Friday, April 29, 2011

The Sisters Brothers

Flower old pal.

Westerns have changed and not changed. Names in Westerns are different. They used to be generic to the point of pointless as in the townspeople all named "Johnson" in Blazing Saddles. Then came Lonesome Dove. Now when there is a Western the names are mundane words piled together into eccentric names. So instead of Deputy Johnson there is Deputy Ruby Tulip Crow.

Racial stereotypes have disappeared from Westerns. That's not to say that racism no longer exists in Westerns but when it is there it's an illustration of the attitudes of the time and/or a plot device. No longer is it an acceptable representation of the popular view.

A Western staple that hasn't changed is the journey from self righteous negativity to rebirth and redemption. The hero or more often the antihero goes from a single-minded, selfish purpose to a more community viewpoint of what is important. The gunslinger who hangs up his six shooter, the cowboy who stands up to the cattle baron, the Native American who abandons his plans for revenge, the whore who sacrifices herself for the sheriff. These are all standard Western characters who routinely undergo some sort of crisis that takes them out side of their own needs and causes them to change their evil ways.

Over the last twenty or thirty years newly published Western novels have become few and far between. The obvious reason why is poor sales but as to why tastes changed and sales slumped? I don't know. In larger bookstores you occasionally still see a Western Section but it's very small and usually made up of reissues and a couple series that have new titles monthly. Nothing to match other genres like Mystery, Romance and Science Fiction. So it is something of a very pleasant surprise when one of the major publishing house in the U.S. puts out a new Western in hardcover. The publisher is HarperCollins ecco and the book is The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt.

The Sisters brothers are Charlie, the older and Eli. They are young but experienced, brutal, hired guns. Right now they work for the Commodore. Who exactly the Commodore is and what his agenda might be are unknown but he pays the bills so he's the boss. Henry Morris, another employee of the Commodores' gives the Sisters their orders. The Commodore wants them to kill Hermann Kermit Warm whose last known address was San Francisco. The trip from Oregon City to San Francisco and beyond will be a long one filled with saloons, women, mines, frontier towns, trappers, schemes, friends and foes that all wraps up with a realization and a twist.

Charlie and Eli are well made creations. At the start of the novel their actions define them but as deWitt takes them on their journey to find and kill Hermann Warm deWitt leisurely draws out their personalities. The conversation and the rivalry between the siblings is sometimes funny, sometimes frightening but always realistic.

Patrick deWitt has used his research well. He makes it a part of the story without allowing it to bury the story or characters. His 1850's California is a harsh and dangerous day to day experience and every man's potential goldmine. A place where a small weakness can be a death sentence or an unexpected second chance. Although there is a great deal of action in the novel, Eli's matter of fact manner of narration keeps the story from feeling like one long continuous stunt.

Who knows maybe The Sisters Brothers will start a resurgence in Western novels. It's certainly good enough to do just that.


P.S. How much do you love that cover?

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The Tragedy of Arthur

Hi Flower.

There are a whole lot of Arthurs in The Tragedy of Arthur. There's the author, Arthur Phillips, the main character, Arthur, his father Arthur, King Arthur and a long lost Arthur. That last one is the second of the two tragedies of Arthur. In that list there's the lost Shakespearean play about King Arthur and the tragedies of all the other Arthurs who appear in the novel. Got it? Good because it's worth getting.

For the moment let's concentrate on the character Arthur. He was raised by a forger, conman father, Arthur. The kind of man who can make you believe anything he wants you to but as a father leaves everything to be desired. There were three constants in Arthur's life growing up: his love for his twin sister Dana, his family's' attraction to Shakespeare and the decades his father spent in prison. Both Arthur and Dana are influenced by Shakespeare as children. Dana becomes an actress and part time Shakespearean scholar and Arthur becomes a writer. Who knows maybe he becomes the other Arthur Phillips?

When Dad has finally done his time, his stretch, paid his dues and exits jail an old man he tells Arthur his great secret. A lifetime before he had stolen an original quarto from a British Estate. He claims that the quarto is a lost play by Shakespeare, "The Most Excellent and Tragical Historie of Arthur, King of Britain The Tragedy of Arthur". The play itself is a potboiler that follows the basic Arthurian legend. It's not great Shakespeare but does that matter if it's Shakespeare? Dad wants to get it authenticated and published--with his son's help. Could this be true or Dads' masterpiece con? The two Arthurs are finally able to come together, to bond over this play. Son Arthur even forgets for a moment that he's not Dad's favorite. For a moment.

