Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

Songs of Willow Frost

Songs of Willow Frost is the second novel by Jamie Ford, the (justly) acclaimed author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. Like his previous work, this novel explores a dark time in American history. This is the story of a 12-year-old Chinese boy who lives in a Seattle orphanage in 1934.  While conditions at Sacred Heart Orphanage are harsh, William Eng and the other orphans are relatively lucky. Outside the walls of Sacred Heart, the Great Depression rages. Dispossessed families live in a nearby Hooverville. There are bread lines, and children work to support their families by shining shoes and selling newspapers. William and the other orphans have a roof over their heads, 3 meals a day, and regular schooling.

Many of the children at Sacred Heart are not, technically, orphans. Their families, unable to care for them, have left them at the orphanage, with a vague promise to one day return. The annual outing celebrating the collective birthday of the boys of Sacred Heart includes a visit to a local movie theater. On the screen, William sees the actress Willow Frost.  He is convinced that Willow is his mother. The last time William saw his beloved ah-ma he was six years old and she lay dying in a bathtub in their small apartment in a seedy Seattle hotel. Liu Song was brought to a hospital, and William to Sacred Heart.

William sees from a flyer that Willow is appearing in a revue that will soon be coming to Seattle. He is determined to escape the orphanage and find Willow.

Songs of Willow Frost is an excellent novel. The characters are realistic and believable. The plot moves along at a good pace, despite the use of flashbacks. It took me a long time to read this book, but only because it was so sad that I could only read a little at a time. Jamie Ford has avoided the “sophomore curse” of so many second novels. I highly recommend this book. Many thanks to LibraryThing Early Reviewers for sending this along to me.

In USA:

Author Jamie Ford

Author Jamie Ford

Hardcover-to be published-Ballanatine Books- September 2013

Songs of Willow Frost: A Novel

Rockaway

Tara Ison

Tara Ison

LaJolla

LaJolla

Rockaway

Rockaway

Rockaway is the very new novel by Tara Ison. I had not heard of her or any of her books before, and was pleased that my book club made this our next selection. We actually chose it from Oprah Magazine’s “Best Books of Summer” feature. And this book is about a summer-specifically the summer of 2001 which the protagonist, an artist named Sarah, spends in a borrowed house in Rockaway, Queens.

Sarah has been an unsuccessful artist. At 35, she works in an art supply store in her hometown of LaJolla, California. She lives in a dreary apartment, and spends much of her time caring for her not-so-elderly parents. A local gallery owner offers Sarah the possibility of a show based on some old paintings of hers. But the gallery owner wishes to exhibit only current works by the more mature Sarah. With the help of a childhood friend, Sarah relocates temporarily to Rockaway for inspiration and time alone to paint.

At first, this scenario strains credibility. I’ve been to LaJolla, and I’ve been to Rockaway. If I were an artist, I couldn’t imagine a more inspiring landscape/seascape than LaJolla.(see photos above-take your pick!) But it soon becomes clear that Sarah’s need is more than inspiring scenery. She needs to break free of her needy, depressed parents and follow her own vision. This is not easy for her, as she is immature, unfocused, self-centered and has a serious, unacknowledged drinking problem.

Sarah is judgmental, and really unable to connect meaningfully with other people. Sarah procrastinates, makes excuses for her lack of productivity, and consoles herself with alcohol. Not a pretty picture.It’s tough to empathize with Sarah, until we learn more about her family background, and how childhood events have shaped her adult life.

Rockaway is a quick and easy read, but definitely has more depth than the usual summer beach book.

In USA:

Published in softcover-Soft Skull Press-2013

Rockaway: A Novel

The Transplant

I always applaud the author who the ability and grit to pen a long novel-such as this nearly 500 page tome by Alexandra Ulysses. However-and this is a big however-The Transplant is one of the dreariest, most dreadful books I’ve come across. It was sent to me from the LibraryThing Early Reviewer program. I’m always excited and grateful when I receive the e-mail that I’ve won a new book; it’s like being chosen for a new adventure. But this was awful.

