Saturday, April 4, 2020

The Red Lotus

The Red Lotus by Chris Bohjalian (2020), narrated by Rebecca Lowman

It was all very dramatic because I was on hold for this book through the library but by the time it was published we were closed because of the coronavirus. Also, a friend had mentioned to me that the audio version was narrated by Rebecca Lowman, one of my favorite (possibly my very favorite) narrators. So I bought some extra Audible credits, and it was worth every penny.

Alexis is an emergency room doctor who met her boyfriend Austin when he came to the ER with a bullet wound. In a strange coincidence, it turns out that he works there too, but in a fundraising position. Six months later they are on a bicycling trip in Vietnam and Austin goes missing. I won't say much more about the plot because I don't want to give too much away, but the story really becomes intriguing when Alexis learns Austin lied about one of the reasons why he wanted to go to Vietnam.

On top of what happened to Austin, Alexis then has to deal with the fact of that lie and what it meant about the person she thought she knew. Having their relationship be fairly new is what made this storyline great. And there's more - there's a whole plot having to do with rats and disease and what Austin potentially had to do with it.

This book shouldn't have made me want to go on a bike tour of Vietnam, but it did and I don't even ride a bike. Vietnam sounded gorgeous though. The novel is very much in the same vein of Bohjalian's last couple of books, The Flight Attendant and The Guest Room, as opposed to his older books. A little bit mystery, a little bit thriller, very much character-driven. Alexis has some darkness in her past, but as an emergency room doctor she has learned to be calm in difficult circumstances. I really liked being immersed in her story, and Rebecca Lowman was the perfect narrator for her. (Honestly I think I like characters more when she narrates them.)

You probably know that Chris Bohjalian is one of my favorite authors and I've read all of his books except I think The Water Witches. The only other one I've listened to on audio was Before You Know Kindness because I happened to come into a free copy of it. They are the kind of books I don't have the patience to stretch out into 2 weeks, which is how long it usually takes me for an audiobook. But thanks to the pandemic, I've been at home with nothing but knitting and puzzles to occupy me which has been the perfect environment for this. If you've liked his other recent books, you'll likely enjoy this one too. And if you're into audio, I do highly recommend that version.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Washington Black

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (2018)

This novel opens on a sugar plantation in Barbados in 1830. Here we meet young George Washington Black, born a slave and destined to spend his life working the fields. Until the master's brother arrives, that is. Titch, as he is known, is trying to build a flying vehicle he calls a cloud-cutter and he requires an assistant to help him and to be used as ballast. Wash seems about the right size, and this chance meeting is to change his life.

Moving from Barbados to the Arctic to Nova Scotia and beyond, nothing that happens could have ever been imagined by the young boy. He learns he is a talented artist and is especially fascinated by sea life. He is pursued by a slave-catcher and he's recognizable because of scarring on his face, so a dark shadow follows him, no matter how far away he goes.

His relationship with Titch remains the focal point of the story though. Wash always wonders why Titch picked him, and long after they are separated he still is not free of him. Without Titch, he'd still be on the plantation, but he doubts that his admiration for the man was reciprocated, and he is tortured by what he sees as their unfinished business. Another significant relationship is with Tanna, a woman he meets while drawing at the seaside and who happens to be the daughter of an author with whom Wash is familiar. She and her father both become integral to his life.

This is the best thing I've read recently. It's a grand adventure to many disparate parts of the world, more than a well-traveled modern person would ever see, and it all begins accidentally for Washington Black. He meets new friends, but never forgets those from the plantation, especially Big Kit, a mother figure with whom he had a close but tempestuous relationship. He thinks about her often as he travels the world.

This is such a different view of the 19th century than I am used to. First of all, it doesn't take place primarily in England or the United States. But also, we see parts of the world I don't usually see in novels set in that era, such as Barbados, Nova Scotia, and even Morocco, and those places all come with vivid descriptions. Wash is black, which of course provides a very different perspective, and his unique situation is just fascinating. Everything felt fresh and unexpected. I haven't read anything like it, and I was completely absorbed.

Washington Black was on many "Best of" lists after it came out, and the honor is well-deserved. If you'd like to read an adventurous historical novel told from an unusual perspective, I highly recommend it.

Monday, March 30, 2020

The Wallflower Wager

The Wallflower Wager (Girl Meets Duke #3) by Tessa Dare (2019)

We've met Lady Penelope Campion earlier in this series. She is an animal lover - her house full of a whole menagerie of animals from a dog to a goat to a hedgehog - and a vegetarian who is constantly foisting her creations, such as her "sham" sandwiches on her friends. She is also (unsurprisingly?) single. When the book opens, her Aunt Caroline tells her that her brother is on his way to come collect her and take her back to the country since she has no marriage prospects and has pretty much squandered her opportunities in society. Penny panics, and makes a deal with her aunt that she'll get rid of all her animals and appear in the society pages at least once if it means she can stay.