It's a Father-Son novel! It's a memoir! It's a literary investigation! It's a play by Shakespeare! It's a lie, it's the truth. The Tragedy of Arthur is a cut from whole cloth creation about invention and forgery or maybe invention verses forgery. Phillips, the author, uses Shakespeare as his device to write about what artists invent, how we invent ourselves, how the media (in this case Phillip's publisher Random House) try to invent events, and what may be invention or forgery in all things Shakespeare.

The obvious comparisons to The Tragedy of Arthur are Nabokov's Pale Fire and A.S. Byatt's Possession. In both of those novels the author created works attributed to another writer and then built a novel around their discovery and critique. Phillips does all that and then takes that idea two steps further by bringing the unreliability of memoir and a populist sense of skepticism into the mix. His contrivances hit all the serious notes and still entertains.

The Tragedy of Arthur is exceptional skill on dexterous display. I have no doubt that for every reference the plot makes to one of Shakespeare's play that I caught there were fifty others that I missed but blame on my own educational laziness and not the author's wit and knowledge. Arthur Phillips uses humor, creativity and smarts in a way that dazzles in this novel. The Tragedy of Arthur is a completely accessible, virtuoso performance by a very talented, smart writer.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

Just Don't Bother

Oh Flower.

I've had two duds in a row. Good thing I can bounce back.

I don't like to use this word but in this instance it's perfect. The American Heiress is ...meh. This novel defines the word average. It's the story of a wealthy young American woman from a socially ambitious family at the turn of the 20th century who marries the poor but titled English heir to a great house. Do I even need to tell you anything else?

Wait a minute. Yes. I do. The main character's name? The young woman with the bankroll? Cora Cash. Cora Cash, my friend.

If Mad Libs had an Edith Wharton/Judith Krantz edition author
Daisy Goodwin could have used it to write The American Heiress and saved herself many fruitless hours at her desk.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Kitchen House

Oh Flower, Flower, Flower.

Sometimes a writer can make melodrama hit the spot and sometimes the relentless piling on of horrifying situations, evil doers, innocents ill-used and sexual abuse become merely a laundry list of really, really bad luck. This is what happens in The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom.

In 1791, seven year old Lavinia arrives in the U.S. She is an immigrant. Her parents died on the ship on the way over from Ireland (Not Good), she is separated from her brother (Bad), she is made an indentured servant at the tobacco plantation Tall Oaks by owner Captain Pyke (Worse) and at the plantation she is sent to work in the kitchen and to live with the slaves (She's a goner). Lavinia's strength and willingness eventually earn her the affection of the other kitchen slaves, especially Belle. Belle is the illegitimate, biracial daughter of Captain Pyke. Their regard for and loyalty to one another will be tested many times over the years.

At Tall Oaks----I have to interrupt here. Tall Oaks? Really? Did the author or the editor never read or see Gone With The Wind? Hello? Twelve Oaks? Is it a smart idea to constantly remind people as they read your book that it's not as good as Gone With The Wind ?---- Lavinia is ever the outsider. Among the slaves she is white and among the whites she is a slave. Grissom effectively uses this slight twist to bring a different perspective to the usual goings on in an antebellum novel but it's not enough to raise The Kitchen House up into anything special.

Kathleen Grissom rounds out this predictable melodrama with a vicious overseer, the laudanum addicted Mrs. Pyke, a psychopathic heir, an understand and heroic neighbor and slaves struggling to survive without drawing attention to themselves. There are escapes, betrayals, violence, yellow fever, rape and secrets, secrets, secrets. Occasionally some interesting moments in The Kitchen House show up and the books moves along at a quick pace but that doesn't make up for underdeveloped characters and a storyline that would be old in a Mary Pickford movie.

Happy to be moving onto the next book
P.S. That cover? zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz..............

The Rice Mother

Hello Flower.

