Thursday, October 20, 2016

October 2.0

The Wonder by Emma Donoghue
This is the latest by the author of Room (yes it was a book first before the award-winning movie), and it is a worthy attempt by Donoghue not to get pigeon-holed into one genre.  In her latest novel, the story is set in post-famine Ireland, in a small village where a young girl has not eaten in four months.  Due to righteous skepticism about this 'miracle,' the town council has hired two women to observe eleven-year old Anna O'Donnell:  one is a young widow, trained by the famous Florence Nightingale and recently back from the Crimea war, dedicated to the new modern ideas of nursing; the other is a stodgy nun who adheres to the council's admonitions to only observe, and not to get personally involved.  However, as Nurse Wright becomes drawn into Anna's life through her stories and conversations, she begins to see the consequences of this 'miraculous' girl.  A nosy reporter, an over-protective Irish mother, a dead brother, and a mysterious missing husband all combine to make this an intriguing and unique story.  The twisted ending may surprise you and it will definitely give a book club some intriguing topics to discuss.

The Mothers by Brit Bennett
What a breath of fresh air this book is from young debut novelist, Brit Bennett.  Instead of the stereotypical inner-city, drug lords, high crime, overt racism of the urban landscape, Bennett gives us a thoughtful look at an African-American family in a southern California suburb, as her characters deal with issues of family and societal expectations.  Part of the uniqueness of this novel is the feeling of a Greek chorus, as the 'mothers' narrate parts of the story. These mothers are the older women of the black church called "Upper Room," that provides the central setting around which the story revolves.  We first meet Nadia Turner, as the mothers describe the teenage girl's relationship with the pastor's son and the constantly swirling rumors as the two become deeply involved with one another.  Add in Aubrey, the highly religious young woman with deep familial dysfunction and a co-dependent relationship with Nadia, and a deep and twisted triangle emerges.  Issues of prejudice, abuse, abortion, and religion pull the reader into the well-drawn plot line, and the complex characters that Bennett is able to develop only furthers these themes.  This is a provocative, well-written novel that would satisfy solitary readers and provide incredible conversation to any book club.

Nutshell by Ian McEwan
The author of Atonement, On Chesil Beach, and The Children Act is back with another thought-provoking novel.  Only 198 pages long, this is a short, wicked, rather nasty tale of a marriage gone wrong, an inappropriate love affair, and two morally reprehensible characters.  However, we have all read twisted tales like this so what makes this one different?  Why, the narrator, of course!  It is the nine-month fetus who sees and hears all: the news of the day, the visits of his father, the diabolical plans of Uncle Claude to murder said father, and the acquiescence of his beloved mother, Trudie.  And yes, for those of you familiar with Shakespeare's Hamlet, the allusions are obvious and wickedly accurate: the uncle who wants his brother's place, the weak wife, the fumbling naive father, the son who wants revenge but cannot make up his mind, the ghost who walks among the witnesses, and even a story of some mice (ie The Mousetrap play-within-a-play) that is highly creative.  I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, as the singular 24 hours unfolds to reveal the story of this small fetus and his 'entrance' into the modern world.  Highly original and creative, I highly recommend this lil book.

The Dollhouse by Fiona Davis
If you're looking for brain candy, this is it.  Read in just 24 hours, this is a dialogue-heavy, page-turner of a book.  Split between two narrators and two time periods, it is a look back at the famous Barbizon Hotel for Women in New York City.  Yes, the one where Sylvia Plath lived during her magazine internship, the one where famous models lived under strict rules, and the girls from small towns learning to be executive secretaries slept between long days of typing and short-hand classes.  In 1952, Darby escapes from the small town of Defiance, Ohio and is unfortunately placed on the hotel floor with the perfectly glossed and tressed Ford models, though Darby is here to learn the secretarial world.  She is drawn into the dark world of heroin and jazz music by the hotel maid, culminating in consequences she could never have foreseen.  Interspersed with Darby's tale, comes Rose, the girlfriend of a high-powered executive and a failed television anchor, and when suddenly cast out on her own, becomes obsessed with the mystery of the elderly woman who still occupies an apartment in the Barbizon building of condos.  This is a fluffy read that is just sheer entertainment.

An Ember in the Ashes / A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir
I am always a sucker for a good series that engages history, fantasy, and some serious heroes and evil beings. Based on the fall of the Roman Empire, the plot line begins at Black Castle, where two of the three main characters, Elias and Helene, are finishing up their training to be "Masks," the most well-trained killers for the emperor's army.  Unbeknownst to them, the emperor is soon to die, so the mysterious sect that foretells the future decides to throw three of these soon-to-be graduates into a competition for the throne.  Add in a "Scholar" girl, Laia, whose entire culture has been murdered and decimated by the Empire, and whose brother needs to be saved from execution, and you've got the beginnings of a great series.  Author Sabaa Tahir, however, relies not just on historical allusion, but also imbues her story with magic, fantasy, and creatures from the underworld.  In the first book, I wanted a more powerful Laia, one who would fight for justice and stand up to the horrifyingly nasty commandant, but Tahir takes her time to build this character.  By Book Two, Helene, Elias, and Laia have found their hidden talents: Helene can sing people back to life, Elias communes with the dead, and Laia can control her visual appearance, as well as swing an wicked sword.  I was impressed with Tahir's patience to slowly develop these characters, to allow their circumstances to dictate how they learned to deal with sorrow and victory, and to weave magic and fantasy into a rather violent, military world.  I will be anxiously awaiting book number three.

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