Friday, January 23, 2015

Keeping the House

Keeping the House
Keeping the House, by Ellen Baker

Each chapter in Ellen Baker's novel begins with an excerpt from a 1950s homemaking guide...about how women can keep their husbands happy. The central theme of Keeping the House is the pressure to be perfect that women faced in the early to mid-1900s.

Told through the lens of Dolly Magnuson, a homemaker who moves to Pine Rapids, Wisconsin in 1950 without any friends in the area, the book goes back to the late 1800s when Dolly begins visiting an abandoned mansion and uncovers the secrets of the family who inhabited it.

Dolly's unhappy in her marriage, just as Wilma Mickelson, the matriarch of the great house, was unhappy in hers. They also both feel stifled by the provincial attitudes of the people in the town. This sweeping novel illustrates the pressures women faced, trying to create a perfect house while sacrificing their own needs. It's homemaking before feminism.

I enjoyed the frequent references to Lutherans in Wisconsin. It was worth the read!

Monday, January 12, 2015

Best books of 2014

Here are the best books I read in 2014. Click the title to read my review. They are listed in approximate order of how much I liked them (#1 being the best). I'd love to hear what you thought of any of these books. If you've read any, please leave me a comment.

You can also refer to my best books lists back to 2001 here. Enjoy! This is cross-posted in Every Day Is a Miracle.


1. Code Name Verity, Elizabeth Wein
2. My Notorious Life, Kate Manning
3. The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
4. The Invention of Wings, Sue Monk Kidd
5. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, Sherman Alexie
6. Oryx and Crake, Margaret Atwood
7. Word Nerd, Susin Nielsen
8. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, Rachel Joyce
9. The Ayah’s Tale, Sujata Massey
10. The Chaperone, Laura Moriarty
11. The Weight of Silence, Heather Gudenkauf
12. Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn
13. The Light Between Oceans, M.L. Stedman
14. Let the Great World Spin, Colum McCann
15. After Eli, Rebecca Rupp
16. Lean On Pete, Willy Vlautin
17. What Alice Forgot, Liane Moriarty
18. We Are Water, Wally Lamb
19. Body Work, Sara Paretsky
20. My Basmati Bat Mitzvah, Paula J. Freedman
21. The Silkworm, Robert Galbraith
22. The Hundred-Foot Journey, Richard Morais


2. I am Malala, Malala Yousafzai 
4. A House in the Sky, Amanda Lindhout
5. My Beloved World, Sonia Sotomayor
8. God Is Disapointed in You, Mark Russell (still reading)
9. Believing Cassandra: Getting Beyond the End of the World, Alan AtKisson (still reading)

Friday, January 2, 2015

The Kizuna Coast

The Kizuna Coast (Rei Shimura Mystery, #11)The Kizuna Coast, by Sujata Massey

Hooray! Rei Shimura is back!

I've been reading Sujata Massey's Rei Shimura detective series since the late 1990s, captivated by these books because the main protagonist is a Japanese-American antiques dealer turned detective, living and working in Japan. I still remember my joy in first discovering this series! Sujata Massey is part Indian, part German, like a friend of mine, and lived in Japan for several years.

A fascinating character who I've always felt I could relate to more than most detectives, Rei Shimura led me through ten adventures, mostly set in Japan, before she retired in 2008 to live with her new husband Michael in Hawaii (Shimura Trouble). You can find the other Rei Shimura titles in chronological order on Sujata Massey's Web site, in case you want to start at the beginning (which I always prefer to do). It was a little odd, reading this one, because Rei had aged only a few years even though the series spans over 17 years, but I understand why Massey chose to keep her young.

Since Rei Shimura retired (and I sadly accepted there would be no more books in the series), I've begun following Sujata Massey online and became Facebook friends with her. She is delightful, and we have much in common (including the fact that we both turned 50 in 2014). I hope to meet her in person one day.

Fortunately, she's continued to stay busy, last year publishing The Sleeping Dictionary, a historical novel set in India, which was my second-top pick for fiction in 2013. (My parents' book group recently read The Sleeping Dictionary on my recommendation, and it was a popular pick!) She also published a beautiful little novella, The Ayah's Tale, about the relationship between an Indian ayah and the English children under her care.

My first week in Japan, befriending the neighbor kids, Fall 1986
But back to The Kizuna Coast! I was supremely lucky to be able to read an Advanced Reader Copy of this soon-to-be-published novel, which will be out in February.

