Friday, October 17, 2014

One Plus One by JoJo Moyes

One Plus One is a compelling novel that explores, with compassion, the lives of people at opposite ends of the social strata. Moyes takes the journey motif - in this case, a road trip - and turns it on its ear with her cast of quirky characters.

The heroine of the book is Jess Thomas. She is a single mother who is barely scraping by with two minimum wage jobs. By day, she is a house cleaner; by night she works in a bar. Bad luck stalks her. Her step son, Nicky, is being bullied in his public high school for being a bit Goth and wearing mascara. Nicky is not merely bullied - he is severely beaten by menacing teen brothers. In the poor development where they live, the police seem unhelpful and the neighbors are unwilling to force an eviction.

Adding to Jess's worries is the fact that her daughter, Tanzy, is a ten-year-old math prodigy. Tanzy is a dreamy girl who likes sparkly clothes and finds solace in prime numbers. Her well-meaning teacher suggests she compete in a Math Olympiad. If she scores high, she may win a scholarship to an elite private school. The immediate problem, though, is how to get to Scotland where the test is given.

Enter Ed, the software designer who feels more comfortable behind a screen than in the world at large. He and his best friend have become millionaires and now head up a company. But Ed has committed a grave error. In an attempt to get rid of an unstable woman, he has given her information that leads to his conviction of insider trading. Now Ed is about to lose everything.

Under advice from his attorney, Ed leaves London and heads to his summer home on the southern coast of England - the home that Jess cleans. Caught up in his own mess and drinking much too heavily, Ed sinks deeper into despair.

Jess's story runs parallel to his own. While Ed's trial looms closer, Jess is seen making two mistakes. The first involves the theft of Ed's wallet when she accompanies him home stone drunk; the second occurs when she attempts an ill-advised trip to Scotland in a car that has been sitting idle for years. Jess also has no license to drive.

Predictably, Jess is stopped by the police and Ed just happens to be driving along that stretch of highway. But Ed is hardly the knight on a white horse. Thinking he owes her a favor, he offers to take the Thomas clan - flatulent dog included - to the testing center in Scotland. And so begins a road trip that some reviewers compare to the 2006 film, Little Miss Sunshine.

One of the many strengths of One Plus One is that it gives a human face to the plight of the working poor. It also highlights the growing chasm between the haves and the have nots. Told from different viewpoints, the novel creates characters who are genuine and all too human.

If you are a fan of Jojo Moyes or just someone looking for a good story well told, check out One Plus One. You'll love it!

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta

Jace Wilson is  13 years old and the butt of many jokes and much harassment from a local bully named Wayne Potter. Somehow Jace has to settle a bet by jumping 65 feet down into a quarry lake. Jace is afraid of heights, but he is more afraid of being embarrassed in front of girls. He decides practicing is the only way to make sure he can actually do this. He starts with a 15 foot jump and lands in the water but the jump is not really successful because Jace lands right next to a dead body - a body whose throat has been cut and that has been weighted down. 

Once he can think clearly he realizes he must notify the sheriff. He starts towards his clothing on the other side of the quarry when he hears a car approaching. A man exits the car and to Jace's relief he is wearing a badge. Then more men exit the car pushing someone who has a black hood over his head. Jack watches as they kill the man and throw his body into the water.Then they find Jace's clothes and come after him. He stays hidden in the water on the far side until they leave. He goes home and his nightmare really begins.

Jace is now the main focus of these two killers. Known as the Blackwell brothers they are assassins for hire and they need to remove Jace. Jace has been placed under the protection of a private security firm who has sent him to the mountains for a survival camp and he will need it. Soon everyone is on the run.

Michael Koryta has written another thriller with another creepy character. The Blackwell brothers are right out of a nightmare. Jace is the innocent child caught up in their evil. Fast paced with enough twists and surprises to keep you reading, Koryta has written another great book.

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Friday, October 10, 2014

Island of a Thousand Mirrors by Nayomi Munaweera

Island of A Thousand Mirrors is a really important book by a debut novelist, who has been compared to both Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient) and Jhumpa Lahiri (The Namesake).

