Contemporary Literature · Fiction

The Ruins of Us

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by: Keija Parssinen

I finally made it back to the library yesterday and this book caught my eye (yesterday was grey and rainy so I spent the rest of the day reading it; it was not small but a quick read nonetheless.)  I read the back and was intrigued by the plot synopsis, though the quotes were uninspiring.  I gave the first page a shot, anyways, and was quickly hooked.

The Ruins of Us is the story of an American woman, Rosalie, who married a wealthy Arab man, Abdullah, and, 25 years and 2 kids into their marriage, discovers that Abdullah has taken a second wife (and hidden it from her.) Rosalie, who genuinely loves her husband, her adopted country, and her life as a nonpracticing Muslim, finds herself at an impasse right as her son finds himself influenced by a religious man with dangerous beliefs.

At its core, this book is about a failing marriage, a middle-aged love story.  Abdullah and Rosalie both love each other but are dealing with the realities of growing older and facing the inertia of their life together.  It’s a true love story, though not a romance.  Abdullah is a good guy, if spoiled, and Rosalie is a good woman, if somewhat made passive by a life of convenience.  The book doesn’t focus as much on cultural differences as I would expect; Rosalie is pretty well assimilated into the Arabic culture and truly doesn’t mind the restrictive laws of Saudi Arabia. (She is also more than a little protected by Abdullah’s status and wealth; this, I think, plays a lot into her worldview and decisions.)

The book is also fairly realistic about the realities of Saudi’s current political state; Rosalie knows about all the limitations put upon her but is not ever scared of Abdullah abusing them or her. The aftereffects of 9/11 are talked about, as are the, er, foibles of the ruling family. Again, though, the family is quite wealthy and sheltered, so while evils, injustices, and cultural differences are acknowledged, many of them aren’t explored in depth.  (Which feels very realistic of an upper class family, honestly.  The characters are not unsympathetic to the challenges others face; it’s just that the draconian laws don’t affect them as much.)

The major exception to this is the son, who is struggling with being an obviously mixed child.  The anger and resentment he feels is funnelled into a burgeoning fanaticism, clearly driven more by emotional need than by belief.  I actually really appreciated this storyline, as it makes the reader sympathesize with the motivations (though not the actions) of such a person. And through the sympathesizing, you can begin to understand the underlying issues that need to be addressed.

This book flew by.  I couldn’t believe how much I just wanted to know what happens next.  I found the ending mostly satisfying; the ends were tied up and though I’m not sure what ending I wanted, the ending I got was believable.  It’s actually fairly light reading, fast-paced, interesting but not incredibly complicated characters, a (for Americans) foreign and (for anyone not uber-wealthy) fantastic setting.

Though realistic about its setting, I didn’t feel like the book veered into Islamophobia – in fact, at times it addressed the negative impact 9/11-empowered Islamophobia had on the characters, especially the children.  All of the characters were flawed but sympathetic (it’s told in third person limited, and every main character gets at least one chapter) and Abdullah is not painted as a monster because of his religion; he’s likeable and self-centered (and that’s attributed more to his power and wealth than anything else.) (let me know if you felt differently, of course!)

Overall, this felt more like a love story dealing with a multicultural couple than a book committed to exploring vast cultural differences.  It made for a fun, fast, interesting read; a Harlequin novel all grown up and dealing with real people and cultures instead of caricatures.

So if you’re looking for an insightful read about the realities of being an American in a Islamic country, a slow and introspective read on an unusual marriage, or beautiful prose with a complex emotional landscape, alas, this book is probably not for you.  But if you want something fun and easy to read, with an unusual setting and premise, that treats stereotypical romantic leads as real people with real problems, and does so without demonizing, I’d highly recommend The Ruins of Us.

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Children's · Fantasy · Fiction · Teen Fiction · Urban Fantasy · YA

Lockwood & Co: The Empty Grave

the empty grave
by: Jonathan Stroud

The Empty Grave is the fifth and final book in Stroud’s Lockwood & Co series. I had put a hold on it at the library but the bookstore I walk by every day was having a 20% off sale after I’d been waiting for what felt like months, so I gave in and bought it.  (This actually isn’t the cover that I have, but I like it so much better than the UK version.)