There is nothing new about a storyline that takes a woman with no education, no experience in the world who winds up either a widow or with a wastrel husband, a brood and no means of support for her family. It's been done by male and female writers, it's been played out in every possible kind of setting and time period from ancient Roman households to Mayberry. So as an author if you're going to take that crumbly old plot and make it the center of your novel you had better be able to pony up some good writing to make it palatable. In the novel,
 The Rice Mother, author Rani Manicka does just that.

Lakshmi is the Mother in this multi-generational story. In the early 1920's she is married off and leaves her native Ceylon with her husband, Ayah, for Maylasia. Once in Maylaysia Lakshmi learns that her 37 year old husband had borrowed a gold watch and a servant in order to convince her Mother that he was rich and marry her. In reality he's a clerk who lives a hand to mouth existence. However what's done is done. She is now a fourteen year old wife, housekeeper and stepmother. It isn't long before it's clear to Lakshmi that although Ayah is basically a good man and loves her that he is incapable of supporting them. By the time she turns nineteen, Lakshmi has in quick succession given birth to six children. It is only her sheer force of will that keeps her family together. For the family the worst is yet to come with WWII and the occupation by the Japanese. It is a brutal and faith testing time that leaves them scarred forever.

Although larger than life as all matriarchs are in these kinds of novels, Lashmi is a believably flawed person. Her evolution from happy teenager daydreaming about her future to an embittered, hard, angry, able to make the tough decisions that may cost her children's love woman is honestly depicted through her experiences and circumstances. Author Manicka moves the novel forward through Lakshmi, her children and her grandchildren with mutilate family members (living and deceased) taking their turn telling the story. The characters limited choices, weaknesses and their temptations are successfully detailed against fifty years of Malaysian history.

The Rice Mother is a big novel with some first time novelist missteps. The book is a little too cluttered with sometimes too convenient plot twists and one or two of the characters are cartoonish in their evilness. That said it is also a well written, interesting dissection of a world and a time that most of us know little about. Manicka's obvious knowledge of and affection for the culture and beauty of Maylasia is evident throughout the book. The Rice Mother is a journey into a family whose difficult lives and small victories enrich the rest of us.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Clothes On Their Backs


The Clothes on Their Backs by Linda Grant was short listed for the Man Booker in 2008. Three years ago. 2008. Yeah, I'm not quite up to date on my reading. This excellent novel had been allowed to fall into the Read It Or Remove It nether world that surrounds my home. What feckless behavior on my part.

An impulsive decision to revisit a former place of employment before it goes out of business affords Vivien Kovaks the chance to examine a time in her youth that set the stage for the rest of her life. As the daughter of immigrants in some ways Vivien's life has been a series of closings. Her parents, Ervin and Berta, came to England from Hungary in 1938. Upon arriving one of the things they closed the door on was their Jewishness. They showed their gratitude to their new homeland for taking them in by living a barely breathing kind of life. They work, they sit at home and they go to bed. They live without being noticed. When Vivien is born they have her baptized and are thrilled to have the record of the baptism as proof of their belonging, their safety. They will assimilate and homogenize at any cost.

In 1963, at age ten, Vivien finds out about an Uncle she never knew she had. To a child's eyes Uncle Sandor is a glamor puss relative. The family views Sandor as a black sheep and worse but he is also seductive in his zest for life. When Sandor's behavior threatens their quiet life, Ervin bans Sandor from their home. Shortly thereafter Sandor is arrested. During his trial the press headlines him as "The King of Crime" and "The Face of Evil". He is a slum lord and an unrepentant one at that. Sandor's life prior to coming to England was a brutal, forced labor camp existence so as bad as he treats others in his mind they still have it better than he did.

When Uncle Sandor is released from prison Vivien visits him on the sly. Her behavior thrills her and she is more and more powerfully drawn to Sandor's daring. At first Vivien sees her parents joyless, narrow existence and Sandor's excesses as her only lifestyle choices. In a way Sandor's behavior offers Vivien justification for the excesses she experiments with as a young woman. She is taking her first steps outside of her parents timid existence. She gets a job in a dress shop and through it exposure to a wider variety of people and more freedom than she has known thus far in her life. When Sandor offers to hire Vivien to help him write his memoirs she agrees. Vivien sees Sandor's reminiscences as a chance to get the answers to her questions about her family's past that her parents are too reticent to give.

