Book Review: Finding Fraser by KC Dyer

 

“Jamie Fraser would be Deeply Gratified at having inspired such a charmingly funny, poignant story—and so am I.”—Diana Gabaldon, #1 New York Times bestselling author of the Outlander series

Escape to Scotland with the delightful new novel that readers have fallen in love with—inspired by Diana Gabaldon’s #1 New York Times bestselling Outlander series.
  
     I met Jamie Fraser when I was nineteen years old. He was tall, red-headed, and at our first meeting at least, a virgin. He was, in fact, the perfect man.

     That he was fictional hardly entered into it…

On the cusp of thirty, Emma Sheridan is desperately in need of a change. After a string of failed relationships, she can admit that no man has ever lived up to her idea of perfection: the Scottish fictional star of romantic fantasies the world over—James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser.

Her ideal man might be ripped from the pages of a book, but Emma hopes that by making one life-altering decision she might be able to turn fiction into fact. After selling all her worldly possessions, Emma takes off for Scotland with nothing but her burgeoning travel blog to confide in.

But as she scours the country’s rolling green hills and crumbling castles, Emma discovers that in searching for her own Jamie Fraser, she just might find herself.

For any devoted Outlander fan, Finding Fraser is sure to ring true — if only escapist fictional escapades ever really happened in real life.

Emma, at 29, is frustrated by her career (or lack thereof), her love life (or lack thereof), and her prospects in general. Why can’t she ever find a man who even comes close to the perfection of Jamie Fraser? Fed up and in need of a change, Emma sells everything and — against the sensible scolding of her younger but more practical sister — heads off across American towards the plane that will take her to Scotland.

Needless to say, all sorts of mishaps ensue, even before she leaves the country. Emma has a variety of run-ins with Outlander fans of the sane and not-so-sane variety, actually meets Herself (that would be the beloved author of the Outlander series, Diana Gabaldon) but bursts into tears when it’s finally her turn to greet her, has the unpleasant experience of seeing a stripper in a kilt and fake red wig, and meets some die-hard Braveheart fans who are willing to defend their story with knitting needles and other pointy objects.

… the very thought of meeting Herself in the flesh made my hands start to shake. She was the woman who created Jamie Fraser, who built him up from clay — or from ink and paper, at least. She has gone on to beat him, wound him, torture him in every possible way, and still nurture his unending love for Claire over the course of the entire series.

Emma doesn’t have all that much of a plan when she arrives in Scotland, other than using her Outlander paperback as a guide to follow in Claire’s footsteps and, hopefully, meet the kilted Scottish warrior of her dreams. Real life rarely follows careful plans, much less dreams, so Emma’s path is not smooth, and she encounters all sorts of challenges that could easily have sent her running back to the safety of her overbearing sister and a steady (boring) job.

Instead, she decides to stick it out, and finds a way to stay in Scotland, earn enough to pay for room and board, make friends and start to build what feels like home, and yes, fall in love. But is he the man of her dreams, or just a stand-in for what she really wants?

Finding Fraser is engaging and endearing. Of course, Emma’s plans are impractical and unlikely, but she throws herself into them, even when down to her last bit of cash and after having all her belongings stolen. She starts a blog, thinking to chronicle her journey, and develops a cheering squad of followers who encourage her not to give up hope. Readers will identify early on who the true love interest should be, but it takes Emma the entire book to catch up. Meanwhile, she ends up  in a relationship with a guy who is clearly just so, so very wrong — except for the looks and the fact of being Scottish. I wanted to give Emma a good shake every time she starts to realize that maybe Hamish isn’t such a great catch after all… and then talks herself into giving him another (and another and another) chance.

It was super sweet to see her find a home for herself, make friends, and start to feel a part of the town where she rather haphazardly ends up. Her stay is ended abruptly by immigration woes that seem a bit shoe-horned in for the sake of drama, but that’s okay. The real point is Emma’s search for her own perfect Jamie… and her ultimate realization that what she really needed all along was to find her own inner Claire.

