Wednesday, July 30, 2014

ORPHAN TRAIN by Christina Baker Kline

I know that most great books have a degree of sadness, but the first half of this novel was so depressing that I just wanted to get it over with.  Molly is a teenager in foster care in Maine.  When she gets caught stealing a worn-out paperback copy of Jane Eyre from the library, she cuts a deal to do her 50 hours of community service cleaning out a ninety-one-year-old woman’s attic.  (As I’m writing this, it sounds a little silly.)  The elderly woman is Vivian, who came to the Midwest as a young Irish girl on a train filled with orphan children from the East.  At first, Vivian is taken in by a family that runs a sweatshop, but when the depression sets in, women start mending their old clothes instead of buying new ones.  After that, she lands in a dirt poor family that can barely feed their own children.  When a school assignment requires that Molly interview an adult about a journey in which they had to leave some possessions behind, she asks Vivian, who shares her early tribulations with Molly, who is experiencing problems of her own at home.  Soon Molly and Vivian forge a friendship, as they find that they have parallel histories, and Molly uses her internet savvy to track down some of Vivian’s family members.  After I got past all the misery in Vivian’s childhood, I began to enjoy this novel, even with all of its coincidences and predictability.  I’m sure the author is not exaggerating the fate that many of the children from the orphan trains suffered.  They became servants and farmhands and functioned basically as white slaves.  This book reminded me of Black Beauty, which I haven’t read since I was a child, but Vivian, like Beauty, moves from one cruel situation to another.  Since she’s now in her nineties and wealthy, we know that she survives and even prospers.  Tragic beginnings can sometimes morph into happy endings, and Vivian’s journey with all of its bumps along the road is one worth following.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

CITY OF THIEVES by David Benioff

Lev Beniov is a teenager in Leningrad during WWII.  When he and his buds pilfer the effects of a dead German paratrooper, Lev is the only one caught by the authorities.  His sentence is actually a quest:  to find a dozen eggs for a wedding cake for the daughter of a Russian colonel.  Kolya, a soldier caught for desertion, is his assigned partner in this quest and has enough worldly experience to be a little more resourceful than Lev.  The problem is that Russians are starving, and everyone has already eaten their chickens, since they don’t have the means to feed them.  Kolya and Lev follow what leads they have, finding the extreme lengths to which people will go to survive.  After a few hair-raising encounters, they come upon a group of young Russian women who are serving the sexual needs of the occupying German officers.   Well-fed, these girls seem to be a possible avenue to the required eggs.  At this point, Kolya and Lev join forces with a group of partisan soldiers who have weapons and skills, one of whom is a young female sniper, Vika, with whom Lev becomes infatuated.  Since Lev is ostensibly the author’s grandfather, we can assume that he survives.  However, this is fiction, and anything can happen.  In this case, what happens is a series of treacherous adventures, culminating in a life-or-death chess match, in which Lev shows his mettle.  While Lev is awkward and na├»ve, Kolya is flamboyant and eternally optimistic, with Lev providing the practical influence to Kolya the dreamer and schemer—sort of like a superhero and his sidekick.  Not that I would compare this story to a comic book, because anything about WWII is going to be deadly serious, and this book has several horrific moments.  On the whole, though, it’s a captivating adventure novel that takes place in a true life-and-death setting.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

RAYLAN by Elmore Leonard

As a huge fan of the TV series Justified, I knew I had to read this book about Raylan Givens, a U.S. Marshall in eastern Kentucky.  My favorite criminal ever is the smooth-talking Boyd Crowder, who doesn’t appear in the book until the second half, and even then he’s not the real villain.  In fact, this novel is really two stories sandwiched together, and in both cases the main bad guy is a gal.  The first half is about Dickie and Coover Crowe who decide to supplement their marijuana earnings by stealing kidneys and then selling them back to the original owner.  If you’ve watched the show, you know that the Crowes are not known for medical expertise, but a transplant nurse named Layla has the necessary skills.  Carol Conlan, a coal mining executive without scruples, dominates the second half, trying to use her womanly wiles on Raylan.  He, however, has his eye on a young poker player named Jackie, who slipped through the fingers of her captors after being arrested during a raid.  Meanwhile, Delroy Lewis, who has recruited three young women to rob banks for him, has a bone to pick with Raylan from a prior rap and goes after him, thinly disguised as a drag queen.  If all of this sounds too familiar, you must be a long-time follower of Justified.  I’ve only been watching for a few years, but my husband recognized the plotlines from some earlier seasons.  I read this book aloud to him during a road trip, and my best voice imitation was that of Dewey Crowe.  He figures into the second half as the possible heir to a prospective large coal site that Carol can’t wait to get her hands on.  A little old lady in a nursing home has other plans for Carol and, believe it or not, owns the best scene in the book.