In Linda Grant's hands Vivien's scrutiny of her younger self makes for a fascinating novel. Vivien's constant search for an interesting past, present and future and her own identity is a journey we all make but Grant makes that commonality anything but commonplace. Vivien's emergence from a cloistered life into the morally questionable but enticingly alive world of Uncle Sandor leave her open for tragic heartbreak and abuse. Ping-ponging between the extremes of her family also help her to discover her own strength, voice and moral compass. Grant takes us there and back again with expressive, commanding writing. Even better she lets us recognize for ourselves the power in Vivien's odyssey toward adulthood rather that hit us over the head with it. I was impressed.


P.S. The cover? The cover has that crazy, got to have it voodoo magic that certain images create for me. In this case it's the mannequin. Doesn't matter if it's clothed or naked, a mannequin or a dressmaker's dummy, there is something about a human form that can wear clothes but isn't a human that is a show stopper. Some clothing items have that same appeal. Shoes without feet in them (but never, ever, ever feet with no shoes on), gloves and dresses come to mind.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Daniel O'Thunder

Flower, hello.

This novel was pure crack for me. The A+ cover easily got my attention. The book's setting, Victorian England, meant the two of us were half way to the register and when I took a little taste of it in the store, where it was free, I was instantly hooked. That meant having to take it home which wasn't free but who cares? I got to read a wonderful novel! Daniel O' Thunder by Ian Weir.

Daniel O'Thunder is also known as 'The Hammer of Heaven'. He's is a retired soldier and boxer turned defender of the downtrodden. He is their spiritual and physical champion. It's not a job where one makes a great deal of headway. Vice it seems will be victorious. Daniel comes to the realization that he is battling Satan and that Satan can only be defeated one way. Daniel must get back into the ring. He needs to duke it out.

Weir's Victorianna has all the tourist hotspots. There are brothels, manors, a sewage filled streets, the muddy Thames and rat infested everything. The novel is populated by the proverbial motley crew if ever there was one. Every page is packed with prostitutes, ne'er-do-wells, thieves, reporters, gin-swillers, addicts, sinister aristocrats and various special guest star appearances by urchins, beggars and all manner of the Victorian oppressed.

Daniel O'Thunder is fabulous storytelling. Several of Weir's characters tell their version of the events. Since none of the narrators are very reliable or honest there are divergent viewpoints and many discrepancies for the reader to enjoy and sift through. Weir has put together a terrific novel with a page turning mystery at its center. He has married menace brilliantly with perfectly constructed Victorian England.


Friday, April 15, 2011

The Gallows Curse


Novelist Karen Maitland puts the dark into the Dark Ages. In her first two novels Company of Liars and The Owl Killers she took us into the seamy side of the 1300's. No knights and pageantry for Ms. Maitland. No martyrs or future Popes. No farm boys turned empire builders or daughters of the squire scheming to marry up. Her heroes and heroines are the unwashed, the common folk of the period struggling legally and illegally if necessary to survive and all too susceptible to superstition and the manipulations of those in a position to do them a little bit of good. It's all a little twisty as well as dark and all the more engaging for that. Karen Maitland writes historical fiction that doesn't need royalty to fascinate.

Maitland's new novel, The Gallows Curse has a 13th century setting that has a soul satisfying mystery at its core. The background for the storyline is the six year long battle between England's' King John and Pope Innocent the III. In 1207 the Pope selected a new Archbishop of Canterbury. King John wasn't pleased by the choice so he refused to let the Archbishop enter England and then appropeated some Church lands. The Pope in turn excommunicated John and put all of England under an interdict. Essentially an interdict means that you are not allowed to recieve any Church rites: baptism, marriage, last rites, etc. Ultimately this treatment from the Church was one of the straws that broke the nobilities backs and in 1211 they forced King John to sign the Magna Carta.

Picture if you will a 13th century European country shunned by Rome. At this moment in time the Catholic Church probably had more influence and power over the average European citizen than any monarch. It was certainly more of a daily presence in the lives of the citizenry than any King would be. The absence of the Church created a perfect storm for opportunists willing to use superstition, intimidation and hell fire for their own gain. The Church was far from perfect but sometimes life is easier with the Devil you know.

