The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan

paintedgirlsI felt like everyone had read The Painted Girls but me. And that is part of the reason why I was resisting it. Sometimes books just get to be too popular and they become more of a fad than something worthy of reading. This is particularly true of so-called ‘women’s fiction’, a term I loathe. I didn’t read Eat, Pray Love or The Secret Daughter for that exact reason. Too much hype, not enough substance.

Thankfully, The Painted Girls by Cathy Marie Buchanan does not fall into that category. It really is worthy of all the hype it is getting. I should have known it would be. Buchanan’s previous book, The Day the Falls Stood Still was good. The Painted Girls, however, surpasses it by miles. It is a fully developed and very mature novel – much more than what I’d expect from some one’s sophomore attempt. The story is complex and nuanced and the writing is effortless. I enjoyed it far more than I expected and it contributed to a number of late nights because I couldn’t put it down.

The story is set in the late 19th century Paris. Buchanan weaves together two seemingly unrelated sets of historical facts to create a nuanced and exciting story. The first thread revolves around the Paris opera and the Van Goethem girls who are ballerinas there. The eldest gets sucked into a like of ill-repute. The middle child becomes a favorite of the ballet, models for Degas and gains an admirer who has the potential to life her out of a life of penury. Interwoven with their story is a tale of murder and ensuing trial. Together, the two threads paint an interesting picture of late 19th century life in Paris.

Who would like this book? The Painted Girls has been praised by just about every new outlet there is, so it is not unreasonable to suggest that most people would enjoy this novel. I don’t normally read historical fiction, but I found this to be extremely well researched. Buchanan’s website is well worth checking out as she has included images of the art she references in the book. This book is also sure to be a big hit with book clubs. Buchanan is very good at book club outreach and is willing to attend electronically through Skype.

& Sons by David Gilbert

and sonsAs I was reading &Sons by David Gilbert I realized that everyone is talking about it. It is clearly touted to be one of the big books going into the fall literary season. But does that mean it is enjoyable?

& Sons appears to be loosely based on a J.D. Salinger type character – the great, but elusive writer A.N. Dyer. It starts at the funeral of Dyer’s best and life long friend and initially appears to be a bit of a meditation on death. As the story proceeds we are introduced to Dyer’s three sons through an unreliable narrator who longs to be part of the Dyer family. The novel unfolds as a series of digressions, excerpts of Dyer’s novels and letters between Dyer and his best friend.

Overall much is attempted in &Sons, but not all of it is successful. Above all the writing is brilliant. Gilbert can weave together the most wonderful sentences. If it weren’t for his stunning prose I would have put &Sons down without finishing it, something I rarely do. But for all that great writing, I found the book a struggle. I was bored for the first 150 pages and by the end I found myself skimming, looking ahead for the next great sentence or phrase without really taking in much else.

Who would like this book? I rarely categorized books by gender; I think that is somewhat derivative, but in this case I might argue that &Sons would be more greatly appreciated by men. All the characters of any significance are men and women only figure into the narrative as caregivers or objects of attraction. This novel should also be read for those who like to be in the know about hot literary fiction. That does not mean you will enjoy it, only that I think it will be talked about among literary types. If you want to read a novel about a crotchety old writer, I would suggest going for Barney’s Version instead of this one. &Sons has all the bitterness but non of the wit of Richler’s great work.

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

sisterlandThe thing about Curtis Sittenfeld is that she is a great writer. I was worried when I first read about Sisterland that it was treading into questionable territory. It is a story about two twins with the ability to sense the future. The one twin, Kate, tries to suppress this tendency and live a normal, suburban life as a stay-at-home mom with two kids. Her sister Vi, on the other hand, opts for a flamboyant approach. She becomes a psychic, and gets on national television as she predicts a major earthquake in their home town of St. Louis.

Sittenfeld has developed some really great characters in Sisterland. Vi is completely over the top. I think we all know someone like her in our lives and they make us cringe. But somehow, Sittenfeld is able to convey why Vi is the way she is so that rather than being purely repelled by her, the reader understands her and even sides with her at times. By way of contrast, her twin sister Kate (also known as Daisy) appears to be laudable and upstanding, but then shows a darker side to her character – one that is in someways repellent. This creates a nice interplay on the reader’s emotions as the story proceeds.

Much of Sisterland is centered on the domestic sphere of stay at home parents and trials that entails. As a stay at home mom I thought that was the last thing I wanted to read about. Thankfully, Sittenfeld does not make the role of a full time parent look easy, nor does she trivialize it. She brings issues of race, gender, media overload and paranoia into this realm, where they have as much relevance as anywhere else.

Who would like this book? I don’t think I ever would have picked up this book if it wasn’t by Sittenfeld. I absolutely loved her first novel, Prep, and recommend it to everyone. On the surface, her more recent novels have looked as though they may not appeal to me, but her writing always rescues them from banality. I hate myself for saying this, but at first glance I felt that Sisterland may fall into Jodi Picoult’s territory. It doesn’t. It provides much fodder for discussion and would make a great book club pick.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan

crazy-rich-asiansThere has been a lot in the media about Kevin Kwan‘s first novel Crazy Rich Asians. I started hearing about it months before it was published. Sometimes media hype is a good thing, and sometimes a bad thing as it unreasonably builds up my expectations. In this case I would say the media hype has been dead on. Crazy Rich Asians is a delightful read that is both humorous and insightful. Without a doubt it is is a great summer read.

