Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

The Invention of Wings

Sue Monk Kidd

Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings is the latest novel by Sue Monk Kidd. It is a selection of Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 (and also my book club!). Kidd has taken  the real life Grimke sisters and turned their story into an engrossing novel.

In the early 19th Century, the Grimke’s were a leading family in Charleston, South Carolina. Although they lived in the city, the family owned a cotton plantation and, of course, their fortune was built on the backs of slave labor. On her 11th birthday, Sarah is given Hetty as a gift. Hetty is a ten year old slave in the household, the daughter of Charlotte, the family’s skilled seamstress. Already an abolitionist at heart, Sarah attempts to free Hetty (whose mother has named her Handful). When Sarah wakes, she finds the manumission document she has signed torn in two and left at her bedroom door.

This narrative interweaves the stories of Sarah and Handful.  Sarah sees them as friends, but Handful knows that she can never be Sarah’s friend, as they are not equal. It is Handful’s life-long desire for freedom. Although it is Sarah’s desire to free Handful, it takes her many years before she is able to help make that happen.

As a woman, Sarah is expected to marry well. She is intelligent, but plain, and the eligible suitors are not clamoring for her. She is constantly at odds with her stern mother, whom the household slaves also fear and despise. Sarah’s only joy is caring for her youngest sister, Angelina.

Eventually, Sarah find her way out of the stultifying Charleston life, and makes her mark on the world as a renowned abolitionist and feminist.

This book is complex and very, very good. It is not fun or quick, but it tells an important story.

 

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Viking-2014

The Catch

"The Catch", the upcoming novel by Taylor Stevens

“The Catch”, the upcoming novel by Taylor Stevens

I first read about author Taylor Stevens in an interview in Vogue magazine. I was thoroughly intrigued and anxiously awaited the publication of her first book, The Informationist. I was not disappointed. Stevens’ protagonist, Vanessa Michael Munroe, is a true modern day hero. Despite her own difficult background, she stays true to her own moral code and, for the most part, concentrates her skills on helping the helpless.

So-to date I have purchased and read all of the published novels by Taylor Stevens. I was thrilled when LibraryThingEarly Reviewers chose me to receive a copy of The Catch. Taking a break from her past, Munroe is living and working in Djibouti. Here, she is “Michael”, a young man working as a fixer for a company which provides armed security for cargo ships. Her true skills remain hidden from her employer and the other workers.

The freighter Favorita is highjacked by Somali pirates on its way from Djibouti to Mombasa. Munroe is able to escape with the ship’s captain, who has been injured in the fight to take the ship. Although there are illegal arms hidden on the ship, Michael soon relaizes that the captain was the true target of the raid.

Making her way to Kenya with the captain, Michael must discover who is responsible for the hijacking. And then she must devise a way to re-capture the ship and its crew.

Among Michael’s many gifts are her intelligence, her fluency in many languages, her chameleon-like ability to blend in with her environment and, last but not least, her skill with knives. She uses all of these in her efforts.

The Catch is a fun addition to the series. It is not my favorite of the four books, but I definitely recommend it highly.

 

In USA:

Hardcover edition-To be published-Crown Publishers-July 2014

The Catch: A Novel

Kill Fee

Author Owen Laukkanen

Author Owen Laukkanen

Kill Fee is the soon-to-be-released crime novel from Owen Laukkanen. It is a fast paced account of the search for a the head of a murder for hire organization named “Killswitch”. Yes, this is a computer term, and the name of the organization refers to the fact that this is an internet based operation.

The brains behind Killswitch runs an encrypted program on his work and home computers. The money paid for the hits is transferred by wire to a foreign account that is hidden behind various shell corporations. The assassins that Killswitch employs, known as the “assets”, are young war veterans suffering from PTSD. Killswitch brainwashes the assets into following his commands.

As this novel opens, an elderly billionaire is murdered in Saint Paul, Minnesota. A state investigator, Kirk Stevens. and his occasional partner, FBI special agent Carla Windermere, witness the murder and give chase to the shooter. It takes a few more murders before they are able to connect the dots and realize that these seemingly unrelated murders were all committed by the same person.

Stevens and Windermere criss cross the country following clues and looking for the killer.

The concept of this book is interesting. It is well written and a quick read. I will say, though that I liked it, but didn’t love it. I think for me the issue is that I wish the main characters had more depth to them. It was difficult to understand their motivation. This novel would likely make a good movie, though. There is plenty of action and violence for today’s audience.

Many thanks, once again, to LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program for sending me this novel.

In USA:

To be published in hardcover-G.P. Putnam’s Sons-March 20, 2014

Kill Fee (A Stevens and Windermere Novel)

Bellman & Black

Unknown

After reading and raving about Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, I was excited to get a chance to read her latest novel, Bellman & Black.

In the English countryside during the reign of Queen Victoria, a ten year old boy, trying to impress his friends, kills a rook with a slingshot. Although William Bellman feels remorse, he soon forgets this incident. But rooks, apparently, never forget. As Bellman grows, his life seems charmed. He goes to work for his uncle, who owns a mill. William becomes the manager, and the mill grows more and more successful. He spends his evenings at the local pub, and is popular with all.

