Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Three Novels About Relationships

I just finished the sequel to Chocolat, by Joanne Harris, titled "The Girl With No Shadow" and I've also completed Lauren Willig's latest romantic intrigue/suspense novel, "The Seduction of the Crimson Rose" and prior to that, I read Dave King's book about a Vietnam Vet called "The Ha Ha."
All three novels contained strong relationship themes, though each explored a different aspect of relationships.
The Ha Ha takes place in modern times, and is the story of Howard "Howie" Kapotash, a Vietnam veteran whose head was nearly blown off by a land mine when he'd only been in Nam for 16 days. Howie was put back together by the military, but has been unable to speak coherently for the past 30 years. He can still think, and act somewhat normally, but his ability to communicate was blown to bits with part of his skull. Howie was once involved with a junkie slut named Sylvia, whom he still has feelings for, even though it becomes apparent early on that Slyvia is a selfish, evil, manipulative b*tch who uses Howie every chance she gets. Currently she's using him to babysit her 9-year-old son Ryan while she completes yet another round of rehab for her coke habit. Inevitably, Howie comes to love and care for Ryan, who is damaged in his own way by having lived with his druggie mother. The two develop a friendship and trust that is realistic and touching, only to have it ripped away by Slyvia when she "graduates" from rehab and calls the police on Howie because he'd taken her son to a baseball game, and she didn't remember that the two of them would be gone that afternoon. Howie's heartbreak at having to let go of Ryan and his torch for Slyvia is palpable. Yet I was distracted by the fact that Slyvia never seems to get what karma she has coming to her, and instead is allowed to treat Howie like garbage, run off with some slimebag from rehab and still get her kid back. It also bothered me that Howie seemed so oblivious to Slyvia's true nature, and seemed to love her anyway, though she was really worthless as a person. I was troubled by the way that King allowed the death of the homeless vet to remain somewhat in question by not telling the reader if Howie went to his funeral. Fortunately, Howie does get 'the girl' in the end, just not the one he originally wanted, and its made clear that he's still allowed to see Ryan and go with him to ball games and such, so there was a bit of an HEA. And King's prose, though a bit stiff and intellectual in spots, was rich and full of interesting descriptions and metaphors. I can't say this is a book I would have read if it wouldn't have been assigned for book group, but I am glad that I've read it anyway. It's a window on what modern American fiction has become, complete with a sprinkling of unnecessary profanity.
Lauren Willig's latest "flower-monikered spy" book in her series that began with the "Pink Carnation" is really more of the same, just focusing on another woman and one of the witty lords from the previous books. In this one, Lord Vaughn who is handsome, wealthy, witty and inevitably bitter and emotionally damaged by a previous relationship, runs afoul of Mary Alsworthy, a willowy and gorgeous raven-haired woman who is fast approaching spinsterhood since her sister ran off and eloped with her one wealthy suitor. Vaughn, whose cynicism gets a bit old after awhile, is the target of the assasin the Black Tulip, whose nefarious plans Vaughn has nipped in the bud one too many times. Mary is negotiated into acting as a mole for Lord Vaughn to uncover the identity of the Black Tulip before he causes any more trouble. Because the action takes place alternately in the Napoleanic era and then in modern times, the plot tends to jump like a rabbit on steroids, coming to a halt when we're back to modern-day London and our hapless researcher (she's a bit too much like Bridget Jones for my taste) who is in love with an ancestor of Lord Vaughns. There is the mystery, the breathless kiss, the witty banter and the 'out of nowhere' return of Vaughn's supposedly deceased wife to liven up the plot of the ancient-era text, but there is little to make the modern day plot stand out among even moderately-interesting chick lit novels. Everything was so predictable that I knew what was going to happen long before it did. I also knew that we were in for a wedding and an HEA for Vaughn and Mary, but I was slightly surprised by the identity of the Black Tulip, as I'd come to nearly the same conclusion as Mary. Willig's prose is a bit too detailed with historic trivia for my taste, but I realize that once you've done that kind of research, you want to make it useful. I've not read the intervening two novels by Willig between Pink Carnation and Crimson Rose, The Masque of the Black Tulip and the Deception of the Emerald Ring, but, as this novel was so similar to the Pink Carnation, I think I will just wait to find those two in the bargain bin or at a garage sale or thrift store. I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys historical romance.
