Linda’s Back in the US, Back in the US, Back in the USSR

elliottholtLet me not waste time or mince words.  Eilliott Holt is a fabulous writer and her first  novel,  You Are One of Them, has me hungry for more.  Her ending faltered, at least for me, and it may account for one less star, if I awarded stars for my reviews.  But I don’t, so let’s move on.

Here’s what Holt did–she took a little piece of  history and used it to create a story about friendship, family matters, Cold War maneuvering and deception among the 80s superpowers.

Let’s go back in time. Remember Samantha Smith? She’s the real 12-year-old schoolgirl who in 1982 wrote to Soviet leader Yuri Andropov to ask about the possibility of a nuclear war with the United States. She travelled to the USSR and became an overnight sensation and peace activist. She died in a plane crash on her way back from London in 1985.

Holt uses those events to structure her novel, only her letter writer is Jennifer Jones,  perky new kid who moves in across the street from the very sad and lonely Sarah Zuckerman. In many ways Jennifer rescues Sarah from the dark abyss of her home, where her mother recovers from depression with ongoing anxiety, anti-nuke research, and activism. The two girls become fast friends. There are sleep overs, walks to school, phone calls–the usual bonding ritual.  After a few years they drift apart, especially as Jennifer becomes an international celebrity.  And then the friendship ends forever as  Jennifer is lost in a plane crash that leaves her entire family dead.

Sarah grows up, attends college, blooms late, and then, near graduation, receives a letter from Svetlana, a young woman who met Jennifer while she toured the Soviet Union back in the 80s. The letter promises a special tour and more info about Jennifer. Too good to resist, right? Sarah takes the bait and travels to Moscow, but Svetlana is  vague and cagey and keeps dropping hints about Jennifer still being alive. When Sarah demands answers Sventlana goes full iron curtain, dodging phone calls and sharing information one drip at time.  Why the intrigue? Both Sarah and I were growing impatient.

I flew through the book because I felt desperate to know the full story. Come out, come out wherever you are Jennifer. Are you there? Why are you hiding?

Linda Reviews Diamond Head

After drug deals gone bad in DC, Nazis abusing French citizens, and a miserable young bride in 17th century Amsterdam, I needed a book break. I settled on Diamond Head by Cecily Wong, a new book that last month received the Elle Lettres  April 2015 Readers’ Prize. Wong is a first-time novelist who’s also appearing on the Summer 2015 Barnes & Noble Discover Great Writers Selection list.

But enough of the hype already. Does Diamond Head deliver the goods?

Yeah, I think it does.  But I like historical fiction and there’s plenty here to satisfy.  The story moves through China’s Boxer Rebellion in 1900 to Pearl Harbor and life in Honolulu during the 40s and then climaxes at a family funeral in 1964.

Wong tapped into her family’s Chinese-Hawaiian history and lore to create fictional characters that I  believed could exist. I saw them, heard them speak, imagined their clothes and their homes.  I smelled the fish cooking, the scent of hibiscus, the tang of salt air. I loved it. But this was more than an armchair journey to paradise. There was a wide and sticky web of deception and family secrets covering the island. Involved are shipping magnate Frank Leong, his two sons, and the women in the Leong household whose history, circumstances and decisions kept me enthralled for the duration.

I was first drawn to the cover of this book before I knew anything about its author or its splashy debut. There was a red strand of ribbon tied around the neck of a Polynesian woman, and it didn’t take long to understand why. It represents the Chinese fable of a red string that binds each person to his or her destined mate. When life is well lived, the string remains strong, straight and reliable, but with each misdeed comes tangles and knots and love remains elusive. A knotted red string can even affect future generations.

Speaking of the generations, I did become a bit confused in the beginning as Wong jumped through time to tell stories about Lin Leong (Frank’s wife) and Amy Leong (his daughter-in-law) and who was related to whom. As I continued reading, I sorted it out and never looked back.

I often read fiction devoted to China and Chinese women: The Joy Luck Club, Chinese Cinderella, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, to name a few. Their female characters encounter hardship and deprivation and must barter away something in order to survive or live a better life. The same goes for the women of Diamond Head.  There’s adversity, a way out and a price to pay.

Linda drinks in the mean streets with The Martini Shot

martinishot

The Martini Shot, a collection of short stories plus a novella, is hard-core crime writing from George Pelecanos and a far cry from the stuff I normally read when I want law and order fiction. This is no Ladies No. 1 Detective Agency confection.