I will confess that I managed to slog through the first 124 pages, then skipped to the final 20 pages. I won’t recount the plot here, but suffice to say it not the least compelling. The main character is naive, selfish, whiny. The other characters in the book are equally unlikeable.

So-I do not recommend this book at all, and will be purging it from my home as soon as possible!

 

In USA:

Published in hardcover-United Arts Media-2010

The Dry Grass of August

Author Anna Jean Mayhew

Author Anna Jean Mayhew

The Dry Grass of August is the June selection of my book club. And once again, a selection has me pondering the reason for a book club. Other than spending a pleasant evening with friends, I guess the reason is to force me to read books that I otherwise would not. For my personal reading I gravitate to certain genres and authors, but book club forces me out of my comfort zone. And that’s a good thing, right?

Well-maybe not in this case. The Dry Grass of August is another book in the genre I like to call “depressing stories of ignorance and racism in the south in the 20th century”.

This novel centers on teenager Jubie Watts, who lives in Charlotte, North Carolina in 1954. Jubie, her mother, siblings, and Mary, the family’s maid, leave for vacation to visit Jubie’s uncle in Pensacola, Florida. The action  is interspersed with flashbacks to Jubie’s early childhood and very recent past. Jubie’s father, Bill, is a violent drunk, and Jubie, inexplicably, is the target of his rage. Her mother, Pauly, is benignly neglectful of her four children, leaving the work of child rearing to the family’s “colored” maid. Mary is the one caring and stable adult presence in Jubie’s life.

The violence that is simmering below the surface erupts in a predictable way. This of course forces Jubie to grow up and rebel against her parents. Yawn!

This book has, in my opinion, nothing to add to the genre of the southern novel. The themes are stale; the characters  I’ve met before. There remain three novels of the south worth reading: Gone With the Wind, The Sound and the Fury, and To Kill a Mockingbird. All the others are riffs on the same theme.

In USA:

Published in softcover-Kensington-2011

The Dry Grass of August

The Doll

Taylor Stevens

Taylor Stevens

The Doll is the third novel in Taylor Stevens’ series about Vanessa Michael Munroe. Michael, as she is generally called, is a deadly operative, currently employed by a security firm in Dallas. Having survived an abusive childhood, Michael now brings her many skills to helping exploited and abused people, particularly young girls.

Among Michael’s skills is the ability to absorb language. She is also well-versed in hand-to-hand combat and is expert in all kinds of weapons. Michael also uses her androgynous appearance to her advantage, thinking nothing of shaving her head to appear like a man.

One morning, Michael is ambushed while arriving at her office. She is shot with a tranquilizer gun and abducted while her boss is watching. Michael was on her way into the office to sign a contract accepting the assignment to locate a young actress who recently disappeared. Are these events related? Hmmm!

Compared to the first two books in the series, The Informationist and The Innocent, I’d say this is my least favorite. Like the others, The Doll deals with uncomfortable realities of life-in this case human trafficking. But I would say that Munroe’s character in this book is more caricature than flesh and blood person. Her motives and her background are fuzzier than in the others, so she is just not as interesting. I’d say that if you just picked up this book without reading the others, that you’d be confused about who this person is.

Beyond that, though, this is another fast-paced, interesting plot. The bad guys are really bad, and there is a very thin line separating them from the good guys. So-not my favorite, but I definitely plan on reading the fourth book in the series which is currently in progress.

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Crown-2013

The Doll: A Novel (Vanessa Michael Munroe)

The Thirteenth Tale

Author Diane Setterfield

Author Diane Setterfield

I can’t believe this book was published in 2006 and I just read it now! Where has it been? Where was I? Diane Setterfield’s debut novel grabbed me from the opening sentence, and never let go.

The Thirteenth Tale is a British mystery with so many interesting and fun elements I don’t know where to start. On the surface, it is the story of a young woman, Margaret Lea, who works in her father’s antiquarian bookshop. Margaret is well-read, intelligent, but socially awkward. While close with her father, Margaret has a strained relationship with her mother. Margaret amuses herself by writing short biographies of some of the lesser-knows authors whose works she has read.

