Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka

I’m not sure why it took me so long to read this one, perhaps because it’s such a slim volume that seems to get swallowed up in the overabundance for my bookshelves.  

The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka is the beautiful, poetically rendered story of Japanese picture brides, lured to the American west coast in the early 20th century by promises of a new life and young husbands made wealthy in a nation where the “streets are made of gold.”  The reality of the life they find is much different, filled with grueling work, devious men, ignorance, and racism.

Otsuka tells their stories as a collective, using the first-person plural “we” throughout the book, and what could easily become an irritating conceit is instead wielded with power to tell the story of many in few words.  While there may not be a specific character to latch on to, Otsuka manages to beautifully capture the essence of a whole experience, nimbly passing from woman to woman, from the farm worker, to the laundress, to the maid until she has drawn out the breadth of their experience.  A powerful story, beautifully told.  Highly recommended.

Monday, July 29, 2019

The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis

I had such high hopes for this book at the start.  The Chelsea Girls gets off to a very fast-paced start as Hazel, a perennial Broadway understudy lands in Italy to join the USO Tour, and she is catapulted immediately onto the stage.  The action doesn't let up as Hazel and her new friend Maxine find themselves coming to the aid of a German boy suspected of being a spy.  Hazel and Maxine's days with the USO tour are rendered with the sort of alternating mystique and heartbreak that you might expect of adventures in a new place, but one that is broken by war.

However, when the war ends and the two return to the states - Maxine to a burgeoning career in Hollywood and Hazel to New York City and her mother's oppressive disappointment, the story seems to lose some of its spark.  The Chelsea Hotel and its denizens are well-wrought but Hazel's entrance onto the scene and her "inspired" career in writing and directing is too easily come by to the point of feeling contrived.

The two friends reunite to stage Hazel's Broadway debut, but there are forces at work that stand to rob Hazel of her fifteen minutes of fame.  The communist hunting House Un-American Activities Committee puts Hazel in a different kind of spotlight, and leading lady Maxine's behavior becomes more and more bizarre until everything comes to a head on opening night.  Unfortunately, both female main characters seem to grow more wooden instead of less as the story progresses.  Hazel's responses to her circumstances seem to be ill-placed, not occurring when would seem natural but being delayed and then awkwardly inserted for dramatic effect.

Despite its failings, though, The Chelsea Girls successfully tackles an era of history that is often glossed over.  Davis captures the paranoia running rampant in politics during the McCarthy era, the fear that an offhand remark could ruin a life, and the witch trial-esque interrogations where the only option seemed to be to name names or be taken to be a communist yourself.  Between that and a well timed twist that I definitely wasn't expecting, I'd still recommend this book.

(Review copy received from the publisher in exchange for review consideration.)

Monday, June 24, 2019

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

I read voraciously when I was a kid.  I miss younger me and how easy it was for me to get engrossed in a book and the admirable pace I could devour them.  The Westing Game was one of my very favorite books read, of the very many books I was capable of reading back then, and so when I happened across a copy, I wanted to see if the magic was still there.  Short answer, no, it appears I've aged and my reading tastes have changed a good deal since I was in middle school (shocking, I know!), but it was still fun to revisit one of my old favorites.

As The Westing Game begins, a large group of tenants is moving into their new home, upscale apartment building Sunset Towers. Little do these tenants know, as they come to inhabit their new abode, that their being brought together is anything but coincidental.  On a hill near Sunset Towers lives the mysterious Samuel Westing, paper magnate and the town's namesake.  Well, at least he did live there until his life was ended by some nefarious means.  From beyond the grave, however, Mr. Westing wants to play a game of inheritances, one that will reveal his murderer is too close for comfort.  The Sunset Towers tenants are his heirs, but one is also a murderer, and only one will win Mr. Westing's game and a staggering inheritance.

What ensues is a fast-paced mystery with a 16 murder suspects who each have their own secrets.  Younger me would have loved the many moving parts and the elaborate puzzle Raskin creates.  Even having at one point read the outcome, I couldn't guess at the truth.  Older me was a little baffled by the shear abundance of characters. In such a short book, it feels impossible to get a picture of any of them that is more than the briefest of caricatures.  Older me prefers character development over a briskly moving plot, apparently.

