I received a message from Goodreads toward the end of December congratulating me for having read all of three books in 2013. I don’t track of the number of books I read in a year, but it’s more like fifty than three.
While I’ve managed to keep up with Facebook, where I check in almost daily with a small group of people, most of whom I’ve known at various stages of my life, I hadn’t realized how inattentive I’ve been to other social networks. So I decided to post periodic mini book reviews on my blog, Goodreads and Amazon this year. Maybe I’ll post links to them on Twitter and Pinterest, too. Maybe. So here goes:
Always an Alice Hoffman fan, I most recently read Incantation, a short book written for the young adult audience. Set in Spain during the Inquisiiton, the central character is Estrella, a teenager who learns over the course of the story that hers is a Jewish family that is Catholic on the surface only. Her world is torn apart as she, her family and their community are exposed and persecuted. She swiftly finds out who her friends are and aren’t. I am intrigued by stories in which extraordinary circumstances reveal previously unknown aspects of people, how people deal with relationships and lives torn apart—who succumbs to baser human behavior and who rises to heroic dimensions. This is a gripping story. My only complaint is that it ends abruptly, so it’s not quite satisfying. I think it really should have been longer. Four stars.
Another work of historical fiction I recommend is Shaghai Love, a novel by Layne Wong. It pulled me in a couple months ago, and I couldn’t wait to get back to reading it when I was interrupted. Wong’s writing style is eloquent. And the story of two characters whose paths cross in Shanghai in the World War II era evolves gracefully. Peilin, a Chinese woman forced to marry her betrothed even though he died months before their wedding, is sent by her new family to Shanghai, where she makes use of herbal knowledge passed on to her by her granfather. There, she meets a Jewish refugee doctor who fled Nazi Germany. The characters are skillfully drawn, and details of the Chinese culture are beautifully rendered as the lives of these two characters become entwined. There are plenty of twists and turns to hold a reader’s attention, too. I read that the book contains a few inaccuracies in terms of the WWII timeline. Since I’m vague on only the most well-know dates in history, I didn’t notice these errors. If I were a history buff, they might have disturbed me. Given that this is not a self-published book, however, I think the publisher should have caught any inaccuracies during the editing process. It seems fact checking is part of what a publisher should do for an author. Five stars.
Since I seem to be in historical fiction mode, I’ll share thoughts on one more book, Quiet Dell by Jayne Ann Phillips. This novel is based on a 1930s true crime that took place in Chicago and West Virginia. Since I was born in Chicago and raised in the area, I am drawn to stories having to do with that great metropolis. I found the first part of the book compelling. Phillips depicts Asta Eichler, who becomes widowed, and her children in a way the made me care for them as the story of their victimization by Harry Powers unfolded. Unfortunately, once Powers, who seduces lonely Asta with love letters, succeeds in luring Asta and then her children to West Virginia, the story shifts its focus to Emily Thornhill, a female reporter for the Chicago Tribune assigned to cover the story of the family’s demise. Thornill is intrepid in her search for the truth, but she falls instantly in love with the Eichler family’s banker; the scene in his office where this occurs is cringe-worthy. She also befriends, reforms and then adopts a wayward street urchin who had robbed her, a storyline that seems too pat. And I found myself skipping through interludes written in the voice of Anabelle, one of the murdered Eichler children. The novel might have worked better had it been centered on Thornhill from the beginning. As it is, the different parts just don’t fit together well. I still recommend it though. I think it would be a great book for a critique group to pick apart for insights about what works and what doesn’t, and what might have made it a more cohesive, powerful book. Three stars.
Copyright © 2014 by Laura McHale Holland