Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Private Papers of Eastern Jewel by Maureen Lindley

Flap copy from paperback:
"Peking 1914. When eight-year-old princess Eastern Jewel is caught spying on her father's liaison with a servant girl, she is banished from the palace, sent to live with a powerful family in Japan. Renamed Yoshiko Kawashima, she quickly falls in love with her adoptive country, where she earns a scandalous reputation, taking fencing lessons, smoking opium, and entertaining numerous lovers. Sent to Mongolia to become an obedient wife, Yoshiko mounts a daring escape and eventually finds her way back to Peking high society- this time with order from the Japanese secret police."

This book is a hard one to review as I suspect I would have reacted more favorably had it been billed as a straight novel rather than a work of historical fiction based on true events. I actually enjoy a well-imagined work of historical fiction, but this book relied too much on sexual exploits as the motivating factor for every plot twist to be even close to believable. Though it seems the true motivations for Eastern Jewel's actions remain clouded by history, it is hard to accept Lindley's version of events given the lack of any factual justifications.

Though I did enjoy the glimpses into court life in China and Japan in the early part of the 20th century, the characters all seem a bit more like caricatures of Western stereotypes. It is hard to accept this bleak picture of life in Asia from an author with few (if any) qualifications in the region. Despite all these weaknesses, the book was well-written and easy to read. Lidley paints vivid pictures with her words; the clothes and settings are well explained even if the characters are not.

I probably would have given this book four stars if it were billed as straight fiction, but presenting it as a possible version of history was too much of a stretch for me. It is a shame though because the real story of Eastern Jewel would probably make for an excellent book if anyone actually knew it...

Monday, August 24, 2009

Summer of Two Wishes by Julia London

Flap copy from paperback:
"Macy Lockhart's life shattered in a moment with the news that her husband, Finn- serving in the military overseas- has been killed in the line of duty. Their ardent and devoted marriage is over, leaving Macy along, empty, directionless. But while she tries to sustain herself with memories of Finn, the quiet, strong man who made her and their small Texas ranch the center of his life, it is wealthy Wyatt Clark who slowly brings joy back into her life. Her love for Wyatt may be less romantic than the breathless passion she's once shared with Finn, but she vows to cherish him, and their marriage is happy and as solid as a rock. Until the day that Finn, miraculously spared from death, returns home to claim his bride..."

First off, let me say that I think the flap copy is rather deceptive- this book begins with Finn's return so we never really see Macy dealing with his death or finding solace in Wyatt, so basically the flap copy is the back story which I found misleading. I had a hard time with this book because I thought London did an excellent job with some aspects of the story but couldn't really feel strongly for Macy herself who I found rather aggravating in her inability to assess what she herself wanted out of her life.

Macy married Finn and their conversations about their past relationship makes it clear that though it was passionate and loving, it was no equal partnership. Macy quits her job to help with the ranch despite her lack of true interest in leading that type of life, then gets stuck trying to keep it above ground when her husband joins the military over her objections and disappears in Afghanistan. When she is forced to sell Finn's horses and to give away his dogs, she faces opposition from Finn's overbearing mother who nonetheless seems to offer no concrete assistance of any kind.

Macy's relationship with Wyatt was equally problematic for me as it seemed to center on her need to be taken care of and his need to have a pretty wife who focused her life on his needs. Again she doesn't work, and they seemingly decide to try for a baby because Wyatt thinks it is time and Macy isn't doing anything else anyway. His actions in the actual narrative paint him as selfish, deceitful, and opportunistic- I'm not sure how any woman could fall in love with Wyatt let alone find it hard to leave him when her "true love" returns from the dead.

Given that I didn't like the main character and couldn't empathize with her dilemma (I think she would have been better off on her own), I obviously didn't much like the book. Nonetheless I was impressed with the way London treated some aspects of Macy's impossible situation. I think she did an excellent job portraying the challenges Macy faced when Finn left her behind to join the military and when she ultimately learned of Finn's death. I appreciated that Finn had to work his way through symptoms of PTSD when he returned, and that he was forced to grow a bit throughout the story.

My husband is an active duty Marine so I did connect with the underlying plot of the story, and with some of the choices and decision that Macy was forced to make. Ultimately though, I would have preferred a heroine who seemed more in control of her life and her decisions; Macy was too much like a ping-pong ball bouncing between Finn and Wyatt for me to enjoy.

Another Mother's Life by Rowan Coleman

Book description:
"For wealthy Alison James, moving with her family to her hometown of Farmington presents more than a case of relocation jitters. Fifteen years ago, she fled town, eloping with her best friend's boyfriend. Now, blessed with three children, but uneasy in her marriage, she wonders if that decision led her away from the life she was meant to lead.

Catherine Ashley, broke, the mother of two and almost divorced, can't help but wonder the same thing. Although she's content with her children, she finds herself returning again and again to those few weeks fifteen years ago when she fell deeply in love, only to be betrayed by her most trusted friend.

Now, once more living in the same town, Alison and Catherine are about to find out just how different their lives could still be. But this time around they are adults, and while their own happiness is at stake, so is their children's."

When Alison and Catherine were 17, their friendship was torn apart by Marc, who wooed Catherine only to elope with Alison. 15 years later, Alison and Marc move back to the scene of their crimes to discover Catherine now separated from Jimmy, Alison's teenage crush. As their children become friends, Alison and Catherine each face the question of whether or not they are living the another mother's life.