What I hadn’t really thought about — beyond tracing the journey in the front of the novel — was Claire’s part in the love story. Claire’s heart was true, but there was never any doubt that the woman had standards. Jamie literally lived through hell and more to meet those standards. Even living with uncertainty and chaos all around her, she knew what she wanted.

Finding Fraser is a delightful summer read, perfect for a chair on the beach or a cozy hammock. It’s light and fluffy, but full of heart and more than a little humor. It’ll definitely hit the sweet spot for Outlander lovers. Wouldn’t we all love to hop a plane and go find our own Jamie?

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The details:

Title: Finding Fraser
Author: KC Dyer
Publisher: Berkley
Publication date: January 1, 2015
Length: 368 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery by Jenny Colgan

Summer has arrived in the Cornish town of Mount Polbearne and Polly Waterford couldn’t be happier. Because Polly is in love: she’s in love with the beautiful seaside town she calls home, she’s in love with running the bakery on Beach Street, and she’s in love with her boyfriend, Huckle.

And yet there’s something unsettling about the gentle summer breeze that’s floating through town. Selina, recently widowed, hopes that moving to Mount Polbearne will ease her grief, but Polly has a secret that could destroy her friend’s fragile recovery. Responsibilities that Huckle thought he’d left behind are back and Polly finds it hard to cope with his increasingly long periods of absence.

Polly sifts flour, kneads dough and bakes bread, but nothing can calm the storm she knows is coming: is Polly about to lose everything she loves?

Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery is the 2nd in a series of three (which starts with Little Beach Street Bakery, reviewed here). As I mentioned in my review of book #1, Jenny Colgan writes escapist fiction more or less to a formula, but it’s a formula that works: Young woman, beat down by city life, escapes to a remote, quaint location, and discovers joy and meaning in her new life. Plus a dreamy, hot love interest. Quirky locals who embrace the new arrival are an added bonus.

In Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery, Polly is well-established in Mount Polbearne after living there for about a year, running a successful bakery, living with her hot American boyfriend Huckle (who’s utterly devoted to her), and continuing her obsession with the puffin who’s decided he’s her pet. At the end of book #1, Polly and Huckle decided to buy the decrepit town lighthouse and make it their home. Now living in the lighthouse, they love its charm, but it needs a ton of work, and both are decidedly short on cash for anything but the basics.

Polly’s world gets upended when the old woman who owns the bakery passes away, and her sister (who lives far away) decides to put her worthless son in charge of the place. He immediately takes a dislike to Polly and everything she does, not seeing the value in her high-end ingredients and artisanal breads and instead wanting to make everything cheap and efficient. Eventually, he outright fires Polly, throwing her into despair.

To make ends meet and create a fund from which Polly can invest in a new business venture, Huckle decides to go work on the family farm back in America for a short time in order to make some money. (Is farming really that lucrative? This doesn’t seem like the most realistic plan to me.) So now, on top of her bakery woes, Polly is living without Huckle for a while, and is miserable.

Meanwhile, there are further complications. Polly realizes that Neil the puffin should be wild, but has a hard time letting go. The widow of a man she inadvertently had an affair with (he didn’t disclose his marital status) has moved back to town, and Polly befriends her, without telling her what happened with her husband. Polly and Huckle’s new brainstorm is to convert a food truck into a bread truck, which is a challenging venture that the new bakery owner is determined to ruin. And then a storm blows in, bringing danger to Polly and the people she cares about.

Overall, I really enjoyed Summer — it was a perfect choice for a week when I was looking for a low-involvement, fun, sweet escape. Even when there are problems and peril, it’s a totally safe bet that everything will work out okay in the end.