At first, I thought I may be too timid for the Pelecanos style. The stories are fast and hip and made me feel like a clueless 60-year-old when it comes to life in the modern American city. I’m out here in rural la-la land while Pelecanos is giving me neighborhoods in scary, unsettling detail. His characters are desperate and often in danger. There are drugs and deals and death everywhere.

But that’s why you read, right? To shake things up. To eavesdrop on people unlike yourself. To step into a new world, even if it is downright terrifying.

And that’s just what happened with each of the seven stories. The book opens with a police informant who still lives at home with his aging parents. I was hooked immediately. Next up is a kid from DC’s Fourth District who’s got problems at home, at school, on the street:  “When I’m runnin ball, though, I don’t think on those problems at all. It’s like all the chains are off, you understand what I’m sayin?”

He caught me off guard with a story set in 1933. Just as I was settling in to the pace and patter of today’s city dwellers, he introduces me to a Greek immigrant scraping by, living with relatives and working odd jobs. I liked taking a break from modern life, but there was no respite from the violence. But then I knew that going in.  The stories will require a seat belt for the duration.

Since this was my first date with Pelecanos, I was unaware of his Spero Lucas series. It didn’t take me long to research these novels featuring Lucas, an Iraqi war vet now working as an investigator for a Washington, DC attorney.  In “Chosen” we learn about Lucas’s childhood with his adoptive parents and how two of his siblings abandon their family. For readers of those novels, this story will provide background into your hero’s past.

The book closes with the novella “The Martini Shot,” and  Pelecanos takes his readers behind the scenes of a television crime drama. Considering that Pelecanos wrote for the HBO series The Wire, I’m thinking all the descriptions of personnel, locations and routines were easy to reproduce. By the way, the title refers to the crew’s phrase for the last shot of the day. When shooting wraps,  drinking follows.

Pelecanos now has another ardent follower. Me. I plan on reading a Spero Lucas novel this summer, and I’ll be watching for whatever he produces next. This guy’s scary good.

Linda sings praises for The Nightingale

nightingale

While reading the first hundred or so pages of Kristin Hannah’s WWII fiction The Nightingale, I was reminded of key characters and plot lines from other war novels. Which sort of bothered me. Obviously, there was no plagiarism, but I sensed a lack of originality. Harrumphing ensued.

  For example, Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky, popped into my mind while Hannah described Parisians fleeing their city during the first days of the German occupation. Ghosts of Ken Follett’s  Jackdaws appeared when Isabelle “the Nightingale” Rossignol started working with The Resistance, and when she led downed Allied airmen through the Pyrennes, there was a strong link to Bobbie Ann Mason’s The Girl in the Blue Beret. For a page or two Hannah touched on French Jews being transported to the Paris  Vel’d’Hiv, which made me think of Sarah’s Key.  Although her story of two feuding sisters in occupied France sustained my interest, I thought Hannah could do better.

And then she did. I was reading leisurely during the first third of the book, but once the sisters got more entrenched and took more chances and the Nazis escalated their cruelty, my little interludes of afternoon reading turned into a full-fledged, don’t-bug-me (I said that to the cat), I-don’t-know-when-I’ll-start-supper obsession. My heart ached for each sister and the decisions they were forced to make to stay alive, protect family, fight for country.

Isabelle becomes more daring and assumes greater risk with each trek to Spain with the airmen. Her older sister Vianne, meanwhile, must contend with Nazis billeted in her home.  Both do their part and resist in their own way, but over time the stakes get higher and conditions more perilous: food shortages, lack of fuel and electricity, deportations of Jewish neighbors, deathly consequences for collaborators.

My harrumphing stopped. My eyes flew from page to page. Tears spilled. Twice.

Hannah produced a riveting war story, but underneath there was an important family tale with the sisters working out their history and finding love and forgiveness right in the middle of a world war. And then Hannah smacked me with a surprise ending. As if I needed that.

You should read this.

Kaitlin rejects Landline by Rainbow Rowell

18081809

Premise: Man goes to visit family with children but without wife. Wife is busy writing for a TV show with her long-time (male) BFF. Wife starts staying with her parents and realizes she can talk to her husband of years before (back when they were just dating) by using the old-school phone in her former bedroom.