One day, Margaret receives a long, hand-written letter from Vida Winter, a novelist. The reclusive and mysterious Winter is aging and very ill. In her 50+ years as a best-selling author, Winter has never told the truth about her background. She offers Margaret a large sum of money to write her story. Margaret must leave her comfortable home and travel to Winter’s isolated estate in Yorkshire. She will live with Winter while hearing her life story. There are, of course, conditions attached to the offer.

Margaret has never read any of Winter’s books, preferring 19th century novelists. Before accepting this commission, Margaret begins reading, and is immediately drawn in by Winter’s unique story-telling style. Most intriguing is Winter’s debut novel. Margaret reads a copy of this book,  titled Thirteen Tales of Change and Desperation, which she finds  in her father’s storeroom. Upon finishing the twelfth tale, the book ends. Margaret’s father explains that the book only contains twelve tales. They own the only known copy of the re-called first edition. All other published copies are simply called Tales of Change and Desperation.

This engaging story contains so many fascinating elements. It is a tale of a crazy family, twins, an addled housekeeper, a strange topiary garden, incest, and a fire. And more! It is a great mystery, with enough twists and turns to keep the reader guessing until the very end.

In USA:
Published in hardcover-Atria Books-2006
Softcover edition-WashingtonSquare Press-2007

The Thirteenth Tale: A Novel

The Last Camellia

Strangely, just as I completed reading my first novel by Sarah Jio, I received a notice from the LibraryThing Early Reviewers Program that I was selected to receive a copy of Jio’s upcoming The Last Camellia.  This story is set in a very different place than The Violets of March, but there are some strong similarities between the books.

The Last Camellia takes place mainly in rural Great Britain. It toggles in time between 1940 and the present. The protagonist in both stories is  a young American woman. In 1940, we meet Flora, a budding (no pun intended) botanist. Flora lives in the Bronx, and helps out at her parents’ bakery. After hours, Flora volunteers at the New York Botanical Garden. One day at the bakery, Flora is approached by a man who offers her a large sum of money to take on an undisclosed task relating to her knowledge of plants. The job is in England, and Flora will have to leave home for an unspecified amount of time. She agrees to the terms and it is only on board the ship bound for England that Flora learns that she is working for a ring of flower thieves. Her task is to locate the last surviving “Middlebury Pink” camellia. It is believed to be in the orchard at Livingston Manor, an English country estate.

In the present time, we meet Addison. Addison is a garden designer living in New York City. Her wealthy in-laws have just purchased Livingston Manor. Unbeknownst to her husband, Addison is being stalked by someone from her past. Hoping to escape, she suggests to Rex that they summer at his parents’ new home. Within a day, they have arrived at Livingston Manor, greeted by Mrs. Dilloway, the housekeeper who has worked at the Manor for 70 years. Boy-does she have some secrets!

Jio does a good job of going back and forth between the present and the past. There is enough suspense in Flora’s story to make up for the lack of it in Addison’s. Addison just seems silly and hysterical, while Flora seems more of a real person with real problems.But this was an engaging, quick read; probably best for a plane ride or beach.

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In USA:

Softcover edition-Penguin-to be published May 2013

The Last Camellia: A Novel

Five Star Billionaire

Author Tash AW

Author Tash Aw

Five Star Billionaire is the soon-to-be-released novel by Tash Aw, the award winning author of Harmony Silk Factory and Map of the Invisible World. This is a novel of the new China, specifically Shanghai. Aw was raised in Asia and has a gift for capturing life in China today. This novel centers on five characters who have come to Shanghai for different reasons, but their lives intersect in unexpected ways.

The first character we meet is Walter Chao, the five star billionaire of the title. Walter grew up poor in rural Malaysia, but was determined to become a wealthy man. Next we meet Phoebe, an illegal immigrant to Shanghai. Phoebe’s road to Shanghai also began in a rural village. Phoebe’s hope is to raise herself up, and also her family. She is uneducated, but willing to learn from her mistakes and work hard to achieve her goals.

