The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton

Writing: 3.5 Plot: 3.5 Characters: 4

Richly detailed historical fiction with a convoluted plot pulled from a set of narratives scattered across time but centered on place: Birchwood Manor — a 400 year old house immersed in myth and mystery. Murder, mayhem, stolen heirlooms, and old artifacts form the center of the story, but they exist in a sea of love, loss, and a range of historical settings including Queen Elizabeth and the Catholic persecution of 1586, the (fictional) Magenta Brotherhood artist group of the mid 1800s, the establishment of a school for young women in the late 1800s, London and environs in WWII, and modern day archival work. It’s engrossing but complicated — I found that documenting a timeline as I read was extremely helpful.

The writing is good but a little long winded for my taste. On the other hand, if you love historical dramas you may enjoy the longer opportunity to immerse yourself in the 500 pages of intriguing characters and historically accurate details. Did I mention that one of the narrators is clearly a (compelling) spirit that has been bound to the house for over a century?

 

The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for an early review copy of The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim, which will publish November 6, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 4 Plot: 4.5 Characters: 5

An utterly engaging story that follows two sisters as they grow up separately due to the Korean War. When Najin and Calvin leave Korea for America, they bring with them the older sister — Miran — but leave baby Inja behind with her uncle and grandparents. What was originally meant to be a 1-2 year absence becomes a 16 year separation as first war and then U.S. immigration policies serve as barriers to reunion. When Inja is finally reunited with her “real” family, she is understandably bereft at being torn from her “real” home and family in Korea.
Well-written and full of fascinating, well-researched details of life in both locations as seen through the eyes of a young girl growing up. The time frame spans 1950 through 1973. Inja’s life in Korea goes through the terribly difficult war years, the armistice, and reconstruction before she leaves for America. Ten years later she returns and sees yet another Korea – one that is modernizing under the leadership of Park Chung-hee. The focus on individuality and independence in America is contrasted with a more communal priority in Korea. For Inja, “The comfort of being home, her Korean home, came from fulfilling the drive to belong. But this drive also heightened the pain of division when a single small thing marked one as different, such as Inja having a mother but not having a mother; for Uncle, having her as a daughter who was not his daughter; for Miran being Korean yet not being Korean.”
The role of secrets and the truth in love and family cohesion is a theme throughout the book. A number of painful secrets are kept in order to avoid bringing others pain. Inja has learned and internalized this behavior and reflects on its value: Secrecy is “a way to live in the accumulation of a difficult family history, a way that was a profound expression of love.” When Inja thinks of the many secrets she keeps, she thinks: “These were all precedents that venerated keeping secrets from her mother as being rituals of love.”
This book is genuine and full of insights. It’s a great opportunity to learn history through the eyes of people who have lived it and culture through the eyes of people who embody it. The story appears to be loosely based on aspects of the author’s family which is probably responsible for the natural and honest feel of the prose. While full of feeling, the book is not overly dramatic which I appreciate. For those who enjoyed Pachinko, I found this to be a complementary narrative that further fleshes out Korean culture and history. A great read.

The Idiot by Elif Batuman

Writing: 5 Plot: 3 Characters:4

Finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for fiction
Women’s prize for fiction short list

New words (to me):
– Amphibrach – a metrical foot consisting of a stressed syllable between two unstressed syllables or (in Greek and Latin) a long syllable between two short syllables.
– Stomatologist – One who practices oral medicine (at the interface between medicine and dentistry).

Simultaneously poetic and cerebral, this is an extended and (perhaps unintentionally) comic coming-of-age story that follows Selin, the daughter of Turkish immigrants, through her first year as a Harvard student. Her thoughts and experiences are meticulously analyzed and comically documented as she takes classes, meets new people, tutors locals, and goes to Hungary to teach English in a small village over the summer. The text considers the perspectives of several foreign students — for example, her best friend Svetlana is from Belgrade and Selin has a book-long infatuation with Ivan, a mathematician from Hungary. While she takes Russian, we are exposed to Russian culture as perceived via primer texts, and part two of the book is a hilarious travelog of her summer experiences in Paris, Turkey, Budapest, and the Hungarian countryside. Selin’s take on things is fascinating — her observations are honest and get to the root of the experience.

The novel is full of intellectual quirkiness: a class visit to a display of E.O. Wilson’s “favorite” million ants; a discussion of aesthetic vs ethical principles; lots of comparative linguistics such as the similarities between Turkish and Hungarian (both agglutinative, have vowel harmony, no grammatical gender) and the use of the miş suffix in Turkish (something that states the degree of subjectivity in what was said). That is just the tip of the iceberg — I loved her commentary on what she was learning and how it was taught — a far cry from the party oriented “college fiction” I was expecting!

This book documents Selin’s development through the year. She is excessively self-aware and says of herself, “The eternal pauper in the great marketplace of ideas and of the world, I had nothing to teach anyone. I didn’t have anything anyone wanted.” While one reviewer called her “young and stupid,” I think he missed the point completely. She is a social innocent for whom interactions are difficult. She tries to use her intellect to make sense of the irrational word of social discourse and the observations and commentary are hysterical.