If you’re not familiar with Lockwood & Co, it’s a YA series (maybe middle school) set in an alternate reality London, where deadly ghosts have suddenly appeared, called the Problem.  Only children can see the ghosts, so children are employed as agents to combat the Problem.  Throughout the series, we follow Lucy, a teenage ghost hunter, as she works with the Lockwood & Co agency.  In this final edition, Lucy and her coworkers are following clues to figure out what the source of the Problem is, using advice from a ghost that only Lucy can hear, and venturing into some of the most dangerous places in – and out – of London.

So unlike other books in this series, there’s not a big, bad ghost to overcome.  (This actually kept me from locking myself in the bathroom to read the book.*) Instead, Lucy is looking at clues for the Source and who or what is behind the Problem.  Though there is a bad guy, this book is more about answering questions the previous four books have set up.  I really enjoyed this approach – it had enough suspense to keep my heart racing but at this point in the series I wanted my questions answered more than I wanted another epic, hair-raising battle against a Big Bad.  And the questions were answered in a slow manner – not a huge info dump at the end, but enough information for the reader to work out with the characters what’s going on as the story unfolds.

By the way, this book would work as a stand-alone but I would highly discourage it – I think the series as whole works really well and I would encourage any reader to start from the beginning for narrative satisfaction. There’s an incredible amount of world and plot building that is best enjoyed when read in the intended order.

Stroud also does a great job of fulfilling some character issues and mysteries. For example, Lockwood, the owner of Lockwood & Co, is a dashing and romantic hero with a tragic backstory. The entire series is written in first person, from Lucy’s perspective, and it’s in this book that Lucy comes to terms with Lockwood’s unusually strong attraction to, and enjoyment of, danger and what that ultimately says about him.  It’s not overdone, but the reader is forced through the discomforting realizations as Lucy processes a new perspective.

This happens for multiple characters this book and adds a good bit of depth to the series as a whole. (It also happened in the fourth book for a different character, Holly.)  These realizations are mostly driven by a captured ghost that only Lucy can hear, which I appreciate, because it means that we get an age-appropriate reaction to an adult observation.  The children never feel uncannily mature or precociously adult but the reader isn’t forced into a world without any adult perspective. (See: A Series of Unfortunate Events.) This allowed Stroud to explore some character development that wouldn’t have otherwise been possible; yet, the ghost was written so that it (he?) doesn’t come off as the wise old adult.  Rather, he’s a wry, untrustworthy, and mysterious character forced into the role of observer.

Speaking of the ghost, Stroud answers most but not all questions posed by the series.  The questions he leaves unanswered are good ones – he gives the reader plenty to go on in order to develop their own theories.  So on the one hand, I appreciate that.  On the other hand – I want to know!  In general, things are wrapped up nicely; he leaves just enough points dangling that you can’t quite let the series go when you finish it.  Crafty, Stroud.  Crafty.

I absolutely loved this book, both as a standalone and as a completion of an incredibly good series. If you’re not into middle-school/YA, if you like dashing plot-driven adventure books with a satisfying romance, or if you like your horror to be Stephen King-level terrifying, then, sadly, this might not be the book for you.  If you’re looking for an excellent mix of character development and plot line, a creepy but fun ghost story, or are looking for a great female-led adventure series, I can’t recommend Lockwood & Co enough.

*but I still stayed up until 3 am to finish it.
Contemporary Literature · Fairy Tales · Fantasy · Fiction

The Emperor of the Eight Islands

emperor
by: Lian Hearn

So I walked into a bookstore looking for a pen and walked out with 2 books, one of them being Emperor of the Eight Islands.  The blurb on the back really intrigued me – it sounded liked a darker sort of fairy tale, but set in a fantasy land based on feudal Japan.