In The Gallows Curse we get to wallow in 500+ pages of schemers, prophecy, secrets, treachery, history, invention and Gothic melodrama. In the middle of this entertaining mix is Elena a fifteen year old maidservant at Gastmere Manor. At first Elena feels lucky to have been given the position at Gastmere but after gaining the attention of the young lord of the manor maybe Elena's luck isn't so good after all. Soon Elena is pregnant and pursued for a crime she didn't commit. She is helped by a mysterious local woman who sees Elena's troubles as her chance to settle old scores and Raffaele, steward of the manor. Raffaele is an older man consumed by his own crimes. He is convinced that there is nothing he can do to make up for the past. That belief in his own evil brings an edge to his willingness to aid Elena, does he have his own agenda?

Maitland's bag of tricks gets a workout as she plays out Elena's and Raffaele's stories against an England that has been silenced by the Church. This is where historical events butt up against everyday lives. Betrayal, superstition, curses, fear, ignorance and suspicion fester away among the populace in The Gallows Curse. Surrounding the plotline and the tensions in the novel is the filthy, thick with foreboding atmosphere Maitland has layered into the book. Every twist of the tale brings Elena further away from safety and the reader deeper into a brutal, every day could be your last time period.

So far there is no pub date for a U.S. edition of The Gallows Curse. Her other two novels were published over here so this might just me a matter of time. My edition came from the U.K.

P.S. What do you think of the cover? I think it's terrific. A very modern look for a historical fiction book.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Poor Pedestrian Me

Flower, I am a bit ticked off.

I went out to dinner last night with a small group of friends. We had met at a gallery opening (so arty and adult) and then it was to be dinner. No decision prior to the show had been made about where to eat. In fact we hadn't even discussed it. So there we are walking out to our cars offering up food ideas. One of the suggestions was sushi. It was seconded. I spoke up and said that I don't like sushi.

Now, Flower, I have known all these people at least 3 years. I'm not particularly close to any of them but we have fun when we get together. So there I was resisting one choice and offering up others. Usually I don't care enough about where we're going to eat to bother with an opinion or I figure I'll find something to like no matter where we go but last night I spoke up. I do not like sushi and I did not want to go to a sushi restaurant.

I was ridiculed. Not teased. I think I might have actually been bullied. About sushi for goodness sake. The general tenor of the mocking was that I was Sam I Am about sushi and had never even really tried sushi. That must be the explanation. How could I not like sushi? I was to be pitied and shamed.

Oh well.

The badgering didn't really bother me. As ten of eleven I'm almost immune to that. What did seriously anger me was the assumption that because I 'claim not to like sushi' I'm some sort of pickypants. Sushi. That's the bellwether for adventurousness? This group of people get to view themselves as the vanguard of society because they are willing to eat sushi? While I---what? I get to be some low brow, knuckle dragging, macaroni and cheese guzzling slave to the ordinary?


Sunday, April 10, 2011


Hi Flower.

Holy Crow here we are with another author heralded as one of the Best 20 Under 40, Karen Russell. Haven't there been something like 50 of these under 40's recently? Do we need to discuss what a useless list that is? Oh the inhumanity knowing that if the arbitrary numbers were Best 21 Under 40 or Best 20 Under 41 that you would have made the cut.

The new novel, Swamplandia! is Russell's second book. Her first was the well received and miraculously well selling short story collection, St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Obviously I never read St Lucy's. I couldn't. It's written in short story and I'm not bilingual. Swamplandia though is another story because it's not stories. It's a real book.

Swamplandia! is the tale of thirteen year old Ava Bigtree and her strange and weird world. Ava Bigtree is one of The Bigtrees. The Bigtrees of alligator wrestling theme park fame. For years this island park in Florida was the most popular destinations in the region. Sadly now the golden age of alligator wrestling seems to have passed and decay is settling in. The parks' headliner (Mom) has died and their customers are being lured away by the more up to date, like store bought new theme park on the mainland, The World of Darkness. Ava's brother has deserted for the real world. He's turned to the Darkness in hopes of using them to help save the family business, her lovestruck sister has run off and Dad, Chief Bigtree, is missing. All that leaves a lot of gaters to babysit, a business to save, loneliness and grieving to get through and the mysterious Bird Man who is going to help Ava find her sister.

Take a deep breath. Chapter One has ended.