Nonetheless, The Westing Game is a classic of children's literature, and it's aged surprisingly well.  To read it, you'd hardly guess it was first published over 40 years ago.  The shin-kicking perennially neglected but good-hearted Turtle Wexler makes a great heroine for kids to root for.  As for the adult characters, it's funny to read this book as an adult and realize how recognizable some of these caricatures are from life - the self-important judge, the single-minded track star, the know-it-all intern, the bashful bride who wanted something more from her life, and the insecure person whose continuing efforts to get noticed by her peers make her that much more forgettable - they're all here.

The Westing Game is a clever, fun book that I wouldn't hesitate to recommend to a new generation.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Praise Song for the Butterflies by Bernice L. McFadden

Abeo Kata lives a charmed life in Port Masi, a city in the fictional country of Ukemby.  Her mother was a model and her father is a well-compensated employee of the government treasury.  After her grandfather dies and her father brings her widowed grandmother to live with the family in Port Masi, Abeo's perfect childhood begins to crumble.  Her father's job is in jeopardy as he stands accused of embezzling, her little brother's health is failing, the family car is broken down, and the house is springing leaks.  While Abeo remains sheltered, her father finds himself being crushed by the weight of this reversal of fortune such that when his mother suggests the old custom of giving Abeo as trokosi to appease the gods and save the rest of his family from ruin, he gives in to the pressure, and Abeo's new, tortured life as a slave of the gods begins.

McFadden's storytelling really shines at the beginning of the book when she is drawing out the idyll of Abeo's childhood.  Well loved and ignorant of the troubles beginning to brew among the adults in her life, Abeo is insulated in her perfect life.  The childlike joy Abeo feels on adventures with her visiting aunt Serafine makes it all the more potent when her perfect life is torn away and she is enslaved at the religious shrine.

After that, things get kind of strange.  McFadden's writing style is blunt and simple.  The book reads quickly moving from plot point to plot point with little embellishment.  In fact, McFadden's writing is so straightforward at times it seems nearly artless.  In the parts where Abeo is enduring torture at the ends of the "priests" at the shrine, this comes across as stark and affecting. However, in later parts of the book, it seems to gloss over the details of Abeo's recovery, oversimplifying the struggle of recovering from unspeakable trauma.

There are parts of this book that really shine.  It is a compelling, unputdownable read on the surface.  However, it doesn't seem to stand up to much reflection.  Under scrutiny, it doesn't seem to come together all that well as a whole and the unusual writing style doesn't seem altogether appropriate to the story being told.

(My copy provided by the publisher via LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program.)

Monday, February 18, 2019

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant by Alexandra Fuller

Alexandra Fuller, much more acclaimed for her memoirs of her childhood in Africa, penned this book after moving to Wyoming.  I recognized her name, loved the cover, and was actually in Wyoming, so I couldn't resist picking this up at a gift shop east of Yellowstone.  I started it on the plane ride home and couldn't put it down.  

I've driven across Wyoming twice in my life now, and there's something amazing about it.  It's still got a wild, untamed sort of feel that I've never experienced anywhere else.  Its sprawling miles of mountains and plains are staggeringly beautiful, but they do have that edge of danger about them too.  While passing through, I really wanted to know what it was like to live there, not just passing through on warm late spring day, but what it would feel like to live there year round.

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant gave me a taste of it, and not necessarily a sweet one.  Colton is the young son of an oil rig worker.  Never much good at school and always looking to follow in his father's footsteps, it was practically inevitable that Colton himself would one day end up working on the rigs.  Fuller paints a picture of a mostly happy go lucky, good hearted kid, growing up on the high plains of Wyoming, breaking horses, hunting, camping, going out on the rodeo circuit but ultimately heading to work for big oil.

In this lightly re-imagined telling of Colton's life, Fuller manages to bring out that spirit Wyoming seems to wear on its face, indescribable open spaces and mountain vistas that only thinly disguise a harder edge.  The people she introduces readers to are hard living, hard working, decent types carving a life out in a place that's not quite hospitable.  At the same time, Fuller is writing a scathing indictment of big oil, an industry that dominates Wyoming's economy, preying on a lack of other opportunity and an often undereducated workforce trying to eke out a living.

Fuller expertly draws out the lives of Colton and his family and friends, showing us a big hearted, loyal boy who grew into young family man trying to earn a living to support his wife and kids.  Fuller, just as skillfully, lets readers in on the issues with big oil in Wyoming - the hours, the undertraining, the under-penalized safety violations, and countless underhanded ways of sticking it to a labor pool that doesn't have much other opportunity.