Finally, The Girl With No Shadow was much more frightening than its predessor, Chocolat. I must mention that I've read all of Joanne Harris' novels, and I've loved all but one of them (Gentlemen and Players was a horrible tome--its reviewed on this blog somewhere). I was nervous about Harris destroying the lovely world she'd created with Chocolat, because Gentlemen and Players was so cynical and ugly, I feared that something in her personal life had thrown Harris into some kind of depression or funk that has become caustic to the optimism and hopefulness present in nearly all of her work. Fortunately, Harris was able to reign in some of that cynicism, at least for the ending of the book, which was quite a relief. I was disappointed that the evil character did NOT get what was coming to her in the end, however, and is left to continue her criminal activities in America.
I can't imagine that Harris would believe that people could become fond or forgiving of "Zozie", the bad seed character in the book, yet we are, I think, supposed to find her manipulations somehow charming.
At any rate, this is the continuing story of Vianne Rocher, now called Yanne Charbonneau and her daughter Anouk, now called Annie, and Rosette, a baby who is born somewhat fragile and autistic. Vianne has settled in a small chocolate shop in Monmarte in Paris. She's sworn off magic, and has sworn her daughters off it, too, though Anouk is a preteen who wants to use her abilities to fight the forces of conformity at her school, and Rosette doesn't understand enough of the world to restrain her magical abilities, as she keeps having 'accidents'. Vianne has even taken up with her landlord, a boring, egotistical jerk named Thierry, who wants to 'rescue' Vianne and institutionalize her children to make them "normal." Vianne doesn't see Thierry as the jerk that he is, however, she seems to be willing to nearly sell her soul for the ability to buy a steady income and norma, boring life with a roof over their heads and food on the table. She seems to believe that all the travel and unpredictability makes her children unhappy and uncared for, which is far from the truth. Vianne has ceased to wear her dramatic clothing and doesn't even hand-make her own chocolats anymore. Into this scene of graying domesticity rides Zozie, a grifter of the worst sort, who steals mail and identities for a living. Zozie, who has magical powers similar to Viannes, but who has become rehearsed in using ancient Aztec and Mayan magic from "the dark side of the force" finds the mystery of why Anouk and Vianne don't use their powers irresistable, and she sets out to find out all she can about the Rochers, so that she can steal Vianne's life and subourn Anouk to the dark, vengeful uses of her powers. In the final third of the book, the wonderful Roux returns, and I was gratified that Harris hadn't chosen to turn him into a character losing his identity, too. Though I could see a showdown coming, I was surprised that Harris allowed compassion to win the day, especially from a nearly teenage character (though Harris' depiction of the cruelty of teenagers was spot on).
Harris' prose is, as always, sterling and delightful, and her descriptions of chocolate made by hand with magic and the very best ingredients makes the reader want to run to the nearest chocolate shop and buy dark French chocolate by the pound. There is a luminescent quality to her writing that sets the stage so beautifully for the characters to play upon, that its hard to understand why Harris seems intent on allowing less that savory characters to muck around with such heartbreakingly beautiful settings. Why not let karma kick their sorry butts and allow the good guys and gals to air out the pages of the stench of cruelty and evil? But, we are fortunate in knowing that Vianne lives to rebuild her chocolaterie and her relationship with Roux, and that her daughters won't grow up supressing their natural talents. I would give this book a solid B plus if I were to grade it, and I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoyed Chocolat, with the advisory that there are some seriously frightening and nasty bits in there, and that if you expect them and try to account for them, they won't cause you as much grief. I am glad that I read the book, and I hope that whatever Harris is up to next, that its something with a balance of justice for whatever evil-doers she cooks up.

