Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Elsa Hart, a Wonderful New Author Discovery

OK, perhaps I can't take credit for "discovering" Elsa Hart - Donna Leon and Louise Penny beat me to the punch - (http://www.elsahart.com/) but I'll bet I'm the first person to tell you more about her. I chose her debut novel strictly for the cover art and because I'm always on the look out for a book that will appeal to my friend Don who's enamored of all things Asian. Imagine this librarian's pleasure when I discovered that "Jade Dragon Mountain," is the first in a new series that features Li Du, a librarian and scholar, who investigates murders in 18th century China.

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Ms. Hart is an internationalist, born in Rome, raised in Moscow, and educated in the states, but she actually went to live in Lijiang, China, the city that once was Dayan, China, where the action takes place. It's 1708 and a wondrous honor is about to be bestowed upon the people of Dayan. The Emperor is making a year-long trek to the city which sits at the farthest reaches of the country bordering Tibet, to witness the total eclipse of the sun, a phenomenon that he has predicted as a show of his genius and superiority. No one needs to know that it's through the calculations of the Jesuit astronomers that the emperor comes by his knowledge.

Li Du has been banished from Beijing and from his position at the state library because of his association with men who have been accused of treason. His punishment is to wander the country indefinitely, registering as an offender in each town that he visits. He arrives in Dayan just as the city is gearing up for the Emperor's visit, registering with the magistrate, Tulishen, who happens to be a distant cousin.

 Though Li Du's exile brought shame upon his relatives, Tulishen, an insecure but ambitious man, decides to use Li Du for his language skills, offering an invitation to the grand festivities in exchange for the translation of any gossip that he might overhear. But before the night is over, another guest, a Jesuit priest, will be found dead in his room, and the success of the Emperor's celebration will be in jeopardy if the death isn't covered up quickly and neatly.

Readers will warm to Ms. Hart's book immediately, as it reflects her belief in the importance of language, words, knowledge, and libraries. So much more than a mystery, Hart's novel is a mesmerizing, atmospheric escape to a time and place not well known by most people. She uses historical details to full advantage, explaining the economic tug of war between China and the west that is still being played out today.

Another theme that propels the action is the dichotomy between religion and science. The Chinese cleverly allow the Jesuits in, not to adopt their religious beliefs but to absorb their scientific and mathematical discoveries. The fact that many nations vie for entry into China's closed society, and the lengths that they might go to in order to make it happen, are at the crux of this fascinating debut novel. Hurry up and get your copy now because the follow-up, "The White Mirror," is due out in September from Minotaur Books.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Don't Call Me Melania, I'm Only Plagiarizing Myself

It bothers me when I read a book that I think has real potential but, for whatever reason, the publisher didn't want to spend the money, the author isn't web-savvy, the big-name papers don't pick it up, the book is relegated to the second tier. I decided to go back and look at one of my favorites this year that didn't get the publicity it deserves, in 200 words or less:

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★ 05/15/2016
In this stunning novel from Rogan (The Lifeboat), seemingly unrelated story threads are ingeniously woven into an explosive whole. The Red Bud, OK, munitions plant provides steady paychecks to half the town. So when secretary Maggie Rayburn sees a top-secret document indicating that faulty weaponry, emitting radioactive dust, is being supplied to soldiers in Afghanistan, she becomes an unpopular whistle-blower. Dolly Jackson, a midwife at an Oklahoma Veterans Affairs center, notices a disturbing number of birth defects among the soldiers' newborns, yet the attending physician is reluctant to tell anyone. And somewhere in an Afghan desert Capt. Penn Sinclair tries to maintain morale among troops whose tour has been unexpectedly extended. Hoping to take their minds off the bad news, Sinclair sends a convoy of men on a humanitarian mission and into a deadly trap. Rogan skillfully portrays characters who examine their consciences, working toward a more responsible way of living in the world. Power struggles ensue, families suffer, friendships are tested, and wells of strength are tapped, yet the author offers no pat answers to life's difficult questions. VERDICT The Lifeboat was honored with nominations for the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award and The Guardian first book award. This morally complex story, part Silkwood, part Redeployment, should fare even better. Book groups, take note. [See Prepub Alert, 10/12/15.]—Sally Bissell, formerly with Lee Cty. Lib. Syst., Fort Myers, FL

Though I'm more of a fan of his editorial writing in the Miami Herald than I am of his fiction, today I finished Carl Hiaasen's latest entry in his madcap novels of Florida's cranks, shysters, hucksters, and criminals. I wrote a review of "Razor Girl," coming out in September, for my radio program on WGCU. I'll record it when I return to Florida in the fall. Here's a preview just to whet your whistle:

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Merry Mansfield, the proverbial bad girl with a heart of gold, specializes in bump and runs, seducing her prey after inflicting minor damage on their rental cars. But on a warm, breezy night on the highway between Miami and Key West, the sexy redhead targets the wrong silver Buick, setting in motion this rollicking, screwball comedy.
Hollywood agent Lance Coolman had an easy assignment, get to Key West and rescue his biggest client, Buck Nance, from a self-inflicted public relations fiasco. Nance, the alpha male on the hugely popular redneck reality show Bayou Brethren (think Duck Dynasty on steroids), has disappeared. He is suspected of committing a hate crime against a tourist of Middle Eastern descent while riding the family friendly Conch train.