The blurb on this one is a pretty accurate representation of the book! I really enjoyed the book – I’ve mentioned this a few dozen times before, I’m sure, but I love fairy tales of all sorts. I liked especially that it was set in a Japanese-based society; I feel like that drew me in more than it would have if it was set in a European-based one, simply for the novelty and the fun of the world building.

The story follows Kazumaru, the son of a lord who dies having lost a game of Go to tengu (legendary Japanese bird-men.) Kazumaru’s uncle takes over the estates and, in the traditions of fairy tales everywhere, does not want to relinquish his title back to his nephew when Kazumaru comes of age.  The story truly begins when Kazumaru decides to run away and find his own fate in the world, a world being torn apart by a civil war and plots for the throne.

Told in third person, the story shifts frequently from Kazumaru’s point of view to many other characters, though Kazumaru’s actions remain the driving force for the plot.  There’s sorcerers, royalty, mystical beings, magic, grudges, love, destiny, and songs about dragon children. Essentially, all the components for a good fairy tale are incorporated.

Hearn’s writing also lends itself well to the style. It actually reminds me a little bit of Robin McKinley – the same sort of slightly distant, almost impersonal approach to the characters, even as the reader learns their thoughts and feelings.  In an extended fairy tale, where the plot is of utmost importance, this style can work incredibly well and indeed I very much appreciated Hearn’s approach.  All of the human characters were complex and well developed and the non-human ones felt non-human because they were less complex.

Though terrible things happen in the story, I wasn’t necessarily emotionally invested in the actions.  This isn’t a bad thing – I like how it gave me clarity and room to think about what was happening.  It also meant I was less likely to rationalize away a character’s behavior, which, I think, is important to this particular story.  The characters, Kazumaru included, often do both amazing and horrible things and this distance allowed me to step away from the good vs. evil dichotomy and not categorize the characters but instead evaluate each action on its own merit.  Though there is a sense of a divine hand in this story, and from that a clear wrong and right, there isn’t such a sense of moral right and wrong and I loved the way the story made me think about each action to see how I truly felt about it.

I don’t know why, but I was somewhat disappointed to find that this was the beginning of a short series.  Though it does work as a self-contained story, there’s clearly room for the next novel – however, I felt throughout that this was a standalone and I have no idea why! I will be reading the rest of the series though.

Also, this is a book where the first chapter is very indicative of the entirety of the story, so if you’re on the fence, you should be able to tell by just reading a few pages whether it’s the book for you.

If you like plot-driven fantasies and a strong fairy tale vibe, you should definitely give this book a read.  If you’re not into violence or if you want a strong, intimate emotional connection to the main characters, then, alas, this book may not be the one for you.

Have you read it? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Contemporary Literature · Fiction

Mambo in Chinatown

mambo in chinatown
by: Jean Kwok

Mambo in Chinatown is a book I picked up at the library when I was browsing after replacing my lost card.  I do a bit of Latin dancing off and on (more off recently) so both the shoes and the name caught my attention.  Then I read the blurb and it said it was about a first generation Chinese American woman who grew up in Chinatown, NYC, and ended up working for a ballroom dance studio. I knew I had to read it.

Charlie Wong, daughter of a Beijing Ballet prima ballerina, feels ungraceful and works as a dishwasher in a noodle shop where her father makes money.  She spends her time supporting her family and trying to help her beautiful, intelligent younger sister, whom Charlie hopes to help to bigger and brighter things.  One day, Charlie, who has always longed to feel beautiful, applies for a job as a receptionist as a ballroom dance studio and gets it.  Working at the studio begins to slowly transform her life, but she worries about her sister, Lisa, who is struggling with an unknown illness that seems to worsen as Charlie’s life improves.

