Saturday, January 31, 2015

An Artistic Novel, and that's No Secret!

The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets by Eva Rice

Before there was Elvis, there was Johnnie Ray – an American pop singer who made girls all over the world swoon, and teenaged Penelope Wallace was one of them. Before there was Charlotte Ferris, it seemed like Penelope was living in a dreary world of post-WWII England, still rife with shortages – especially cash. But when Charlotte meets Penelope waiting for a bus and practically kidnaps her for an afternoon tea at her Aunt Claire’s house, everything changes, not just for these two girls, but for just about everyone in both their families. As these two upper class but financially impoverished 18-year-olds become fast friends, the learn more about each other, their worlds and the people in them. What’s more, it seems like everyone has some sort of secret to keep.

On the surface, one might think this book is “chick-lit.” In fact, throughout most of the story, you may get the distinct feeling that the romance elements are very much in the forefront of the plot. We have Charlotte’s cousin, the fascinating looking Harry who wants to be a magician and is in love with an American actress who just dumped him for a man with more means. As Harry ropes Penelope into a scheme to get her back, we know something is going to sizzle. Charlotte too has eyes for a boy, one of the “Teddy boys,” who her Aunt doesn’t approve of. Then there’s Rocky, the dreamily handsome, much older American man from Hollywood who meets Penelope on the train. In addition, with Penelope living in the shadow of her famously beautiful widowed mother, you can just guess where at least some of the secrets will be, and that love is at the center of all of them. Even Penelope’s younger brother Inigo is in love – but that’s with Rock & Roll music.

However, on closer examination, the story here is a touch deeper than most “chick-lit”. In fact, many people might find that this is more of a ‘coming of age’ novel, and could almost be appropriate for the young adult market. This wouldn’t be far from correct, except for the fact that it seems a bit more sophisticated than that market usually requires, and the subtleties of the text and its underlying meanings would probably be lost on most teenaged readers. No, this is an adult novel, which lies on the cusp of the literary and women’s fiction genres. This isn’t to say that men might not enjoy this book, but they’d probably need to quite in touch with their feminine side in order to do so. Of course, included here are the timeless themes of fads and fashion mixed with music and society, are ones anyone can identify with.

Written in first person from Penelope’s point of view, Rice gives us an excellent look at the people with whom Penelope interacts. We are able to get to know Penelope as well, since much of the story is in past tense, giving a retrospective feel to the events. This nicely mirrors within the story through the autobiography that Aunt Claire is writing with the typing assistance from her niece, Charlotte. Another nice addition to this is the fact that Penelope is not only reading literature, but seems to be interested in becoming a novelist herself. While there’s no “story within a story” here, the connectivity of writers and writing is evident throughout. Moreover, as Penelope unravels her tale, we get the distinct impression that this is the fodder for her first real book, much as if it is for Rice herself.

The overall feel of this book is one you could describe as a “summer novel.” The tone is mostly lighthearted and the language is both clever, and easy to read with a simple beauty to it. Even the more serious passages receive a gentle handling that pulls the reader in and takes them for a ride. When Rice describes the seasons and the views from in and around the majestic stately home of Milton Magma, where Penelope lives, one could swear her words could be set to music. In this Rice reveals that some of her talent comes directly from her lyric-writing father Tim. One particularly nice thing about this book is that you won’t realize until the end just how complex these character’s lives really are, yet they are able to almost breeze through the troubles not fully understanding how they’ll come out of them, and what effect they’ll have.

In all, “The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets” is a lovely novel. The writing is lovely and the story is interesting with characters you can easily picture in your mind’s eye. Eva Rice has a way of enticing you to read on and then adds some interesting twists just to keep you interested. There was only one, slightly bothersome loose end at the finish, but the ending brings closure that avoids being sappy. When you close the book, you’ll feel like you have a good idea what will happen next in these people’s lives. Moreover, Rice seems to have done her homework on the period, and included some nice touches along the way – not the least of which interesting me in looking up some Johnnie Ray songs. For all this, I can recommend this book with a solid four out of five stars. 
(Note: Eva Rice is the daughter of Sir Tim Rice, British lyricist and author, known mostly for his musical collaborations with Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber!)

"The Lost Art of Keeping Secrets" by Eva Rice, published in 2005 is available on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository, or from an IndieBound store near you.

