Even Atwood’s earliest novels are full of her wit, wry humor and bitingly funny characterization, so it is unsurprising to discover these same qualities throughout all of the stories, which tell the story of a woman named Nell in short episodes. The stories are framed by aging; in the first story, Nell is in late middle age and meditating on the nature of a long-term marriage. In the next, she is a young girl, who has yet to meet Tig, the married man that she makes her life with. By the last stories, Nell is long past her adventures and taking care of her elderly parents.
Marian McAlpin is a sensible career girl, not “the other kind” that only dreams of catching a man and marrying him. So when she meets Peter, a handsome up-and-coming lawyer at a party, he quickly asks her out. Several months into their relationship, he loses his last unmarried friend to those scheming wifely types and, in a panic, asks Marian to marry him.
Still reeling from the death of her twin sister and learning to live with a crippling injury, Mori finds herself dropped on her father’s doorstep by the foster care system, even though she had never met him before. When his sisters insist on sending her away to an upper-class boarding school, Mori finds herself removed once again from all that is familiar, including the fairy companions that she grew up with.
A boy, a nameless boy, lives in a large and rambling old house in rural England. His father’s business is failing and, to keep money coming in, the family begins letting out rooms. One of these lodgers is an aggressive opal miner from South Africa, who runs over the boy’s cat on his way to the house. The next night, he steals the family’s car and drives it to the end of the road and kills himself. When the car is discovered, with the body in it, the boy is sent to the neighboring Hempstock farmhouse while his father calls the police.
Prepare yourself, readers, for a book that is as much about place as people. The 2013 novel, The Burgess Boys, written by Elizabeth Strout, is as much about the internal culture clash of being from two places as it is about the Burgess siblings, who are brought together when Susan Burgess’s teenaged son commits a hate crime in their home town of Shirley Falls, Maine.
The Secret Place did not disappoint, by which I mean that it took over my life in the week that it took me to read it. If you’re not familiar with French’s style, her Dublin Murder Squad series is a collection of first-person character-driven classic detective novels told through the eyes of various Dublin Murder detectives that are inevitably assigned to the case of a lifetime. I do not read a lot of crime fiction because of its tendency to be more focused on the details of the mystery than the characters of the story, but French combines the detective genre with thoughtful character development and the sort of poetic prose that reminds me of Margaret Atwood. And did I mention how Irish her novels are? French was raised all over the world, but she lives in Dublin, which is obvious in the faithful and delightful representation of Irish speech and culture. Having an Irish spouse makes reading her dialogue a delight, because it’s so faithful that it almost feels like a private joke.
Can love span death? This is the big question that Julie Christine Johnson asks us in her debut novel In Another Life. Johnson sets her novel in the Languedoc region of southern France and almost immediately throws the reader back 800 years to one of the darker periods of Christian history, when the Catholic Church led a successful crusade against the native Cathar sect of southern France.
As a feminist, I can’t help but wonder what the world would look like if the governments of the world were female dominated. Would we still live in a world dominated by men with guns? Would we work more collaboratively and more empathetically? Or would we make the same mistakes as the men who have given us this world? Would we create new monsters?
One of the best parts of speculative fiction for me is its ability to ask these questions and then play them out in the course of a book. Sherri Tepper’s had a long career of novels that take a hard look at gender and environment; The Gate to Women’s Country is certainly one of them. Tepper’s setup was so interesting that I stayed up late night after night to see how the experiment would turn out.
Isabel Allende’s latest novel, The Japanese Lover, brings us into the luxurious and artistic world of Alma Mendel, the matriarch of the wealthy San Francisco Belasco family. Facing the end of her life, Alma leaves behind the mansion where she has spent most of her life in favor of the Lark House, a surreal retirement home where yoga classes and political demonstrations interrupt conversations about voluntary euthanasia and the enthusiastic smoking of medical marijuana by its ageing residents.
Throughout the adventure, Tinti also plays with the idea of morality — her good thief is a twelve-year-old orphan that is brought into a world of petty criminals, where he finds himself repeatedly tested. As Ren observes the bizarre workings of the adult world around him, he must decide where his own moral compass lies. Is it wrong to steal, if stealing feeds you? It is wrong to lie, if lying can save your life?
I feel a bit strange writing a review of John Weir’s What I Did Wrong, as he writes extensively about being a professor at Queens College, which is where I met him when I sat in his class for the first time.
In Sisters of Heart and Snow, Margaret Dilloway returns to the central theme of her award-winning novel An American Housewife; the biracial and first generation Japanese-American experience. Sisters Rachel and Drew Snow are the daughters of a merciless American businessman and his Japanese catalogue bride Hikari, who are thrown together as adults to take care of their declining mother after nearly two decades of estrangement.
When I finished reading Paula McLean’s The Paris Wife, a fictional recounting of Hemingway’s relationship with his first wife Hadley, I entered into a small obsession with Hemingway’s life and fiction. He has been much discussed, not only as a writer, but also as an adventurer — a larger than life icon of manly man living.