I greatly enjoyed this novel.  It was definitely written for a Western audience and Kwok takes plenty of time to explain Chinese beliefs, attitudes, and traditions for a non-Chinese audience.  She always manages to make it feel very natural to the story, partly because it’s written in first person, so it’s always presented as Charlie musing on what she’s looking at. It’s fairly obvious but never overdone and sprinkled evenly throughout the novel.  I genuinely appreciated it – some things I knew and some things I didn’t, but overall the holistic integration of all the components Charlie talked about make me gain an appreciation for her worldview that I think can be challenging to convey in a novel. Kwok also does a good job of letting the bigger cultural notions speak through the actions of the characters – Charlie’s desire to show proper respect for her father is never dissected but is clearly and understandably demonstrated through her actions and concerns.

Charlie herself is a really wonderful character.  She’s kind and tries her best, but struggles with finding herself and self-esteem issues, making her believably flawed but likable.  Of course, part of her struggle is balancing the Chinese and American cultures she exists in, which Kwok does an excellent job with.  I also appreciate that Kwok includes many other Chinese American women, all of whom are finding their own balance in Chinatown.

I loved her descriptions of dancing – she really manages to capture the essence of twirling across the dance floor.  And the book definitely touched on magical realism as shows Lisa’s illness, with her father trusting traditional Chinese medicine and Charlie wanting to try Western.  I will say, if Kwok writes a magical realism novel, I will definitely read it.

The biggest downside to this book is that the plot line is incredibly predictable.  Now, in a book like this, which I’m reading for escapism and for enjoyment of the characters, that’s not a fatal flaw at all.  But I was able to predict every plot twist and turn that happens straight from the beginning of the novel.  The pacing is good and I really wanted to know what happened next, I just already knew what was going to happen next.

Overall, it was a lovely and introspective light read and if you’re looking for something uplifting, a little different, and kind, this is definitely the book for you.  If you’re looking for an unexpected turn, or don’t want your escapism novels to deal with the big evils of the world (there’s one in here, though done well), then, sadly, this may not be the book for you.

Contemporary Literature · Fiction · Historical Fiction · Romance

The Summer Before the War

the summer before the war
by: Helen Simonson

This was the second book I picked up on my vacation.  I was deliberating between a book set in India (that I decided to check out of the library) and a history of New Zealand (also library) when I saw Helen Simonson’s name.  Simonson wrote Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, which I absolutely loved, enough so that her name makes a book an automatic buy.

The Summer Before the War is set in the summer before the first world war.  It revolves around Beatrice Nash, the first female Latin teacher ever hired by the town of Rye, near Sussex, England.  Recently arrived back in England after the death of her father (they had been living as ex-pats), she’s determined to make it on her own as an independent, successful woman.  She meets Hugh Grange, a surgeon-in-training whose Aunt Agatha was instrumental in Beatrice’s hiring, and in the idyllic countryside summer, begins a slow and wonderful romance.

I really enjoyed this book! I didn’t love it as much as I did MPLS, but I found the tone to be the same kind of inquisitive sweetness – not cloying, just pleasant without glossing over the awful parts of life.  Most of the book is a romance set against a depiction of a small English village. There’s the small town politics; the beautiful summer days and strolls in the gardens; the festivals and fairs; and the small dramas of village life. There’s quirky characters and good food and an idyllic day or two to imagine yourself in.

There’s also the burgeoning feminist movement and a truthful examination of the difficulties of being a single woman in the early 20th century.  There’s the Romani people, who come every summer and have for hundreds of years, yet face incredible prejudice. There’s two men who, at great cost, hide how they truly feel about each other and two women who quietly hide that their relationship is more than society would ever expect.

All in all, it’s a more complete picture than I would normally suspect.  Somerset manages to create a sweet and peaceful village that has room for the daily sufferings and injustices often ignored in idyllic settings. The inclusion of such people adds to the magic, mostly, I think, because they feel real without adding a “dark, seedy underbelly” tone.  (There is no dark seedy underbelly to Rye.)  Instead, it’s a gentle acknowledgement of all that was happening in the village and makes me feel like I was truly seeing a slice of life, rather than the cherry-picked good parts.  It made the escapism of the novel more complete to me and much more emotionally compelling.