When William’s mother Dora dies, he notices a mysterious stranger at the funeral. Thereafter, he encounters this man at every funeral he attends. William marries and eventually has four children. When his uncle dies, William takes over the mill and the business grows and strengthens. When a devastating disease spreads through the town, Bellman’s wife and three youngest children (as well as many villagers) die. His eldest, Dora, is dying. At the churchyard, Bellman sees the mysterious stranger. Bellman comes to an agreement with him. Dora is spared, but not unscarred. Bellman goes on to open a successful London emporium, which he names Bellman & Black. This macabre store caters to all things funerary. Mourning clothes in shades of black; coffins; stationery.

Bellman sees “Mr. Black” the night before the store opening. Although he sets aside a generous portion of the profits from the store for him, Bellman does not see Mr. Black for many years.

This is quite a bizarre story. It is interspersed with facts and lore about rooks. William Bellman is as strange a character as the mysterious Mr. Black. He works relentlessly, rarely sparing time for his beloved family. In London, he owns several homes, but lives at the store. And for such an intelligent man, it just takes him too long to realize who Mr. Black actually is.

So-did I like this book? Yes, but I didn’t love it. The concept is bizarre, and the plot is nowhere near as interesting as The Thirteenth Tale. But I would definitely look forward to reading anything that Diane Setterfied writes, as her style is so elegant and precise.

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Atria/Emily Bestler Books (Simon & Schuster)-2013
Softcover edition-to be published-Atria/Emily Bestler Books- September 2014

Bellman & Black: A Novel

O, Africa

I received this book from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. I have had it for awhile. I have made numerous attempts to start it, but I just can’t get past the first 30 pages. I apologize to author Andrew Lewis Conn who I can see has made a sincere effort to write about the early days of movie making.

I love New York, I love movies, but I don’t love this novel.

In USA:

To be published in hardcover-Random House-June 2014

O, Africa!: A Novel

9780804138284

The Valley of Amazement

Author Amy Tan

Author Amy Tan

Using a cherished family photo for inspiration, Amy Tan has produced a moving, beautifully constructed (and lengthy) novel. While researching a novel about Shanghai, Tan came across photos taken in Shanghai in the early 1900’s. Tan came across one photo that was similar to a photo of her grandmother. In it, Tan’s grandmother is dressed similarly to the early 20th century courtesans of Shanghai. While Tan had no idea if her grandmother was actually a courtesan or this was simply a photo studio costume, it led her to imagine the lives of these women, most of whom had no other options for surviving on their own.

Thus was born The Valley of Amazement. This is a complex tale of an American woman who operates a courtesan house in Shanghai in the early 20th century. Lulu Minturn is raising her daughter, Violet, in Hidden Jade Path, a first class courtesan house catering to both Chinese and westerners. Lulu is estranged from her San Francisco family. Lulu’s poor decisions lead to Violet’s becoming a Shanghai courtesan while Lulu returns to San Francisco.

Most of this novel revolves around Violet’s life. Violet struggles to survive as she becomes older, and less desirable. Also, the world is changing rapidly and the courtesans are becoming less fashionable. While Violet adapts to what she views as her mother’s abandonment, she is also searching for love and a permanent place in the world.

About 3/4 of the way through the book, the focus turns to Lulu, and how she ended up a single mother in Shanghai. We learn of her struggles with her San Francisco family. We see how her impulsive decisions led her down a difficult path.  Lulu’s relationship with Violet’s father is is troubled, and of course this complicates Violet’s emotions and her dealings with men.

Despite its length, The Valley of Amazement was a quick read. As with Amy Tan’s other novels, the compelling story and sympathetic characters made me want to keep reading.  I highly recommend this fine novel.

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Ecco-2013
Softcover edition to be published-Ecco-July 2014

The Valley of Amazement

The Illusion of Separateness

 Simon Van Booy

Simon Van Booy

This elegant and moving novel by British author Simon Van Booy should be on everyone’s short list of must-reads. It tells the story of  five people in different times and places. They move through their lives unaware of their connection to the other characters. The connections between them become apparent as the novel unfolds. Of course the final piece of this puzzle becomes apparent only at the end.

The characters are complex and original. The settings in which we meet them are portrayed vividly and realistically.

The novel bounces between France in 1944, New York and Los Angeles in the present, rural France in 1968, and England in 1981. You would think that this would result in a disjointed mish-mash, but it never does. The story flows smoothly and evenly, with much emotion simmering below the surface.

The Illusion of Separateness is short and powerful. And I will be re-reading it tonight!

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Harper-2013
Softcover edition-HarperCollins-2013

The Illusion of Separateness: A Novel

Noah’s Rainy Day

Author Sandra Brannan

Author Sandra Brannan

Noah’s Rainy Day is the fourth book in Sandra Brannan’s series featuring Liv Bergen, now an FBI Special Agent. Liv has recently completed her FBI training in Quantico, Virginia, and is newly returned to the Denver area. Liv is staying with the family of her sister, Frances, while she searches for an apartment large enough to accommodate her and Beulah, The FBI bloodhound that she works with. Noah is Liv’s twelve year old nephew. He is afflicted with a severe form of cerebral palsy. He is nearly blind, and can barely move independently. Noah, however, is smart, observant, and wants to be a spy like his hero, his Auntie Liv.

