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review 2018-06-23 19:11
The Valley of Amazement
The Valley of Amazement - Amy Tan

I did something while reading this book that I have never done before: I flipped to the last page to see if it had a happy ending. Because good lord does Violet get put through the ringer.

 

This is often a difficult read, so I'll say upfront: if sexual exploitation makes you squeamish, you may want to skip this book. I'm usually one who wouldn't touch this with a ten-foot pole, but while the tone was unflinching, the details when divulged were detached enough to not affect me too much. Everyone has different tolerance levels and triggers, though, so it's something to consider.

 

This is set in the first half of the 1900s in China in the culture of the courtesan houses. It resembles Memoirs of a Geisha in that respect and it doesn't shy away from how young girls were sold and stolen into this life, but beyond the inner workings of the courtesan houses, this is a much different story with a different focus. 

 

As with all of Tan's work, this story is about the relationship between mothers and daughters, but unlike her other stories, this one is told primarily through Violet's POV. We follow her from a young, conceited girl growing up in her mother's courtesan house - not as a courtesan though, just to be clear on that point. She can only see how things effect her, how her mother is distant and aloof, and how she doesn't feel like she's loved enough. After they're separated by a ne'er-do-well and Violet is sold to another house, she must use her fierceness and determination to survive her new life and come to terms with the many twists and turns that her life makes. 

 

It's not all dire. She has a friend in the courtesan house to help her and protect her as much as possible, and she knows how to navigate this world better than most, though she makes many foolish decisions along the way. There are good moments as well, and Violet learns how to appreciate others, the depths of love and sacrifices that we make for each other along the way, all of which helps her to better understand the choices her own mother had made. But every time she takes a step forward, she's knocked twenty steps back. It's a long hard road, but there is a hopeful ending.

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review 2018-03-31 15:58
A NOVEL THAT READS LIKE A PATCHWORK PLAY
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven - Chris Cleave

"EVERYONE BRAVE IS FORGIVEN" offers the reader a broad look into the lives of 4 people between September 1939 and June 1942. First there's Alistair Heath and his friend Tom Shaw. Both of them were sharing a place in London at the time war was declared. Alistair promptly enlisted in the Army while Tom (who didn't share Alistair's keenness to join the Forces and felt that the war would soon resolve itself) continued in his job in the education department. Then there's Mary North and her childhood friend Hilda. Mary - who hails from an affluent background with a father a Member of Parliament - returned to the UK from finishing school in Switzerland, set on finding a job that would put her in the heart of the war effort. She ends up being placed in a school to teach a number of pupils, one of whom is an illiterate African American boy named Zachary (whose father came over to the UK to work as an entertainer in a minstrel show). It proves to be a short-lived job as Mary's class is relocated to the countryside without her. Mary goes to see Tom - who has some pull in the system - to see if she can be placed in another teaching position. 

In the meantime, Alistair proceeds with his training, endures a rigorous, extended outdoor exercise, and is later sent to France with his unit. 

While the writing is generally good, the story of these 4 people as the war went on, didn't really gell with me. Mary seemed rather flippant, though she had a certain, at times admirable forthrightness. Once she got it in her mind that she was in love with Tom, she went after him. Tom comes across as the self-effacing, tight-lipped Englishman. Alistair's unit got caught up in the chaos of the German Blitzkrieg across Western Europe in the spring of 1940 and barely manages to escape to Britain via Dunkirk. He returns as a shell-shocked officer. For him, the war has already changed his outlook in many ways. He and Tom get together and Tom coaxes him into going out on a date with him and Mary and Hilda. Hilda sees the war as a great adventure and is eager to find a man who suits her fancy. Alistair seems to fit the bill. But the date was rather odd. I won't spell out the particulars of it. But shortly afterwards, Alistair's unit is posted overseas and the relationships among the 4 people become strange and rather convoluted. 

This novel is not a keeper.

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review 2018-03-03 22:05
Whistling in the Dark (Audiobook)
Whistling in the Dark - Tamara Allen

This is true Tamara Allen sweetness here: a quiet little story full of hope in a bleak time.