I did have some confusion about Polly’s business model. In the first book, she opened the bakery in an abandoned old storefront and totally transformed it, creating something special that reinfused the town with fresh life. Polly’s arrangement was to pay rent to the woman who owned the property, but the bakery was essentially hers to run as she saw fit. In this book, when the jerky Malcolm gets involved, Polly is treated as a mere employee and then fired. But the place wouldn’t exist without her! At one point, a very rich friend offers to buy the bakery for Polly, but she turns him down because she wants to make it on her own. Time for a reality check! Take the rich friend’s offer, Polly! I mean, she could always pay him back (not that he cares), but isn’t that a better alternative to having the bakery she created ripped away from her?

You don’t read Jenny Colgan books for harsh doses of reality — they’re meant to be light and lovely, and Summer succeeds in being just that. I enjoyed it, even while feeling that Huckle is TOO perfect, that Neil the puffin is TOO ridiculous as a house-bird, and that Polly finds success maybe a bit TOO easily. But that’s okay.

I really like spending time with Polly and all the quirky people (and seabirds) around her, and will definitely be back for more! The third book is Christmas at Little Beach Street Bakery, and I can’t wait to read it.

Side note: These books WILL make you hungry. So much delicious bread! There are even recipes at the end. I need one of Polly’s fresh-made loaves NOW.

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The details:

Title: Summer at Little Beach Street Bakery
Author: Jenny Colgan
Publisher: Sphere
Publication date: February 26, 2015
Length: 396 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
Source: Purchased

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Shelf Control #102: The Walls Around Us

Shelves final

Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

Want to join in? Shelf Control posts go up every Wednesday. See the guidelines at the bottom of the post, and jump on board!

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Title: The Walls Around Us
Author: Nova Ren Suma
Published: 2015
Length: 319 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

On the outside, there’s Violet, an eighteen-year-old dancer days away from the life of her dreams when something threatens to expose the shocking truth of her achievement.

On the inside, within the walls of the Aurora Hills juvenile detention center, there’s Amber, locked up for so long she can’t imagine freedom.

Tying their two worlds together is Orianna, who holds the key to unlocking all the girls’ darkest mysteries…

What really happened on the night Orianna stepped between Violet and her tormentors? What really happened on two strange nights at Aurora Hills? Will Amber and Violet and Orianna ever get the justice they deserve—in this life or in another one?

In prose that sings from line to line, Nova Ren Suma tells a supernatural tale of guilt and of innocence, and of what happens when one is mistaken for the other.

How and when I got it:

I bought the Kindle edition about a year ago when I happened to catch a price break.

Why I want to read it:

I remember seeing so many positive reviews, including a comparison to Shirley Jackson, so I just knew I had to read this one! “A supernatural tale of guilt and of innocence” sounds like something I’ll love.

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link in the comments!
  • If you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and…

Have fun!

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Secret Chord

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

secret-chord

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Peeling away the myth to bring the Old Testament’s King David to life in Second Iron Age Israel, Brooks traces the arc of his journey from obscurity to fame, from shepherd to soldier, from hero to traitor, from beloved king to murderous despot and into his remorseful and diminished dotage.

The Secret Chord provides new context for some of the best-known episodes of David’s life while also focusing on others, even more remarkable and emotionally intense, that have been neglected.  We see David through the eyes of those who love him or fear him—from the prophet Natan, voice of his conscience, to his wives Mikhal, Avigail, and Batsheva, and finally to Solomon, the late-born son who redeems his Lear-like old age. Brooks has an uncanny ability to hear and transform characters from history, and this beautifully written, unvarnished saga of faith, desire, family, ambition, betrayal, and power will enthrall her many fans.

 

My Thoughts:

Sadly, The Secret Chord wasn’t nearly as engaging as it should have been.

Geraldine Brooks is an amazing writer, but good writing alone isn’t enough to elevate this book to a must-read. I think part of the problem is the perspective. The story of King David should be exciting and dramatic — but in The Secret Chord, we only rarely see first-hand drama. The book is narrated in the first-person voice of the prophet Natan, and a great deal of his narration consists of him relaying stories told to him by others. So, rather than seeing David’s early victories or the intrigues, we often get other characters telling Natan about these events. I always felt that I was seeing the story from a distance, rather than becoming immersed in it.