Kwan’s novel is set among the super rich of Singapore’s Chinese community. This set is closely knit, perhaps a bit xenophobic and extremely elitist. It is not just who you know, but also how much money you have that counts. Into this pool of sharks Nick brings his American Born Chinese girlfriend who has not been informed of Nick’s moneyed background. Needless to say the elite do not want to let this insider in and let one their prime bachelors go to a nobody. Private jets and exclusive resorts, as well as Asia’s biggest wedding of the year, are complicit in making Rachel feel as though she does not belong.

Crazy Rich Asians is the perfect title for Kwan’s novel, because that is precisely what these people are. They exist in a world that the rest of us get fleeting glimpses of, but do not properly inhabit (unless of course, you are crazy, rich and Asian). Many of the characters are mere stereotypes but because of Kwan’s biting humor and insight this is alright. Sometimes for satire to be effective you need the stereotypes. My one complaint might be that there were too many characters to keep straight, but in the end the details of the individual did not matter so much as what they represented.

Who would like this book? This novel is meant for those who enjoy a humorous commentary on a sector of society that I previously had little exposure to. These are the new rich and the jet set. There are a number of different story lines, but I was invested in the outcome of each one. I stayed up far too late on more than one occasion in an attempt to find out what would happen. In addition to being a commentary on the super rich, Kwan’s novel also delves into what people will do when there is a perceived threat from outsiders. Overall, i recommend: read it and enjoy it.

The Last Word by Lisa Lutz

last-wordI love the Spellmans, I truly do, but The Last Word, the latest installment in the Spellman saga felt tired. The Spellmans are an odd ball family of private investigators created by author Lisa Lutz. Their previous novels are light, funny detective fare, comparable to Janet Evanovich’s Stephanie Plum series (review). The Last Word can also fall into that category – it was light and funny, but it was also too long and a little rambling. And for the first couple hundred pages I wasn’t entirely sure if there was even a mystery to solve.

However, Lutz has included all her tried and true hooks that made me love her previous novels. There are ample footnotes (as a former scholar I find footnotes to be enticing), numerous digressions and a spattering of primary documents. The characters she worked so hard to develop over the earlier books in the series are still ridiculous, funny and up to their usual hi jinks.

As I read The Last Word I realized that I missed the previous book in the series. That did not make a huge difference to my appreciation of the story. Lutz’s ample use of footnotes makes it so that any of her books can work as a stand alone. The most significant change in this installment is that Izzy has taken over her parent’s private investigation agency in a hostile takeover. Not surprisingly her parents rebel.

Who would like this book? I stand by my long term commitment to recommending the Spellman books to those who enjoy light, humorous mysteries. BUT as committed as I am to Lutz’s earlier books, I would be hesitant to recommend The Last Word. If you’ve read the other books in the series then you are invested in the characters and it may be worth the read, but on it’s own I would give it a pass. That’s something I don’t often say.

Letter From Skye by Jessica Brockmole

letters-from-skyeLetters From Skye is one of those novels that shocked me beyond belief. I thought the cover looked boring. It is an epistolary novel, which I often find to be gimmicky. And it is a love story, nay I say romance? All these things together for me do not add up to a promising book. The reason I picked it up was because it is set in Scotland and the period was somewhat interesting to me – the two world wars.

But I can honestly say that once I started reading it I found it difficult to put down. The novel starts as a correspondence between a poet living on the Isle of Skye, off the coast of Scotland and a brash young American fan. By the second or third letter between them I was hooked. In spite of the distance between them, they seemed to connect in a surprising way. I was cheering them on and wanted them to meet, to fall in love, to take things to the next level.

The other thread of the novel involves letters between the Skye poetess’s daughter and her best friend turned fiance during the second world war. In these letters Margaret seeks to learn more about her mother’s life before she was born. Of course, there is a secret there that is revealed not too long after her mother goes missing.

A novel such as this – letters between lovers – could easily slip into the sentimental.That is where Jessica Brockmole‘s great strength lays; she manages to communicate passion, love and longing through well developed characters rather than falling into the predictable tropes of romance. The reason I wanted to keep reading the novel was not because of the romance, but because the characters were so engaging. In addition to (forbidden) love, they had struggles of their own and fears to overcome.

Who would like this book? If you are travelling to Scotland, I highly recommend this book. It gives the contrasting flavors of rural island life as well as the comparatively cosmopolitan life of Edinburgh. Not to be out done, Glasgow also makes a brief appearance. This is also a great novel for those who enjoy the epistolary form. The blogosphere has recently been abuzz over Frances and Bernard, another novel of letters, but I feel that of the two Letters From Skye was more readable.

Closed Doors by Lisa O’Donnell

closed doorsI’ve been wanting to read The Death of Bees by Lisa O’Donnell since it came out over a year ago. I’m still on the waiting list at the library! So when I saw that her latest, Closed Doors, was available through NetGalley, I jumped at the chance to read and review it.