Quirky families have been a fiction staple since the Bible. In the hands of gifted and inventive authors like Russell, unique and often humorous character traits are fresh and beguiling. They establish the boundaries of an accepted if uncommon world in which the writer can play out their storylines and juxtapose the quirk against the expected. With a less talented author quirky quickly becomes tiresome but Russell keeps it all set at a couple of degrees above the everyday, just slightly magical and slightly garish.

Russell is quick to lay down the basic histories of the Bigtree family, gators, Swamplandia! and the island swamp where the park is located in tall tale style. There are lots of descriptions here, sidebar stories and enough plot for books twice the size of Swamplandia! but none of this is ever out of her control or too fantastical. Russell keeps this carnival believable. One of the ways that Russell builds a time worn history for the Bigtrees is with the use of a homemade slang. It's great. The language Russell brings to Swamplandia! is vibrant, juicy and begs to be said out loud.

I hate myself for doing this but I cannot help it...if you took Angela Carter, Katherine Dunn, Flavia de Luce and John Irving and mixed them all up you might get something close to Swamplandia! but it still wouldn't be as wonderful, vivid and endearing.


Saturday, April 9, 2011

The Free World

Flower, Flower, Flower.

Look at that cover. What do you think? I think attractive, elegant, nothing new but appealing nevertheless. Then I look again and I see what I don't see. Look right over there on the luggage  tag. The Free World by David Bezmozgis author of Natasha. Ever hear of Natasha? No? Maybe because that's not the whole title. The title of Natasha is really, according to the publisher, Natasha and Other Stories.

Stories. A four letter word in book retail that means No Sales. So why not obscure the fact that Bermozgis and his publisher once committed sales suicide by bringing the world a short story collection.Don't blame me. Hell, I don't make the rules I just run the register. The mod and hip looking British edition of The Free World left off any reference to Natasha at all. Good call I say.

The Free World is the destination for the Krasnansky family from Riga, U.S.S.R. Not from Riga, Republic of Latvia as it is today, but from Riga 1978. Three generations of Russian Jews: Father, Mother, two sons, two daughters-in-law and two grandsons have gotten sponsorship from cousin Shura in Chicago and are just about to arrive in Italy when the novel begins. Once in Italy a serious hiccup in the endless paperwork and luggage juggling that the Krasnansky family has been enduring endangers the immigration. They are forced to regroup, rearrange their plans and hope for the best.

Author David Bezmozgis tells us about life in the old country and 99% of the journey to Italy in flashback. He fills us in on the characters' backstory piecemeal in between their experiences in the limbo life of waiting, waiting, waiting---sorry I was channeling Casablanca there for a second---to get an OK and move on to the new life. The characterizations are the great strength of The Free World and it's weakness. Not all of the Krasnanskys are fully fleshed out people but they all have believable stories and flaws. The characters that do come together: Father Samuil, Son Alec and his wife Polina are excellent creations. You route for them, you are irritated by them. The difficulty is that they do not come together as interestingly when interacting with one and other as they do when Bezmozgis writes about them as individuals.

There is the huddled masses yearning to be free angle in The Free World but this 1978 not 1878. The Krasnanskys are worldly. They aren't leaving behind poverty and ignorance for streets paved with gold nor do they seem to be searching for religious freedom. Brezmozgis brings an ironic but gentle humor to this contemporary immigration. Communism has been left behind but crazy is along for the ride. This may be the promise of a new life through eyes opened by television and the game show lure of a shiny new car but it is also with strong family feeling. They have committed to doing this together. That loyalty to one another, that bond of kinship is the theme that carries throughout the novel.

David Bezmozgis writes with an easy authority that amazed me. The Free World is filled with those kinds of moments provide insight into human behavior through both sad honestly and giggles. I was engaged, involved and half way through the book before I had time to bemoan that it was going to end too soon.


Friday, April 8, 2011

Please Look After Mom

Flower, my friend.

Quite a while ago I read The Calligrapher's Daughter. It was terrific. At the time I was shocked to realize that novel was the first book I ever read that was set in Korea. That's odd for a lifetime of reading, don't you think? Finally going on two years later I have read my second novel set in Korea, Please Look After Mom by Kyung-sook Shin. Two books in decades of reading? It makes me wonder where Publishers have been keeping Korea.