Additionally, the chronology of the novel is full of jumps and out of sequence bits and pieces. We start with David as an aging king, then jump back in time as we hear stories about his youth and Natan’s, then come back to the original time period, then angle off into stories of David’s earlier relationships, then pick back up again and move forward. It’s muddled — and I felt that the mixed-up timeline was yet another factor, on top of the distanced storytelling voice, that kept me from ever feeling that I truly got a picture of David, which is the entire point of the book.

As a side issue, I was frustrated while reading by a presumption of knowledge of places and names. The author chooses to use the Hebrew versions of the more commonly Anglicized Biblical names, so that Solomon is Shlomo, Saul is Shaul, the tribe of Benjamin is referred to as the Binyaminites, etc. This wasn’t a huge problem for me, but on top of this, the places are not easily connected with their modern day equivalents, so only someone familiar with Biblical geography would know that Yebus is the ancient version of modern-day Jerusalem, where Moab and Mitzrayim are, or be able to connect other unusual place-names with their 21st century locations.

[Note: I received an ARC of this book via a Goodreads giveaway. I just now looked up the book on Amazon, and I see that the finished book includes a glossary of characters and maps of ancient Israel — these would have been incredibly helpful to have while I was reading the book.]

Such a pity, overall. The story should be fascinating, and in truth, there are some moments of beauty and of horror that make for compelling reading. Unfortunately, though, there just aren’t enough of these.

I’m a huge fan of three of Geraldine Brooks’s books: Year of Wonders, March, and People of the Book. The Secret Chord isn’t boring, but it also doesn’t rise to the high level I’d expected.

As for the subject, King David, nothing will ever replace my fondness for the late Joseph Heller’s marvelous God Knows.

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The details:

Title: The Secret Chord
Author: Geraldine Brooks
Publisher: Viking
Publication date: October 6, 2015
Length: 302 pages
Genre: Historical/Biblical fiction
Source: Won in a Goodreads giveaway!

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Take A Peek Book Review: Karen Memory

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

Karen Memory

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

“You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway. See, my name is Karen Memery, like memory only spelt with an e, and I’m one of the girls what works in the Hôtel Mon Cherie on Amity Street. Hôtel has a little hat over the o like that. It’s French, so Beatrice tells me.”

Set in the late 19th century—when the city we now call Seattle Underground was the whole town (and still on the surface), when airships plied the trade routes, would-be gold miners were heading to the gold fields of Alaska, and steam-powered mechanicals stalked the waterfront, Karen is a young woman on her own, is making the best of her orphaned state by working in Madame Damnable’s high-quality bordello. Through Karen’s eyes we get to know the other girls in the house—a resourceful group—and the poor and the powerful of the town. Trouble erupts one night when a badly injured girl arrives at their door, begging sanctuary, followed by the man who holds her indenture, and who has a machine that can take over anyone’s mind and control their actions. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the next night brings a body dumped in their rubbish heap—a streetwalker who has been brutally murdered.

Bear brings alive this Jack-the-Ripper yarn of the old west with a light touch in Karen’s own memorable voice, and a mesmerizing evocation of classic steam-powered science.

 

My Thoughts:

I picked up a copy of Karen Memory when it came out last year, and thanks to trying to finish up a reading challenge, I finally took it off the shelf and read it. What fun!

Karen’s voice is distinctive — maybe a little jarring at first, getting used to her grammar and word usage (especially “of” instead of “have”, as in “would of”…, etc). The first-person narrative by Karen lends a Western grittiness to the tale that really adds a lot in terms of flavor and setting.

The steampunk elements are enjoyable. I tend not to enjoy steampunk that gets so involved in the description of gears and pistons and steam engines that plot and character suffer. This is not the case in Karen Memory. The gadgets and gizmos serve the story, not the other way around.

The plot is engaging and exciting, as Karen takes on the bad guys, backed up by the do-gooder US Marshall, his Comanche partner, and the women of Madame Damnable’s. While I wished that some of the supporting characters were a bit more developed (it was hard to get a feel for several of the working girls as distinct people), overall the cast of characters is diverse, flavorful, and quite entertaining.