Enter former Key West police detective Andrew Yancy. He’s been demoted to the ignominious job of restaurant inspector for behavior unbecoming an officer, and he hopes that by solving the conch train crime he’ll be reinstated. He’ll have to be on his best behavior, not easy as long as he’s battling sleazy TV lawyer Brock Richardson who plans to build a McMansion on the empty lot adjacent to Yancy’s home, thus forever blocking Yancy’s sunset views.
Here you have all the ingredients of a classic, laugh-out-loud, Carl Hiaasen novel. His books are not for the squeamish, nor for the politically correct. There are times when you’ll find yourself saying, “He did NOT say that!” But if you have a healthy sense of the absurd and you need a break from the more serious news of the day then there’s no one like Hiaasen to feed you hard truths tempered with a spoonful of sugar.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Anne Tyler's Take on The Taming of the Shrew

In honor of Shakespeare's 400th anniversary, the Hogarth Press (http://hogarthshakespeare.com/) has devised a delightful celebration. It has contracted with several popular fiction writers to create modernized versions of their favorite Shakespeare play. As readers, we mustn't take this too seriously, obviously these authors know that they aren't recreating the genius, but are simply paying homage. Just think what fun it must be for them. And yes, for us.

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Anne Tyler can always be counted on to bring a smile to the reader, often a guffaw. There are plenty of opportunities to laugh out loud in "Vinegar Girl," Tyler's take on "The Taming of the Shrew." Her modern day Kate lives in Tyler territory, Baltimore, Maryland, not far from the Johns Hopkins campus where her single, and single-minded father has lost his professorial creds but continues to labor over his life's work, finding the source of autoimmune disorders.
Shakespeare's story has often been considered an anti-feminist play but leave it to Tyler to turn it around in the most delightful way. Kate Battista, truly her father's daughter, was kicked out of her college for having it out with a professor with whom she disagreed. No matter that she was correct, she's now at home living a life of drudgery, taking care of her younger sister, a typical fifteen-year-old airhead, and her oblivious father who takes it for granted that the laundry is done and the dinner's on the table each night at the same time, in fact, it's the same meal!
Kate has a wry sense of humor, in fact, she reminds me of what I suspect Anne Tyler would be like if you were to meet her. She's woefully underemployed as an aid at a day care center where she's rebuked by teachers and parents alike for talking to the kids as if they were mini-adults, often to hilarious effect. Her gardens are the only place where she finds true contentment and you'll usually find her in her favorite get-up, an old pair of dirt-stained jeans and a flannel t-shirt. What's not to love?
So when daddy dearest begins acting completely against type, asking if he can bring his assistant home for dinner, or concocting silly and annoying ways of getting Kate to run over to his lab in the middle of the day, everyone knows what's about to go down except Kate herself. Yes, it seems that the Russian intern, Pyotr, is the best researcher daddy has ever had. But Pyotr's green card is about to run its course and what better way to keep his own life status quo than to marry Kate off to Pyotr.
Suddenly Tyler's book looks more like "A Comedy of Errors," as Pyotr tries to woo a seemingly uninterested Kate, sister Bunny becomes an unwilling feminist, and daddy starts to look like the personification of evil. Since most of us know the storyline you'd think there'd be no sense of suspense and yet, to Tyler's credit, there actually is. How will it all shake out? Who will get the last laugh? Will the Russian and the Italian-American reach detente?
I read this book in a day and found myself having so much fun with it. Tyler's take on Shakespeare's comedy was the perfect antidote to the tragic "Here Comes the Sun." For a light, lively summer read brimming with humor and humanity, I haven't found a better recommendation so far.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Very Little Sunshine in "Here Comes the Sun"

