Two Brief Reviews

ChinaDollsI was very curious to read Lisa See, having seen her previous books travel around the blog world to mixed, but mostly positive reviews. China Dolls focuses on the situation for Oriental immigrants in America around the Second World War, and in particular the life of dancers and entertainers. Starting in 1938 in San Francisco, three young women come together in friendship as they try to make a living, and a life, for themselves. Grace is American-born Chinese, running from an abusive father. Helen comes from a large, traditional family in Chinatown and Ruby, as no one knows at first, is actually Japanese but hiding it. The Oriental nightclub, Forbidden City, is holding auditions for showgirls and over the course of these, the girls get to know one another and bond, though the friendship they share will always be shot through with rivalries and tensions, caused by the competitiveness of their careers and history, old and new.

Each of the three girls takes a turn in narrating the story, though it isn’t even-handed. The sweetest of the characters, Grace, gets the most pervasive voice and the simplest storyline as she falls for local boy, Joe, and suffers betrayal at his hands. Ruby has the best plot, being the most ruthlessly ambitious whilst attempting to disguise her Japanese origins. Helen struggles to free herself from the highly restrictive culture that dominates her large family, and turns out to have all sorts of traumatic secrets in her past, none of which are explained for a long time. This is a bit of a flaw, as she is the most abrasive and difficult character for reasons that only come out in a rush at the end. The weakest part of the story lies in the knot of friendship between the girls, which goes through all sorts of permutations as their allegiances to one another shift and change. Motivations are often thrust at us, and so they feel somewhat fragile. I can’t say I was deeply invested in who was best friends with whom and why, though I felt the story wanted me to be.

However, the situational history was extremely interesting, including the rise of Asian performers in Hollywood and the fate of the Japanese in America after the bombing of Pearl Harbour. It seemed to be my month for reading about alien enemy internment camps in the USA (two books in the space of a few weeks) and I found their story fascinating. Overall, I did enjoy this – I was always interested in the fate of the girls and found the book very easy to read, but there are a few flaws and the writing is just okay.

 

 

owen's daughterOwen’s Daughter is similarly a tale of survival against rough odds, but set in an entirely different location – Albuquerque, New Mexico and the present day. When the story begins, Skye is waiting to be picked up from the rehab centre where she has spent the past nine months drying out and battling an addiction to pills. She is anxious to rejoin her young daughter who she has left in the dubious care of her mother-in-law, the marriage she had to her son, Rocky, a rodeo star, having foundered some time ago.

Skye’s immense distress that her ride from the rehab centre never shows is both soothed and compounded when her father arrives to take care of her. She hasn’t seen him since she was twelve and her parents’ marriage broke up. At that point her father disappeared out of her life, leaving her with an ever more unreliable mother, and Skye knows that a lot of her own problems have stemmed from this time. But now her father has reappeared and wants nothing more than to forge a new and durable relationship with her. When it turns out that Skye’s mother-in-law is nowhere to be found and her daughter, Gracie, is lost, he is ready to do all he can to trace his grandchild, despite Skye’s sharp tongue and her underlying resentment.

Complications ensue when their lives become entangled with an old flame of Skye’s father. Margaret has just received bad news of her own when the man she loved and lost a decade ago suddenly turns up in her neighbourhood. For both Margaret and Owen, this is a joyful reunion, but now both have troubled offspring to deal with, for Margaret’s son, Peter, is home after the break-up of his marriage and drinking too much.

Basically, this is your comforting tale of lives gone awry that gradually and slowly find traction again. It is apparently a sequel to the novel, Solomon’s Oak, which I evidently haven’t read and don’t see that I needed to. But the ending of the story is also inconclusive in parts, which suggests that a further portion will be forthcoming. There’s a lot to do with horses, as both Skye and her father, Owen, find work with them, Owen being a trainer from way back. And there’s also a friendly spirit, Dolores, who wafts about a bit, doing her best to bring people together, which really isn’t as bad as it sounds. Those (rare) spirit sections are rather well done. Altogether the writing and characterisation are pleasing – unpretentious but believable, Mapson’s characters are a good mix of ornery snark, kindness and self-awareness. The problems they face feel real, but they aren’t allowed to weigh too heavily; this is a book all about moving forward with courage. I found it very engrossing.