Kingsolver sets up her perspective by narrating her story through the eyes of a white American missionary family, who go to the Congo less than a year before the revolution and American-controlled counterrevolution that made Mobutu Sese Seko a dictator for three decades. The bulk of the story is told by the four Price daughters, who range in age from six to sixteen. There is Rachel, who mourns the loss of her comfortable suburban American lifestyle and resents nearly everything about her new life. The twins, Leah and Ada, are sharply intelligent and insightful about the world around them, but tied up in their own drama about the family dynamics. The baby of the family, Ruth May, charms us as she makes friends as the open-hearted way that only young children do.
Perhaps it is the cold that I have been harboring all week, but there was something just delicious about curling up with the freakishly successful Dracula while I was ill. It might surprise a modern audience to learn that Dracula was written by a pulp novelist and theater manager who specialized in churning out penny dreadfuls. Likewise, it might be surprising to learn that it far from the first vampire novel, but its success and the sophistication of the storytelling has made it the pinnacle of the genre. Even the literary noteworthy Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote to Bram Stoker to express his admiration for the blood-curling nature of the story, while its more general popularity has made Count Dracula a household name — and a synonym for vampire — for over a century.
This was not the first time that I’ve entered the quiet world of Johannes Vermeer at the hands of Tracy Chevalier, but it has been a few years since the last time I read this beautifully paced novel. The subject of the novel is self-evident; Chevalier makes a guess at the events that inspired one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings, which is of the same title as the novel. In Chevalier’s version of the painting’s origin, the subject is seventeen-year-old Griet, who has been forced by the loss of her father’s career to work as a maid in the Vermeer household in order to support her parents.
The story is familiar, at least to anyone who paid a bit of attention in grade school history. Henry VIII sits on the throne of England and decides that it is time to cast off Katherine of Aragon, his wife of twenty years, for the English courtier Anne Boleyn. This is a monstrous, momentous decision that will lead many people to their graves as the country divides over its religious allegiance to the Pope in Rome. This is not modern America; Henry is not far removed from being a despot and, despite his Parliament, the people he decides need to go have a tendency to lose their heads. What we learn again and again in Wolf Hall is the dangerous nature of power — Henry burns bright, but getting too close to him is a dangerous game.
One of the inevitable things about reading books about historical figures is that you already know the ending before you begin. Anyone just a little familiar with Ernest Hemingway knows about his famous wife problems; his inability to stay committed to the woman he was already married to. So when we meet Hadley Richardson, Hemingway’s first wife, we already can see the writing on the wall of their marriage. We see it before she meets him, we see it the first time they dance together and we know that there is heartbreak to come. It’s a foreboding knowledge, which steeps its way into the events of the novel and makes us want to protect the characters from their futures.
The Likeness picks up and fills in the final chapter of French’s first Dublin Murder Squad novel In The Woods, filling in details that Rob reports in a single paragraph about what happens in the next two years of Cassie Maddox’s life. The novel opens when Sam, still working in Murder, is called to the scene of the stabbed body of a woman who has been mysteriously posing as Cassie’s undercover persona Lexie Madison. This is a doppelgänger novel with a twist; the doubles cannot possibly have been in the same place at the same time, because one is the corpse and one is the cop.
I have reached a sad point in my life, which is to say that I have finally caught up with George R. R. Martin’s writing in The Song of Ice and Fire series. I was disappointed with the previous novel in the series, A Feast for Crows, because it only told the story of half of the characters in the series and finished by leaving several of the important characters in limbo. A Dance of Dragons had the same format, but it was the second half of the story that A Feast for Crows began, so it was vastly more satisfying.
An elderly man has been murdered in his apartment with, of all things, an ashtray. When Detective Erlendur arrives on the scene with his partner Sigurdur Olí, they search the victim’s apartment but do not find much in the way of clues other than the photograph of a four-year-old girl that died thirty years ago. This begins the mystery. Who is the girl? What is her tie to the deceased? Is someone taking revenge for her death, thirty years later?
I am not usually much one for cop dramas, but In the Woods got me. Set in the fictional Murder Squad in Dublin, the story begins with the murder of Katie Devlin, a promising young ballet star, a twelve year old with nothing but hope and success in front of her. One night she disappears and two days later, her body turns up in an archeological dig, on an ancient Celtic altar. That is the backdrop. French takes you through the case as a plot movement, as a way of moving the story forward, but it isn’t the true narrative.
As a spinner and a knitter and, now, a weaver (more on that later), I know something about the labor involved in making a piece of clothing. It’s significant, in the way getting a college degree is significant. Ignoring the fact that I start after the sheep has been fed and sheared, or the plant grown and harvested, the fiber has to be washed, cleaned and combed. This takes days to do. Then it has to be spun into singles, which then have to be plied with other singles to make yarn. My handspun yarn is always a two ply because of the sheer amount of labor, but commercial yarns vary between two ply and eight ply. Then, the yarn has to be turned into fabric. Knit fabric, by hand, is very labor intensive. A single plain sock can take twelve hours of knitting time, depending on the gauge of the fabric and the speed of the knitter. Woven fabric is a little faster, but then has to be cut and sewn and fashioned into a garment. There can be a lot of variation of labor there there, depending on the quality and complexity of the garment.
And yet, we can go into a mall and buy a cheap t-shirt for less than $15.