The premise of The Gilded Years by Karin Tanabe immediately grabbed my attention. Set at Vassar at the end of the 19th century, it tells the story of Anita Hemmings the first black women to graduate from the gilded institution. While at Vasser, she passed as white until … well, you know. It is wonderfully researched and I loved the afterword that tells you what parts are made up and what is true. Continue reading
I recently read and reviewed A God in Every Stone by Kamila Shamsie. As I mentioned then, Shamsie is one of my favorite South Asian writers, so when Ali at HeavenAli said Burnt Shadows was even better, I considered it a challenge. It had long been on my TBR list and decided now was the time to dive in. Continue reading
The Wicked Girls by Alex Marwood is not my typical fare. It is a thriller about the unintentionally intertwined lives of two women forever joined together by a crime they committed in their childhoods. After serving their time in juvenile detention they are given new identities for their own protection and go on to try to make new lives for themselves.
Much of the novel has to do with living a lie. The two protagonists, Kirsty and Amber, have to live their lives as adults without revealing their pasts. For both of them, this means never revealing to their partners their true selves. For Kirsty, a suburban working mom, this puts strain on her family life. For Amber, on the other hand, her partner is equally cagey about his past.
The Wicked Girls, like many of the novels I’ve been reading lately, is set in England. Before I moved to the UK I did not read very much British writing, unless it was nominated for a major prize. Although one would not think that the cultural differences between the UK and North America are that great, I am delighting in the subtle differences in the two cultures. This is something I don’t think I would have appreciated without having lived in both places. In particular, books like The Wicked Girls have focused on some of the grittier sides of life in Britain, something I do not encounter in my daily life here, but class differences in the UK are something I am growing increasingly aware of. Although class issues exist everywhere, over here they seem very different than in North America – more pronounced and more permanent.
Who would like this book? As I mentioned at the top The Wicked Girls is a thriller, a genre I don’t generally read. In my own snobbish way I tend to think that thrillers won’t be well written. That is certainly not the case with The Wicked Girls. Alex Marwood is the pseudonym for a London based journalist. The novel is smart and well written. In many ways it reminds me of Linwood Barclay‘s thrillers, perhaps because they both have journalistic backgrounds.
I was turned onto Elders after hearing an interview with author Ryan McIlvain on the radio. The topic of the novel fascinated me: Mormon missionaries doing service in Brazil. Yes, the novel is about members of the Church of Latter Day Saints going door to door in a mid sized Brazilian town. I really did not understand the distribution of Mormons throughout the world until I read this. I thought the movement was a largely North American phenomena focused predominately in Utah. Not so.
Throughout the novel the protagonist, Elder McLeod, struggles with his faith (all Mormon missionaries are referred to as Elder). He comes from a prominent Boston Mormon family, but is not as convinced of his religiosity as those around him. Added onto this is the overwhelming sense of anti-Americanism Elder McLeod experiences in post 911 Brazil. These pressures compounded with a zealous missionary partner propel McLeod to make some questionable decisions. In fact, Elders is very much a coming of age novel about self discovery.
As much as I was fascinated by the topic of the novel, my over all feeling was that it fell a little bit flat. That may be because I had built Elders up in my head after hearing the interview with McIlvain on the radio. It is an okay read, certainly not a waste of time, but I was expecting amazing. The main characters are well drawn out, though some of the secondary ones are predictable and flat. The internal and external conflicts McIlvain encounters are wide ranging and interesting: from issues of sexuality and sexual expression to being American when America is not the most popular nation on the block.
Who would like this book? I was attracted to Elders because of the insight it gave into the modern, international world of Mormonism. In recent years there have been a spate of books dealing with Mormons, but most of the deal with the more extreme forms of the religion and the plight of women (see Amity and Sorrow). Elders stands apart from those as it deals with more mainstream Mormonism in a cosmopolitan world.
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma is one of those post-modern, meta novels that is hard to describe. There are stories within stories, outside of stories all told by a highly unreliable nameless (or multiply named?) narrator. Sound confusing? Well, it was and it wasn’t. One thing that can clearly be said about The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is that it is brilliant. I feel like I’ve been saying that about books too frequently lately, but it is true. It is also true that I do not choose to read books that I don’t think will appeal to me.
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards is a readers’ and a writers’ novel. The two main protagonists are writers who meet in college and continually push each other to achieve greater writing. One of them finds fame, the other doesn’t but leads an exciting life. At its heart it is a novel about writing. For the die hard readers out there, the novel is jam packed full of literary illusions from all over the place. I probably only caught onto a fraction of them, but the ones I saw were captivating. I suspect that due to all the literary illusions it is a novel that gets better with multiple readings, kind of like the movie Magnolia, that gets better each time I watch it.
The central theme of the book is truth and the nature of storytelling. Jansma plays with these two ideas throughout the novel to the point where you do not know what is really happening, or just happening to make a better story. The narrator slips on different identities that become so real you forget that he is just playing a part. It becomes all the more confusing when he meets his doppelganger in Ghana. While trying on these different identities the narrator tells the same story of love and loss, but in different ways and in different setting, though the outcome is always the same. It is utterly fascinating the way Jansma weaves the narrative together.
Who would like this book? As I have already mentioned, this is a writers’ and a readers’ book. As a writer it appealed to me in the same was as The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman did. It is about writing, struggling to find your story and making it better. The writing style of The Changeable Spots of Leopards, which I like to call post-something and meta, reminds me very much of Eleanor Catton‘s The Rehearsal. Because you are never exactly sure where you are, the narrative style is slightly destabilizing, but highly rewarding once you orient yourself. Overall, I really enjoyed this book. It is challenging at times, but it is also humorous, adventuresome and rewarding.