Meanwhile, the house next to hers has been newly purchased by Gabriel Duke, also known as the Duke of Ruin. He has a tragic backstory of growing up in a workhouse and making himself rich, I guess by financially ruining other people. He has a terrible reputation, but Penny is irresistibly drawn to him and doesn't care what anyone else thinks. He's planning to resell the house after it's remodeled and wants Penny to stay in her house because apparently having a Lady next door makes the property more valuable, so he ends up agreeing to help her rehome her menagerie and make it into the society pages.

I read all three books in this series because I had heard such good reviews of this one, but it turns out to be the book I liked least. The premise wasn't very strong to begin with and somehow the romance between Penny and Gabriel didn't have enough tension for me. The latter part of the book, where things ramp up before the finale, was not very satisfying. Without spoiling too much, it involves a part where Gabriel threatens another person on Penny's behalf and without her approval, which is thing I hate, and which also happened in the first book in the series. Here though, it was worse and he could have gotten himself killed, which makes it clear it's something he's doing to satisfy his own anger and not actually for her (which I think is usually the case when men get all self-righteous about going after someone who wronged their woman.)

Also, this all came to a head in the middle of a ball, and things were kind of left hanging. When the person arrived who had wronged Penny in the past, Gabriel took him to his study and Penny followed and it got all dramatic, but then the story skipped ahead to the morning. First of all, Gabriel was going to announce their engagement at this ball. But did they even return to the ball after this meeting? I mean, they must have since it was at Gabriel's house. Or did he make everyone leave? It was weird to not even mention this. Also, just before this thing happened, Penny's friend Nicola freaked out because she spotted someone in the ballroom who she said was her fiance, and everyone was shocked and asked her to explain. They all went to discuss this surprise, but Penny followed Gabe instead and this thread of Nicola's secret relationship was never picked up again. I assume that's what the next book will be about, but it was handled rather clumsily here.

I know a lot of people loved this book, and I didn't dislike it enough to stop reading it - mostly, it was fairly amusing and I do love Penny's character. But when all was said and done, it fell rather flat for me.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

French Exit

French Exit by Patrick deWitt (2018)

Frances Price is well known because twenty years ago when her husband died at home, she responded by leaving on her planned ski trip and didn't report his death until she returned. Now, she and her adult son Malcolm have lost all their money, and are moving to Paris to live in Frances's friend Joan's apartment. Coming with them is their cat, Small Frank, who Frances is convinced is actually her dead husband in feline form.

They are a strange pair, Frances and Malcolm. Mother and child BFFs, more devoted to each other than anyone else, including Malcolm's fiance who he left behind to go to Paris. No question he'd choose his mother over her, which was fine with Frances, who didn't even like Susan to begin with.

On the way over, they meet a psychic aboard their ship (they are the sort of people who travel by ship) with whom Malcolm has a brief affair. Her name is Madeleine and when she sees their cat, she knows he's not a regular cat. Once settled in Paris, Small Frank run away and Frances decides she needs to find Madeleine, who could help them find, or communicate with, Small Frank. She hires a private investigator to find Madeline and soon, both of them are hanging out at the apartment with Frances and Malcolm, along with Joan (the owner of the apartment), a wine seller, Malcolm's ex-fiance and her boyfriend, and I think a couple of other people I can't even remember. It's a bizarre assortment of people, and unclear why they all remain hanging about, but it adds to the comedy of the situation.

It's a dark comedy though, which is the kind of comedy I like best. Frances and Malcolm are not likable people at all, so even though you're left not caring what kind of end they come to, it's fascinating to watch it happen. Their friends and hangers-on comprise a motley assortment and I've just realized what an amusing and entertaining movie this would make. I've also heard that the audiobook version is spectacular. There are so many strange and quirkly personalities here, and such a great premise, it was bound to be a lot of fun. Dark, twisted fun.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating

Josh and Hazel's Guide to Not Dating by Christina Lauren (2018)

The first time Josh and Hazel met, she was drunk and propositioned him before throwing up on his shoes. She has no restraint whatsoever, says whatever she's thinking, and is totally wild and carefree. Josh, in contrast, is mellow and sensible and not at all her type, obviously. Many years after college they meet again, unexpectedly, and become friends. Platonic friends. They start going on double blind dates, fixing each other up with a series of increasingly unsuitable potential partners. But of course, they really just want each other.

Hazel was great. She's a third grade teacher who definitely understands eight-year-olds and lives in an apartment with a dog, a rabbit (Janis Hoplin!), a parrot, and a fish. She is the sort of person who is considered "too much" by many people, even "embarrassing." She knows this and she knows why, but also doesn't try to change who she is. I love that her mother is the same way. They have a great relationship that I really enjoyed, and seeing how people like her father treated her mother only makes Hazel more determined to stay true to herself.

