China Dolls by Lisa See
I have been a Lisa See fan since first reading her debut novel, Snowflower and the Secret Fan; I can still remember the searing scene when the foot bones were all broken to make the tiny feet, and the heartbreak of a destroyed friendship. Her second book, Peony in Love, was entertaining but weird, as the ghost of a girl watched the life of her ex-fiance. See's series of books, Shanghai Girls and Dreams of Joy, was a return to some excellent story telling, as we watched old China turn communist and the people flee her shores. I was therefore excited for her latest book, but was ultimately a bit disappointed. The plot premise revolves around three young Chinese girls: one, a naive rube from the Midwest; another, a protected daughter of a well-established Chinese family; and the last, a sassy little tart who's had to deal with life's many blows. They meet at the San Francisco World's Fair and the book follows their life adventures during the big-studio days of the thirties and forties, as well as the death of vaudeville. It's a good story, but not a great one, filled with many cliches and stereotypical story lines and characters. I enjoyed it to a certain extent, but it's rather forgettable.
The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Having just spent a few days in Amsterdam and my daughter living there this past summer, I was immediately intrigued by this book when I saw it in Schiphol airport. However, I was disappointed that I could not buy it in the states until August. This debut novel did not disappoint. Perhaps it's because I could picture the city, with the main characters living on a canal where we walked each day, or perhaps it's because I love historical fiction, or even that I had a beloved dollhouse as a child; regardless, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The heroine, Nella, is a young, country girl who marries Johannes, a wealthy, older Dutch man who is a prominent figure in Amsterdam and a powerful trader with the Dutch East India Company. The story takes place in the dying years of Holland's preeminence amongst the world powers, and the intrigue behind the powerful traders is seen in a variety of ways - racism toward their Surinam servant, mystery surrounding the maker of miniature furniture for Nella's cabinet (is it voodoo or tricks of the mind?), secrecy about Johannes' sister who pretends a certain piety but has a secret life, and the deep secret in Johannes' life that will destroy Nella and force her to make some difficult choices. The Miniaturist gives one an intriguing glimpse into the Amsterdam of 1687 and provides some enlightening details on their way of life.
Awakening Joy by James Baraz
Let's preface this first with...I hate self-help books. However, an old friend had told me about this one, even the fact that Bill Gates had it on his summer list, so after going through some difficult things in my life, I figured it couldn't hurt. With that said, I view this as a 'life-changing' book. Based on Zen Buddhist beliefs about joy, pain, suffering, compassion, it has reminded me of ways to let go and move on to more joyful places in my life. I have learned that instead of stressing about things I cannot change, I need to examine those feelings, let things go that I have no control over, and rewrite my own story. I listened to this book as I took long, cleansing walks with my dog and it was a perfect way to do some healing. One of my favorite lines is "Act with integrity when given the choice." Much of this book are things we all know we should do, but often we are in patterns of behavior that have stopped us from acting in a more kind, compassionate way. I would highly recommend this book to everyone and anyone, regardless of where you are in your life; we all face times of suffering and these ideas may just help get one through to the other side.
Every Secret Thing by Laura Lippman
If you're looking for a great brain candy, mystery novel, this is a good one. Two young girls, age eleven, one the chubby 'good' girl who always tries to fit in, the other girl who lives on the wrong side of town with a dysfunctional family, find a baby on the porch of a home. This beautiful young baby girl is found dead in a park, the two girls are sent to juvenile detention centers, and the judge's daughter, the mother of the baby, is forever changed. Fast forward to today, when the two girls are released from their separate facilities, other children go missing, and the focus returns to the two young criminals from long ago. Lippman does a nice job of traveling back and forth in time, as well as developing the characters of the girls, the mother, the detective, and the odd-duck of a mother of one of the girls. This is a fast read, good for the beach:) My only problem with it is the similarity to The Wicked Girls that I reviewed last month, which was more complex and engrossing.
The Farm by Tom Rob Smith
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
I saved the best for last, seriously. This book has all the vital ingredients for me to have waited in anticipation for its release date this month: dystopic 'life is over as we know it' setting, Shakespearian actors, beautiful writing, and a little mystery thrown in as well. The story begins when Arthur Leander, a famous Hollywood actor, dies on stage as he plays King Lear. From that night forward, the world is changed forever, as a morphed swine-flu virus devastates the world, killing every 99/100 people. Mandel follows the characters who were a part of that Toronto play, such as the little girl who plays the ghostly daughter and the paramedic who tries to save Arthur, as well as the important people in Arthur's past, such as his ex-wives, his only son, his best friend, and even his lawyer. The book moves seamlessly from past to present, weaving the strings together of Station Eleven, the space station created by Arthur's first wife, the 'safe' place when Earth is destroyed, as depicted in a graphic novel. The journey of this novel is the bedrock of this story, and the places it goes and the people whose lives it affects is beautifully mystical and mysterious. This was a fascinating, beautifully told story of how every action affects another's life, and how life can truly change in a moment. Definitely five star book:)