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!

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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.

Classics · Fiction · Humor

Miss Buncle’s Book

download

by: D.E. Stevenson

I can’t believe I’ve gotten this far in life without having heard of D.E. Stevenson or Miss Buncle’s Book. It’s a travesty.

Miss Buncle’s Book is the kind of funny, delightful, and genuinely sweet book that I just adore.  It follows the adventures of Miss Buncle, a frumpy spinster resident of the charming British village of Silverstream.  Finding herself financially embarrassed, Miss Buncle resolves to make a dollar or two by writing and publishing a book.  Rather fortunately, Miss Buncle is only able to write about what she knows, and the only thing Miss Buncle knows is her own small village.  Unfortunately, despite her clever name-changing, the residents of Silverstream soon recognize themselves in the pages of the much-lauded novel, Disturber of the Peace.   Hijinks, as you can imagine, soon ensue.

This book is absolutely adorable.  At the core of it are people finding themselves, breaking out from the roles they have so diligently learned to play and redefining themselves long after they thought it was possible to do so.  It reminded me strongly of “Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day” which is one of my favorite movies ever.   

The characters are well-developed and likeable and just good fun.  The mean ones are mean enough to be disliked but not mean enough to concern the reader – it’s one of those books that leave you smiling.  There are developing friendships and developing relationships and established relationships.  All of them are sweet and heartwarming.

The only thing I had a strong distaste for was one of the relationships in the book.  It developed quite wonderfully but it ended on the dynamic of the strong man leading the shy, retiring woman into wedded bliss.  I know it’s somewhat reflective of the times but still… ew.  It felt a bit overly pushy – from his end – just at the very end of the novel; the only dark spot on an otherwise wonderful story.  Especially since that female character had done quite a bit of exploring and growing on her end.

On the plus side, there was (very definitely, by my accounting) a barely disguised lesbian couple in there that reminded me of my grandmothers.  So cute!  And – this is kinda spoiler-y – they get their very own happy ending.  It was very unexpected to find in a book first published in 1936.  But very excellent and it makes me happy about the state of mankind. (Again, how did I just find out about this book?!)

I loved watching the characters bumbling through their journeys of self-discovery. Nothing big happens in the novel; there’s no dramatic tales of treachery or star-crossed lovers.  Just a bunch of delightful people doing more or less everyday things.

If you’re into fun romps and quaint British stories in which nothing truly bad can happen, written about people you’re quite sure you recognize, you might want to give this one a go.  If you’re looking for more meaty novels  with grand themes or tragic characters or if you like a touch of adventure and danger, than perhaps this isn’t the book for you.

Contemporary Literature · Fiction

We Need to Talk About Kevin

by: Lionel Shriver

This is probably the darkest book I’ve read all year – even Anna Karenina had some light and hopeful moments to it.  We Need to Talk About Kevin chronicles the story of Eva Khatchadourian, mother of Kevin Khatchadourian, mass murderer in a school massacre.  

The book takes the forms of letters Eva writes to her estranged husband, Frank, telling their story from their initial discussions about having to the current day, more or less chronologically. Current day is a little over a year after the massacre; Kevin is imprisoned for his crimes.

The story mainly revolves around Kevin.  Even in her own story, Eva’s letters are a desperate attempt to answer the question: Is she responsible for her son’s actions?  It’s a really interesting read on the nature vs. nurture “debate” (most people agree it’s a combination of both; it’s just assigning importance that we’re still trying to figure out) and the influence a mother has on a child’s development, as well as the reciprocal influence the child has on the mother’s development.

From the beginning, Eva never wanted a child.  She got pregnant with Kevin to please her husband, mistaking a disinterest in raising a child for apathy.  Shriver excellently dissects the indirect pressure on women to have children – the assurances that “you’ll feel differently when it’s your child,” the assumption that because one is female, one wants to have a child, the prescriptive way in which women are supposed to feel about children in general.

The lack of options presented to women plays into this -it is not part of our social framework that women apathetic or on the fence about having kids should err on the side of not having children, rather than assuming they’ll love the baby when it arrives; that a child is a major life change that is not going to magically work out once the baby arrives.  Certainly Eva and her husband never really discuss how they feel about parenting beforehand or how they feel about children – not how they feel about becoming parents, but how they feel about their future child.

Eva’s lack of a desire for a child, coupled with a lack of bonding with her son and an exceptionally difficult baby set up a failing relationship between her and her son.  As Kevin grows older and begins to commit rather horrifying acts (and his mother retaliates, once, much to his delight), Eva finds herself with nowhere  to go.  Kevin brilliantly manipulates his father into seeing only good in him.  In fact, Frank, for all that he is an affectionate and attentive parent to Kevin, doesn’t know Kevin at all.  He ignores the warning signs – the exclusion from playgroups, their inability to keep a babysitter or a nanny, the harrowing tales Eva hesitatingly brings up – and allows Kevin to pull the wool over his eyes as many times as necessary.

Eva, on the other hand, doesn’t bring up Kevin very often.  For all that she sees her son for the (somewhat classical) sociopath he is turning into, she ignores his behavior as much as possible, or allows it to remain solely between her and her son.

In a sense, everyone except Kevin is trapped by societal conventions.  Eva has no on to turn to about her lack of feelings for her baby and later her concerns about his behavior.  Frank is so invested in the idea of a perfect family that he hangs on to his idealization of Kevin as the perfect son until, too late, he can no longer avoid the truth. There are options out there, but it seems like Eva and Frank have never truly encountered them.

Kevin himself is rather an enigma.  One can’t tell if he was born evil or made evil.  Or born with evil tendencies and never prevented from fulfilling them.  Everything he does is done with his mother in mind; why this is so is unclear.  What is clear is that Eva knows and understands him better than anyone else in his life.

Overall this is a rather excellent yet supremely disturbing book.  I rather related to Eva, in her disinterest towards children and motherhood – I have no desire to reproduce whatsoever. I can’t imagine having – and never will have – a baby feeling as I feel.  I don’t blame Eva for Kevin’s actions – I think it’s due to a complex web of influences, events, nature, and social pressures – but I do think there was more she could have done.

If you want a dark, twisted novel taking an unusual stance on a horrifying event, or if you love thought-provoking novels in general, give this one a go.  If you’re not okay with violence, or if you dislike novels revolving around characters that are hard to sympathize with – and these characters are often hard, if not downright impossible, to sympathize with – you may want to give this one a pass.

As always, spoilers are welcome in the comments!