Please Look After Mom is an excellent, contemporary novel set in Seoul. In it a Mother goes missing at a subway station. The story of her disappearance is told in turns by her daughter, son, husband and the Mother, Park So-nyo, herself. From what I've read Please Look After Mom was a big bestseller in Korea and Shin has written several novels that have been both commercial successes and prize winners in her homeland. This is her first novel to be translated into English.

It happens at a busy subway stop. Father is aggressive, rushing, Mother lags behind for a moment and suddenly they are separated. The family is understandably upset. As hours turn into days and days turn into weeks everyone has plenty of time for anxious reflection. They try to reconcile the powerhouse, invincible Mother they knew with the old woman she has become and the vacancy she has left. They wonder at the lengths she has gone to, the sacrifice of self she has made to give them all as much as she could toward what they want. They are by turns: devastated, hopeful, resentful, thankful and finally desperate to find out what has happened.

As with any crisis, events lead family members to question their relationships, to examine the past with fresh eyes. Park is illiterate, a farmer's wife, a woman with seemingly no worldly experience. She has played the role of the traditional Korean housewife. Shin uses Park's husband and eldest son and daughter as the guides in exposing who this missing woman is, all that she has done and how she has been viewed and treated. Mother's physical disappearance is recent but her absence from their lives as the figure they knew has been coming on for years. The woman they love and need verses the elderly shell described in the missing posters is a powerfully disturbing for all of them.

It is impossible to read a novel like this and not put yourself emotionally into everything the family is experiencing in a very personal way. However Please Look After Mom is no old fashioned, florid, mother-love saga like the kind Fannie Hurst and Edna Ferber used to write or something you see on the Hallmark channel. The four singular voices Shin created aren't manipulated by her for cheap sentiment. Shin uses quiet, precise writing to gain your empathy for her characters, the urgency of the search and show us the changes happening in Korea. The characters are on a journey that will teach them all they don't know and what they value. Shin shows us how a break can occur in any family, in any culture, no matter how strong.


P.S. The title? I don't know if the title is a literal translation of the Korean title or not. Please Look After Mom. It has an odd feel to it doesn't it? It's a sentence. The cover? It looks as if should have a 'movie tie in' banner across the bottom.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Elizabeth I And One Is Enough

Hi Flower.

Historical fiction novelist Margaret George has never shied away from retelling a well known story. Her subjects have included: Henry the VIII, Cleopatra, Mary Queen of Scots, Helen of Troy and now Elizabeth I. It takes a lot of nerve and a passionate love of the subject to tackle the life of a figure we could all know enough about to write a 200 word bio. Add to that the explosion of novels about the Tudors in the last few years and George's audaciousness is multiplied by a thousand.

There are two big, nice surprises in Elizabeth I. The first is that the book does not start with Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth's birth or even her ascension to the throne. The novel begins when Elizabeth is 55 and the Spanish Armada is about to attack. She has already been Queen for almost thirty years and would remain Queen for only another fourteen years. According to most historians by this time the great successes of her reign were past. The second surprise is Lettice Knollys. Lettice was a cousin of Elizabeth's and one of her romantic and political rivals. In 1578 Lettice married for the second time, after having been married to the Earl of Essex, to Elizabeth's great favorite Robert Dudley. In her anger and jealousy Elizabeth banished Lettice from court.

George alternates the novels' chapters between Elizabeth and Lettice. These two women were very much alike. They were both ambitious, brilliant, gravely concerned about the future of their houses and powerful. Despite that those traits, shared blood (Lettice was the grandniece of Anne Bolyen)and agendas because of Lettice's marriage to Elizabeth's supposed lover and her son's efforts to power grab at court they were doomed to be enemies. That's not to say that George has written just a historical frenemy novel. The different narrators bring different perspectives to the detailed political and social events occurring during Elizabeth's reign that George covers.

Despite Margaret George's inspired decision to juxtapose Elizabeth and Lettice and to not tell Elizabeth's life story in a linear fashion, the novel never comes alive. It's quite disappointing. In Elizabeth I, George goes to g-r-e-a-t pains to write a relentlessly fact-filled opus. Unlike George's previous novels covering roughly the same period and family The Autobiography of Henry the VIII With Notes By His Fool Will Somers and Mary Queen of Scotland and the Isles, Elizabeth I is essentially a humorless, play-by-play imagining of the sovereign's daily planner over her lifetime. George didn't leave a drop of her research out of this book and the reader pays the price.