The writing is wonderful. Although I wouldn’t bill this as a comedy, I kept laughing out loud. Batuman has this ability to swerve the sentence or phrase half way such that the ending is a jolt that makes you laugh in surprise. This pattern was writ large with the ending (which I will not give away) — similarly abrupt and surprising.

Some favorite lines:

“I said I was easy to entertain. Bojana said it was clear I had never spent five weeks in an Eastern European village.”

“The sky looked like a load of glowing grayish laundry that someone had washed with a red shirt.”

“Is there any way to escape the triviality dungeon of conversations?”

A great read if you’re in the mood for a long ponder (my usual state).

 

The Lost For Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for an early review copy of The Lost for Words Bookshop by Stephanie Butland, which will publish June 19, 2018.  All thoughts are my own.

Writing: 5 Plot: 4 Characters: 5+

Welcome to the spiky interior world of Loveday Cardew. By turns comic, powerful, uplifting, and literary, this book about books and the people who love them made me one happy clam.

Loveday has worked in the Lost For Words bookshop in York (England) for 15 years. Her network of tattoos is a compendium of significant first lines from favorite novels — I was hooked right there. By the way, the first line of this book? — “A book is a match in the smoking second between strike and flame.” Not bad!

She works for Archie — the rich, eccentric, and larger than life (in more ways than one) bookstore owner who feels that “good relationships are more important than being able to see your feet.” Through the accidental recovery of a Liverpool Poet book, she meets Nathan — a cravat wearing poet who daylights as a magician. Nathan teaches her that you can “write a different story for yourself” — both in terms of the future and the impact you allow from the past.

The book is simultaneously a tender love story, a positive recovery tale, and a foray into the literary world. There is no catalog of horrors, but we do follow the trajectory of a woman who is establishing her own life in the wake of a tragic childhood event. I appreciate that this event is not painted in black and white — there is a realistic complexity to understanding how things happened the way they did and what she can do to become a fully realized human being. Here is a hint — performance poetry has an unexpected role to play!

A great comic style. As an example, when admitting that used book stores have to pulp the extras, Loveday says: “Five million copies of The Da Vinci Code were published in 2003. How many of them does the world still need fifteen years later? A lot less than five million.” (FYI, personally, I might suggest “a lot less than five” — not a huge fan).

Some of my favorite lines:

“She seemed the type who went through her days tutting like a pneumatic disapproval machine.”

“Nathan came over and the nearer he got the more I wanted to run, and cry, and touch him, and blurt, and hide, and kiss him and generally behave as though Barbara Cartland had just sneezed me out.” Love the comic ending on a sentence that was hurling into heavy-duty romance territory!

“It felt as though his words, rather than heading out into the air, were falling off the edge of his lower lip, drooping into my hair, and sliding down the side of my head and into my ear.”

Top recommendation!

Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

Bardo – (in Tibetan Buddhism) a state of existence between death and rebirth, varying in length according to a person’s conduct in life and manner of, or age at, death.

I can’t use my standard Writing / Plot / Characters rating scheme as this novel simply doesn’t fit within those parameters!

The death of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Willie, on April 20th, 1862, is the precipitating event around which the novel unfolds. The unique storytelling style combines quotes from historical sources (often in conflict with each other) with descriptions of and conversations between the ghosts who inhabit the “Bardo” of the title. This Bardo is manifest within the graveyard into which Willie Lincoln’s body has been interred.

Willie’s death occurs at a critical juncture within Lincoln’s presidency. The civil war has begun and has already incurred a great loss of life. The interplay between the real world and the confusing swirl of ghostly presences finds a center in Lincoln himself as he grieves for his boy in the cemetery and tries to find the resolve to continue his approach to the war. The ghosts vary in age, gender, race, and life time period. Each has been distilled to an essence with a unique presentation and obsession. These are riveting reductions — reminiscent of Hemingway’s famous six word story: “For sale: baby shoes. Never worn.”

A fascinating view of history and a strangely compelling style — I enjoyed this far more than I expected. It really is the masterpiece everyone says it is (which is hard for me to admit as I don’t like agreeing with “everyone”!).

The Little French Bistro by Nina George

Writing: 4 Characters: 5 Plot: 4.5

A sensuous novel in the literal sense of the word. 60-year old Marianne is leading a drab, grey, existence when she slips away from the tour group in Paris (and her cold, unfeeling, husband of 41 years) with the intention of sliding into the Seine and letting it all go. Instead, her world appears to burst into color as she follows a pull towards a very different life in the small seaside village of Kerdruc in Brittany.

The book hovers on the line between literary fiction and romance: the language, character and relationship development, and the depth of details are literary; the tales of love at first sight, unrequited love lasting for decades, and makeovers that transform women into goddesses are pure romance. To be fair, the literary does outweigh the romance and I love the fact that those falling in love, rediscovering love, and staying in love for decades are of all ages.

The luscious prose delights in describing the natural world — the vistas, the sounds, the smells. The tone of the book is one of wonder — communing with nature through the senses and resonating with the beauty in the world. A magic thread keeps pulling her forward to the place that feels like home as soon as she arrives — a painted tile, a scrawny cat in the rain, a group of nuns. An added surprise — threads of Breton folklore permeate the story. Did you know the original settlers in Brittany were Celts? I did not.