I did enjoy reading parts of this (and read it quickly), but I didn’t understand the protagonist’s relationship with her husband and didn’t quite care whether they got back together.

I appreciate what the author was trying to do, showing the evolution of a relationship by commingling past and present in a series of creepy, back-in-time phone calls, but the fantastical element was either too fantastical or not enough and just made the narrative smell funny.

I’m surprised at the Goodreads award this won, but I get the feeling that those awards go to whatever book was read the most, which often has little to do with its merits. At least this wasn’t half as bad as The Light Between Oceans, a poor excuse for tree murder that Goodreads hailed as the most important thing to ever happen in the history of the human race.

Still want to read Rowell? Go read Fangirl instead of this. If you’re thinking, “But I don’t like YA,” ask yourself whether a simplistic, immature adult book is really better than a deep, well-drawn teen one. (Answer: No way, Jose.)

Linda reviews The Miniaturist

miniature   This book spooked me a bit.  The Miniaturist was at times both fascinating and slightly creepy.  Engrossing, yet troubling.  Odd?  Not what I expected?

All of the above.

I liked the idea of visiting 17th century Europe, and I embraced the prospect of reading about an artisan–the miniaturist–who crafted minute pieces of furniture and household objects that would occupy  an old-fashioned dollhouse.  Nella Brandt received the large cabinet of rooms as a wedding gift from her new and wealthy husband Johannes. Johannes presents the impractical gift to Nella a few days after her arrival in his richly-appointed Amsterdam home.  The gift is unexpected, as is her husband’s absence in her life. She waits and waits, but Johannes shows more affection to his dogs than he does his lovely young wife.

Something stinks in Amsterdam, and it’s not the canals in summertime. Johannes has secrets, as does his devout, humorless sister Marin,  former mistress of the house. Nella tries to blend in, find her place, but spends much of her time in her second-story room waiting for a new life that somehow never gets started.

Johannes is a merchant trader who has made his city and his own household rich, but he’s also a man of mystery and solitude. Nella can’t break through with either her husband or her sister-in-law. She finds amusement in the dollhouse and begins ordering pieces from the miniaturist, who delivers exquisitely made objects. But soon, parcels arrive unexpectedly. Household occupants and objects are recreated with surprising accuracy, and Nella is mystified by the artist. How does he know what’s inside the Brandt home? How does he know the family?

There is great intrigue within the household that will infect Nella’s life forever.  She must cope with loneliness, disappointment, fear, and mystery. Circumstances give her no choice, and over time her timidity is replaced by assertiveness and ingenuity and strength.

First-time author Jessie Burton did a masterful job of recreating the unforgiving rules of commerce, religion and politics that influenced Dutch life in the 1620s, and I enjoyed watching the young bride from the countryside make the transition to city life. As even the miniaturist predicted,  Nella was a turnip turned tulip, and I reveled in her transformation. That was the best part of the book for me.

01-11-2001; rgb 19-02-2007

Linda gets lucky

luck

I stray into Young Adult land occasionally, but steer clear of anything that has Hunger, Games, Potter, Divergent, Stars, or Twilight in the title.

What’s left you ask? Stuff like this. Wonderful stuff like The Thing About Luck by Cynthia Kadohata. When I get my hands on a book that makes me laugh AND makes my heart swell with affection for a character AND gives me information about topics I’ve never thought about before……well, it’s a winner with me. I’ve got others on my side, too, since the book was the 2013 National Book Award Winner for Young People’s Literature.

After a bit of online research, I learned that YA books have dominating themes that range from relationships and self-discovery to quests and conformity. I think there was a little bit of everything here. Twelve-year-old Summer laments her family’s year of bad luck. She’s recovering from malaria, and her brother, who may be autistic, has no friends. Her parents have been called home to Japan to care for sick relatives, and her grandparents, who work the wheat fields of America’s heartland as custom harvesters, have health issues that sometime push them to the brink.

Summer’s cup runneth over with bad luck, but she works through it. I loved the way she always gave her best, helping her grandmother cook the meals for the gang of combine drivers who work long days cutting and transporting the wheat to grain elevators. When her brother needed her most, I love how she remained calm and reassuring about him one day finding friends.  I loved her honesty, her work ethic and how she rose to the occasion at a critical moment in the book (you’ll have to read this to see how Summer saves the day!) when her grandparents’ health took a turn for the worst.

