Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Aloha Quilt by Jennifer Chiaverini

I first discovered Jennifer Chiaverini by sheer chance. I stood in the bookstore looking for a book by Tracy Chevalier and was attracted by the cover of a nearby book, The Quilter's Apprentice. I am not a quilter but at the time I worked with a volunteer quilting group and I enjoyed watching them work and listening to them talk. I read the first three books in the Elm Creek Quilt series and happily shared the series with my mom and the quilters. The books were easy reads, somewhat sweet, but also informative about the art of quilting.

As Chiaverini grew in renown, her books also grew in number. When I picked up The Aloha Quilt I was surprised to learn it is the 16th book in the series!! And it is one of the better ones I have read lately, honestly. Chiavernini's books fall into two categories: contemporary stories about modern day quilters and their socio-personal interactions versus historical stories about the roles quilts have had in important American historical events. While the historical books are very informative, they just don't grab my attention the same way as the contemporary stories do.

When I saw The Aloha Quilt sitting on the new book shelf at the library I picked it up gleefully and immediately began devouring it. It took me less than two days to read (which is not an amazing feat unless you consider it was the last week of summer and both of my kids were at home pestering me and expecting me to help them get ready for school).

The book takes a secondary character from early Elm Creek novels, Bonnie, and gives her a whole book. Bonnie and her husband have recently filed for divorce (a topic explored in another book) and as a way to escape the ensuing difficulties she moves to Hawaii for six months to help her friend Claire set up a quilt retreat. The story revolves not only around Bonnie, Claire, and the questions over divorce later in life, but also spends a good amount of time on Hawaiian culture.

I found Chiaverini's descriptions of Hawaiian quilting and its offshoot history really interesting. She managed to dovetail the state's unique history with detailed information about the applique-style quilting of the region. Knowing only the most tangential information about Hawaii, I enjoyed learning more in the light style Chiaverini has.

Was the book a bit cliché? Yeah, a bit. Did everything work out in the end with a nice ribbon tied around it? Yes. But that's part of why I like the contemporary Elm Creek stories. They're easy on the psyche. All in all, a great end of the summer read.

Year of Wonders by Geraldine Brooks

I came at reading Geraldine Brooks in rather a backwards fashion. I started with March, followed by People of the Book and am only now getting to Year of Wonders, Brooks’ first novel. The friend who recommended it described the story as “a book about the plague with some romance thrown in.” With that description in mind, I expected more romance than delivered. Not that less romance is a bad thing, I was just surprised at the outcome of the story.

Backing up, the plot of Year of Wonders revolves around a small northern English town that isolates itself during an outbreak of the Plague to avoid spreading it to neighboring communities. As surprising as it sounds, the story emerged from an actual historical account of an early modern town which did exactly that. The protagonist of the story is the rector’s housekeeper, Anna Frith. The reader learns in the first few pages that she and the rector, Michael Mompellion, are two of the survivors of the attack who remain in the, physically and emotionally, diminished village. Most of the story backtracks and follows the characters through the year of disease, eventually coming full circle so the story meets where it left off at the beginning.

In the Afterward Brooks describes her transition from journalist to novelist, fascinated by understanding the story of the historical Derbyshire village. Brooks’ research skills shine through as her descriptions of the lifestyle and times are apt. At times her graphic imagery leaves too little to the imagination, but given the subject matter it is not surprising. Brooks does acknowledge her choice of a strong female character who sits outside the bounds of traditional society as her focus. In Brooks’ mind the story needed someone who could break the confines of social norms and was in an ability to do so.

I could see common interests in Brooks’ three novels; her work focuses on strong female leads. She takes these characters and places them in nearly impossible (yet historically real) situations to unearth how their strengths allow them to persevere. I enjoy her plots but mostly her development of the issue of integrity.

Year of Wonders reminded me of reading Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book. The comparison is obvious considering they both focus on the Plague. But the similarities are not merely that straight forward. Like Brooks, Willis writes about the strength and wherewithal to survive adversity and horrible odds. If you haven’t read Year of Wonders and don’t mind descriptive imagery of the Plague, this is a book worth reading. If you’re not so into the Plague, I would still recommend Geraldine Brooks – one of her other stories may be more palatable.

