So when I began to read The Kinship of Secrets by Eugenia Kim, I could vicariously relate to the premise. A husband, wife and young child have left Korea for the United States, not realizing that a Civil War was imminent or that the conflict between the North and South would wreck havoc with their lives. It seems that their youngest daughter was left behind with family members and now there is no way they can reunite despite their best efforts. The tale is basically told from three points of view, Inja who finds herself quickly migrating with her relatives to South Korea away from the rebels who are brutalizing their neighborhood in the North, her sister Miran who is becoming Americanized in her new homeland, and Najin their mother who is heartbroken that she cannot find a way to reconcile her family so instead sends frequent care packages to show how much she loves her displaced child. Even though they eventually once again become a family, the ten plus years of separation have repercussions that are not easily resolved, especially when there are secrets hanging over their heads.
A great idea, despite the uneven pacing and plot development, made worthwhile if only as an exploration of an honorable people caught in an untenable situation. This is an approachable story dealing with a country which is very much in the news as our President plans to meet once again with Kim Yon Un to continue a discourse once again encouraging a ban on the development of nuclear weapons so that the 60+ year Korean conflict might one day be history.
Three and a half stars and a thank you to Edelweiss and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Luckily for us, Sarah McCoy is a fellow fan. What fascinated her was the little comment Marilla made to Anne about John Blythe, Gilbert’s dad, who had once been her beau until they had some silly quarrel and she was too proud to back down. That aside stuck in McCoy’s craw and motivated her to develop an entire back story about Marilla Cuthbert leading to research on that area of Canadian history and a trip to Avonlea in Prince Edward Island (where she developed a connection with the descendants of Lucy Maude Montgomery, the creator of Anne of Green Gables) with her mother who had introduced Sarah to these beloved books. Wanting to do justice to Montgomery’s intent, McCoy studied her original words so as to stay true to the characters while also allowing herself some poetical license in the writing of Marilla of Green Gables.
Sarah, you couldn’t have picked a more worthy subject and I’m pleased to say you’ve done it justice. For those who love Anne with an “e”, you will delight in getting to know the back story behind the straightforward, intelligent, strong willed, but secretly kindhearted Marilla. Despite getting teary eyed more than once (after all I know how it all ends), it was well worth the angst to discover the details, fictional thou they may be, of one of the most stalwart characters in literature.
And if you felt McCoy strayed too far from Montgomery’s intent/style to portray life in Avonlea during the mid-19th century, then there is a solution – Write your own book.
I’d never read a book by Canadian author Michael Ondaatje, but his 1992 Man Booker Prize winner, The English Patient, is on my “to read” list, so I thought I’d give his newest novel, Warlight, which is on the long list for this year’s Man Booker Prize, a try.
Part one of the novel deals with the childhood in 1945 London of Nathaniel (Stitch) whose parents abandon him and his sister Rachel (Wren) when they are in their teens and place them in the hands of some somewhat unsavory characters (The Moth and his pal The Darter) who involve them in their nefarious everyday activities. Not that fourteen year old Nathaniel minds. Who wouldn’t want to skip school to drive around to various destinations with a car full of greyhounds or, better yet, steer a boat through the waterways of England to various ports to deliver these same goods – unknown quantities with questionable pedigrees – to compete in underground dog racing? He learns a lot about secrecy, especially concealing his sexual trysts with Agnes, who finds them empty houses for sale listed with her real estate brother – homes bereft of furniture where they can do the deed without being disturbed. Fun times, but living on the edge can be dangerous and the siblings start to wonder where their mother really is (they could care less about their dad) when they discover her trunk, which had been carefully packed in their presence, untouched in the attic still full of her things. She definitely is not in the stated destination of Singapore.
Which leads to Part Two, where Nathanial, fifteen years later, is on a quest to discover the truth about his mum, Rose. Rachel is out of the scene and no one else is around from those forgone times of his youth, so he’s going it alone, surreptitiously searching for evidence at the Intelligence Agency where he works. Nathaniel’s narrative provides details from his teen years as clues into the truth, showing up as he attempts to find some sort of explanation, as the faces and names from his past provide the stepping stones necessary to reconstruct his mother’s days during the war to find the answers he desperately needs in order to move forward with his life.