Summer’s Obaachan (grandmother) keeps her on a short leash, but it was her lines that made me laugh out loud the most. Like the time she was nagging Summer about her frizzy hair: “Summer, you get your hair under control. You look like Yoko Ono 1969.”

The third element of this book’s greatness is that I learned something new.  Kadohata brought a potentially dull topic–wheat harvesting–to life. She skillfully explained everything about the machines, the people, the process, the deadlines. Wheat harvesting drove the whole plot, actually. Summer’s  family and the rest of the custom harvesting crew traveled from one ripe field to the next, working dawn to dusk to cut and store the crop before rain arrives. Sounds dry, but in Kadohata’s hands, it was a vital element to the story that added urgency to most of Summer’s experiences and decisions.

Ambitious readers can plow through this book in a day or two. I wish I would have slowed down because I hated to break it off with these characters. I hope there’s a another book about Summer and her family.  But no matter how fast or slow you read, the important thing is that The Thing About Luck is worth your time, the highest praise for any book.

Linda’s book club strikes gold

the-invention-of-wings-sue-monk-kidd_t580   After a disappointing book club selection in January (I am still wincing from  James Patterson’s Witch and Wizard series),  my book club rebounded with The Invention of Wings, an exceptional novel about friendship, slavery, and the abolitionist movement fueled by two sisters from Charleston, South Carolina. We’ll be discussing the book in a few weeks, and I suspect  everyone will swoon over this one. I started raving today with Kaitlin, just to get some practice.

I loved Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees but then abandoned her follow-up novel,  The Mermaid Chair. With her 1-1 record I was lukewarm about this book choice, even though Oprah put it on the map last year for her book club. Turned out Oprah knew what she was doing.  I read it in four days–smokin’ fast for me. Maybe smokin’ fast for anybody.

Kidd based the book on real people and events. There actually were two Grimke sisters from Charleston who grew up in a slave-holding family and became some of the first and most intense voices for abolition and women’s rights.  Sarah, the older sister, received a slave on her 11th birthday and promptly returned Hettie, or Handful, as she was known to her fellow slaves. Handful’s emancipation was denied by the elder Grimkes, but Sarah offered her another sort of freedom. She taught her to read, which got everyone in trouble.

Chapters switch off between Sarah and Handful, which gave me a foothold in each character’s life. I could easily imagine the fine home Sarah shared with her large family, with its palmetto trees and fragrant gardens. Handful took me inside the room she shared with her mother, a seamstress for the family, who stitched an autobiographical quilt by candlelight after her duties were done for the day.  I was there beside her while she looked out the second-story window to gaze upon the sea or evade the mistress’s wickedly accurate gold-tipped cane.

Although Sarah grew up in a privileged home, she was bound to the customs and conventions of the early 19th century. She loved to read and debate the law with her father and brothers, but there was no way for a woman in the Old South to become a lawyer. Her rebellious attitudes about slavery made it difficult for Sarah to make friends or attract suitors so when she had the opportunity to go North to help nurse her father back to health she did—and stayed away for years.

There’s so much more to this novel than I can relate here. More trouble and heartache for Sarah and Handful. More colorful characters. More suspense. More sadness. More frustration.  More anger. But there is also great faith and determination and resourcefulness and a giant yearning for freedom. It will make your soul take flight.

Linda reviews The Zhivago Affair

zhivago

Boris Pasternak was one of Russia’s most beloved poets before he began to write Dr. Zhivago in 1945. His decision to turn away from verse and create a novel dedicated to the individual rather than a Kremlin-approved protagonist faithful to the cause and the collective was life altering. Pasternak’s fate, the book’s tortured path to publication, and how the CIA used it to combat the Cold War is meticulously chronicled in The Zhivago Affair, important new nonfiction by Peter Finn and Petra Couvee. The writers’ research efforts and storytelling gifts are not to be missed, especially if you’ve read and enjoyed the novel or are interested in Soviet culture, crime, punishment and espionage.

So yea, there’s a lot going on here, and yes, Pasternak, his wife, his mistress and her family paid dearly for the defiance, but more on that later.

Pasternak lived in a writers’ colony outside Moscow and wrote in a quiet room inside the dacha he shared with his second wife Zinaida.  In another part of town lived his mistress Olga Ivinskaya and her daughter Irina. Ivinskaya became Pasternak’s literary agent as well as the inspiration for the character Lara in Dr. Zhivago.