Closed Doors is set on a small island off the west coast of Scotland. Told from the point of view of an eleven year old boy, it recounts his perceptions of what is going on behind the closed doors in his own house and throughout the small community in which he lives. Initially, one is lead to believe that the secret behind the closed doors of the narrator’s own house is spousal abuse and in spite of the mother’s hospital stay, this is not the case. Something far more sinister is afoot, and it effects the whole island community.

I was truly impressed by O’Donnell’s writing and storytelling abilities. Her subtle use of Scottish dialect immediately established a sense of place without falling into impenetrable slang. Her pacing was impeccable, unraveling the story bit by bit. I read the novel quickly and never wanted to put it down.

I am not overly fond of stories told from the point of view of children. That is the one thing that I didn’t really like about the novel. It is merely a stylistic choice O’Donnell made that I do not necessarily agree with. I would have been happier if the naive observations of a child had been broken up with commentary from one or more of the other characters. By way of contrast, in Golden Boy (review) Tarttelin employs a child as one of several narrators. This makes the child’s observations more profound by contrasting them with others, rather than tiresome and twee.

Who would like this book? Regardless of whether or not you like Scottish literature, I highly recommend this novel. The small town setting is somewhat universal (unless you are from a big city). One of the most important facets of the novel is concern about what others will think. In a small town everyone seems to know everyone else’s business and moreover, has an opinion on it. This certainly comes through in O’Donnell’s story.

Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil

narcopolisWhen it comes to choosing books I know what I like and as a result I rarely start a book I can’t finish. On its surface Narcopolis by Jeet Thayil appeared to be a book I would like: an out of the ordinary Indian tale of Bombay’s drug infested underworld. All good, right? Add to that the fact that it was nominated for the Man Booker Prize in 2012 and it sounds like a sure fire winner.

I should have known after the seven page Prologue with no punctuation that it was not the book for me. Thayil writes experimentally through out the narrative. He is, among other things, a performance poet, so I knew things were going to get a little out there. Generally a little experimentation does not turn me off, but compound it with drug induced dream sequences and it left me with no idea what was going on most of the time.

In spite of the often times impenetrable prose, Narcopolis did bring back happy memories of Bombay for me. Thayil includes some wonderful descriptions of a flooded metropolis during the monsoon season. His use of Hindi in the narrative also intrigued me. Admittedly, the Hindi I know has very little to do with drug culture, but linguistically it was still nice to hear such proficient Hindi gutter talk. For most readers, however, the use of Hindi may obfuscate larger parts of the narrative.

Who would like this book? Narcopolis is not an easy read. And this is coming from someone who enjoys a challenging read. It may appeal to those who like the Beat writers for its hallucinatory prose. The narrative includes many dream sequences, which I believe as a category should be banned from literature. Listening to your partner’s dreams is bad enough, let alone reading about them in a book you picked up for entertainment.

Five Star Billionaire by Tash Aw

5starbillionaireTash Aw  is one of those writers who I really want to like. I get really excited when I see that he has a new book out, but while I’m reading it I always feel let down. That is not to say that he isn’t a great writer, it’s more that as a writer he and I don’t quite get each other.

His latest novel, Five Star Billionaire, seems to fall into a group with a few other new novels about rich Asians, namely Mohsin Hamid’s How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia and Kevin Kwan’s Crazy Rich Asians. Two are put forth as quasi self help books, two deal with the very, very rich and all three of them became muddled together in my head.

Basically, Five Star Billionaire focuses on five individuals: Gary, a pop star, Justin a fallen scion of the filthy rich, Walter a self help writing crook, Pheobe a small town girl and a successful business woman from a well off background. Each chapter is told from one of their points of view and before long we see that their lives are intertwined in spite of the different worlds in which they inhabit. They are all tied together as Malaysians of Chinese descent trying to make a go of success in Shanghai.

Like other books I have read lately, the most interesting part of Five Star Billionaire was its depiction of new China. Hour of the Rat gave a taste of what life is like in the new factory economies, particularly for ‘factory girls’. Five Star Billionaire is about those who make it a step above ‘factory girls’ into the heart of the riches of new China in Shanghai. This is the world of fast deals, corruption and money changing hands. No one is what they appear, and everyone appears to be after more money.

Overall, I can’t say that I really enjoyed the novel. I found the female characters the most compelling, but the men somewhat flat. Once the various story lines started to cross over and intertwine I was hoping for more, but the intertwining seemed to come to very little. I wanted some great, grand finale where everything works out for everyone, but that was not to be.

Who would like this book? I would like to stress that even though I did not particularly enjoy Five Star Billionaire, it does not mean that others won’t. Tash Aw is a highly praised and award winning writer with a solid fan base. I think in this book Aw is trying to pose a significant political commentary on the plight of overseas Chinese in the new China. It may be because of my own ignorance on the topic that this did not come through as clearly as it could have. Five Star Billionaire does give insight into the rising economic force of the new Asia. Given the population that entails, I think it is important for all of us to gain a better understanding of the situation.