Monday, May 26, 2014

The Miniaturist, by Jessie Burton. Harper Collins 2014

In 1686 eighteen year old Petronella Oortman comes to live in Amsterdam with her new husband, Johannes Brandt, who she has barely met and with whom she has not yet shared a bed. She is not met by her husband; the household is not really welcoming. Brandt’s sister, Marin, is cold and critical. The maid, Cornelia, and Brandt’s man servant, Otto- a man of color, which is very unusual in Amsterdam at the time- tend to Nella’s needs but must get on with their work. She is basically sent to her room (the best of the bedrooms), without even her parakeet for company, and left to spend the night alone.

Brandt, when they finally meet at breakfast, turns out to be good-natured and friendly, but not in the way that Nella expects a husband to act to his wife. A merchant, he is away much of the time, and he shows no interest in sharing Nella’s bed when he is home. As a wedding present, he gives her a miniature version of the house they live in. Nella at first takes this as a slap in the face: she feels Brandt, at 39, looks at her eighteen year old self as a child. Certainly, she has nothing to do in Brandt’s home; Marin runs the house and treats Nella as a nuisance. But Brandt is not insulting Nella; such miniature houses are an accepted hobby in Amsterdam at the time.

To furnish the diminutive dwelling, Nella finds an ad for a miniaturist in the era’s version of the Yellow Pages and takes a letter to their address, requesting them to make some items for her. With no one home when she visits, she shoves the letter under the door and leaves. To her surprise, the items she requested arrive quickly- along with some pieces she did not request. These pieces show that the miniaturist has intimate knowledge of the Brandt household, which of course Nella finds very upsetting and even menacing.

Everyone in this household has secrets, very big secrets. Secrets that can destroy the person. And Johannes Brandt- and his money- are not entirely well loved. Greed, jealousy and religion are all factors in Amsterdam life. Nella unravels secret after secret, and, as she does, the miniaturist continues to give proof that they know what is going on in the house.

This is a fascinating book. Although it is a fast and absorbing read, it will pay to either read it slowly or reread; going back through it I kept finding foreshadowings that I had missed the first time. There are some details that are not period (or place) appropriate but I found them tolerable. Most of the characters have depth and human failings as well as nobility. We get to watch Nella grow and mature in a short period of time. My only problem with the book is that the miniaturist is never adequately explained; how did this person know the things they did? Is this the sole piece of magic in the book, or is there a more commonplace explanation? We are never to know. 

I received this book from the Amazon Vine program in exchange for a fair 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. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Perfume Collector, by Kathleen Tessaro. Harper, 2013

In 1955 London, Grace Monroe inherits a stock portfolio and a flat in Paris from Eva d’Orsey- a woman she has never heard of before. With her husband away on work (and possibly an affair), she goes ahead and flies to Paris to find out what she has inherited, along with who the mysterious d’Orsey is. With the aid of Monsieur Tissot, d’Orsey’s lawyer, she discovers Madame Zed, a former perfume creator fallen on hard times, living above a long deserted and boarded up perfume shop. She proves able to fill in some of what Grace wants to know, starting back in 1927. Slowly, the pieces of the story fall together.

The story bounces back and forth between 1955 and 1927, a duel story of young women growing up. Eva’s story isn’t an easy one; she left home to work at 14 and ended up being taken horrible advantage of; the full extent of what happened doesn’t come out until the end of the book. Grace’s story is a much easier one; she grew up in an insulated, wealthy household and doesn’t know much beyond being a nice girl and a good wife. But learning about Grace, and experiencing Paris, expands her horizons and allows her to become her own woman.

I enjoyed the book; the author’s descriptions of fragrances, fine foods, wines, and buildings were done with gemlike care. The big secret at the end I’d already figured out half way through the book, but that didn’t take away from it. I was really rooting for Grace, but even more so for Eva. 

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. 

Thursday, May 22, 2014

The Doctor and the Rough Rider, by Mike Resnick. Pyr, 2012

I’m not sure if this novel was meant to be for young adults (it was shelved in the adult section at the library) but it reads more YA than it does adult. It’s a steampunk western (think Wild, Wild West) using several historic figures- Theodore Roosevelt, Thomas Edison, Doc Holliday, Ned Buntline, Bat Masterson, and Geronimo- but in a very different North America. In Resnick’s version, the USA stops at the Mississippi River, held back by Native American magic. Some whites are allowed west of the river, but they are few. Geronimo, alone of the medicine men, wants to remove the barrier and allow whites to take over the continent.  The only white man he trusts to help him with this is Theodore Roosevelt, but the other medicine men are ahead of him- they’ve created a magical giant warrior, War Bonnet, specifically to defeat Roosevelt and Geronimo.

Sadly, the book bored me. There is no depth to the characters, and the plot is thin. I had to wonder why, if the Native Americans had a way to keep white people from taking over the continent- a way that was costing no lives- one of them would decide to end that; especially Geronimo, who in real life stated that he had been wrong to surrender and that he should have fought until he was the last man standing. Alternate history plays loosely with facts but usually leaves the characters of historical figures intact.