All in all, Karen Memory is a great romp of a read. Definitely quirky and unusual, it was a nice change-up for me from the somewhat heavy books I’ve been reading lately.

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The details:

Title: Karen Memory
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor Books
Publication date: February 3, 2015
Length: 350 pages
Genre: Steampunk
Source: Purchased

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Audiobook Review: Girl Waits With Gun

girl-waits-with-gun

A novel based on the forgotten true story of one of the nation’s first female deputy sheriffs.

Constance Kopp doesn’t quite fit the mold. She towers over most men, has no interest in marriage or domestic affairs, and has been isolated from the world since a family secret sent her and her sisters into hiding fifteen years ago. One day a belligerent and powerful silk factory owner runs down their buggy, and a dispute over damages turns into a war of bricks, bullets, and threats as he unleashes his gang on their family farm. When the sheriff enlists her help in convicting the men, Constance is forced to confront her past and defend her family — and she does it in a way that few women of 1914 would have dared.  

 

Guys, Girl Waits With Gun may be the most enjoyable audiobook I’ve listened to all year! Fantastic story and characters, and narration that really pulls you into the mood of the story.

But stepping back a moment…

Author Amy Stewart has written several highly successful non-fiction books (with absolutely aweseome titles), including Wicked Plants and The Drunken Botanist. Girl Waits With Gun is her first novel, and is the first in what’s projected to be a series about the historical figures at the heart of the novel.

The Kopp sisters were real people who lived in New Jersey in the early part of the 20th century. After an unfortunate run-in with a powerful, corrupt factory owner, the sisters were threatened and terrorized for months on end. Led by oldest sister Constance, the Kopp sisters sought help from the local sheriff, and persisted in seeing that their tormentor would be brought to justice, no matter the risk to themselves.

The novel fleshes out these historical women and brings them to life, so that we really get to know the personalities and inner workings of the three sisters. Narrated by Constance, we see events through her eyes, and come to understand their small family, the state of politics, unions, and factory owners at the time, and the limitations placed on women by the traditions and societal expectations of the time.

Source: Amy Stewart's website

Source: Amy Stewart’s website

The three sisters are sharply developed, so that we get to know their personalities, their quirks, and their unique voices — both in terms of how they’re written in the story, and how the narrator portrays them. The text and the narration play up Fleurette’s girlish naivete, Norma’s brusque no-nonsense approach to life at large, and Contance’s bravery and wisdom. I loved the character of Sheriff Heath as well, who comes across as a good, honest man dedicated to justice and decency, who’s willing to buck the system in order to see that the innocent are protected. (And I love the fact that it’s Sheriff Heath who gives the sisters their revolvers and makes sure they know how to use them.)

The author makes the historical setting feel real and vibrant, giving us the tastes and smells of factory towns and farms, the sense of busy streets crammed with horse-drawn wagons and sleek automobiles, and the hidden underbelly of society, where the factory workers live in company-owned boarding houses and work in abusive, unhealthy conditions.

The writing here is fast-paced, often funny, and always sharp, catching the nuances of the relationships and the characters, and capturing the colloquialisms and social niceties of the times. Even as the tension and threats mount, there are little moments of humor to keep things moving along.

I really, truly enjoyed listening to Girl Waits With Gun, and I plan to start book #2, Lady Cop Makes Trouble, a bit later this month. I love the Kopp sisters, and can’t wait to see what’s next for them.

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The details:

Title: Girl Waits With Gun
Author: Amy Stewart
Narrator: Christina Moore
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Publication date: September 1, 2015
Audiobook length: 10 hours, 54 minutes
Printed book length: 408 pages
Genre: Detective story/historical fiction
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley; Audible download purchased

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Shelf Control #47: The Ice Twins

Shelves final

Welcome to the newest weekly feature here at Bookshelf Fantasies… Shelf Control!

