Contemporary Literature · Fiction · Romance

The Traveling Tea Shop

traveling tea shop
by: Belinda Jones

I picked up The Traveling Tea Shop at the library when I was looking for a light, fluffy read to get through my cold with.  This looked like a good bet, and it definitely paid off.

It’s written in first person and follows the adventures of Laurie Davis, a sweets-obsessed British travel agent living in New York. She’s contacted by Pamela Lambert, legendary British bake show host, to organize a baked goods tour of New England. Pamela shows up with her mother and rebellious daughter, forcing Laurie to deal with her own family issues as she’s exposed to theirs.

The story is – oh, I hate this term, but classic chic-lit. I don’t mean that in a bad way, just that it’s light and fun, but there’s a focus on relationships and personal growth within the characters. A perfect beach read for those of us in the southern hemisphere, and a nice cheer up novel for those heading into the depths of winter.

Character wise, it’s good but not great. My favorite character actually left halfway through the novel, which was disappointing. It’s pretty realistic about normal flaws that people have; in particular one of the character has a serious conflict-aversion problem portrayed very well in a kind but negative light.  And the main character is implied to be plump or perhaps plus sized without any of her problems stemming from her self-esteem or a lack of body acceptance.

The resolutions and the ah-ha moment of the main character is a bit over the top for my taste, though. Everything does get resolved and, I think, in a fairly realistic manner – nothing is neatly tied up, but the characters can look hopefully towards the future and I liked that aspect.  But at the same time, a few of the moments and thought processes feel a bit contrived.  Not enough to ruin the story, just enough that it dipped a toe into the Hallmark movie pond.

The romance story lines were really well-done; they were secondary to character development and moved romantically but not unrealistically quickly. I love a book that can have a romance without making it the most important part of a woman’s life – Jones does a great job with this balance.

There is a big focus on baked goods and in that aspect, it’s very well-researched.  (Mostly. Popovers are more associated with Maine than New Hampshire in my experience.) I actually can’t eat wheat, so I am not a huge baked goods fan, but I liked all the descriptions – if you are a fan of baked goods, this might make you really hungry! It includes a lot of real American cooks and places and they’re well-described (mostly – the White Mountain National Forest elevation is way off). It made me really homesick for New England, actually! The author is British and she did some excellent research into iconic baked goods and restaurants of New York and New England.

But…the author is British writing about America and even though the main characters are British, she still missed a few things Americans are going to pick up on. Pound cake is a common American baked good; scones are not. The vast, vast majority of American restaurants and hotels do not serve afternoon tea*, much less with a tiered platter of baked goods.  Virtually every establishment and person in this novel has afternoon tea. We sort things into category; we don’t ‘sort a problem out.’ It wasn’t all-pervasive (the author was wise in choosing British characters) but American readers will definitely spend a few minutes going “wait…what?”

The characters seem to spend a lot of time unsupervised in commercial kitchens, which seems highly, highly unrealistic. but that’s a minor peeve.

If you’re looking for a beach-read type novel with realistically flawed people and a tiny bit of cheesiness, then this book is absolutely for you! If you don’t like a pinch of too-tidy revelations, are jerked out of the story by cultural inaccuracies, or don’t like extensive descriptions of food and places in your escapism novels, then alas, this may not be the book for you.

*specialty tea or British cuisine restaurants might, but you’d have to specifically look for such a place. I lived in Boston for four years and never went somewhere with a set afternoon tea service, nor have any of my friends – they exist, but you’d have to seek them out.

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Contemporary Literature · Fiction

The Ruins of Us

download
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.

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.

Contemporary Literature

Corpus Christi

corpus christi

by: Bret Anthony Johnston

Corpus Christi: Stories is a collection of short stories, which I’m going to be upfront about and say – not my favorite form of literature.  While I enjoyed this book and have a mostly positive review, and Johnston is certainly an amazing writer, I do think some of my less favorable remarks are influenced by the fact that I don’t particularly care for short stories.

And on the note of full disclosure, Corpus Christi is set in the Texan city it is named after, which is about an hour from where I grew up.  It was the nearest big city and I spent a lot of time there, shopping, going to orthodontist appointments, checking out the sights and the beach – it’s a pretty cool place. The Texas State Aquarium is amazing; go if you have the chance.  And, with the caveat that Johnston did grow up actually in Corpus, I felt a little odd about how he chose to incorporate the setting into the story.

Certainly, the setting felt like it was a real place, but – his Corpus was not my Corpus.  It appears from his biography that he hasn’t lived in Corpus for a while, and there were certain parts of the dialect and the stories that just jarred slightly.  (I’ve never heard anyone from back home say “sunblock,” for instance; I’ve always heard it referred to as “sunscreen.”)  The reference to the Nutcracker coming to town being a big deal – there’s now a ballet in Corpus that performs that every year; I feel like that sentence should have been started with “Back then” or something.

But there were certainly parts that felt authentic, and it’s only the second book I’ve read set in Corpus, and the third set in South Texas/the Coastal Bend in general, so there’s that.  I also think I would care less about whether or not it aligned with my experience of Corpus if there were more books or media or any sort set there.