The Rose of Stebastopol

Hello Flower.

If the reading world goes all ebook I will miss remainders terribly. Finding a book that you have lusted after on the cheap or discovering a whole new to you author who thrills that only cost you a pittance? Those things are the adult equivalent of a snow day for me. Pure, no strings attached joy. I have found some wonderful things on bargain tables over the years not to mention all the fab-o gifts I purchased.

A recent sale table treasure is The Rose of Stebastopol  by
Katharine McMahon. I was of course drawn in by the pretty, pretty cover, discovered that the book was historical fiction and off to the register I skipped. Win, win for me. Rose was an A+ read and I found another author to follow.

The setting is Victorian England and the Rose is cousin Rose. Is this impetuous young thing coming in between proper Mariella and her up and coming surgeon/dreamboat/fiance Henry Thewell? While Henry and Rose go off to be the hero doctor and valiant nurse in the Crimea, Mariella stays home and worries, sews, pays calls, listens to her parents, is the poster child for the well brought up Victorian young lady. After Henry becomes ill and is evacuated to Italy, Mariella takes her first step toward independence and maturity by going there to nurse him. Her second step happens when in his delirium, Henry calls out for Rose. Mariella learns that Rose has been reported missing. She decides that she has to try and find her or at least find out what happened to her and turns of Rose's unreliable stepbrother for help. Despite all the letters from Henry and Rose detailing the horrors of the war that Mariella received it is no surprise that she is completely unprepared for the reality of the battleground and the military hospitals.

McMahon easily combines good storytelling with stellar research meant to entertain and enlighten not to bludgeon the reader into glassy eyed submission. My bare bones outline of the plot doesn't begin to address the complexities that McMahon layers into the story. She has taken an interestingly twisty love triangle set in a historically vibrant backdrop and mixed in significant emotional turbulence and freshness. The conflicting loyalties, class struggles, trust, betrayals, newly developing industrial tyrannies and the war are all used by McMahon to bring The Rose of Stebastopol up to the level of extremely satisfying read.


Friday, April 1, 2011

Cold Earth, The Novel Not The World I Live In


Cold Earth? I need to read a book with that title this winter? This winter, not last winter because even though it is spring according to the calendar since we got more snow today, April first, winter is still thriving. Yikes.

Cold Earth (the book not my environment) is an end of the world chiller. Five archaeologists and a writer gather in Greenland during the Arctic summer to search for traces of Viking settlements. Not long after they set up camp and get started on the dig they receive news of an epidemic back home. Before they have time to grasp that news they lose all communication with the world outside of their camp. They then realize that the group's organizer has made a possibly fatal mistake in planning the trip. This mistake might cost them their lives even if the epidemic does not. Winter comes and when the plane scheduled to pick them up never arrives things go from really bad to Holy Crap bad.

Can you see where this is going? I hear you but getting there is half the fun, right? After author Sarah Moss sets up her six citizens alone at the edge of the world she gets to work. Backgrounds, agendas, instabilities and loyalties quickly emerge. The uncertainty of the group's future, of their survival is only part of the dramatic tension Cold Earth has to offer. Moss antes up the creepy with figures lurking in the shadows, the dig site disturbed when none of the archaeologists were there, unidentifiable lights, screaming nightmares and sabotage.

Each of the six are compelled to leave some record of their experience for the loved ones they pray are still alive to receive them. These letters they write make up the novel. I almost didn't read this book when I realized that it was written as a series of letters. I generally do not like that format. It's too stop-start, too contrived. It's even worse than reading short stories. However, the letter devise does work for this novel. The archaeologists have been studying the letters of the dead their entire careers. It seems natural that they would choose to leave letters behind for someone else to discover.

I obviously got past my prejudices because I was completely taken with Cold Earth. Sarah Moss successfully creates not only six disparate, non-cliche filled characters who all handle their circumstances differently but a realistically spooky impending death sentence for them. She has a field day with ideas: immortality, sanity, love and death. The end of Cold Earth feels a bit rushed but maybe that's because I was enjoying it so much.