Shelf Control is all about the books we want to read — and already own! Consider this a variation of a Wishing & Waiting post… but looking at books already available, and in most cases, sitting right there on our shelves and e-readers.

Want to join in? See the guidelines and linky at the bottom of the post, and jump on board! Let’s take control of our shelves!

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My Shelf Control pick this week is:

Ice TwinsTitle: The Ice Twins
Author: S. K. Tremayne
Published: 2015
Length: 373 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

A year after one of their identical twin daughters, Lydia, dies in an accident, Angus and Sarah Moorcraft move to the tiny Scottish island Angus inherited from his grandmother, hoping to put together the pieces of their shattered lives.

But when their surviving daughter, Kirstie, claims they have mistaken her identity—that she, in fact, is Lydia—their world comes crashing down once again.

As winter encroaches, Angus is forced to travel away from the island for work, Sarah is feeling isolated, and Kirstie (or is it Lydia?) is growing more disturbed. When a violent storm leaves Sarah and her daughter stranded, Sarah finds herself tortured by the past—what really happened on that fateful day one of her daughters died?

How I got it:

I received an ARC via NetGalley (and feel really guilty about not reading it yet).

When I got it:

Last year, right before publication.

Why I want to read it:

Twin stories can be so great and creepy, and I love the sound of the possibly mistaken identity, as well as the setting on an isolated Scottish island. I remember seeing a few reviews from other bloggers when the book came out, and the consensus seemed to be that this is a great suspense story. Definitely seems like something I’d enjoy!

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Want to participate in Shelf Control? Here’s how:

  • Write a blog post about a book that you own that you haven’t read yet.
  • Add your link below!
  • And if you’d be so kind, I’d appreciate a link back from your own post.
  • Check out other posts, and have fun!


For more on why I’ve started Shelf Control, check out my introductory post here, or read all about my out-of-control book inventory, here.

And if you’d like to post a Shelf Control button on your own blog, here’s an image to download (with my gratitude, of course!):

Shelf Control

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Take A Peek Book Review: The Japanese Lover

“Take a Peek” book reviews are short and (possibly) sweet, keeping the commentary brief and providing a little peek at what the book’s about and what I thought.

japanese lover2

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

In 1939, as Poland falls under the shadow of the Nazis, young Alma Belasco’s parents send her away to live in safety with an aunt and uncle in their opulent mansion in San Francisco. There, as the rest of the world goes to war, she encounters Ichimei Fukuda, the quiet and gentle son of the family’s Japanese gardener. Unnoticed by those around them, a tender love affair begins to blossom. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the two are cruelly pulled apart as Ichimei and his family, like thousands of other Japanese Americans are declared enemies and forcibly relocated to internment camps run by the United States government. Throughout their lifetimes, Alma and Ichimei reunite again and again, but theirs is a love that they are forever forced to hide from the world.

Decades later, Alma is nearing the end of her long and eventful life. Irina Bazili, a care worker struggling to come to terms with her own troubled past, meets the elderly woman and her grandson, Seth, at San Francisco’s charmingly eccentric Lark House nursing home. As Irina and Seth forge a friendship, they become intrigued by a series of mysterious gifts and letters sent to Alma, eventually learning about Ichimei and this extraordinary secret passion that has endured for nearly seventy years.

 

My Thoughts:

While The Japanese Lover tells what should be fascinating stories of suffering and survival, the key problem I had with it was the telling. As in, show — don’t tell. Somehow, most of the narrative of this novel felt like a third party summarizing events, rather than allowing me to witness events for myself. There are a lot of shared stories and memories, but they mostly lack immediacy or a sense of real texture.

Additionally, the overall storyline felt a bit kitchen-sinky to me. Alma is sent off to American by her parents who stay behind in Poland and perish in the Holocaust. Irina’s mother was a victim of sex trafficking and ultimately causes horrible abuse to Irina herself. Ichimei and his family are forced into an internment camp during World War II. Alma’s husband leads a closeted life and dies of AIDS. Horrible things happen, but somehow I barely felt any of them.