It’s an amusing story, but falls short of what I expected from reviews. 

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. 

Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Night Strangers, by Chris Bohjalian. Crown Publishers 2011

Chip Linton was pilot on a plane that lost both engines when geese got sucked into them; with no flat land close enough, he attempted a water landing a la Sully Sullenberger’s Miracle on the Hudson. Sadly, wake from a ferry turned the miracle into a massacre and thirty nine people died. Trying to escape Chip’s PTSD, the family- wife Emily and twin daughters Hallie and Garnet- moves to a small town in New Hampshire, where the new neighbors are friendly, the women are named for herbs, and all the herb women have greenhouses like the one on Chip’s new property.

‘The Night Strangers’ is a truly creepy book. It was written only three years ago, but has a strong vibe like horror from around 1970, like ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ or ‘Stepford Wives’: isolation; never knowing if one is imagining things or really being threatened; weird neighbors; is the horror human or paranormal? It has multiple threads of horror woven through it: Chip is either seeing and hearing the ghosts of Flight 1611 or his PTSD has escalated; the herb women are taking an inordinate amount of interest in Emily and the twins and have already renamed them with herb names; weapons around found hidden throughout the house.

Sadly, horrific as it is, the story doesn’t quite hang together. We’ve got possible ghosts from flight 1611, possible ghosts from the house, possible evil witches- it’s too much and they don’t mesh well. And the characters don’t seem plausible- even dealing with a husband with PTSD who is doing some seriously weird things most mothers wouldn’t let the just-met neighborhood herbalists basically take over their children anytime they aren’t in school, going so far as to rename them. I found the ending unsatisfactory, but it is very much in the vein of ‘Rosemary’s Baby’ or ‘Stepford’; if that is what the author was going for, he hit the nail on the head with that touch. 

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

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More, by Janet Mock. Atria Books, 2014

Janet Mock, beautiful former staff editor of People magazine, has been through a lot in her young life. Born Charles Mock into a family where both parents spent time doing drugs, kids were shuttled back and forth, older siblings raised younger ones- and sometimes sexually abused them- and everyone pretty much had to look out for themselves. Mock’s family was poor and multiracial. No one in her milieu knew about trans people, but she knew at a young age that she was a girl, and she had a strong personality that refused to back down. She dressed as a girl as much as possible and declared her new name to be ‘Janet’ when she was 15. Thankfully, her best friend was also trans, and she introduced her to the world of transpeople and the possibility of genital reconstructive surgery.

Mock is an accomplished writer and her story broke my heart. What she had to overcome to become ‘real’ was huge- the bullying, the poverty, the abuse- but her determination won over it all. She paid for all her hormones and surgery herself by being a temporary sexworker, undergoing GRS at 18 by flying, by herself, to Thailand. Despite all this, she never feel sorry for herself or makes it sound like she did anything remarkable; it was simply what she had to do. It’s a flowing narrative that didn’t allow me to put it down until I was done, and it made me glad to know that she has found herself at a place where she is ‘real’ and happy. 

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.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Season of the Dragonflies, by Sarah Creech. HarperCollins 2014

If you took Patrick Suskind’s ‘Perfume’ and mixed it with Alice Hoffman’s, well, any of her books, you might come up with ‘Season of the Dragonflies’. In the 1920s, on a tropical island, Serena Lenore discovers a magical variety of gardenia, which not only smells divine but also amplifies a woman’s talents and gives her… something… that allows her to succeed beyond all others. Through the decades this perfume has been shared, secretly and profitably, with a very few women in all different trades. There are a few rules that Serena handed down; one was to never, ever alter the secret formula. The sales of this perfume has made the Lenore family fabulously wealthy, although they live without conspicuous consumption and put a lot of money into philanthropy.

Willow has run the company alone for decades. When one of her daughters,Mya – who was the assumed heir to the company- goes behind her back and makes a deal with a client that blows up, the entire operation is in danger of failing. And when she performs some dark magic to repair things, it gets even worse. Can the recently divorced Lucia, who never had any magic in her and had no talent for mixing scents, help her mother and sister?

During the book, things change dramatically for all three Lenore women. Their roles change, their relationships change, even their talents change. It’s a time of growth for them; sometimes very painful growth. It’s also a time of learning to let go and trust the universe.

The story is well written enough although it does have a little bit of ‘first novelism’ in places- mainly in the romances. All three women find themselves involved with men who are almost too good to be true; it’s always hard for me to accept characters that have no flaws and when three of them appear in the same book it’s unbelievable- but then, this book *does* have magic as a reality in it, so perhaps this can be forgiven. The other thing I found a bit difficult was how easily the three women accepted the changes- major changes- in their lives. Still, I enjoyed the book a great deal and look forward to more by this author.  

I received this book from the Amazon Vine program in return for a fair 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 affected my review.