Although Josh is totally different, he finds Hazel to be a lot of fun. She's genuine and a great person and seems to like his family. She's best friends with his sister Emily, also a teacher, and makes an effort to get to know his parents, unlike his recent ex-girlfriend Tabby who was totally uninterested in his family. When he and Hazel get together, it is always an adventure.

So what's keeping them apart? Their newly-developed friendship is so important to both of them that they don't dare risk losing it. Hazel worries about being way to obnoxious for Josh and Josh thinks he might not be enough for Hazel. Of course, they can only put their feelings aside for so long.

The only thing I didn't love about this book was that the epilogue is several years in the future, which is something I almost never like. Otherwise, it was just exactly what I needed right now. So funny, so sweet, so quick to read - I think I read it in about 36 hours. I almost wish I had slowed down to make it last longer, but it's like candy and I couldn't resist.

I also really liked Christina Lauren's book Dating You / Hating You so I guess now I can consider myself a fan. I'm definitely in a space where I'll probably be reading a lot more romance so I may check out their other books.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

The Giver of Stars

The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes (2019)

Jojo Moyes became very popular with Me Before You, a book that I am still very uninterested in reading. I've not been interested in any of her books until this one, a historical novel about the packhorse librarians of Kentucky during the Depression. Librarians, you say? Why yes, yes this does interest me. It helps that one of my coworkers who doesn't like her older books told me that this one was good.

It begins with Alice, a young English woman who meets and marries an American named Bennett Van Cleve, partly just to escape her unsatisfying life in which she is constantly disappointing her parents. So she moves to rural Kentucky with Bennett and his father, and proceeds to disappoint both of them. But! She meets Margery O'Hare, who is running the local packhorse library and signs up to help with book deliveries to poor families who aren't able to come into town. It's hard work, but very satisfying, unlike her lackluster marriage, which has basically fizzled before it even got started.

The Van Cleves don't like Margery because of her family and disapprove of Alice being associated with her. I don't think Bennett actually cares that much, but he just goes along with whatever his father wants because he's a total wuss. But his father continues to get riled up and starts complaining pretty publicly about the library, disapproving of the effects of all this book readin' on local women who are no longer doing their housework because they are instead reading novels (yeah!) and also there's a rumor of a very inappropriate book about sex being passed around. In short, Mr. Van Cleve is an ass, and also a total hypocrite since he owns the local mines and is not looking out for the well-being of the people who risk their lives working for him.

Well, there is so much more to this story but of course I don't want to give it all away. A lot of things come up about the conditions of women in this place and time, and I really rooted for all the librarians who were bucking tradition in various ways. I loved Margery O'Hare especially, the leader of the library and pariah in the town, who very much lived her life the way she wanted without a care for appearance or expectations. Of course it hurts her, but she is a very strong woman. Alice had a transformation throughout the book and it was great to see how she navigated her terrible marriage and her friendships and family expectations, and figured out what she really wanted for herself.

My only criticism is that it all wrapped up so very quickly at the end. I hoped things would be pretty neat and tidy (we're in the midst of a pandemic and I don't need more bad news) but I just wish more time had been allotted to the ending and how everything turned out for everyone. But that didn't put much of a damper on my enjoyment.

This story has it all - adventure, romance, even a murder trial - and I had a great time immersing myself in it.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Coupla graphic novels

Recently I read two very different graphic novels, which I'm combining into one post.

Swimsuit by Rachel Ang (2018)

In this quiet story, a young woman named Jenny meets up with a former love interest at a local pool. They have some awkward conversation, go swimming for a bit, then sit next to the pool. They witness a traumatic event happen to another person, at which her ex says, "This sort of thing seems to always happen when we're together." Then they part ways, Jenny goes home, and is sad.

It's a very moody story, made more so by the blue-on-pale-yellow drawings on every page. Jenny is clearly self-conscious in her bathing suit, especially as her ex shows her photos of his new girlfriend. Watching someone come close to death does not lighten the mood. It was all very uncomfortable, yet relatable.

Mostly told through sparse conversation and simple but emotional drawings, it was very understated yet powerful.

The Prince and the Dressmaker by Jen Wang (2018)

My coworkers have been raving about this one for a while! It's about a prince whose parents are trying to find a wife for him, and the dressmaker he hires to make dresses for him. He has a whole secret life where he dresses as a very fashionable woman and he needs to keep it a secret. Frances is happy for the opportunity to work for a prince and her work is really getting noticed - but she has to stay out of the spotlight because people know she works for Prince Sebastian and they can't know that this fashionable woman wearing such amazing creations is also Sebastian.

This story is very sweet and I love how their friendship bloomed and how Frances accepted Sebastian for who he is without question. The art was colorful and dramatic and everything about it was so much fun.