This is a slightly revised version of my review that first appeared on Curious Book Fans, and on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady. This review also appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

21 days on an Ocean Liner with an 11-year-old boy

The Cat's Table by Michael Ondaatje

Michael Ondaatje (author of "The English Patient"), has a distinctively unique style to his writing. His literary voice is poetic and fluid, yet also highly accessible. This comes through in all his writing, giving his work a deceptively simplistic feel, while remaining evocatively beautiful. However, he also likes to surprise his readers in the way he constructs his books, and each one is a bit different from his others. For instance, his previous two novels, Anil's Ghost and Divisadero, are almost conventionally structured. Other of his works, including this novel, are more like series of vignettes with lines of disjointed dialog or poetry, not all of which follow a direct timeline. While this may sound like it could be confusing, Ondaatje's artistry is in that the reader never feels like they aren't sure of when and where the action is taking place. This he does with the language alone, without any superfluous background information or details.

Michael, the narrator of this story, is an 11-year old boy, traveling on the ocean liner The Oronsays, from his birthplace in Sri Lanka to rejoin his mother in London in the early 1950s. On board he finds two other boys his age - the brash and bold Cassius, and Ramadhin, the delicate boy with a heart condition. For their meals, these three eat at the lowliest of tables on the ship - known as The Cat's Table. The voyage is three weeks long, giving them more than enough time to have many adventures and forge life-long friendships. These boys, along with a mixed group of very colorful adult travelers turn their voyage into both an education and an adventure.

Apparently, in those days, it wasn't uncommon for boys to travel like this unaccompanied. Of course, there is one adult passenger to keep an eye on him - an acquaintance of his uncle's - Flavia Prins - traveling in first class. Not long after the journey begins, he finds an older distant cousin on board - Emily. Along with these two women, we get a slew of characters that all touch the lives of these boys in different ways. Since these youngsters wear their innocent curiosity on their sleeves, those they meet aren't passengers alone. The reader then becomes acquainted with a conglomeration of characters from the ailing millionaire in first class, right down to the transport of a dangerous prisoner going to trial and many more in between - including workers on both the ship and the shores they come to. Combine this with the vignette composition of the book, tied together with the boys' investigations, and you end up with a kaleidoscope view of this vessel and voyage, which progresses in chronological order.

Within all this, we also get the narrator interspersing events that are more recent, in a type of autobiography showing the effect this had on his later life. This means that he also includes key events that happened long after his arrival in England, which would never have been had he not taken that particular ship on that specific sailing. In essence, he shows the reader how that trip molded both his personality and his life. It is interesting to note that Ondaatje actually had a voyage very much like this in his real life. He was born in Sri Lanka (which was Ceylon at the time), and he did sail to England at that age. Ondaatje puts even more of his life in this story, by naming the narrator after himself as well as having him become a writer as an adult who moves to Canada. While that is where (according to the author's notes) the similarities end, the deeply personal feel of this book is ultimately obvious.

With all this included, one might assume that this is some sweeping saga with hundreds of chapters. However, this is where the real surprise is, since Ondaatje does all this in less than 300 pages of nicely spaced lines printed in a clear, normal-sized font. Therefore, while the scope of this book seems vast, the economy of the prose along with the careful use of suggestive language is what makes this into a cohesive piece that the reader will sail through it - both literally and figuratively.

In short, this masterfully constructed novel contains a deceptively simple prose style that almost makes the reader able to smell the salt air. The story has a very intimate feel to it, which makes the characters feel real and alive, bordering on being an autobiography, if not a fictional memoir. Moreover, the age and innocence of this young boy and his new friends make the adventures and troubles they get into on the ship very believable. This is arguably Ondaatje's best work since "The English Patient," in both style and content, and is highly recommended with a full five out of five stars.

"The Cat's Table" by Michael Ondaatje is available on Kindle from Amazon, Nook from Barnes & Noble, other eReader formats from Kobo, as an iBook or audiobook from iTunes, in paperback (free delivery worldwide) from The Book Depository, or from an IndieBound store near you.

(This is a revised version of a review that appears on Curious Book Fans and Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady, and also appeared on {the now defunct websites} Helium and Yahoo! Contributor Network.)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Everything old is new again!

84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff

It is a rare instance when non-fiction reads like fiction, and Helene Hanff’s book is exactly one of those exceptions. Long before the age of the Internet and on-line book sellers like Amazon, New York writer Hanff saw an ad in the Saturday Review of Literature for a second-hand book shop called Marks & Co, which was located on 84 Charing Cross Road, in London, England. As she was in need of some items that were out of print or unavailable in the USA, on October 5, 1949 she decided to write to them. This began a more than 20 year-long international relationship between Hanff and the store’s employees, and in particular, one Frank Doel.