Friday, August 27, 2010

The Abyssinian Proof by Jenny White

Jenny White's first novel in the Kamil Pasha series, The Sultan's Seal, was far and away one of my favorite books this year. White has the uncanny ability of imparting a ton of knowledge about the Ottoman Empire, a subject of which she is well versed, without lecturing or falling into a litany of facts. The plot remains the most important aspect of the book.

The Abyssinian Proof, White's second entry in the nineteenth-century mystery series, tells a nuanced story of a little-known religious group living in the middle of Ottoman Istanbul. The information White has at hand about this leftover Byzantine Christian sect is fascinating. There was a tenuous moment when the story veered into a mention of Templars and I feared White had fallen into the trap of writing another derivative Christianity gone bad novel, à la Dan Brown. But, she saved herself and didn't go there. Thank goodness.

It is easy to lose oneself in White’s novels. She tells a compelling story with plenty of interesting twists and intrigues to keep me reading. The mystery is not overly straight-forward but she does throw in clues throughout to keep me guessing. However, White is also knows her history. She is not writing about stereotypes and overused characteristics of the Ottoman Empire. Her depth of knowledge allows me to learn relevant, genuine historical information within the scope of a fictional story.

Moreover, White tends to throw in some subtle social commentary about our own world. The intrigue between the Christians, the Muslims, and the Jews; the distrust of differing religious beliefs; the debate over political and cultural power based on ethnicity all ring as remarkably true today as they did 150 years ago. White manages to point out that the Ottoman Muslims were not some evil religious offshoot with nothing but bloodlust in their hearts. Her characters are somewhat universal.

I look to disappear into my books. But I don’t mind learning something along the way. Jenny White is one of the best current authors who allows me to do both of those things at the same time. I will definitely be keeping my eyes open for the third book in the series. (Oh, and I heard a rumor she may attempt to discuss the Armenian Genocide in a future story. That would capture plenty of attention.)

Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Russian Concubine by Kate Furnivall

I picked up The Russian Concubine at a discount bookstore based purely on the blurb on the back. A story about White Russians living in Junchow, China in 1928 sounded like a great locale and population for a novel. After a grad school classmate wrote a paper about Russians in China I became intrigued by an ex-pat community I had never heard about before. This book fit that niche perfectly making it a great opportunity for a summer read.

The Russian Concubine was good, but it could have been better. I really enjoyed exactly what I had hoped for - the locale and the interaction between vastly different communities of inhabitants. However, Furnivall fell into too much romance and the plot fell flat by the end of the story. The story revolves around Lydia Ivanova, a young Russian whose father was killed by the Communists when they were fleeing Russia in 1917. The story picks up in 1928 with Lydia pickpocketing a British gentleman and bringing the money back to her drunken, beautiful, classical piano playing mother. Finding herself trapped by dangerous locals, an exotic stranger saves her - enter the love interest: Chang An Lo.

Furnivall's strength lies in her ability to describe the interaction between the various ethnic communities living in China in the interwar era. The British have the money and the power. The Chinese are in the midst of a Civil War between Chang Kai Shek - supported by the British, and the Communists (pre-Mao and a strong leadership). The Russians, meanwhile, exist in a vacuum without either passports, wealth, or power. Lydia and her mother work to give themselves a legitimacy in the society to which they do not belong. The mother uses her beauty to gain financial and social support from better-off men, the daughter uses her wits to manipulate the society to help her.

While I immersed myself in Furnivall's world the story drug in the second half. She spent too much time laboring over the romantic relationship between Lydia and Chang An Lo. Lydia manages to find and save her love in a highly unrealistic way. At the last moment Furnivall throws in a curve ball which I found highly unnecessary and likewise unlikely.

The Russian Concubine was a good summer read; it was diverting and romantic. But I had hopes of reading a more historically-driven accurate story which it was not.