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones

This was a novel that I'd gotten in ARC from the publishing house at the ALA convention last year. The cover bird, made totally of food, intrigued me, and the idea of a journalist interviewing the last Chinese chef of a dynasty of famed chefs also made me curious about the contents of the book.
A fast read with a swift moving plot and succinct prose, The Last Chinese Chef kept me reading into the wee hours. I was captivated by the story of Maggie McElroy, who must travel to China to investigate the claim that her newly deceased husband fathered a child on a woman there while on business. Maggie meets up with Sam Liang, who was to open a restaurant, but finds out that while that plan was scrapped due to an investor bagging on him, that he can still cook in China if he wins a cooking contest offered by the government. Sam grew up in America, but traveled to China to learn cooking from his famed uncles and a book written by his grandfather, who was some kind of uber chef in China during the Mao years.
Food is written about as a sensual experience and cooking as an art form that must satisfy the palate and the soul simultainiously. Sam and Maggies relationship grows steadily out of their mutual love of good cuisine, and the romantic tension that springs up between them is eventually consumated.
This is a book not to be missed by those that enjoy food and love a good story with an HEA.

Bread Alone and The Baker's Apprentice by Judith Ryan Hendricks

My neighbor Tabby is one of those smart souls who doesn't collect the books she reads, she gets them from the library, reads them and returns them. She is thus spared from having bookshelves cluttering every room of her house, and having those shelves bulging with double-and-triple stacked books. She does, however, keep a few books that she really loves on hand to re-read and share with friends.
I happened to be at her home last week for a lovely cuppa tea (She is of British heritage, so she knows how to brew a proper pot of tea) and we got to talking books and life, and astrology. We happened to be discussing Geminis, and I told her about my best friend Muff, and how interesting life with her was when we were in college, then going to Ireland together and our many years inbetween as best buddies who were close enough to be sisters. It turns out that two days later, I'd hear from BJ, Muffs brother, that she died in her sleep on the morning of March 29. So my conversation about her was somewhat prophetic.
But I will write more about that later.
Meanwhile, Tabby wrested two books from her bookshelves by Judith Ryan Hendricks, called Bread Alone and the Bakers Apprentice and told me that she'd enjoyed them so much, she felt I would delight in reading them as well. I read through Bread Alone the day Muff died, and took Bakers Apprentice with me on the airplane to Iowa, where I was going to attend Muffs funeral.
These novels, which take place mostly in Seattle, were slice-of-life tomes, about a shallow and obnoxious Los Angeles native who seems to have no real will or mind of her own, until her husband starts having an affair and throws her out of her home without so much as a by-your-leave. She discovers that she has one talent, and that's for baking bread. She happens upon a thinly disguised Macrina Bakery in downtown Seattle and ends up as their breadmaker. She meets quite a rogues gallery of characters, from the punk Tyler to the hottie bartender Mac, and grows as a person tremendously while getting her divorce. The prose in the novels was very like the prose of a journalist, which was one of Ms Hendricks previous professions, and the plots, though rambling and seemingly as unfocused as Wynter, the protagonist, manage to get her from point A to point B in the requisite amount of time. By the sequel, Bakers Apprentice, Wyn is much more of a full-blooded person who can manage what life throws at her without collapsing in a heap or running to her mother or her best friend. It's that growth and that ability to move forward and learn from her mistakes that makes Wyn such a rich character and so fascinating to read. There was tremendous comfort in reading Wynter's story, and in watching her change and grow up while running a bakery. Unfortunately, the final chapter of the book is left somewhat open-ended, so we don't know if Mac and Wyn are going to marry and live happily ever after, or if their relationship will implode again, but I have a feeling Ms Hendricks left the couple hanging for a reason. I bet there is another book coming, filled with drool-worthy bread recipes and more scenes from the lives of the quirky people Wyn has gathered around her.
I'd recommend this book to foodies and chick-lit readers who want something with a touch more depth than the average struggle and romance with an HEA ending.