Liv and Beulah are summoned to Denver International Airport on Christmas Eve to work on their first case together. A five year old boy, Max, has disappeared from the airport during a layover on his New York to Los Angeles flight. His parents are divorcing and his wealthy father has sent him to spend Christmas with his mother in LA. Mr. Bennett has paid an airline employee to escort little Max to his destination. When Max doesn’t deplane in LA, his waiting mother becomes hysterical, and the search is on.

Noah’s Rainy Day is interesting, fact-paced and, overall, a good read. And even though I haven’t read the previous three Liv Bergen books, it was simple enough to get up to speed on the characters and the story line.

The only nit I have to pick will probably sound familiar to readers of this blog. Liv is a smart, strong, independent woman. She and her colleagues are working round the clock to help solve the mystery of Max’s disappearance. And yet-Liv has time to wonder about the new cologne one of her male co-workers is wearing. She is convinced that is was given to him by a female co-worker, and she is jealous. And he is not even the colleague that she is interested in. What gives?

On the other hand, it’s great to have a character with a severe disability take center stage in a novel. Although Noah’s body is crippled, his mind is active and inquisitive. He shows tremendous empathy for the missing Max, and his assistance is crucial bringing Max home.

So-overall, I give Noah’s Rainy Day a thumbs up. Once again, many thinks to the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program for sending me this book. I look forward to reading Brannan’s earlier novels featuring Liv Bergen.

In USA:

Softcover edition-Greenleaf Book Group Press-2013

Noah’s Rainy Day

Book Catch Up

Portrait of a Spy: A Gabriel Allon story by Daniel Silva. One of the better books in this series about the former Israeli agent Gabriel Allon. Interesting characters, fast-paced drama. Fun to read.

Cartwheel: A LibraryThing Early Reviewer selection by Jennifer Dubois. This is inspired by the Amanda Knox story. A young woman is arrested for murder while studying abroad. It is interesting from the start. The central question, of course, is whether Lily Hayes did in fact murder her roommate. Lily’s case is not helped by her odd behavior. Or is the problem that her behavior is misinterpreted due to language and cultural barriers? It’s hard to discuss this too thoroughly without giving alot away. But there remain interesting ambiguities in the story and this is a worthwhile read.

The River of Doubt: Candice Millard’s portrait of Theodore Roosevelt’s expedition into the South American interior. After TR’s defeat in the 1912 Presidential campaign, he embarked on an epic trip to South America. This book depicts Roosevelt’s reason for making this trip, as well as the egos involved in the trip and the serious blunders that occurred along the way. Like many well-written expedition tales, even though the reader knows how the story ends, it is still an interesting and gripping drama.

I think I read a few other books since I last blogged, but none of them are memorable enough to write about. So now I’m all caught up!

The Woman Upstairs

Claire Messud

Claire Messud

The Woman Upstairs is Claire Messud’s novel about a single woman, Nora Eldridge who, in her own mind, typifies the literary trope of “the woman upstairs”. Nora is a third grade teacher in Boston. She lives alone, and has a very narrow social circle. Nora has spent years helping her father care for her dying mother, and now helps out her elderly father.

Nora fancies herself an artist, although she has little to show for her pretensions. Her major work is a miniature version of Emily Dickinson’s bedroom. She obsesses over each detail. She also plans dioramas of the rooms of other women artists, including Andy Warhol’s muse, Edie Sedgwick.

As a new school year begins, Nora meets the Shahid family. Reza is her pupil. His father, Skandar has come to Cambridge to spend a year as a visiting professor at Harvard. Reza’s mother, Sirena, is an artist who reluctantly accompanies her husband from Paris, where she has been preparing for a show. To continue her work in Boston, Sirena rents a studio and asks Nora to share the space. Nora of course agrees.

And she agrees because she is a doormat, and because she has fallen in love with the entire Shahid family. The way she responds to each of them individually is creepy, particularly Reza. Nora moons a bit too much over the eight year old’s eyes. Yuck! Of course the family takes advantage of her. Nora helps Sirena with her art, while neglecting her own. She also babysits for Reza while his parents pursue the active social life available to university professors.

Of course this odd relationship will take its toll on the characters, particularly on Nora. In a way, Nora is much like the main character in the previous book I reviewed, Rockaway. She wants to be an artist, but is unable to commit to the lifestyle. She uses others as her excuse not to create. She is emotionally stunted and, altogether, a very unpleasant person.

Nora has so few redeeming qualities it was difficult to read this book. She is not at all interesting. She stalks the Shahid family, but they don’t even mind because they are so happy to use her in any way to make their lives easier. What a bunch of losers! I say pass on this book.

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Knopf-2013
Softcover edition-to be published-Vintage-February 2014

The Woman Upstairs