I was first struck by the beauty of the writing, sentences that I stopped to read again. Here is an opening paragraph. “My name is Yasodhara Rajasinghe and this is the story of my family. It is also one possible narrative of my island. But we are always interlopers into history, dropped into a story that has been going on far before we are born, and so I must start much earlier than my birth and I must start with the boy who will become my father.” Pulls you in, doesn’t it?

This is a story of Ceylon, of Sri Lanka, of the civil war that took place over decades as rival forces struggle for power. And yes, there is violence, and there is blood. There is also so much beauty in this story that you are drawn through the war by your loyalty to the characters, their story and their land. Two main characters - Tamil and Sinhala - were raised virtually together before the troubles, and appear and reappear as the story moves along. I won’t tell you more because it would spoil it, and you really need to read this book.

Island of a Thousand Mirrors has won the Commonwealth Book Prize for Asia, quite an accomplishment for a first time author. Highly recommended.

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Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Funny Once: Stories by Antonya Nelson


Antonya Nelson is an award-winning writer of three novels and four short story collections. Funny Once, like her other collections, deals with life's tragic misfits - people who are victims of the poor choices they made or those they never made at all.

The book gets its name from the title story, "Funny Once." In it, one of the hosts of a dinner party remarks that most of life's events are "only funny once." This phrase becomes the central theme of the book and refers to those embarrassing, often belittling, events that befall everyone over a lifetime. In time, we may laugh about them - but not too heartily and with great humility.

"Funny Once" is about a married couple who are polar opposites. The husband (Ben) is "a professional idealist" and his wife (Phoebe) is a fearful pessimist. "She'd been raised by critics, pessimists; she was genetically predisposed" (p. 169). Self-medicating for depression, she seeks the help of a psychiatrist. The psychiatrist has little to say to her other than telling her to stop drinking and asking her if her husband demands rough sex.

Nelson's word play is reminiscent of the writing of Lorrie Moore; her characters are evocative of the early Anne Tyler. These are people whose dreams - if they had them at all - just never worked out.  Nelson's dark humor allows the reader to see her characters objectively and without pathos. Her writing is crisp and to the point.  As Donna Seaman concludes in her starred review:

Nelson is scandalously funny, her characters are royally screwed up and wildly inept, and their dire predicaments bust down the doors on the most painful of life's cruel jokes, from betrayal to divorce, addiction, and old age. (Booklist, April 1, 2014)

If you are a lover of short fiction with acerbic, perfectly placed one-liners, this is a collection you will not want to miss.

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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Mambo in Chinatown by Jean Kwok

In Mambo in Chinatown, Jean Kwok writes about topics and situations that she knows well. Kwok was born in Hong Kong and immigrated to Brooklyn as a young girl. She graduated from Harvard and attended the Columbia MFA program. She also worked as a professional ballroom dancer.

Mambo in Chinatown is set in Manhattan's Chinatown and in a world outside Chinatown in a ballroom dance studio uptown in New York. Twenty-two year old Charlie Wong is the main character, an elder sister who lives with her father and her 11 year old sister, Lisa. Lisa is seen by the family as the pretty and talented sister. Charlie struggled in school and works as a dishwasher in the restaurant where their widowed father is a talented noodle cook. The family lives in a tiny apartment and life is not easy for them. Pa's elder brother, Uncle  helps them financially and in return, Lisa works in the office where Uncle practices Eastern medicine.

Gradually, changes develop for the family. Charlie takes a job as a receptionist at a ballroom dance studio. She becomes friends with some of the professional dancers and finds she has a talent for dance, similar to that of her mother who was a ballerina in Hong Kong. Lisa has an opportunity to test for the prestigious Hunter High School. But Lisa also develops a chronic illness. Pa dislikes any change and fears Western medicine and life outside Chinatown, so the family, full of love, is also full of secrets, as the characters struggle to find balance in their lives.

Mambo in Chinatown is well written and full of interesting characters. Details of the life of immigrants in Chinatown, their customs, practices, and foods are contrasted with details of the world of ballroom dance and dancers. Eastern medicine and witchcraft are contrasted with the world of Western medicine. Romance, love, and caring set the tone for this descriptive and sensitive book. 