Of course, after the summer, the war does break out (and the book does an excellent job of letting the reader feels it’s looming throughout.)  Somerset actually follows the novel through the beginnings of war-time and this leads us to my main issue with the book.  While the pacing in terms of action/not-action was fine, I wish Somerset had let the book play out over a longer period of time.  Everything happens in a 6-month span and it just seems short for the final emotional growth and realizations of the characters.  The last few chapters are jam-packed with important events and I wanted a bit more temporal space between them.  I liked the plot line, I liked the characters’ responses, but for some reason, I just feel she needed to stretch out her timeline by at least another 6 months, if not a year.

I also feel like some of her main characters were a little too good; they needed just a tad bit more flaws for me to really invest in them.  It was such a small imbalance that I didn’t even notice it until I was done with the book.  But it there, just a little. Hugh, in particular, could have done with an unkind thought or two.

If you’re a fan of idyllic British country villages, or if you like small, sweet stories in the face of adversity, or if you’re interesting in a more inclusive historical fiction, this is definitely a book you should try.  If you’re looking for a perfectly idyllic world with no real troubles at all, if you’re a big fan of flawed main characters, or if you don’t like big thematic shifts in books than this, unfortunately, is probably not the book for you.

Classics · Comedy · Fiction · Humor · Romance

Emma

Emma
by: Jane Austen

I love rereading books by listening to the audio books but I often struggle to find books narrated by women.  I don’t know why, but there are times when I strongly prefer to listen to a woman’s voice over a man’s and while I have plenty of podcasts that fit the bill, it’s harder for me to find audiobooks.  But I decided, after listening to Pride and Prejudice, that I should continue with my Austen adventure and downloaded Emma.

Emma, is, of course, a classic novel by Jane Austen. Written in Georgian-Regency times (thanks Wikipedia!), it follows the titular character through the perils of matchmaking, romance, and growing up.  My audiobook was narrated by Juliet Stevenson, who was really excellent. Her voice is elegant and has just the tiniest hint of merriment.

When I first read Emma, I was in early high school.  I only read it the once, so while I knew the plot, I really wasn’t prepared for all the comedy I’d missed the first time around.  I had to stop myself from laughing out loud more than once, and I’m sure that I walked around grinning like a fool while listening.  Austen pokes fun at her characters dryly and deservedly, though kindly.  I missed a lot my first read and I remember thinking the plot dragged a bit.  Now, when I can appreciate the subtle satire and the ridiculousness of the scenes, I didn’t think it dragged at all, even though not much happens in the story.

It’s a cohesive story and solid plot, but what I loved best are the individual scenes that can stand on their own.  My favorite scene involved two rather self-absorbed characters, one quite good-natured, engaged in a conversation where each is determinedly wresting the subject back to their favorite brag every time they speak. I was thoroughly entranced and amused the entire scene – it felt real, funny, and I could definitely think of a few people who it reminded me of!  It could have been taken from the story and read just as a scene and been just as satisfying.

Like all Austen books, some of the references and subtle pokes haven’t aged as well – a very few, but there were times when something was clearly supposed to be obvious and I had no clue what was being referenced.  And, of course, there’s a lot of subtlety and unspoken context going on in the novel, as in any Austen novel.

I will say, the ending did feel like it dragged on a bit and then, when it did end, it felt rather abrupt.  It was particularly noticeable because I was listening to it; I couldn’t start skimming over the last bit after I knew the major problems were resolved.  Austen thoroughly ties up every plot line, perhaps a tad too neatly and leaves the reader completely satisfied.  Her characters are believable and engaging. Overall, despite the more complex language, it’s a great escapism novel.

If you like things to happen in your novel, clear and straightforward writing, or a hot ‘n’ steamy romance, this, unfortunately, is probably not the book for you. If, however, you like old-fashioned and sweet stories, you love absurd but realistic humor, or you’re just looking for a book to read in a garden with a glass of wine, then I strongly encourage you to give Emma a read.