 

Mr Litlove and the Animals

A little while back, Mr Litlove and I were in the study chatting, when a look came over his face that I recognised very well. In translation it reads: Oh. My. God. Do I tell her or not? If there should be any confusion in those who know me over the correct response to this question, the answer is: YES, TELL HER NOW. But knowing my husband as I do, I simply leapt off the sofa where I had been sitting and put some significant distance between myself and it. Just as well; scampering gaily over the back, mere inches from where I’d been moments before, was a spider the size and heft of a mouse.

Quite what happened next, I’m not sure, maybe I blacked out. But when I was fully functioning again, the spider was gone. Mr Litlove had wrestled it into submission and chucked it out the front door, without having indulged in his usual fun trick of dropping it once to give it a sporting chance. St Francis of Assissi could not have been more efficient.

This is something I admire tremendously about my husband: he is remarkably fearless about animals. We put this down to our upbringings in very different locations. Before we were married, Mr Litlove used to say that the distinction was perfectly exemplified by the headlines of the local newspapers in our respective counties. While his paper would say something like: ‘W. I. Triumph In Jam At Local Fête’, my local paper would read: ‘Body Of Gangland Killing Found Dumped Off A12’. Suffolk and Essex share a boundary, and we lived about five minutes either side of it, but even so, I felt very much the urbanite compared to his rural location. But what the newspapers didn’t say was that Suffolk had more than its share of carnage; the war was, however, between man and beast.

Mr Litlove grew up in a large house in the countryside where nature ran rampant. His family had always had cats whose job it was to keep the vermin population down. Occasionally they would get ambitious and take out a few rabbits as well. One of my fondest memories of my much-missed father-in-law is of sitting at the breakfast table with him by my feet, wielding the dustpan and brush and saying ‘Don’t look down! Don’t look down!’ as he removed the remains of whatever creature the cats had consumed as a midnight feast. (My favourite cat story from that time is of the whole family sitting down to tea at the kitchen table when the fridge door opened and one of the cats fell out.) To stay in the house was to feel very close to nature; always something rustling in the eaves or scuffling around the skirting boards and there was often the patter of eighteen toes behind you. In the brief period when my mother-in-law had no cats the house was inundated with mice. She bought a humane mousetrap only to find in the morning that its captives had eaten their way through it to freedom.

So anyway, Mr Litlove grew up removing half-eaten carcasses, and chasing out the lucky ones that got away.

We don’t have much of a mouse problem where we live now, but we do look out onto the village pond, a reasonably large affair with its own share of wildlife issues. We have a large population of ducks, who sometimes take it into their heads that all they want to do is cross the road (obviously some evolutionary rivalry with chickens). A couple of weeks ago I was working at my desk and noticed a woman had stopped her car, holding up the traffic, in order to get out and herd a few wayward ducks back onto the bank. The next time I looked up, I saw one had been too foolhardy; its crumpled body lay in the middle of the road.

Mr Litlove walked in at that point and said: ‘Oh we can’t just leave it there like that.’ And he went and found a plastic bag and took it away for a more decent disposal. I couldn’t have done it myself, but I was so glad that he did. Perhaps, by comparison, it was less upsetting than the discovery back in summer of not one, but two dead rats (or what remained of them) in our shrubbery. At the time, we looked at our cat, who returned the gaze levelly with his usual withering scorn. ‘Nah,’ we both said, ‘not likely.’ We’d seen our cats with mice before – they were fascinated but clueless. (Harvey was too lazy and Hilly was even spooked by butterflies.) Still the unenviable task fell to Mr Litlove again to do the necessary with the corpses.

His finest hour, however, was undoubtedly with a whole, live bird. Every day a casting line for a Hitchcock movie sits on the apex of our roof, throwing a very entertaining shadow onto the road below. Once in a while – drunk on autumn berries, or after a bit of argy-bargy up there – it so happens that a bird falls down a chimney. In the past they have been small enough to fly out into the room and, eventually, out of an open window. But one autumn, on a day when my son was at home recovering from an illness, we heard the heart-wrenching sounds of a bird fluttering in panic behind the brick walls. At first it was a distant scrabbling, scratching sound, but as the bird made its wretched way down the chimney, the noise grew louder and louder. It was awful, and I wondered how we’d put up with it until it finally died. But when Mr Litlove came home from work, he listened for a moment and then went and found a tea towel which he wrapped around his hands before fearlessly shoving up them up the chimney. When they emerged, they (and the teatowel) were wrapped around an enormous pigeon that struggled a bit with the indignity of the situation, but allowed itself to be taken out the back door and set free. ‘I thought it had to be sitting on the ledge up there, wondering what had happened,’ Mr Litlove said, a little out of breath from the exertion.