Kwok's first novel, Girl in Translation, is another story of an immigrant family, a young girl and her mother moving from Hong Kong to New York's Chinatown, and struggling in poverty and through hard work and education to find a better life. I recommend reading Girl in Translation too.

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Friday, September 26, 2014

Liar, Temptress, Soldier, Spy

There are many books on the Civil War and the spies plied their trade during that war.  There are few books about women spies.  And there were many more woman spying than you would think for a time period when women were considered too frail and not smart enough to participate in war.  This book contains stories about 4 of these women - 2 Confederate sympathizers, 2 Union sympathizers.

The Confederate sympathizers were Bell Boyd and  Rose O'Neal Greenhow. Belle Boyd was a 17 year old with a bad reputation. Not a proper Southern lady at all. She was fierce, she shot to death a Union soldier who was attacking her mother in her home. She also seduced men on both sides to gain information and advantage.

Rose O'Neal Greenhow was a beautiful widow with a young daughter.  She had a reputation as a social climber and a loose woman.  She had numerous affairs with Union officers in order to gain information and she was not above using her young daughter to help her cause.  She once sent the young girl out alone with information to pass onto Rebel camps.

The two Union sympathizers were Emma Edmonds and Elizabeth Van Lew. Perhaps the most interesting of the group, Emma was very much a woman who had had a very unhappy childhood.  Her father had wanted a son so he alternately ignored or abused Emma. She was so unhappy she ran away from home and lived her life as a man, figuring that was the only way she could survive.  She enlisted in the Union Army as Frank Thompson. She never had to take a physical because the Army was so short of volunteers they were taking anyone who showed up. She was in some of the bloodiest battles of the war  moving between the 2 armies as a letter carrier for the Union.  She contracted malaria and that was the end of her undercover adventures.

Elizabeth Van Lew was a wealthy Richmond abolitionist. She pretended to be a proper southern lady as she amassed a large spy ring for the Union, including placing one of her former slaves in the Southern White house. And she did all this while having Rebel detectives following her every move.

The author  uses primary source materials: diaries, letters, war records and interviews with descendants to piece together these stories. The story line weaves from one of the women to another through some of the worst battles of the war: Manassas, Antietam and the siege of Richmond telling of the destruction these women wrecked on themselves and others.

Giving a different view of  Civil war history this biography of 4 very interesting women is just plain interesting.

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Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening by Carol Wall

"What do you do when the script you have planned for yourself doesn't work out? How do you graciously slip into Plan B?" These are the words Carol Wall uses to describe her diagnosis of breast cancer and her struggle to see the richness of  life.
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42mQKZIVaXk

Her memoir is also the story of a unique friendship - that between a Kenyan man (Giles Owita) and a high school English teacher in Roanoke, Virginia. During the course of two years, depicted by the changing seasons, Wall's property is transformed from a neglected and bleak plot of land into a beautiful garden full of color and life. In that time, the author is forced to confront her own conflicted feelings about her aging parents and come to terms with a past she has long buried.

Her fear of touching soil has deep, psychological roots and her general pessimism began when she was a mere child. She once had a sister with Down's Syndrome - a sister who died in childhood. Her mother never discussed the loss with her, yet the fear of losing another child left a deep imprint on both of them.

Likewise, Giles has a past - a past only fully revealed at the book's end. Both he and his wife, Bianca, came to the States fourteen years ago to pursue graduate degrees. They have doctorates from Virginia Tech - he in horticulture and Bianca in human nutrition. Giles' resume contains a list of academic honors and agricultural and horticultural research for the Kenyan government. Neither has been able to secure positions at local universities. Instead, Bianca is working as a nurse and Giles is bagging groceries, working at a plant nursery, and asking a mere $10 per hour from individuals for work in their gardens.

Giles' optimism is an inspiration to the author. Now facing her father's struggle with Alzheimer's and her mother's failing health, combined with her difficult cancer treatment, their friendship deepens and becomes more honest. The garden serves as a healing metaphor.  Walls reflects: "(Giles) traveled 7000 miles to teach me that the ground in winter which is gray and yellow and hard as a brick holds a thousand lovely secrets." https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=42mQKZIVaXk
As do we all.

Mister Owita's Guide to Gardening is a homage to a dear friendship and to the wonders that life holds.

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