Saturday, September 15, 2012

The Bellewether Revivals

Why did I finish reading The Bellwether Revivals? Why didn’t I quit in chapter 2 when I realized I didn’t like any of these characters and that I knew this plot? I am not a proponent of finishing a book just because you have started it. Drop it I say! You have better books waiting for. Poor pitiful me was stuck at a swim meet with no other reading material. What was I going to do? Put the book down and talk to people? EEK. Heaven forbid.

You know I can’t even say that somewhere inside this just plain icky novel stuffed with unlikable characters is a good one trying to get out. The plot is a rehash of the poor, townie outsider seduced into joining the group of educated but immature, moneyed, morally questionable, twenty somethings with what they like to think of as radical ideas and too much time on their hands. Sound familiar? You’ve read it, seen a movie about it and watched that After School Special* that covered it.

Save yourself. Don’t be tempted by a nice cover or interesting blurb or sale price or even a Free sign. Let my mistake be your warning. Avoid The Bellwether Revivals and always keep a back-up book in the car.

*You have to be a certain age ---and maybe a girl--- to answer this question but didn’t you love, love, love an After School Special?

Thursday, September 13, 2012

The Mirrored World

If there is someone out there who doesn’t have a soft spot on the bookcase for The Madonnas of Leningrad? If there is and it’s because you haven’t read it okay---However you really need to get to it.--- but if it’s because you didn’t like it…? Then what the heck?

One of my favorite reading surprises of a few years ago (Was it 2007 maybe?) was The Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean. I had not heard much about it prior to publication but when it came into the store I was intrigued and needed to read it right away. After that it was my great pleasure to put it into the hands of many customers.

Dean’s new novel, The Mirrored World, like Maddonas is set in Russia.* This time we are taken to St. Petersburg in 1736 where Dean tells us the story of St. Xenia. Also known as The Fool For Christ, Xenia was canonized in 1988. She had devoted herself to the betterment of the poor throughout St Petersburg.

In the novel, Dean uses a fictional narrator, Dashenka, to take us through Xenia’s story. They come together as girls when a fire devastates St Petersburg and 2,000 homes are destroyed. Dashenka’s family takes in Xenia, her sister and her Mother. (Is any of this based on fact? I don’t know. I have not researched Xenia so I’m going with Debra.) The two girls grow up close and happy. Eventually the time comes for all three girls to enter society.  One finds happiness, one finds money and one finds despair and they all find melancholy. When tragedy comes everything changes in ways no one can foresee. Their lives as women are not what their girlhoods trained them for.

Dean’s use of a narrator works well in The Mirrored World. Dashenka is the reader, the thinker in the family and the fact that she is a female as well immediately sets her as an outsider.  Her intellectual curiosity coupled with her devotion to Xenia allows us to trust her observations and opinions. Dashenka has no ax to grind, nothing to gain by elevating Xenia or tearing her down. The plot, the setting of 18th Russia and the many overlaps into the imperial court also fit nicely into the grand storytelling tradition of using a narrator.

The Mirrored World was such a pleasure to read. I adore how Debra Dean writes. It’s an overused description but I have to say that Dean has a great turn of phrase. You get lulled into the novel, you're enjoying every minute and WHAM! You are stopped dead in your tracks by how Dean phrases something.
 Dean has the knack of brevity down as well. Her words are carefully chosen to perfectly fit the time period, the mood, the characters and to do their job where the plot is concerned. I could certainly stand for her to be the kind of writer who puts out a book a year!

*In between The Madonnas of Leningrad and The Mirrored World came the short story collection, Confessions of Falling Woman. Obviously I didn’t read that book.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar

Another debut novel, another winner. It seems like 2012 has been a good year for first timers. What do you think? The latest in this series of good reads for me is A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson. 

The action in A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar is set in 1923 and involves sisters Eva and Lizzie. They are on their way to do mission work in the Chinese governed, Muslim city of Kashgar. Lizzie despite her frailness is the zealot on this trip although she does have other passions. Eva, who has brought along her prized bicycle, is looking for adventure and a possible book contract for a travel guide. The third wheel on this journey is Millicent Frost. She is the expert, the one who is going to see them to Silk Road city of Kashgar.