My son watched with wide eyes. ‘And that,’ I told him, from my safe distance away, ‘is one of the reasons why I married your father.’

Issue 3 Is Out!

SNB-logoAnd finally, our brand new issue of Shiny New Books goes live today! I think we’ve probably done the most work for this one of any of our issues so far, because publishers went completely crazy this autumn with the new releases.

So hop on over and see what you want to put on your list for Christmas….

I’d love to know what you think of our new ‘Contents’ pages. Here’s mine.

We thought that with so many books and articles to choose from, you might want to know a little more about them before you click. If you have any feedback about our new feature, I’d love to know it.

If you’re still not sure quite where to begin, here’s a few pointers to get you started:

The funniest book about a sad subject I read.

The best book by a much-loved, favourite author.

The most beautiful, engrossing piece of translated fiction I think I’ve ever read.

A deliciously wonderful historical novel.

The book I almost didn’t bother reading which turned out to be a treat.

And if you’d like something different, I’ve written a couple of special features this time around:

One looking at Sarah Waters’ rise to literary fame via her back catalogue.

One on Caribbean sensation, Monique Roffey.

And if you feel like joining in a debate, come and discuss book cover art with the eds!

 

Death of an Avid Reader

9780349400570As we near the publication date of our next full edition of Shiny New Books, you might reasonably fear that the title of this post referred to me. But no! It is in fact the most recent addition to the series of crime novels by Frances Brody featuring her 1920s lady detective, Kate Shackleton. I confess I just love this sort of reproduction vintage crime. I’m a fan of the traditional cozy whodunnit, and ready to cheer when – for example – Kate’s stalwart housekeeper, Mrs Sugden, brings in the tea and hot buttered muffins as Kate sheds her coat and muffler after a long day of tough sleuthing out in foggy Leeds. Bring on the comforting period detail! This novel provided me with a weekend’s perfect relaxation.

So it’s autumn 1925 and Kate has received a letter regarding a new private investigation. The venerable Lady Coulton charges her with finding the daughter she gave up for adoption many years ago. With only an old photo and a last-known address to guide her, Kate sets to work with her trusty ex-policeman assistant, Jim Sykes. But it isn’t very long before her attention is distracted, first by the discovery of a Capuchin monkey in the back of her car, property of the local organ-grinder who seems to have gone missing (Mrs Sugden is disapproving but scarcely ruffled, you’ll be glad to know, by a monkey as a house guest), and then by a distinctly odd story of ghosts in her local library. As a member of the board, she agrees to witness an exorcism in order to settle the fragile nerves of the ladies who work there. But instead the evening ends with the discovery of a real body, that of Dr Horatio Potter, a learned local man who is deeply involved with the library’s business. And lying not far from him, in a state of collapse, is the organ-grinder.

Kate finds herself dragged into this case in order to prevent the crime from being thoughtlessly attributed to a poor old sick man. But when it seems that the missing daughter she seeks might well have been a former employee at the library, and that the library is riven with quarrels over a proposed move into new buildings, her cases merge and become more complicated.

There’s a lot going on in this novel and the plotting is masterful. There are plenty of revelations and twists and turns, a colourful cast of characters and the atmosphere of 1920s Leeds is beautifully recreated. I thought this was consistently well-written and Kate Shackleton is a fine creation. Left widowed by the war but far from helpless, she puts her VAD nursing skills to good use along with her able intelligence. She never oversteps the boundaries of what a lady of her class could do in that era, but you do feel that she actually works her puzzles out, rather than relying on some stroke of luck or anachronistic act of derring-do. She’s often been compared to Jacqueline Winspeare’s Maisie Dobbs, and there is a circumstancial resemblance to her, but there’s more detecting going on in these books, less historical detail. I don’t mind that as I can sometimes get a bit bogged down with Maisie. And on an entirely superficial note, the covers are fab. If you like your cosy crime intelligent but restful, then I’d warmly recommend her.

As for this avid reader, I am aware of being horribly behind yet again in my blog reading. I’ve kept all your posts on my feed reader and hope to start getting to them very soon. Many apologies – hopefully the new edition of SNB will more than make up for my absence!