Thursday, September 27, 2007

Interred With Their Bones

MotherTalk asked me to review the academic thriller Interred with Their Bones, by Jennifer Lee Carrell, and I jumped at the chance. I love a thriller, and will read any type of academic thriller with joy. Although most people associate The DeVinci Code with academic thrillers, I don't. I much prefer a more psychological thriller where you get to learn about the subject matter at hand, but also more about the period than the characters themselves. Thus, Interred with Their Bones delighted me and held my interest as a mystery about a missing play by Willian Shakespeare. Because much of the action was held at my alma mater, Harvard University, and takes place in Cambridge as well as England, the Southwest of the US, and Washington DC, I was familiar with many of the buildings and places, having been there are a visitor or a student. That made the book easy to connect to, and more real for me personally.

Kate Stanley, Shakespeare scholar and Globe Theatre director is preparing for the opening of Hamlet when her ex-mentor and professor at Harvard, Rosalind Howard, flys in from Boston bringing Kate a small gold-wrapped box. That very evening, as Kate is supposed to meet Roz at a park, a fire damages the Globe, where Roz is found murdered in the same manner as Hamlet's father. Roz's mysterious gift box contains a Victorian mourning brooch decorated with flowers associated with Ophelia. The coincidences push Kate to go on a wild quest that takes her to Utah; Arizona; Washington, D.C.; and back to London, seeking answers to what happened to Roz and what the present Roz left with her meant. At every stop, the bodies pile up as Kate begins to unpiece the mystery of the missing play. But while Kate is searching, the question keeps popping up: Did Shakespeare really exist or was he the alter ego of another author or a group of authors? Between trying to prove that Shakespeare did exist, as Kate believes, and trying to find the missing manuscript, Kate is forced to question who is a friend, who is foe, and what they all want from the missing play.

This wild and wacky tale of Shakespeare, the wild west, a family gone rotten, and a lot of people trying to hide information takes readers to locations never associated in any way with Shakespeare. The story is based on fiction, but the basis is based on fact. There was a missing play, Shakespeare may or may not have existed, and scholars are still arguing over his existance. Regardless of the factual nature vs the ficticious nature of this book, it's a great tale that will keep you riveted to your seat as you try to put together the clues and figure out just who is the bad guy, and what they're all really searching for.

This is author Jennifer Lee Carrell's debut mystery, and a great start to a budding fiction career. Carrell's prose is crisp and her historical facts well-researched. An engrossing page-turner, Carrell's Shakespearean thriller will please mystery and Shakespeare lovers alike. I enjoyed this book much more than I initially thought I would. What could have been a dull read about academics turned into a stunningly crafted tale of intrigue, creepy characters, and a mystery that has kept academics arguing for decades. It contained all the right features to keep up my interest and enjoy a book that was an amazing debut for a very promising author.

Friday, September 21, 2007

On Borrowed Wings

The title, On Borrowed Wings is very prophetic. Chandra Prasad has written a lovely novel about family, the early struggle of women's rights, and about Connecticut life in the 1930's. This is the story of a family with internal differences that can't be solved until a dramatic accident kills the father and son. Once the have died, the mother and daughter left behind can make changes in their lives, changes for the better although not changes that improve their family. Prasad weaves together tragedy and drama in a brave attempt to describe the inner workings of a family gone wrong.

Adele and her older brother Charles live with their once refined mother and granite quarry worker father. Their mother was a summer cottager in their small beach town, the daughter of a rich Philadelphia professor. She met and married Pa, the quarryman and was disowned by her parents. She ended up living a poor existence and was miserable. The only thing that kept her happy was Charles, her brilliant son she was training to get into Yale. She was the original helicopter parent, but only for Charles. Adele was there for chores and helping with her mother's laundry business.

After a terrible quarry accident, Charles and Pa were both killed. But Charles had already gained acceptance into Yale, so Ma determined to let Adele go in her place. Yale didn't admit women, so Adele had to take on the persona of her brother Charles.