It took Pasternak more than 10 years to finish the novel, which eventually won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1958.  The book was a sensation throughout much of the world but banned in the USSR. Yet, here’s an interesting turn—the  folks at the CIA were big fans and believed it could be used as  an intellectual weapon against communism during the Cold War. In fact, the CIA used that tactic frequently and believed “if a piece of literature was unavailable or banned in the USSR or Eastern Europe, and the work might challenge or contrast with Soviet reality, the agency wanted it in the hands of citizens in the Eastern Bloc.”

Once completed, Pasternak wasn’t keen on changing a word of it, even though he was under pressure from the Kremlin.  While the Soviets had a long history of executing writers for far lesser “crimes,” Pasternak was able to play the game and make just enough concessions and confessions to stay alive and keep his masterpiece in tact for an Italian publisher.

After the Nobel Prize announcement,  Pasternak was ousted from the Union of Soviet Writers and forced to reject the prize and write letters of apology to Khrushchev and Pravda. The Kremlin even considered exile, and Pasternak struggled to find work to support his family.  Finn and Couvee say that “the Soviet Union’s widely reported hostility to Doctor Zhivago ensured that a novel that might otherwise have had a small elite readership became an international best seller.”

That’s some small comfort, but Pasternak wasn’t able to bask in the international spotlight. He died a few years afterward, and the book profits being held in the West and reserved for Ivinskaya got her in trouble. When the foreign currency–now in rubles–came into her hands she and her daughter were sentenced to several years hard labor.

The Zhivago Affair scrutinizes the artist’s life in an authoritarian society, and I came away shaken for the prospects of any writer or poet or playwright who had to self-censor or perish or be sentenced to a Siberian gulag.  While detailing Pasternak’s troubles,  the introductory chapters reported on writers’ lives lost during the post-Revolutionary period with Stalin at the helm.  Many were plucked randomly for execution, and the ones left behind produced second-rate, party-approved literature. Hundreds of voices silenced;  important stories never written.  Pasternak was just the tip of the iceberg.

dr-zhivago

Linda Reviews Redeployment, Nat’l Book Award Winner

redeployment

Being an avowed news junkie I followed the Iraq War closely, but those embedded camo-clad reporters weren’t able to tell war stories the way Phil Klay does in Redeployment, this year’s National Book Award winner.

The author is an ex-Marine and Dartmouth grad who was there during the surge. His collection of short stories is unlike anything I’ve read before. Klay’s writing is so urgent and graphic and in the moment that I believed I was part of a Marine squad sweeping through a house on the streets of Fallujah.  My body tensed while I read.  Guns crack, gravel and shrapnel fly, Marines shout orders or tend to their wounded–it’s all there in frightening detail:

“Back door leads to the kitchen. Right, clear. Left, clear. Overhead, clear. Rear, clear. Kitchen, clear. We roll through, don’t stack, just roll. Slow is smooth. Smooth is fast. Corporal Sweet’s fire team clears houses like water running down a stream.”

I don’t know about you, but I can see those Marines in action inside that house. I’m tempted to grunt out an ‘Oo-rah’ after that paragraph.

While some stories put you in the thick of a sweep or a firefight, others follow Marines in the hours and days and weeks after intense battle as they sort through the killing or the experience of seeing a friend die.  And then there are stories of Marines back home, minus a weapon, minus their squad, who hold it together and begin again. Not even a trip to the mall is easy.

I watched Klay’s acceptance speech online last week. He said, “War’s too strange to be processed alone.”  I hoped that as a reader of his stories, I was a remote part of that process for him. Can a stranger reading a personal story be helpful? I wanted to think so. One thing’s for sure–I didn’t turn a page of this book without thinking of him and all the other Marines who served. For many of them, they’re still battling to recover from physical and emotional wounds, which is the centerpiece of Klay’s work–the toll war takes on a person’s soul.

Redeployment is a remarkable book, but it won’t be for everyone. Readers with military experience will probably relate and make better sense of all the acronyms than I did.  I figured out about half of them while reading. There’s no Marine glossary of terms here so I made do. And since the stories recreate battle and the life of Marines in country, there’s profanity. Lots of profanity. Without it the stories wouldn’t be real.  It didn’t bother me but might disturb G-rated readers. In between the combat and the combat weary moments, Klay adds moments of humor. In war, you’ll always find absurdity, and there’s some here, too.