Reading Warlight is like walking through a murky night getting glimpses of where you are headed but still not quite sure you are going in the right direction. Some of the visualizations are fascinating, but the plot meanders making it difficult to follow, causing the reader to make guesses as to what is actually happening, not daring to ever ask why. The concept of Schwer, part of the secret language between siblings, is ever present, representing the struggles during a post war London reconstructing after the Blitz. Even the occasional ray of sunshine Ondaatje allows to peer through his words does not provide enough light to overcome the dreariness left by the war nor its effects on this family. A thoroughly depressing book which fails to be lifted out of its angst by Nathaniel’s discoveries. However, the entire tale has a haunting effect as compared to most literature which is too often read and forgotten, although it is a complicated, difficult read, not for the casual reader. Three and a half stars.
A thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
It is misleading to say that The Unbinding of Mary Reade (please note the extra “e”) is based on historical facts since the author, Miriam McNamara plays fast and loose with the so called “truth”. Yes, Mary Read, Anne Bonnie, and Calico Jack Rackham were pirates together, but the timeline is ignored leading to a misleading narrative. What is true is that the illegitimate Mary Read was brought up disguised as her half brother Mark so as to financially benefit off her “grandmother” with the proceeds of her deceit supporting her mother. Eventually she joined the British Military and fought against the French in the Nine Years War. Mary married, settled in the Netherlands, and ran an inn, but after her husband’s early death she once again took up the role as a man and ended up on a ship traveling to the West Indies which was taken hostage by pirates who she gladly joined. She accepted the governor’s pardon in 1718-19 and became a privateer, basically a pirate for the crown, but the ship mutinied and it was at this point she joined the pirates Calico Jack Rackham and Anne Bonny (who also was disguised as a man). Eventually both their true identities were revealed. Ironically, Anne’s father had unsuccessfully forced Anne to take on a boys identity in her youth to hide the fact she was his illegitimate daughter.
While in the book McNamara portrays the two female pirates as roughly the same age, in fact, Mary Read was thirteen to fifteen years older. Of interest is the gender fluid nature of both these female buccaneers who seemed to take pleasure from men but were rumored to have an intimate relationship with each other as well, switching back and forth between the sexes as the situation dictated. That they were fierce fighters is not in doubt, shown by their efforts to hold off the invaders intent on taking them captive, although they were eventually outnumbered and captured because the male crew were too drunk to fight. Both ladies were “with child” so spared the fate of their male counterparts who were hanged for high treason. While Mary is believed to have died of child fever in a Jamaican prison (buried April 28, 1721), Anne was luckier, possibly rescued by her influential father, William Cormac, ending up in her birthplace of South Carolina.
As you can see, Mary’s life was actually quite fascinating, but the author somehow found a way to make it mundane. I had to force myself to finish this book, which seemed to drag on and on.
Back and forth between 1704, 1707, 1717, and 1719 alternating between the locales of London and the Caribbean, the backstory comes too late, leaving the reader confused as to exactly what is happening. Ultimately, the intriguing details of the lives of these two rebellious woman are not used to their best advantage. There was too much tell, not enough show, with the author too often describing the events rather than putting the characters in the midst of the action.
However, this book’s one saving grace is bringing Mary and Anne to our attention and I suggest a look at A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates, published in 1724, which provides the basis of many of the myths surrounding this fascinating period on the high seas.
Two stars and a thank you though both Netgalley and Edelweiss for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review. This review also appears on Goodreads.
Everyone in Brooklyn was a Dodgers fan at Ebbots Field, at least until the team moved to Los Angeles. If you lived in this borough of New York City from 1951 to 1952 you probably attended Brooklyn College (my father did) and spent time at Coney Island eating a hot dog at Nathan’s. The sand was hot, the ocean cold, the beach was so crowded you had to stake out a good spot, but it was home.
