, yes it is.)

I’m a bit of a foodie, so I found the book fascinating. This is no cookbook; this is a sociological and historical book written in a brisk style.

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

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Right of the Subjects, by Jude Starling. Damask Rose Press, 2014

In ‘The Right of the Subjects’, historical novelist Starling sets her tale in the women’s suffrage movement in England. The early 1900s was a politically volatile time in Great Britain; it was not only women who could not vote but many men of the poorer classes couldn’t, either. It was also the time of the rise of labor unions fighting for decent wages and working conditions. It’s out of the working class of northern England that Evanna Bailie- Evie- comes; she goes to a suffragist protest as a lark with her sister Amie and the movement becomes a major part of her life. The sixteen year old woman meets Annie Kenney and other avid members of the suffrage movement and she sees a possible way out of her tedious, back breaking life as a weaver in a cotton mill. And she’s right; joining the movement has her traveling, having time to develop her artistic talent, and exploring sex. It also means going to prison regularly for protesting, going on hunger strikes and being violently force fed, and even rejecting water for so long that kidney problems arose in those that did so.

While I know a little bit about the British Woman’s Suffrage movement- mainly about upper class women such as Mrs. Pankhurst- I was completely ignorant about the role working class women played. I should have known that there would have to be a lot of less well off women to create the mobs that were willing to be arrested, beaten, sexually assaulted, and have their health and lives risked in prison!

Evie is an interesting and, as the story goes on, a sympathetic, protagonist; she undergoes a lot of growth in the story and has the good luck to find out who she truly wants to be. There is a strong cast of varied characters both historical and fictional; the movement brought different classes of women together as allies for the first time, and same sex relationships became quietly accepted. Told from Evie’s point of view, the story engages and satisfies.

Starling researches her books thoroughly, and with this book she includes ‘extras’, rather like a DVD; essays about things she found out about the suffrage movement. While certainly not necessary to understand the story, they add depth and make the reader appreciate the movement and the women who created it more.

The above is an affiliate link. If you click through and buy something, Amazon will give me a few cents. This in no way influenced my review.