Monday, July 14, 2014

RUM PUNCH by Elmore Leonard

Jackie Burke is a flight attendant whose crime is bringing in undeclared cash from the Bahamas. The money belongs to Ordell, an arms dealer, who makes a habit of bailing out his accomplices so that he can take them out—with a bullet.  Caught red-handed, Jackie figures she’d better work with law enforcement to avoid the same fate.  Ordell has other accomplices and hopes to recruit his old friend Louis, his former partner in a botched kidnapping, who now works for bail bondsman Max Cherry.  As is customary with an Elmore Leonard novel, the line is blurred between the good guys and the bad guys, and I had high hopes for Jackie to turn out to be one of the good guys, or gals in this case, and for her to still be alive at the end of the novel.  She’s gutsy and savvy, thinks well on her feet, and becomes more than chummy with Max, who’s no dummy, either.  She’s the bridge between the good guys and the baddies, and tries to play both sides against the middle.  As Jackie and the law officers develop a convoluted plan for double-crossing Ordell, Jackie makes plans of her own, drawing Max into her scheme, while he begins contemplating divorce from his estranged wife.  This novel was the inspiration for the movie Jackie Brown, which served as sort of a comeback vehicle for Pam Grier, even though Jackie is blonde in the book.  Quentin Tarantino directed, and Samuel L. Jackson played Ordell.  DeNiro as Louis?  I need to see this movie again.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

AMERICANAH by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Ifemelu is a young Nigerian woman who blogs from the United States about her experiences and observations of being a foreign and black.  She struggles mightily when she first comes to this country and finds herself doing the unthinkable in order to survive financially, at great cost to her emotional health.  Meanwhile, the love of her life, Obinze, goes to London on a 6-month visa, works menial jobs, and plans to enter into a sham marriage in order to remain there.  A dispute over the price of his borrowed identity causes him to be summarily deported, but he gets back on his feet in Lagos, Nigeria, and actually thrives there.  After gaining American citizenship, Ifemelu returns to Nigeria and reconnects with Obinze, who now has a wife and child.  I was particularly puzzled as to what lures Ifemelu back to Nigeria, American passport in hand.  Perhaps the chance to see Obinze again provides some motivation, or perhaps she just wants to go home.  She then scoffs at the snobbery of those, like herself, who completed their education abroad but becomes equally disenchanted with her old friends whose only focus is marriage.  Describing this novel as a love story feels a little lazy, because it is that and so much more.   Ifemelu’s blog posts are so blisteringly insightful, that I feel I should have paid a little more attention to her advice for white people discussing racial issues with their black friends.  One of my favorite moments in the book is when she and her fellow Africans in the U.S. rejoice in disbelief over the improbable election of Obama in 2008.   She and her boyfriend Blaine, a Yale professor, their relationship having run its course, find that their support for Obama is just about all they have left in common.  In Nigeria, race is not an issue, but people judge one another’s success by the size of their generator, since the existence of electrical power is hit or miss.  Nigeria may lack an infrastructure, but Ifemelu and Obinze find that the U.S. and the U.K. have their own sets of drawbacks.  Choose your poison, and sometimes home trumps everything else.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

MOONRISE by Cassandra King

Helen and Emmet are newlyweds, and all is well, at least until Helen insists they spend the summer at Moonrise, a stunning mansion in Highlands, NC, that belonged to Emmet’s deceased wife, Rosalyn.  All of Emmet’s so-called friends in Highlands are appalled not only that he remarried less than a year after Rosalyn’s untimely death in a car crash but also that Helen is not one of their own.  In fact, Kit and Tansy, Rosalyn’s two best friends, are convinced that Helen hoodwinked Emmet into marrying her.  Their suspicions couldn’t be farther from the truth, but Kit and Tansy make it their mission to make sure Helen knows that she is a poor stand-in for Rosalyn.  As the story progresses, we become increasingly aware that these two wicked witches may be even more evil than we thought, poisoning Emmet’s daughter’s mind against Helen and driving a stake into the heart of the marriage by planting the seeds of doubt with their inuendos.  Helen and Tansy are two of the narrators, so that we have a first-hand view of Helen’s mounting insecurities and Tansy’s hostility.  The third narrator is Willa, a local woman who serves as a housekeeper and nursemaid to various summer residents.  She is the neutral party here with problems of her own.  The big question is the identity of NK, mentioned in Rosalyn’s datebook, who may hold the answers to Rosalyn’s mysterious death.  I figured that one out but not all the circumstances surrounding the mystery.  This is not great literature, nor will it appeal to a man.  However, if you take this book to the beach with you, take lots of sunscreen and wear a big hat.  Otherwise you may get sunburned while you keep promising yourself just one more chapter before you close the book and pack up your beach chair.  I’m not sure if I was in a hurry to find out what happened to Rosalyn or if I just wanted to banish Kit and Tansy from my imagination as soon as possible.