The Japanese Lover is a fast read, and parts were quite interesting, but I simply couldn’t engage emotionally with much of it due to the style of the storytelling. This was actually pretty surprising to me, as I’ve read and loved many books by this author in the past. The individual stories all should have been compelling, but the mashing up of them all into one novel just doesn’t work. Add to this the fact that Alma and Ichimei’s love story felt flat and unexciting, and I have to say that The Japanese Lover just isn’t the best example of an Isabel Allende novel.

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The details:

Title: The Japanese Lover
Author: Isabel Allende
Publisher: Atria
Publication date: November 3, 2015
Length: 322 pages
Genre: Historical fiction
Source: Purchased

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Book Review: A Spool of Blue Thread

Spool of Blue ThreadSynopsis:

(via Goodreads)

A freshly observed, joyful and wrenching, funny and true new novel from Anne Tyler

“It was a beautiful, breezy, yellow-and-green afternoon.” This is how Abby Whitshank always begins the story of how she fell in love with Red that day in July 1959. The Whitshanks are one of those families that radiate togetherness: an indefinable, enviable kind of specialness. But they are also like all families, in that the stories they tell themselves reveal only part of the picture. Abby and Red and their four grown children have accumulated not only tender moments, laughter, and celebrations, but also jealousies, disappointments, and carefully guarded secrets. from Red’s father and mother, newly-arrived in Baltimore in the 1920s, to Abby and Red’s grandchildren carrying the family legacy boisterously into the twenty-first century, here are four generations of Whitshanks, their lives unfolding in and around the sprawling, lovingly worn Baltimore house that has always been their anchor.

Brimming with all the insight, humour, and generosity of spirit that are the hallmarks of Anne Tyler’s work, A Spool of Blue Thread tells a poignant yet unsentimental story in praise of family in all its emotional complexity. It is a novel to cherish.

My thoughts:

It’s been years since I’ve last read an Anne Tyler novel — and picking up A Spool of Blue Thread is like cozying up with a comfy old blanket and curling up in a favorite chair. It’s homey and warm and familiar, but the familiarity doesn’t take away at all from the sheer pleasure of spending time with it.

In A Spool of Blue Thread, we meet the Whitshanks, a big, sprawling family whose lives seem centered around their beautiful family home with the big front porch, the home that’s been in the family for three generations and was in fact built by the first of the Whitshanks to live in it. The first characters introduced are Abby and Red, a married couple in their seventies who’ve raised four children, have a good, well-worn marriage, and seem to enjoy their lives.

Their children and grandchildren are a source of non-stop discussion and worry, particularly Denny, the black sheep of the family who can always be depended upon to be undependable. Denny disappears for months or years at a time, only to show up or call with an odd or worrying or unexpected announcement that throws the family into a tizzy.

As Abby and Red age, their children become increasingly worried about their ability to live on their own in their big house, and so various children and their children move in to provide care, manage things, and try to sort out the little rivalries and resentments that have built up over the years.

As the story unfolds, early hints about family history are unpacked for the reader. The family may never know much about Junior and Linnie Mae, the original Whitshanks to live in the family home, but late in the book, we finally get their story, and it’s not what it seemed. Likewise, when we finally hear Abby’s version of how she and Red met, it’s surprising and touching all at once.

A Spool of Blue Thread is a quintessential character-driven book. There’s not much plot to speak of — no big drama or mystery or climax. Instead, it’s a study of family and individuals, their desires and frustrations and misunderstandings and dynamics. It’s lovely to see a family unfold to reveal its heart and soul. The Whitshanks have had their share of disappointments and tensions, but they’re still there, together, figuring things out. Beyond a profile of a family, it’s also a moving depiction of the worries of aging parents, from both the parents’ viewpoint as well as the adult children who have to balance their own lives with the complications required by figuring out how to help parents who may or may not be able to function on their own any longer.