In Brooklyn you lived in a building, often in tiny apartments, saving up money to move where you could have a plot of land of your own. (Actually our apartment was large, inherited from my grandmother who was the original tenant – gotta love that rent control). Having a house with a yard was a dream which every child carried in their heart (and we had to move to a suburb in Buffalo to get that house).
Despite being a large, crowded city, the neighborhoods kept life intimate. You knew the people in your building and the vendors in the local shops, mainly family owned. Yet in between was the busyness of Brooklyn which carried a flavor not found in the surrounding small towns in upstate New York.
Being a diverse metropolis, the rules were a little different. While the various ethnic groups congregated amongst themselves, the shopping centers had to be open to all, whether Irish, Italian, Jewish, Hispanic, or Black, especially here where so many immigrants settled after making the trip across the Atlantic.
This is the city where I was born (at the Caledonia Hospital on Caton Ave). It’s not necessarily the exact place described in Brooklyn by Colm Toibin, but my childhood occurred a few years later. (My grandparents were also born in Brooklyn, but their folks came over from Eastern Europe at an earlier, even more desperate time in the late 1800s). Yet, the feel is recognizable.
Enter Eilis Lacey, an Irish immigrant from the small town of Enniscorthy, who is sponsored by Father Flood in her move to his Irish Parish. He sets up a room for her in an Irish Boarding House with 5 other Irish girls, and arranges for a job as a salesgirl at Bartocci’s, a local department store. Then when Eilis gets homesick, he signs her up for night classes at Brooklyn College to earn her certificate as a bookkeeper, a subject she studied back in Ireland. She meets a nice boy at the Friday Night Dances at the Parish and her life seems perfect, but “stuff” happens.
Eilis is the type of person who goes along to get along. She’s from an era and a culture where women don’t have much of a say in their lives. They are obedient children who marry, keep house, and have children of their own. Ellis seems to go with the flow, unable to speak up when events spin out of control forcing her on a path which she isn’t sure is the right one for her. Her first job back in Ireland is at a local grocery store and the owner simply sends for her, unasked, when she discovers Ellis has a talent for figures. Rose, Ellis’ older sister, arranges for her to travel to America, and “surprises” her with the “fait accompli”. Her behavior at the rooming house is dictated by the owner, and her free time is guided by her housemates. It takes feigning an illness to get out of the Friday night dance, since Ellis doesn’t have the courage to outright refuse to go. Even her beau decides when their relationship should go to the next level and she just guesses that this is okay, although in her heart she is unsure. Fate seems to be her guideposts, and the tide of life sweeps her along its path to the next steps on the most convenient road.
I’m not judging, since her life doesn’t seem to be a hardship, one just wonders what “might have been” and the author even gives us a taste of that before he pulls the rug out from under the reader and has circumstances steer Ellis’ direction back on track.
A delightful and easy read on a bygone era in a beloved (for me) spot. Four stars and a thank you to Netgalley for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
What pushes a piece of literature from a mere book into a work of art? Is it the ability to construct a significant moment in time transporting us to another era? Is it the exquisitely expressive language making the surroundings come alive? Or is it the richness of the characters spawning a three dimensional persona which transcends the words on the page?
Il Gattopardo (The Leopard) by Giuseppe Tomasi Di Lampedusa is a novel which demonstrates all of the above and more. Perhaps it’s because the story is based on the life of Lampedusa’s Great Grandfather as well as the Palace outside his home of Palmero which was bombed during World War II. Perhaps it’s because The Leopard explores the ramifications of the reunification of Italy, focusing on Garibaldi who overthrew the monarchy and was then himself overthrown. Perhaps it’s because the author had lived through two world wars and was full of memories of a different time when being an aristocrat represented a noble dignity which was revered by the common folk.
In any case, Lampedusa spent the last few years of his life creating a piece of literature which was eventually considered one of the greatest Italian novels of the twentieth century, winning the Premio Strega in 1959. Unfortunately, these accolades came too late, since he was unsuccessful in finding anyone willing to publish this book during his lifetime.