 

Sutton and Jack are WWI veterans trying to figure out how to get back into civilian life after the war. Jack runs an emporium which is struggling because of the economic times. He's also suffering from PTSD, unable to sleep most nights. Sutton suffered a hand injury that has prevented him from getting back to playing the piano, and he's running out of ways to make it on his own in NYC.

 

I really liked the way Ms. Allen took her time with this story and building up these characters and their relationship, so that while this is another one-month romance, it didn't feel rushed at all, and it actually felt like a lot more time had passed. She really pays attention to the details, like the "treatments" for PTSD and the "health advice" for influenza, and makes sure the characters feel like they're from the time period. Normally, when this many side characters are tolerable of Jack and Sutton's relationship, I'd bemoan "gay okay" revisionist history in M/M, but Ms. Allen never loses sight of the consequences, not just of the general public but of the law as well, if the wrong people find out or decide to spread the word. Plus, it's New York, where almost anything goes. There's also a variety of different ways that the characters react to it when they find out, so they're not exactly 100% on the Rainbow Train even when their responses are mostly positive.

 

I also liked that Sutton wasn't the wide-eyed country boy, and that Jack wasn't the "corrupting" influence his friends teased him as being. Though they'd both served in the army, they didn't come out of it tough-as-nails warriors like you see so much of in contemporary stories. You can see the weariness on them both, and Jack especially had a hard time forgetting the things he saw or the people who died so he could do his work. They were tired of fighting and eager to put it behind them.

 

The narrator, Meral Mathews, has a nice old-timey quality to his voice that suits the story. I do wish he'd made more of a distinction between the various voices, but I was still always able to keep track of who was speaking and which POV we were in.

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review 2018-02-05 02:10
Lessons in Love (Cambridge Fellows #1)
Lessons in Love: A sparkling tale of mystery, murder and romance (Cambridge Fellows Book 1) - Charlie Cochrane

DNF @ 32%

 

Too much telling and not enough showing for both the romance and the mystery. Reads more like a detailed outline.

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review 2017-10-27 23:47
IN THRALL TO THE DANCE OF TIME
On With The Dance - Michael Hardwick

"ON WITH THE DANCE" is a continuation of the 'Upstairs, Downstairs' series of novels and carries the Bellamys and their servants into the early post-World War I years. 

The novel begins in July 1919, on the day that the Victory Parade is scheduled to take place in London. Richard Bellamy, now a member of the House of Lords, had recently returned from France with his new wife Virginia (and her 2 young children; like Richard, she had been a widow for several years following the death of her first husband, a naval officer, early in the war), where they honeymooned and took in both the Paris Peace Conference and Versailles, where the peace treaty formally ending World War I had been signed on June 28th.

 

Since his remarriage, Richard is no longer living at 165 Eaton Place and is looking for a new house near Hyde Park with Virginia. He meets after the Parade has run its course, with James, his son, who is as morose and restless as ever. Though the war has been over for 8 months and James has fully recovered from the wounds he sustained at Passchendaele, he has been aimless and with little enthusiasm for getting his life on a firm track so that he can begin to move forward and settle himself. Georgina (his cousin by marriage - the 2 had hovered on the edge of falling into a full-scale wartime romance given the smoldering attraction each had for the other; however, since the Armistice and the various shocks - personal, social, and economic - taking place in Britain as everyone tried to adapt themselves to a peacetime world - their passion had ebbed and died, though both remained as close friends) tries to cajol James into enjoying the fireworks outside. But James' enthusiasm has apparently been used up through his earlier participation that day in the Victory Parade. 

The staff at Eaton Place has a new footman and under-parlour maid. Edward, now discharged from the Army, and his wife Daisy had left the employ of the Bellamys several months earlier to eke out a living for themselves. Both pay a visit to their former colleagues 'downstairs', trying to display a new air of confidence, that in truth, neither has. Edward's job as a door-to-door salesman isn't getting him any closer to establishing for himself, Daisy, and their unborn child the type of success he craves for himself. 

The novel goes on to take the reader into the lives of both the Bellamys and servants over the next 4 years. And what a whirlwind those years prove to be! Years full of happiness, heartbreak, and anguish. Again I couldn't help but marvel over how a novel with 156 pages could be so engaging and compelling.

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