One of the big things that jumped out at me, though, was how predominately white the stories were. According to Wikipedia, Corpus is more than 50% Hispanic/Latino and I think one of the most jarring things about the stories was how whitewashed they seemed.  That may have just been Johnston’s experience, depending on what neighborhood he grew up in, but it was probably the biggest thing that stuck out to me as not feeling like Corpus.

That aside, Johnston is an amazing writer.  His stories mostly examined relationship between adult children and their parents, though not exclusively.  It’s not a relationship I tend to focus a lot of my reading on, but I really enjoyed the way Johnston explored them.  They were complicated and imperfect, and many of the characters existed within a dysfunctional family.

Johnston does an absolutely fantastic job of creating this complex relationships between these extremely well-developed characters, very simply and in an incredibly short amount of space.  His writing is beautiful and the stories have – emotional resonance? They weren’t quite bittersweet but they managed to strike the perfect balance between evoking pain and evoking hope. There are three connected short stories that form the backbone of this collection, focusing on the relationship between a mother and her son, and I absolutely loved them.  They were brilliant and honest and heartbreaking.  His use of the scenery was subtle, but it fit well into the story and I think the title is completely appropriate.  I am definitely going to be reading more of his works.

If you like elegant, yet heartbreaking short stories, or if you love a well-written story, you should absolutely read Corpus Christi.  If you’re into happy endings, or something more than a hope for a better future, you should probably give this one a pass.

If you’re from Corpus or if you’ve ever lived there, I’d love your take on this book! Please leave a comment!

Contemporary Literature

Bluebeard

by: Kurt Vonnegut

This is the first book off my 2013 to-read list – and it’s only June.  I’ve been meaning to read Vonnegut for a while, as all my college friends seem to love him.

Bluebeard is the fiction memoirs of Rabo Karabekian, an explosive failure in the Abstract Expressionist movement.  It flows seamlessly between Rabo’s present-day life, as 71 yr old wealthy, retired artist, and his past, as the first-born child of Armenian immigrants with hopes of becoming a great artist. Rabo served in World War II, was in New York during the explosion of the American artistic movement, and served somewhat as a Gertrude Stein to the budding artists, ending up completely accidentally with the greatest collection of Abstract Expressionist paintings in the world.

I actually didn’t like this book as much as I expected, though I liked it for reasons I didn’t expect.  For some reason, I thought that Vonnegut would be difficult to read, full of complicated metaphors or abstract notions, but it’s not.  Instead, he’s neither simple, nor complicated, an easy to follow writer who masterfully handles the transitions between time periods.  The writing is easy and entertaining, with Vonnegut using a wry touch to deal with themes like loss, war, and failure.  (This whole book is mostly about failure, now that I think about it. Well, failure and war.)

But the book itself was rather overdone.  The wry comments and cynical observations are too heavy-handed for my taste.  It just all needed to be toned down a few notches.  At the beginning there were lots of italics.  And tons of exclamation points!  They petered out as the book went on, so maybe Vonnegut was using them to showcase development in writing ability?  Nonetheless, they didn’t go with the sophisticated voice of the narrator and annoyed me greatly.  (Not enough to make me put down the book, though.)  There were also many blanket statements meant to demonstrate Rabo’s cynicism and disdain, especially towards the younger generation.  (As a member of the younger generation, though not the younger generation Rabo refers to, I often find these statements less than amusing anyways.)

Overall, the book suffers from a lack of subtlety.  The topics Vonnegut does use a lighter touch with, such as World War II, he does wonderfully.  I would classify this as a war story, though one of the more off-beat ones.  Though Kabo treats his time serving rather cavalierly, and though he never really saw combat, much of the resolution of the novel is him dealing with his wartime experiences.

As for Kabo himself, he’s an odd character.  He has no contact with his family, he is fabulously rich with money, property, and his art collection; he is once-divorced and once-widowed; and he owns 1/4th of a football team.  Everything except the art collection is due to his second wife.  He was once famous as a painter but that failed spectacularly; he married and had two sons but failed there as well; he was wounded in the war before he was able to act; and most of his friends are dead. Kabo’s life is one of failure, for the most part, but he is reasonably content as an old man.  Though Kabo talks frequently about those he’s in relationships with, the reader never really gets a sense of any other character beyond a defining characteristic or two.  One feels as if they are fully fleshed people; we are just presented with Kabo’s rather one-dimensional view of them.  The one other major character in the novel, the widow Circe Berman, I rather disliked.  She was pushy and bossy and demanding of others while not really dealing with her own life, or at least seemed that way to me.  She is the one who pushes Kabo into writing his autobiography and acts as a catalyst for the story.

The ending is probably the best part of the book.  It, almost without meaning to, ties the entire book together.  It gives  meaning depth to both the story and Kabo that aren’t easily apparent in the rest of the story.  Rereading this book would be quite a different experience than the first read.  (Also, don’t Wikipedia the plot line.  There aren’t any big twists, but the book is better letting it develop as you read.)

In short, if you like modern American literature with an easy to read style or fictional autobiographies, you should give this a try. I’m going to go ahead and say if you like war stories, you should read this – just trust me and make it all the way through to the end.  If you’re a big fan of subtlety and drawn out metaphors or you like upstanding, active protagonists, than perhaps this isn’t the book for you.