Don Fabrizio is a Sicilian Prince from Salina watching the aristocratic way of life fading away during a series of political upheavals in 1865. A dreamer, forced to focus on his day to day responsibilities, he finds refuge in watching the stars and studying mathematics, a past time disdained by the common man but excused in someone so distinguished and revered. The Prince has been brought up with refined sensibilities, polite to a fault, and observing all the niceties of nobility, attributes he finds lacking in his own sons. It’s his charismatic nephew, Tancredi Falconari, who has the qualities to carry on the tradition. Fabrizio, at the age of forty five, looks back on his life contemplating the past and reliving the glory days via the romance between Tancredi and the bewitching Angelica Sedara. When Angelica kisses the middle-aged Don on the check and calls him uncle, he gladly gives her a piece of his heart.
The climax of the plot is not the Leopard’s death at the age of seventy +, but the ball he attends where he sees his former lovers, now old like him, and laments his lost youth. Hiding away in the library, Tancredi and Angelica find him and drag him back to the party where he, an excellent dancer, has one waltz with his beautiful niece-to-be, becoming the focus of attention for a roomful of admirers who spontaneously break into applause. Not wanting to be a third wheel, he resists their pleas to join them for supper and instead stands in the corner watching their mutual devotion while eating a decadent dessert. In the movie, starring an all Italian cast (except for lead actor, Burt Lancaster), this scene is the major focus of the film.
In the end all that’s left are his elderly three daughters trying to hang on to what remains of their family dignity via the private religious services in the family chapel. Connecting their bittersweet past to “modern times” is the pelt of their long deceased papa’s favorite dog, Bendico. In order to move forward, leaving unrequited grievances behind, this symbol must be discarded. After all, it’s all about things “changing in order that they may remain the same”.
This book is so rich in imagery and content that my remarks fail to do it justice. Amazingly, Archibald Colquhoun captures the melancholy essence of Lampedusa’s words in his translation. In fact, the reader would never guess that the original was not written in English. While there isn’t a lot of action, the strong presence of the characters, especially The Prince, carries the plot. Five stars.
Since The Secret Keeper by Kate Morton is a murder mystery of sorts, it’s difficult to summarize without resorting to spoilers. Suffice it to say that daughter Laurel Nicolson witnessed her mother Dorothy murder a man when she was sixteen and now that her elderly mom is on her death bed, the sixty plus year old daughter decides this is her last chance to discover the truth. Her brother Geoffrey, a babe in his mother’s arms, was celebrating his second birthday, so he only has a vague feeling that something untoward happened on that date. Now, fifty years later, Laurel decides it’s finally time to clue him in so they can work together to figure out the details of their mom’s past.
Moving back and forth through time, from the present (2011) to the strife of wartime London (1941) to life as part of a loving family with five children (1961) and various years in between, the plot unfolds giving us bits and pieces of the tale – like a giant jig saw puzzle which has just enough blank spaces so that the big picture remains unrecognizable. Unfortunately, it takes way too many pages to discover the truth, and not until the disconcerting ending does the story finally come together.
While there are some obscure clues at the beginning of the book, by the time their relevance is revealed we’ve forgotten the details. With a slow start which doesn’t pick up until much later in the narration, I feel the main problem is the characterizations. The self absorbed Dolly is just plain unlikeable and at times her actions are despicable. She’s not the only one portrayed in a bad light. Laurel, a famous actress, is not a warm and fuzzy figure, even if the reader is sympathetic to her quest. Her numerous siblings are one dimensional, although the quirky Geoffrey has been fleshed out a bit. While the main focus was developing the convoluted plot (there’s a lot of tragedy along the way providing some sort of logical explanation for the evolving action), I felt more time should have been spent providing some depth to the secondary personalities. In my mind, any book over four hundred pages needs to justify the extra length and despite the surprise ending, this one fell short.
Four stars (just barely and only because of the “twist”) but it could have been so much better with a little tweaking.