Justin Lim is the eldest son from a wealthy family in Kuala Lumpur. He has been groomed from birth to manage the family’s immense real estate holdings. He is in Shanghai to cement the Lim family’s interests in China. Yinghui is a businesswoman who began her rise by establishing a chain of up-scale lingerie shops. She is also from a well-off Malaysian family; she and Justin share a history, but it was not always a pleasant one.

Gary is a pop star. He sells millions of record and performs concerts to thousand of screaming teenage fans. Gary also is from an impoverished Malaysian family. After winning a singing contest, he began a meteoric rise to stardom, yet he remains deeply unhappy.

It took me a few chapters to become accustomed to the style of this novel. Aw jumps around from one character’s story to another. The chapters are short, each one focused on the perspective of a single character. It takes much of the novel for the relationship between the characters to become clear.

Of course the sixth character in the book is the city of Shanghai. It is constantly being built and re-built. It is crowded and noisy. Shanghai is a magnet for immigrants, legal and illegal. Finding work is difficult-there are so many people willing to do anything to survive and send money to their families back home. The city is cruel to its inhabitants, yet it remains a beacon of hope throughout Asia.

Aw has set the stage for an interesting story, and Five Star Billionaire does not disappoint. I highly recommend this novel. Many thanks to the LibraryThing Early  Reviewers program for sending this on to me.

In USA:

Hardcover edition to be published-Spiegel & Grau-Jult 2013

Five Star Billionaire: A Novel

The Violets of March

Author Sarah Jio

Author Sarah Jio

The Violets of March is the debut novel of Seattle based author Sarah Jio. She has since published two more books, with another title due in May. This novel is good, in a formulaic kind of way.

A recently divorced woman leaves her high-style Manhattan life to return to the island where she spent her childhood summers. She hopes to heal herself from the scars of her broken life. On the island she finds mystery and romance, as well as the key to a childhood where she felt her family favored her younger sister over her.

Boo hoo!

Emily Wilson has led a charmed life in her twenties. She published a best-seller, and married a handsome and wealthy man. The she spent years suffering from writer’s block. When her marriage fails, she runs to Bainbridge Island, off the coast of Seattle. Her Aunt Bee still lives in the home where Emily spent her childhood summers.

Although I have never been to Bainbridge Island, Jio’s strength as a writer is the way she can conjure up a place. The island seems very real to me, much more so than the characters.

This book was amusing and easy to read, but I guess that I will not remember it after I finish writing this review!

In USA:

Published in hardcover-Penguin 2011
Softcover edition-Plume-2011

The Violets of March: A Novel

Two Books by Daniel Silva-Michael Osbourne Series

In quick succession I completed the two Michael Osbourne novels by Daniel Silva. The first of the two is The Mark of the Assassin, and the second is The Marching Season. The protagonist in both is the CIA operative Michael Osbourne. Michael’s wife Elizabeth, is a successful attorney and the daughter of former U.S. Senator from New York Douglas Cannon.

Both books revolve around Michael’s quest to find and capture the killer for hire known only as “October”. October is a former KGB assassin. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, he became a sought after private contractor. His current employer is a shadowy group known as the Society for International Development and Cooperation. The Society, an invitation only group, is composed of powerful business executives and directors of security services from around the world. Their goal is to keep the world unstable in order to further their own interests.

The title The Mark of the Assassin refers to October’s signature-killing his victims with three shots to the face. The Marching Season refers to the (former) troubles in Northern Ireland, specifically the time of year when the Protestants march through the streets to commemorate the victory of William of Orange over King James II in 1690.

Aside from being dated, these books are intriguing and well-written. The characters are interesting and multi-dimensional, although I would have liked a few, particularly Elizabeth Osbourne, to be more complex. As always, I enjoy reading about the inner workings of the CIA and other intelligence services. Making brief appearances in these books is Ari Shamron, who will be become a central character in Silva’s later books about Mossad agent Gabriel Allon. Silva intersperses the books with real people, such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams.

In the post 9/11 world we live in, I’d like to see Daniel Silva continue to write books with Michael Osbourne as the main character. Silva has an interesting perspective on global terrorism and its perpetrators. It would be great to see where he goes with that!

The Mark of the Assassin

The Marching Season