There is also a contemporary side to the novel. Joinson has divided the action between the missionaries and the story of Frieda in present day London. ---Let’s take a full stop here for a moment. When have you ever read a novel that toggles between a historical setting and a contemporary one where the author manages to keep them both of equal interest? Does the word never come to mind? There must have been at least one or two books over the years that I have read that used that device and the Miss Modern Times part has been equal to the historical portion but I cannot for the life of me think of them.

Frieda is a professional expert on Islamic youth and little else. She is questioning her relationship with a married man, helping a homeless filmmaker get on his feet and inheriting things from some mysterious person she seems to have no connection with. Taybo is the homeless man. He is a refugee from Yemen whose visa has expired.

The locales, the period details and the politics in Lady Cyclist’s are all layered in with a casual simplicity that creeps up on you. No beating you over the head with research here. (Yipee!) The excellent characterizations in Lady Cyclist’s are successful fed by these details and the plot. Eva, Lizzie, Millicent and Frieda are all carefully drawn. Their very interesting quirks and their search for themselves all come about naturally but don’t assume that equates to a See Dick and Jane kind of obviousness. Joinson uses her talent to let you bring all of these particulars together and discover for yourself the depths of the idividuals and the relationships.

Can Frieda’s search for the reasons behind an unknown benefactor’s gift, the wonderfully interesting inventory of the inheritance, her relationship with Taybo and her everyday living problems really compete with the story of  three white women who take off in 1923 searching for all different freedoms in an unstable country? The answer is a surprising yes.  Hats off to Joinson for pulling that off! In The Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar she has married skillful writing with an emotionally and historically rich story about independence, abandonment and love.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Cover Crush

A favorite new to me cover. I do not know when Bantam changed their cover of David Copperfield to this:
 but I am thrilled that they did. Look at that! It is terrific. The suit ties the image to the period and the lack of a body in the suit creates an everyman anonymity that echoes the novel.
 I think that this cover is very compelling and appealing. Cover designer Marietta Anatassatos you get an A++
And yes I did buy this edition of David Copperfield because of my cover crush regardless of the fact that I did not need another edition of D.C.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

The Orphanmaster

  Historian Jean Zimmerman has written several very well received histories among them Love Fiercely, A Guilded Age Romance and The Woman of the House: How a Colonial She-Merchant Built a Mansion, A Fortune and a Dynasty. Her most recent book is also her first novel, The Orphanmaster.


Set in 1663 New Amsterdam, The Orphanmaster is the story of the murder of an 8 year old African-American slave, Piddy Gullee, the economics of orphans and the Charles the II sanctioned hunt for the murders of Charles the I. Sounds good right? Yes but there is one problem. Every bit of research Zimmerman has done for this novel is right there in your face.


Zimmerman doesn’t do herself any favors by not letting go of her historians need to educate mindset. At times (and by that I mean often) The Orphanmaster is an endless fact dropping storm settled over top of the plot. It is difficult to gain a reading momentum at the beginning of The Orphanmaster given the mini lessons that Zimmerman keeps interrupting her story with. It’s all really interesting but too much lecture and not enough action. There is a noticeable lessening of this here-is-all-my-research style but it never fully disappears into the novel.


On the plus side is Zimmerman’s main character, Blandine van Couvering and the setting. The potential in historical fiction for the heroine to be a way ahead of her time superwoman is always there. It’s a rare writer who can avoid that trap but Zimmerman does. In fact she does an excellent all way round with the characters. You are going to meet some interesting people in The Orphanmaster.  Maybe this is the element of the novel where Zimmerman’s background in nonfiction gives her a leg up on other writers. Certainly that same theory can apply to how well she recreates a very gritty, realistic 1663.


Despite my complaints about the heavy-handed history lessons they are interesting. I did learn a lot Ms. Zimmerman. The Orphanmaster is stuffed with very satisfying melodrama, creepiness and memorable characters.
P.S. The cover? A+