Their story is accounted here through the correspondence between them, using the actual letters that they sent each other. While this may sound boring, Hanff’s offhanded humor and impulsive nature make her dispatches endearing to the readers. This is in stark contrast to the more formal replies she receives from Marks & Co, who return using the most traditional British and businesslike fashion – at least to begin with. However, Hanff’s energy and wit slowly break down the reserve from across the ocean. Soon she is not only sending cheering missives and funds to purchase the books, but also gifts of appreciation – partially to help brighten up the lives of these people living through post-war rationing. As they continue to write each other, we watch their friendship blossom. While their professional association gives them the initial reason to correspond, their personal connections grow, making both parties more human and real, both to each other and to the reader. This is what makes this book so charming, and such a delightful read.

However, some might think that a book written about things that happened over 60 years ago, about a correspondence between continents may seem irrelevant today. On the contrary, watching this bond grow despite never having met face-to-face is something that we today can easily relate to. The internet has made the world such a smaller place than it was before. Today we take for granted how we can become friends with people we’ve never met, just because we share similar interests. And while this relationship never resulted in any romance, Helene and Frank’s worlds became as intertwined as if they had. So reading this book today is no less enjoyable than in its publication year of 1970.

What this book has in spades is an enormous helping of good hearted humanity and honest humor, and that’s what makes it so readable. As mentioned at the outset, one could almost believe that these people are fascinating characters in a work of fiction. Knowing that they really existed makes the reader feel even closer to these people. What’s more, as the letter progress, we can witness how these people developed in their separate lives, as well as within their connection, which is exactly what you’d expect from a well written novel. So while sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, the reality of Hanff’s “84 Charing Cross Road” is as endearing as any person you’ll come across – both in real life, and in the imagination of a writer. Of course, because this is about real people, it isn’t all laughs. Since the reader is able to connect to Helene and Frank so closely, you could find yourself shedding a tear along the way, in addition to the parts that make you laugh out loud. In short, “84 Charing Cross Road” is a book that writers will adore; book lovers will embrace; and one to delight any and all readers, on both sides of the “pond”. It should be no surprise that I highly recommend this book and give it a full five stars out of five!

You can still buy this book in paperback and hardcover from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, The Book Depository, from an IndieBound store near you, or as an audiobook from iTunes.

(This is a revised version of my original review, which appears on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady, on the website Curious Book Fans and {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.)

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

For the Back of Your Mind

The Memory Keeper’s Daughter by Kim Edwards

How can we know if we're making the right the decisions? More importantly, is there any way we can know in how these decisions will affect our lives and the lives of others. This is the basic theme of this novel which begins in 1964 when Dr. David Henry's wife Nora is about to give birth to twins in the middle of a blizzard. When they can't get to the hospital, he stops at his clinic and calls in his nurse to assist him. The first child is a boy they call Paul, and he's perfect. The second child is a girl named Phoebe, but she has Down syndrome. When Dr. Henry sees this, he makes one of those life-altering decisions. Instead of telling his wife about Phoebe, he gives the child to his nurse Caroline, and tells to take the child to an institution. He then tells his wife that Phoebe died. However, after seeing the horrible place David sends her, Caroline immediately decides to leave town and raise Phoebe as her own. The rest of the novel follows these two separate stories.

The concept of this novel is very interesting. We watch the affects of these two decisions, as the years go by. On the one hand, there's David's lie to his wife. He's also terrified that if another pregnancy might result in their having another retarded child, and so he pulls away from her. This also means that David never addresses Nora's devastation at the loss of her daughter, making her feel abandoned. On the other hand, Caroline not only has to deal with raising a child on her own in the 1960s, but one with very special needs, which is doubly difficult. Furthermore, we soon understand that Caroline was secretly in love with Dr. Henry. By taking Phoebe, she substituted the love she hoped to get from him with the child she essentially stole.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

"The Wednesday Sisters" Sequel Story

The Wednesday Daughters by Meg Waite Clayton

Ally, Hope's mother, has died. Not long before her death, she made several visits the Lake District in England, researching a biography of Beatrix Potter. Hope, together with Anna Page and Julie are going to Ally's cottage to pack up her things and say goodbye. Soon after they get there, they find a diary written in code. This novel is about the secrets Hope's mother tried to hide, and the things that connect these three girls to both each other and the place they're visiting for the first time.

When I requested the advance reader's copy of this book, I had no idea that it was a sequel to Clayton's first novel, "The Wednesday Sisters." I was certain that this would immediately put me at a distinct disadvantage. However, since the first chapter opens by explaining the relationship between these women and their mothers, I decided to read on. While this made me feel initially out of the loop, this feeling dissipated once I was about a third into the story.