This is a book of magical coincidences and love in all of its myriad forms. On the whole, I enjoyed reading it — I fell in love with the characters and it was difficult to put down — but don’t expect anything practical or even plausible. It’s just a lovely exploration of the way we wish the world could be.

 

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin

Writing: 5 Plot: 4 Characters: 4+

On New York’s Lower East Side in 1969, four siblings seek a psychic who is rumored to be able to tell you the exact date of your death. Ranging from 1978 – 2010, the rest of this captivating book takes us through the lives of each of these children as they live their lives in the shadow of this knowledge.

I have mixed feelings about this book. On the one hand, it really is the tour de force claimed on the book jacket. The scope is huge, and the detailed descriptions of everything from primate-based aging research to the world of magicians to the gay scene in San Francisco in the 80s are incredibly impressive.

On the other hand, I found the book depressing. These are not happy people and their life stories are full of tragedy, guilt, and angst. In some ways this book reminds me of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (which I could not finish). Beautiful writing, intricate stories with believable characters and captivating twists — and yet the main character is a f*** up who squanders every opportunity to make something of his life. Similarly, The Immortalists is more of a cautionary tale of how not to live, rather than a story of personal growth or redemption. (*** tiny spoiler alert — one character does manage to learn the lesson, but this comes in the final pages and too late for anyone else ***).

Overall an absorbing book — excellent writing, in depth characters, and vivid depictions of a wide variety of times and places. I read the 300+ quickly and didn’t want to put it down; however, I was not happy while I was reading (I had to read an uplifting children’s book before bed so I wouldn’t wake up in a bad mood). If you read with your head, prepare to be fascinated; if you read with your heart, prepare to mope. While the overall message is life affirming — embrace life and spend your time living rather than focusing on how to forestall death — that lesson comes too late for most of our poor characters.

Like A Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun by Sarah Ladipo Manyika

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 3.5/5; Characters: 5/5

New words (for me): Buba is an item of clothing; Gele – a Nigerian head scarf

A stunningly good book — I read it in a single sitting (OK – it was only 118 pages — but I had to halve my usual reading speed in order to fully enjoy the lovely language).

Morayo Da Silva is a strong, vibrant, deliciously interesting character. Almost 75, she lives in a small, book-filled, rent-controlled apartment in San Francisco with an incredible view. A retired professor of literature, she was born in Nigeria and lived around the world before settling in San Francisco. She arranges her books by which characters ought to be talking to each other and often rewrites the endings of well-known stories to allow women characters to survive, stay sane, or accomplish great things!

Her life story unfolds through memories as she roams around San Francisco engaging with friends, strangers, and the city itself. Her current story unfolds simultaneously as a fall interrupts her trajectory and exposes her to new people, places, and dependencies. While most is told through her first person narrative, we often get inserts of third person narrative describing an interaction with Morayo. It works!

There is no simplification or any sense that the author is actively trying to make the work more accessible. There are literary references you may not get ( I looked up several) and references to African cultural items and phrases (again – Google is your friend). I love that this book didn’t dumb anything down for potential readers. Similarly, you won’t find any political correctness in the pages — the story is as multi-cultural as you can get, but Morayo’s opinions are her own and she speaks them beautifully.

The writing is spectacular — it’s a short book but I took it slowly so I could appreciate every line. “A straciatella sky” stops Morayo from worrying about something; Lagos is the “land of constant sunshine and daily theatre”; and her home in Jos, unfortunately a target for Boko Haram, is “ … the place where people said “sorry” whenever someone tripped or fell or grazed themselves because that was the linguistic mirror of a culture based on empathy …”.

I picked this book up at last year’s Berkeley Book Festival after seeing the author on an African author panel. She was an intriguing speaker as well as writer. Wish I had started it sooner. Must get to work on that backlog!

The Seven Days of Us by Francesca Hornak

Olivia Birch is a serious, dedicated, doctor coming home from a stint treating victims of the terrible Haag virus in Liberia. Subject to a seven day quarantine on reentry to Britain, she and her family will be holed up in her mother’s aging family estate for seven days over Christmas.

The quarantine participants include Olivia, father Andrew (one-time Lebanon war correspondent turned snarky restaurant columnist); high-born mother Emma (who discovers a cancerous lump but doesn’t want to spoil Christmas); party girl Phoebe (the sister who has just become engaged to a man nobody else cares for); and lastly Jesse – Andrew’s surprise offspring from a one night stand in Lebanon.  Jesse serves as a kind of Greek Chorus looking in from the outside and moving the plot along with subconsciously deft manipulations.

Each chapter of the book covers a single day; each section within the chapter is a timestamped story told from one of the five characters perspectives during that day evolving the plot.  And what a plot! Ridiculous coincidences abound but serve only to tighten the strings that stitch the players together and are therefore somehow completely believable.

The book is simultaneously serious and funny as we watch a family that has become stale and distant in its regular interactions rediscover the importance of family and what is important to each of them personally.  Artfully done and genuinely fun to read!