The Legend of Colton H. Bryant is heavy with foreshadowing.  There isn't a moment in the book, even while Fuller amuses us with Colton's childhood antics, that doesn't carry the weight of looming tragedy.  This book is a true heartbreaker of a story and a powerful call to action against the sort of corporate greed that ruins both landscapes and lives.  Highly recommended.

Monday, February 11, 2019

Natural Flights of the Human Mind by Clare Morrall

I have this super duper bad habit.  I buy ebooks like a fiend, not that I don't buy all books like a fiend, but it's a little too easy to fire off $1.99 to Amazon and have a shiny new ebook at your disposal that you ultimately never read because...time.  I love paper books.  99 times out of 100 I will choose to read one of my overabundance of paper books over picking one of the many very exciting titles sitting neglected on my Kindle.  Honestly, it takes my old friend the LibraryThing "choose a random book from your library" function to even get my eyes on an ebook.  Now, if I only I had all my ebooks cataloged there.  That's a work in progress I'll never hope to catch up with.  Happily, though, the randomizer drew one from ebook obscurity for my first read of the year, and I'm glad because it was a winner.

Natural Flights of the Human Mind introduces two damaged, mysterious characters in a seaside village on the English coast.  The first is Peter Straker, a misfit who lives in an abandoned lighthouse that each day grows closer to falling into the turbulent sea.  Despite having no job, Straker lives a regimented life governed by numbers and routine.  Creeping in around the edges of his carefully managed, solitary life are the voices of the 78.  The 78 are the victims of a mysterious accident Straker believes himself to have caused.

Imogen Doody is a school caretaker determined to live life on her own terms after a young marriage that ended in disaster.  Fortified by a powerful anger that gives her the control over her surroundings that she desperately craves, she's willingly walled off from any human companionships, fending of all advances from her family and would-be friends with her prickly attitude.  Fatefully, she comes into some abandoned property from her long lost godfather.  As she struggles to restore the abandoned cottage, Doody crosses paths with the mysterious Straker, and the two make a connection that sets in motion a series of extraordinary events that neither could have anticipated that sets them both on the path to destruction...or redemption.

This books is definitely a slow burn, carefully drawing out the often unlikeable but all-too-sympathetic main characters, peeling off the layers of their stories little by little, revealing their damaging histories, unpacking the troubled pasts that led them to their solitary, broken lives. The seaside village where the two collide, despite its beauty, is rendered starkly, a place of exile for Straker who hopes the whipping coastal winds will one day be powerful enough to sweep him and his lighthouse away.

If you're the sort of person who's ever wondered what the life of somebody foolishly or even unwittingly responsible for tragedy would be like, Natural Flights of the Human mind is a compelling glimpse into that psyche.  I never expected this one to be a page turner, but I found myself rushing toward the finish desperate to see if the troubled characters Morall had brought me to care for would find redemption.  Flights is a haunting and beautiful story of perils of inadequacy and guilt and the power of love and forgiveness.

Monday, January 21, 2019

The Girl from Berlin by Ronald H. Balson

Remember that one time I compromised all my bookish rules and principles and started reading a series at book 5 instead of book 1?  No?  Okay, that's probably because this is the first time I've ever really done it.  However, when a review copy offer came through for a copy of The Girl from Berlin, the fifth installment of Ronald Balson's Liam Taggart and Catherine Lockhart series of mysteries, I couldn't resist.  While I'm not a big mystery reader anymore, I generally can't resist the siren call of a World War II/Holocaust story, so I think Balson's probably got my number with these.

In The Girl from Berlin, Balson introduces the modern story of PI Liam's and lawyer Catherine's response to plea for help from the owner of their favorite Italian restaurant.  Tony's beloved Aunt Gabi is being threatened with eviction from her picturesque villa in Tuscany by the crooked, moneygrubbing VinCo.  It looks like hope is all but lost for Gabi whose deed to the land has been declared invalid, even after having two separate lawyers contest the case.  Without the help of our would-be heroes, Gabi will be forced to vacate the land, leaving her precious award-winning vineyard in the hands of shady VinCo.

In an effort to support her case for ownership of the land, Gabi presents Catherine and Liam the memoir of the mysterious Ada Baumgarten.  Ada, the daughter of famed Berlin Philharmonic concert master Jacob Baumgarten, is an unusually talented violinist growing up in Berlin, performing with the philharmonic's junior orchestra.  Unfortunately, Ada's family is Jewish, and the unimaginable is unfolding in Berlin as the Nazis rise to power.  Even as her prodigious talents attract the attention of even the Nazi elites, Berlin grows more dangerous by the day.  Ultimately, to save her life and while allowing her to pursue her career, Maestro Wilhelm Furtwangler arranges a dream opportunity for Ada to play with the Bologna State Opera orchestra, an orchestra that traditionally allows no women.  Ada's talent opens the way for her to perform all over Italy, but the specter of the Nazis grows ever closer until inevitable tragedy strikes.