As I mentioned, it’s been quite a while since I’ve read anything by this author, although there was a time when I read all of her new books as soon as they came out. I think I’d reached my saturation point somewhere along the line, and I might not have picked up A Spool of Blue Thread if it hadn’t been my book club’s pick for April.

So, yet another reason to proclaim that I love my book club! A Spool of Blue Thread is a perfect domestic novel that’s touching, funny, and beautifully written. I’m so glad to have read it — and it makes me want to go figure out what other Anne Tyler books I’ve missed over the years.

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The details:

Title: A Spool of Blue Thread
Author: Anne Tyler
Publisher: Bond Street Books
Publication date: February 20, 2015
Length: 358 pages
Genre: Adult fiction
Source: Library

Middle Grade Fiction: Woundabout

woundabout

 

Synopsis:

(via Goodreads)

Welcome to Woundabout, where routine rules and change is feared. But transformation is in the wind….

In the wake of tragedy, siblings Connor and Cordelia and their pet capybara are sent to the precariously perched town of Woundabout to live with their eccentric aunt. Woundabout is a place where the mayor has declared that routine rules above all, and no one is allowed to ask questions–because they should already know the answers.

But Connor and Cordelia can’t help their curiosity when they discover a mysterious crank that fits into certain parts of the town, and by winding the crank, places are transformed into something beautiful. When the townspeople see this transformation, they don’t see beauty–they only see change. And change, the mayor says, is something to fear. With the mayor hot on their trail, can Connor and Cordelia find a way to wind Woundabout back to life?

 

My Thoughts:

I can’t say enough about this wonderful middle grade novel! Woundabout is the touching — yet not heavy — story of orphaned siblings Connor and Cordelia, who go to live with their aunt Marigold in the very weird town of Woundabout after the death of their parents. Woundabout is a strange, strange place, under the firm control of a dictatorial mayor who hates questions and any deviation from routine. The park is brown and dried up, the river barely flows, and wind constantly buffets the cliffs of the town. Connor and Cordelia, still reeling from their loss, have to adjust to their new lives, and decide to figure out the mysteries of Woundabout, both as diversion and to see if they can somehow find a place for themselves.

The writing is wonderful. There’s humor and a light touch, even on the darkest of subjects. I love the portrayal of Connor and Cordelia (ages 11 and 9), who are tightly bonded, yet each have their own personality and interests. There’s a recurring theme in the writing that takes shared moments and shows how each child sees it:

When the meal was finished, as she had promised, Aunt Marigold took the children into the living room, where they sat on either side of her on a big green sofa and looked at the photos in the album on her lap. It was weird seeing their dad at their age. Connor would have said it was like X-ray vision you couldn’t turn off — seeing through buildings to the beams and metal holding them up; Cordelia would have said it was like uploading your photos to your computer and finding a whole group of pictures you didn’t take. But they both knew it was the same thing.

The author and illustrator, who are brothers, are clearly in sync. The marvelous black and white illustrations throughout the book are wonderfully detailed and expressive, and perfectly capture the personalities of the characters and the town.

Woundabout_Siblings_p6

Cordelia and Connor — and Kip, the capybara.

I picked up Woundabout because the author, Lev AC Rosen, has written two excellent books for adults, All Men of Genius and Depth (review), both of which I love and always end up recommending to people. How could I not read his fiction for kids as well?

Woundabout is a terrific read — whether you’re an adult who enjoys reading good children’s books for your own enjoyment, or you’re looking for a book to share with the younger folks in your life, or you want a book to give to a young reader. Woundabout strikes me as a good choice for an adult/child read-aloud, or a great book for an independent reader in the 8 – 12 age range (or so — I hate pinning a label on a book that older and younger kids would enjoy too.)

Check it out… for yourself, or for a kid you’d like to treat to a great read.

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The details:

Title: Woundabout
Author: Lev Rosen
Illustrator: Ellis Rosen
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Publication date: June 23, 2015
Length: 288 pages
Genre: Middle grade fiction
Source: Library