I could relate so well to Rei Shimura's great angst when she saw news coverage of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami and subsequent Fukushima nuclear disaster. Even though I don't have relatives in Japan, it's where I met my husband and spent three of the most adventurous years of my life, and I have so many fond memories of the kindness of so many Japanese people. During those first few harrowing days, I was glued to the Internet and couldn't keep myself from watching that devastating wave destroy whole heart ached for Japan.

Soon after the tsunami hit, Rei's mentor Mr. Ishida calls her, asking for help. She gets to Japan as soon as she can and gets embroiled in a find out what happened to Mr. Ishida's young apprentice, Mayumi, who has disappeared. She goes to Tohoku as part of a relief effort and is touched by people who have lost their loved ones and livelihoods. She experiences  絆 (kizuna, or bonds of love), which the Japanese show for each other during this difficult period. The Japanese public chose as the kanji of 2011 after they witnessed an unprecedented outpouring of assistance after the earthquake and tsunami. 

While not as literary as her last book (The Sleeping Dictionary), The Kizuna Coast was a quicker read and compelling just the same. Rei Shimura remains cemented as my favorite detective series, and I hope the series continues.

I'm so glad Rei is back! I read this book over the Christmas holidays while I had family visiting from England and Australia, and it was hard to put down. The only other book I've read about the Japanese tsunami was Ruth Ozeki's A Tale for the Time Being, which was my top fiction pick last year. I would love to read more, and I hope one day to return to Japan myself. In the meantime, I'm grateful that my favorite authors are making the trips, doing the research, and telling the stories themselves.

Golden Boy

Golden Boy, by Abigail Tarttelin
Golden Boy
Trigger warning: rape

I loved this book about an intersex English teenager. Max Walker is his family's golden boy, but he and his family are harboring a secret. His parents Karen and Steve are successful attorneys, and Steve is eyeing an MP vacancy, so there's good reason to keep things covered up. His younger brother is definitively NOT the golden boy, but he has a sweet relationship with Max anyway.

But when Max has a horrific encounter with a boy from his childhood, everything shifts and the secrets begin to leak out.

Abigail Tarttelin is a young actor and novelist who is the crazy talented type who drives my husband crazy. She moved to London at age 19 to attend university but "sacked it off after a month because she had too much free time and it wasn’t fun enough," as she says on her Web site. In 2013 the London Evening Standard named her as one of the most powerful 25 people under 25 in London, and Golden Boy has won an American Library Association ALEX Award and was shortlisted for a LAMBDA Award for Best Debut LGBT Fiction.

This book is painful, poignant, and beautiful, and is an artful and sensitive depiction of sexual orientation and intersex issues. Read it! This is an author to follow!

Never Let Me Go

Never Let Me GoNever Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Perhaps I expected too much. I've read Ishiguro before, although it was many years ago. We even saw/heard him speak at Powell's in the early 1990s.

I read Never Let Me Go for my book group, and I had a difficult time getting into the novel. It didn't help that (1) a book group friend highly endorsed it, and in fact loved it, raising my expectations, and (2) I was listening to it on audio before getting hold of a hard copy. I am a visual learner and processor, so audio books are not the best choice for me. It does speed up the reading if you can listen and read at the same time (I listened to the book while driving).

Without spoiling this dystopian novel for other readers, I will just say that it was not my favorite. The protagonist, Kathy, tells the story in first person, about her childhood years at Hailsham, a private school in England. The narrative style was dry and distant, typical of Ishiguro.

I actively disliked Kathy's friend Ruth. I've known people like her before, and this story brought back unpleasant memories! I had a difficult time understanding Kathy's affection for Ruth, but the bottom line is that Kathy was powerless and naive in all aspects. I also found the dystopian plot (the purpose for Kathy and the others' lives) to be implausible and full of holes. I was expecting more out of this book...I didn't feel it was very compelling.

I wonder what Kazuo Ishiguro is like as a person, as the characters in his novel seem to live their lives as unfulfilled, unhappy's almost as if he doesn't want his characters to be happy and he has a cynical, depressing view of life.

After reading Margaret Atwood's Oryx & Crake in 2014 and The Hunger Games trilogy in the previous years, I can't help but draw comparisons. I felt more sympathy for the characters in those books, and both plots seemed more believable to me.