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When debut author Nicole Dennis-Benn spoke to librarians last month in Chicago about her devastatingly sad first novel "Here Comes the Sun," she broke down in tears and had difficulty continuing. Now I understand why. Imagine if you can, having to leave your homeland and move to a new country, not just for financial stability but for emotional stability as well, just so that you can live your life authentically. 
Born and raised in Jamaica, Ms. Dennis-Benn (http://www.nicoledennisbenn.com/) came to the United States where she earned a Cornell degree and an MFA from Sarah Lawrence. She is now proud to call Brooklyn her home. But if she saw, lived through, or knew people who had even half of the tragedies that she writes of, then that is too many. Fair warning, this novel is Shakespearian in its examination of human folly.
In this case, it's the sins of the mothers that are visited upon their daughters. In fact, male characters are unimportant to the crux of this novel which is more an examination of motherhood, unexpected and unwanted. It's a novel about women searching for love, a true connection, not a fleeting romp. It's about a mother, caring for her own mother, and for a daughter, through long, tedious days of catering to tourists, selling cheap trinkets to Americans who get off a luxury liner for a few hours and think they are buying a piece of Jamaica.
This is a novel about a woman who resents her daughter's beauty and innocence and is willing to despoil her own child for six hundred U.S. dollars. It's about that daughter, Margot, who uses what she's learned to take advantage of other innocents as a means of saving her younger sister, Thandi, for what she hopes and believes will be a better life. And it's about Thandi, a lovely, bright young woman who has the burden of those three unhappy generations weighing heavily on her shoulders. Her confusion and quandaries will break your heart.
In a parochial school where her class and color insure friendlessness, Thandi excels in science and math knowing that her family expects her to become a doctor. But Thandi harbors dreams of art school and only feels good about herself when she's with a street boy named Charles. When he discovers that she's been stealing money from her sister to have painful skin treatments that will make her lighter (more acceptable to her white schoolmates), he pleads with her in a deeply poignant scene to recognize that she's beautiful just the way she is. Dennis-Benn says of the moment, "No one has ever called her beautiful. It is like a sheer, billowing curtain that rests like a fainting damsel on the back of an armchair...serene, graceful, elegant."
There are no debut flaws in this tragic novel. Dennis-Benn's writing is pure and elegant. She writes delicately and realistically about the island's homophobia and the courage displayed by Verdene, a woman who returned to Jamaica after her mother's death even though she had been spurned by the townspeople years earlier for an indiscreet lesbian relationship. And the author tackles head on the rape of the island by big corporations that come in and offer the native people paltry sums, if any, for their valuable property. Where Jamaicans once fed and housed themselves on fishing, they now bow and scrape to wealthy tourists, offering glorious, white, welcoming smiles, that never reach their eyes.
I firmly believe that if we are to ever understand other cultures and people that we must walk a mile in their shoes. Of course, that's not always possible. But great literature serves as a means to that noble end. If we keep reading, we keep learning. Won't you join me? I have a copy of the book for the first person who asks.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Summer Before the War

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I absolutely love it when I can report that a second novel by a writer who delighted me once has been able to do so again. Helen Simonson came on the scene with "Major Pettigrew's Last Stand," and, if I'm remembering this correctly, my dear friend Andrea and I were reading and loving it at the same time. Can it be that this was in 2010?
With "The Summer Before the War," Ms. Simonson (http://www.helensimonson.com/) has written a comedy of manners that mimics the witty observations of Jane Austen, then marries it to a 21st century social conscience. The war referred to in the title is the so-called "Great War" of 1914 through 1918, an astoundingly tone-deaf moniker for the first of the twentieth century's heartbreaking legacy of wars around the world.
The action takes place in the picturesque village of Rye in Sussex, a town similar to the one Simonson in which Simonson herself was raised. As you'll be aware, if you're familiar with Downton Abbey, the classes were highly segregated at that time in history and women were non-entities with no rights to money or property except through marriage. So what's an independent, educated - gasp -  twenty-four-year-old woman to do, when her father dies and leaves her worldly goods in the hands of trustees who do not have her best interests at heart?
Enter the admirable, pithy Beatrice Nash, a Latin teacher (unheard of for a woman), who rides around the town on her bicycle (very risqué.) She is the Elizabeth Bennett-type focal point of the novel and yes, it is a romance, but it is so much more. Beatrice supports herself by teaching, lives frugally, and harbors a desire to write. Through Beatrice and her students, Simonson introduces readers to the plight of the Romani gypsies, a group that's been fighting prejudice in Europe for centuries, and still do to this day.
We meet young "Snout" whose passion for Virgil and facility with the Latin language endears him to Beatrice. When she discovers that he will not be able to sit for the Latin prize because of his non-aristocratic background, she is outraged and immobilized. Immobilized because her job is constantly on the line, one wrong step, one misplaced allegiance, and the committee who hired her will revoke her position. Fortunately, Beatrice has the well regarded Kent family in her corner, especially Agatha Kent, another tough woman who's learned to accomplish much by playing her cards close to the vest.
The childless Kents have two nephews whom they adore as their if they were their own sons. Hugh is the more aloof, on the fast track to becoming a surgeon and the mentee of a wealthy London doctor whose daughter is of marriageable age. Then there's Daniel, a less focused but no less ambitious young man who writes poetry and dreams of publishing a literary magazine with his soul mate and fellow artist, Craigmore.
But the people of Rye and the idyllic life of Sussex will be forever changed by the advent of war. As the Germans invade Belgium and refugees begin to travel to the UK, pressure is on for young men of good standing to sign up. As always, war is glorified by those who won't have to serve, feared by wives and mothers, acknowledged as a way up and out by the lower classes, and seen in all its ugly iterations by Hugh, who is tasked with setting up a field hospital close to the front lines.
Helen Simonson has the knack of making forceful moral points with a delicate touch. One never feels lectured to but simply delights in picking up on the hypocrisies, the small victories, and the injustices corrected. I'm reminded of the gentle lessons of an Alexander McCall Smith novel. I adored this book and all of the characters in it. Perhaps it was just a coincidence that as I was finishing it this morning and chatting about it with Don, we happened to catch Diane's Rehm's second hour interview with Julian Fellowes as he discussed his new book "Belgravia." By one o'clock it was downloaded on my Kindle.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Everyone Brave is Forgiven