Everybody has a secret, but when someone’s past interfere with the lives of others, it’s no longer a secret, it’s a crime. Then to make it all more interesting, add in a twist of the bizarre – perhaps a freak of nature, perhaps a supernatural phenomena, perhaps a curse perpetuated on all mankind hidden away until the right time to strike.
When would such an evil manifest itself? Just look at the hidden endangerments of our past, such as out in the wilderness of the California Trail from 1946-47 where travel was already fraught with jeopardy from the varieties of both human nature and the elements. Take a true story such as, The Donner Party, which already has a tendency to make the reader squeamish, then come up with an alternate explanation for the tragedy which took the lives of half the pioneers heading west through the treacherous Hastings Cutoff and the Sierra Nevada, made even more deadly by the brutal winter, and add in an evil lurking along the trail.
The Hunger by Alma Katsu intertwines historical facts with a fictional explanation to create an aberrant account depicting the lives of a group of travelers heading to California. Put ninety people (young and old, haves and have nots, families and loners) together and there’s bound to be trouble, even without a danger lurking in the background. Warning: don’t get too attached to any of the individual members of this trip, even the ones who sense what is happening, because their chances of survival are minimal.
At first I thought this was just another take on the Donner Party catastrophe, but then I began to realize this particular quirky tale was perhaps a bit more. The breezy style of the author rounded out the personalities of the numerous characters, adding extra details and motivations via letters or backstories from an earlier time. Although I knew the foregone conclusion, the author was able to put a different slant on the saga to keep me guessing right up to the end. My major complaint was the difficulty I had keeping track of all the names and identities of everyone in the story, which could have been easily solved by a brief annotated list or family tree of all the participants in the caravan. It need not be stated that the unanticipated shortage of supplies, along with an enemy with a voracious appetite, leant itself to a title indicating the need for food.
Four stars and a thank you to Edelweiss and Putnam Sons for providing this ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Kate Quinn takes her time telling her story, but that’s okay, it’s quite a story to tell. The Alice Network is the tale of three broken people who through a common cause are able to help each other heal their wounds.
A slightly pregnant Charlie St Clair is on her way to Switzerland via a stop in England to take care of her little problem. At least that’s what her mom thinks, but Charlie has a different idea on how to take advantage of the situation. With an address and a mission, she locates a gnarled-handed, disheveled old drunken woman – Eve Gardener, the unlikely key to answering her questions. Somehow Charlie perseveres and convinces Eve to join her quest, not realizing that her guide has a similar goal in mind. Eve’s driver, the Scotsman Finn Kilgore, assists the two unlikely travel companions in their attempt to find the whereabouts of Rose, Charlie’s cousin who disappeared during the horror of the German occupation. Just two years after the war, the motley crew makes their way to France to track down the clues revealed to Eve via her contacts from a mysterious past.
Don’t be fooled. Eve has her own sad tale to tell, dating from her days as a spy in France during the German occupation in World War I. Eve was a part of The Alice Network, an auspicious group of women who used their wits to extract military secrets from the enemy. Eve’s subtle wiles were beneficial while on the job at Le Lithe, an upscale bistro frequented by the top German military brass, facilitated by Rene Bordelon, a self centered profiteer who relished the good things in life and didn’t care if the paying customers were the enemy, as long as his elaborate needs were met.
Quinn alternates between Eve and Charlie telling their back stories until the subplots intersect as their search expands to the next level and truths are revealed. 3/4 of the way through the reader thinks “well that’s it, what more is there”, yet there is so much more to be told. Interweaved throughout the narrative is the budding romance between Charlie and Finn (who must contend with his own demons), with their mutual allegiance towards Eve expanding to an even higher regard for one another as the search continues throughout the French countryside as the three pursue a resolution to past wrongs.
Quinn perfectly masters the intertwining of past and “present” in her fictionalized tale of true events. While the main characters are fabrications used to move the plot forward, the details of the Alice Network and the subsequent capture of its participants are historically accurate. Even more impressive is the clever commingling of truth and fiction to create a flawless story. Whether or not you like any of the three main characters or approve of their actions, this historical novel is a compelling tale difficult to put down in spite of its 500 plus pages. A must read! Five stars.