Ada's story is fascinating, giving readers a glimpse of living and working in wartime Italy and Germany.  I found the descriptions of the music, and Ada's ascent to fame as a female violinist at a time when most orchestras didn't allow female musicians to be particularly compelling.  That said, the more historical portions of Ada's memoir suffer from a serious info dumping problem where the narration seems less like the memoir of a young woman and more like a direct copy of a modern encyclopedia.  The mystery plays a clear second fiddle to Ada's story, as Liam, Catherine and friends ploddingly "hurry" to connect the dots and save Gabi's land in between eating Italian food, getting into fisticuffs with VinCo's slimy attorney, and "Oh, right, we were looking for the deed to Gabi's land, weren't we?"

While the interweaving of the two plots could probably have been handled a bit more artfully, Balson does deliver an interesting and satisfying historical mystery with a more complicated resolution than I was expecting.  Despite the encyclopedia moments, Balson does a lot of things right in Ada's historical story, including drawing a realistic depiction of that era's musical scene and even portraying the character of Wilhelm Furtwangler, a true historical figure who staunchly refused to let the Nazis' hateful race policies compromise the artistic integrity of his orchestra, using his talent and what power he could to stand up for Jewish musicians in Germany's darkest days.  Ultimately, I'll be looking forward to getting back to those other 4 volumes of this series.

Disclaimer: my copy provided for free in exchange for review consideration.

Monday, January 14, 2019

The Dust of 100 Dogs by A.S. King

In the 1600s, Emer Morrissey was a frightful pirate marauding the Caribbean seas in search of treasure to steal and hoping to once again meet her long-lost love.   That is, until the night she is cursed to one hundred lives as a dog.  One hundred dog lifetimes later, Emer is back in the body of Saffron Adams, the hope of her lower middle-class family.  Unfortunately for the Adams family, Emer has no interest in lifting the family out of poverty through higher education, but she may just know where to find the buried treasure she left behind.

I really thought that The Dust of a 100 Dogs had a really fun concept that I would enjoy, but nearly the whole thing didn’t work for me.  The characters are woefully one dimensional.  The good characters are too good, the evil characters too evil, the conflicts too easily begun and resolved, and the reincarnation portrayed poorly.  At the beginning of the novel, Saffron’s thoughts and actions are nearly entirely Emer’s.  If they are not the same person, then Saffron is utterly controlled by Emer, driven by Emer’s desire to have back the treasure denied to her and filled with Emer’s violent pirate thoughts.  By the end of the book, however, it was like King made a last-minute decision that Saffron ought to have a voice too, but it was too little too late to be anything short of a tack on.  
Flashbacks to Emer’s early life in an Ireland being destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s armies are the best and most compelling part of this book, perhaps because it’s the only part that feels genuine.   Once Emer flees the husband her uncle has sold her to in the aftermath of the war, Emer, desperate, decides she’ll board a ship bound for the Caribbean, where other men are looking for wives or worse.  This is where things fell apart for me.  For one, if you ran away from a lousy, rotten husband to be impoverished on the streets of Paris, why would you think you’d make out any better rolling the dice on a mystery husband in the Caribbean?  For two, I just never really managed to buy Emer as a proper pirate.  She kind of dithers her way into the whole thing after fleeing the next d-bag husband in line, and using her pent-up loathing for all the men who took what wasn’t theirs in a battle.  All the sudden, she’s a sea captain with pirate fleet robbing Spanish treasure ships.  There doesn’t seem to be any real reason for it other than she doesn’t want to get married to a French d-bag and she need something to do while she moons over the lost love her of her Irish youth that she hopes against hope to meet again.  She’s supposed to be this feared killer, but it all seems to be a bit of an act, and a poor one.
Maybe I’m expecting too much.  This is, after all, a swashbuckling YA tale of reincarnation and piracy.  I’m probably not supposed to read so much into it.  I’m supposed to appreciate Emer as a strong female character and enjoy her adventures at sea.  However, despite her murderous abilities, she somehow never stopped seeming like victim to me, and The Dust of a 100 Dogs, with its many lifetimes’ worth of stories to tell never came together into the more multi-dimensional story I was hoping for.