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I've mentioned in many other posts that I've always been drawn to the World War II era, the literature, the history, the music, and even the clothes. I was surprised to read that British author Chris Cleave (http://chriscleave.com/) was venturing into historical fiction with his newest release and was looking forward to reading the autographed copy I picked up at Book Expo last month.

I was intrigued because in his talks with various audiences he explained (and does so again in the preface) that this novel is based upon actual letters sent back and forth between his grandparents during the war. I'm sure that this fact helped Cleave to put a very human face on the characters in "Everyone Brave is Forgiven."

This novel is absolutely about the horrors of war and its impact on the daily lives of those just trying to exist amid chaos, but it's also a book about other wars that were being fought simultaneously, class warfare, and racial warfare, specifically. Mary North, an idealistic young woman just out of what was euphemistically called "finishing school," is the daughter of upwardly mobile parents, her dad a rising politician, her mother in thrall to her husband's ambitions. The last thing they need is a daughter with a conscience!

But Mary wants to be useful. She has grandiose ideas of what she can do for the war effort, perhaps a spy? Instead, she is assigned to teach school. Horribly disappointed but willing to throw herself into it, she falls in love with the children, the more incorrigible the better. It doesn't hurt that she catches the eye of Tom, the principal, an unassuming young man, fearful of the war and plagued by guilt that he hasn't yet joined up like his more adventurous friend Alistair.

The more I read, the more I realize just how much we aren't taught in school. The siege of Malta is one of those appalling incidents that never crossed my radar screen and Cleave brings home the horrific bombing, the starvation, and the confusion of that lengthy battle vividly. Twenty-first century wars are brought to your computer screens in real time. It must be so difficult for younger readers to comprehend how the lack of reliable communication left families in the dark, lovers unsure, and friends confounded as months could go by without word from loved ones. Ships carrying bags of mail were often sunk so that whole swaths of peoples' written lives lay at the bottom of the sea.

Cleave writes somewhat awkwardly about another situation I was unaware of, the extreme prejudice shown toward black Americans working in the UK during the late '30's and early '40's. Mary takes up the cause of a young black boy in her class. Zachary, considered uneducable by previous teachers, suffers from what would be recognized today as dyslexia. Mary, challenges him to learn and when he's sent to the country along with the other children, during the height of the bombing, he corresponds with Mary in London. In fact, Mary reads between the lines, discovering that Zachary is being starved and abused by his "caretakers." Her intervention saves his life, a favor he will one day be able to return in full.

I had hoped to use this novel for one of my discussions at the library in Florida this winter but found that, although I enjoyed it and learned from it, I was too disappointed in Cleave's handling of Mary's awakening to racial disparity and her yearning to alleviate its unfairness. Cleave's continuous use of the word "nigger" throughout the book was disconcerting to say the least. It didn't seem necessary to make his point and became cringe-worthy after a while, particularly because he did such a wonderful, sensitive job with another book about race in a more modern Great Britain, "Little Bee."

Still, Mary is a fabulous character, and her friend Hilda, with whom she enters the ambulance service, is a sympathetic example of a woman completely out of her comfort zone yet willing to put herself on the line rather than observe from her well-appointed apartment while sipping champagne. Hilda matures from a self-absorbed socialite in search of a man to a woman who performs heroic deeds. For those of you who found pleasure in Kristin Hannah's "The Nightingale," Cleave's book will be just the ticket.