What struck me about this book was tranquility of the writing. As if, the abundance of the water of the setting lent itself to the fluidity of the text. There's also a very somber feel here, which makes a whole lot of sense, considering the reason for the trip. In addition, we soon find out that these three women aren't only mourning Hope's mother. Clayton then adds in some legends of regional ghosts, which makes the perfect backdrop for a mystery novel.

However, this isn't a mystery, or at least not in the classical sense of the genre. Yes, there are things these women end up needing to discover and figure out. The most obvious of these is Ally's diary and breaking its code to find the secrets hidden inside. Less evident is how Clayton uses this as a metaphor for both the literal journeys of these three women and the one Ally is recounting in her journal. The essence of this book also echoes this, through the parallel voyages of self-discovery that all these women experience. This could have been very trite, but Clayton avoids this by leaving all of the detection work to the current trip, and allowing Ally's entries to continue to conceal the real reason for her travels. In this, the book is very successful, and is truly character driven.

Of course, character-driven novels need their readers to empathize with the characters. This is where I felt at a disadvantage for not having read the first novel. Throughout this story, the three titular characters - Hope, Julie and Anna Page - constantly refer to each other's parents as "Aunt" and "Uncle," despite the lack of blood relationships. Although I read this explanation in the opening paragraph, I still found myself confused at times, which unfortunately broke the flow of the prose.

Additionally, of these three, Julie seemed the least three dimensional, and therefore harder to identify with. She seemed to hover in the background, and even when her own inner struggle came to the forefront, its resolution seemed less believable. With Anna Page, I certainly formed an opinion of her quickly in that I didn't for her much, and there was little to change that feeling as the story progressed. Had I been able to gain more sympathy for her, I might have felt more comfortable with how her conflict was resolved. On the other hand, Hope's carefully crafted dilemma made me sometimes want to slap her, but the emotional connection with the reader was there throughout. I'm sure that her being the narrator also helped here.

This made me wonder if Clayton didn't put too many focal points into this book. If she had concentrated more on Hope in the wake of Ally's death, and left most of the emotional baggage of the other two out, this might have been a more powerful book. This is mostly because Clayton obviously loves both Hope and Ally. The fact that Ally only appears here through her diary entries didn't detract from the richness of her character, and made her surprisingly alive. In fact, all of the inclusions of Ally's diaries where she (very uniquely) researches her Beatrix Potter are simply stunning to read. Furthermore, her descriptions of the Lake District were lovingly drawn and particularly vivid.

It is obvious that Clayton is an extremely talented writer, with a unique voice. This comes through particularly well when inspired by a character, setting or relationship. Of course, this is a "must read" for fans of "The Wednesday Sisters." However, while I believe this would have been a stronger novel if she had concentrated on only one of the girls, the writing is such that one can forgive this, at least partially. Although it does stand-alone for the most part, readers might prefer to read them in order. While I still recommend it, I have to do so with a few reservations and therefore I'm giving it three and a half stars out of five. 

"The Wednesday Daughters" by Meg Waite Clayton published by Random House Publishing Group - Ballantine, released July 16, 2013, and is available on Kindle from Amazon, on Nook from Barnes & Noble, in Adobe DRM ePUB format from Kobo, as an iBook or audiobook from iTunes, in paperback from The Book Depository or from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an advanced reader copy of this novel via Netgalley.

This is a revised version of a review that appears on Dooyoo under my username TheChocolateLady and previously appeared on {the now defunct} Yahoo! Contributor Network.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

A fine (gay) romance

The Apple Polisher by Heidi Belleau

Christian wants to be a preschool teacher, and he's enrolled in a prestigious MA program where he has to be a model citizen. But that isn't as easy as it seems when you're gay. With no money, he finds the only place he can afford. When one of his roommates is the gorgeous Max, it looks like he's going to have an even harder (pun intended) time of it. And then there's his Auntie Beverly, whose cancer isn't getting better and her porn video shop is on the verge of bankruptcy.

We all know that the classic "Rom-Com" plot is "boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl." When it come to LGBT novels, all one basically has to do is make the two the same gender. In this case, its "boy meets boy… ", and you'll need no further explanation. That said Belleau gives us a story with plenty of hurdles to justify the "boy loses boy" part, and just enough mild surprises to bring about the obvious conclusion, to keep us interested.

Using an interesting ruse that Christian's course requires him to be squeaky clean helps build the conflict. That his upbringing makes him feel he can't be openly gay, and that his scholarship is contingent on him not having a job, also helps in this. In short, Belleau knows how to complicate her character's lives, and not unreasonably so. Of course, it wouldn't be a comedy if there wasn't a happy-ever-after, and on this too, Belleau delivers. Thankfully, she finds the most twisted pathway to resolving these difficulties, even if not everything ends up picture-perfect.

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