As with Coleman's other book, The Accidental Mother, Another Mother's Life skirts the lmore serious edge of chick-lit. At the beginning of the book, it is difficult to like any of the characters, but as the story unfolds and the reasons for some of their foibles are revealed, they all (except maybe Marc) become more understandable and more human. I was content with the ending, and felt Coleman remained true to her characters rather than imposing the deus-ex-machine happily ever after that dooms so much of the genre.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Testimony by Anita Shreve

Flap copy from paperback:
"Enter a world upended by the repercussions of a single impulsive action. At an exclusive New England boarding school, a sex scandal unleashes a storm of shame and recrimination. The men, women, and teenagers affected- among them the headmaster, struggling to contain the scandal before it destroys the school; a well-liked scholarship student and star basketball player, grappling with the consequences of his mistakes; his mother, confronting her own forbidden temptations; and a troubled teenage girl eager to put the past behind her- speak out to relate the events of one fateful night and its aftermath."

This was a wonderful, tragic, and unforgettable book about actions and consequences, about sinning and redemption, about life and death, about guilt and blame. At first I found the shifting perpectives a little difficult, but once I sank into the story, I ceased to even notice. It is hard to talk about the plot without spoiling the narrative- the central element for each person's story is one bad decision that ties into the bad decisions of others eventually escalating into a terrible act. Even though it became clear fairly quickly where the story was moving, I was still gripped by the hope that I was wrong. As events unfolded as I knew they must, I couldn't stop myself from crying even though I knew the whole time exactly where we were going to end. Shreve is a gifted writer, and this is an excellent book that will stick with you long after you have finished reading. 5 strong stars- highly recommended!

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Trouble by Kate Christensen

Flap copy from ARC:
"Josie is a Manhattan psychotherapist living a comfortable life with her husband and daughter- until she is struck with the sudden realization that she must leave her passionless marriage. At the same time, her college friend Raquel, a Los Angeles rock star, is being pillories in the press for sleeping with a much younger man who happens to have a pregnant girlfriend. The two friends escape to Mexico City for a Christmas holiday of retreat and rediscovery of their essential selves."

I'm confess, for the first few pages, I didn't know if I would be able to sink into this novel, but I persevered and was amply rewarded for my efforts. This forthright look at three professionally sucessful middle age women re-assessing their life choices made for a wonderful and fairly quick read once I was fully engaged. Though I didn't much like Josie in the opening pages of the book, her character and motivations became more understandable as the story unfolded and I found myself warming to her. As for lost soul Raquel, I found her much more sympathetic than I had imagined I would, and truly enjoyed her role in the Mexico City portion of the story.

All in all, a well-written and well-imagined look at the nature of relationships between women, and the consequences of the choices we make as we progress through life. 4.5 stars.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Damas, Dramas and Ana Ruiz by Belinda Acosta

Book description:
All Ana Ruiz wanted was to have a traditional quinceaƱera for her daughter, Carmen. She wanted a nice way to mark this milestone year in her daughter's life. But Carmen was not interested in celebrating. Hurt and bitter over her father Esteban's departure, she blamed Ana for destroying their happy family, as did everyone else. A good man is hard to find, especially at your age Ana was told. Why not forgive his one indiscretion? Despite everything, Ana didn't want to tarnish Carmen's childlike devotion to her beloved father. But Ana knows that growing up sometimes means facing hard truths. In the end, Ana discovers that if she's going to teach Carmen anything about what it means to be a woman, it will take more than simply a fancy party to do it...

Despite some excellent insights into the psyches of her characters, this book never really took off for me. As a person who took French in high school and college, I found the frequent use of Spanish (and sometimes Spanglish) distracting at best and irritating at worst as it kept wrecking the flow of the narrative for me. I did think the author captured some of the underlying emotions quite well (the teen-aged hostility of Carmen, the quiet uncertainty of older brother Diego, the truly tormented reality of cousin Bianca), in the end I just didn't find myself emotionally invested in the two main characters (Ana and Carmen). Ana's abortive crush on a visiting artist at her university made little sense to me in the context of her ongoing emotional feelings for husband despite his infidelity.

In the end, I think there was just too much going on in this novel for any of the myriad plot-lines to be satifactorily explored. I also found myself quite put off by the onmicient third-person narration that dropped previews of the future into the story as if to constantly re-assure the reader that everything will be OK. This was a decent read, but there are better books out there that explore mother-daughter relationships in a deeper, more meaningful way.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Idea of Love by Louise Dean

Flap copy from ARC:
"Richard’s life is unraveling: his beautiful wife, Valerie, is having an affair, his son Maxence may (or may not) be mentally disturbed, and the idyllic life he’d hoped for when they moved to Provence has become more nightmare than paradise. Suddenly, a routine trip to East Africa to sell pharmaceuticals is more than he can handle and his life starts to implode as he realizes that the idea of a life full of that love he has cherished is a mere illusion.

Next door, their neighbour, Rachel makes a trip to West Africa which leaves her questioning her ideals and her faith. Now Rachel, and her husband Jeff, as well as Richard and Valerie, are left groping for the things that once defined them.

Their excursions to Africa will lead them into their own private heart of darkness, and will bring shock waves home to their little Eden, unsettling the very idea of love."

I chose this book based on the flap copy description which led me to believe it was a book about Africa and the impact the continent had on the lives of two expats. In reality, this is a book about a group of self-involved expats who make fleeting visits to Africa which may or may not lead to some manner of existential crisis. Unfortunately, the story isn't really a story, it is a series of vignettes focused on individual characters, none of who really spoke to me or created any feelings of interest or sympathy.

The book is well-written, and some of the characters are well-drawn, but ultiamtely, I was left wondering exactly what I was supposed to take away from this reading experience. I do feel the flap copy was misleading- if the book description had more accurately reflected the actual contents, I might not be left feel so disastisfied by this novel.