Once she arrived at Yale, she made fast friends, was an outstanding student, and founded a tutoring program for poor Italian children in New Haven. She loved being at Yale, although her disguise was often difficult to maintain, especially after she fell for one of the boys in her class.

Meanwhile, Ma made overtures towards her parents and began to reconcile with them. They demanded that Adele and Ma come to visit them, but Adele refused. Ma wouldn't take no for an answer, cutting off Adele just as her family had cut her off years ago.

But Adele was stronger. She won a full scholarship and got to continue at Yale even without her mother's permission or support. She did so still hiding as a man.

This book is a delightful read and the story is one that will warm your heart. Don't be fooled into thinking that this is the typical story of girl masquerading as boy as we have seen many times in books and theatre. The story of Adele has more to do with her coming of age in a most unlikely way than it has to do with her hiding her identity in order to go to Yale.

Chandra Prasad has seamlessly woven a fascinating story. The meticulously detailed historical background is very interesting and actually quite educational but doesn't for a moment detract from the flow of the story. And what a story! It crept up on me. I was about 50 pages into the book before I realized that I was hooked. From that point I could hardly put it down. The moody mysterious suspenseful tone of the book, combined with a strong sympathetic main character makes this book a perfect escape!

Prasad's unique gift of weaving history with a fictional narrative and knack for painterly descriptions never ceases to amaze me. On Borrowed Wings is no exception. Before long, I was swept back to New Haven and Yale in the 1930s, immersed in the complicated life of a young woman. I understood Adele and empathized with her as she took risks to change her destiny. This triumphant novel is the finest I have read in a very long time.
On Borrowed Wings is startling and fresh and bold. The premise itself is not particularly new: girl disguises herself as boy in order to attend university and achieve both personal and educational goals. What made this book stand out, though, was that Prasad doesn't linger on the been-there-done-that gender-bender issues. Instead, she weaves together a vibrant history of Yale and New Haven, Connecticut, during the 1930s, and she creates the pervasive excitement, fear, and frenetic energy that is part and parcel of freshman year at any college. The main character, Adele (Charlie) Pietra is an intrepid, gawky, fun, always sympathetic character; she/he is all the more endearing for her quirks and occasionally exasperating behavior. Adele is particularly delightful when attempting to maneuver her way around a fitting for a man's suit, a physical examination in the gymnasium that requires nudity, and a school dance in which--yes--she must wine and dine her female date.

Prasad handles social issues of the day with a deft hand, including the Eugenics movement and anti-Semitism. Kudos to the author for giving what is essentially a brisk coming-of-age story exceptional humanity and pathos. I recommend it highly.

Friday, September 14, 2007

February Flowers

As part of the MotherTalk book tour, I was asked to review February Flowers, a newly published novel by Fan Wu about modern day university students in China. Having never been to China and knowing very little about the university system in China, I grabbed at the chance to review this book, and I'm so glad I did.

Set in modern day China in the 1990's, February Flowers is the story of two women who become fast friends despite their lack of pretty much anything in common. But the friendship in often challanged by the differences in the two women. Ming, who is 17 and in her first year at university, meets Miao Yan on the dormatory rooftop where Ming goes to practice her violin. Ming is a serious student, preoccupied with her studies in literature, both eastern and western. Yan, in her last year at university, is more worried about getting a job, finding a husband, and being allowed to remain in the upscale Guangzhou provence where the university is located.

Miao Yan seems to be addicted to living in the moment. Although she is a minority from a very small town in the rural north, she latches on to the fashion, food, and sexual lifestyle of the modern city. She has a succession of boy friends, dresses provocatively, and dreams of getting a job in the city of Guangzhou, where life is exciting, money flows like water, and life is good.

Chen Ming, on the other hand, is a lonely and serious student, who doesn't have a boy friend, and who for pleasure, or to deal with emotions she barely understands, plays the violin, alone on the dormitory rooftop. Ming, whose parents were exiled to farm labor during the Cultural Revolution, was brought up on the labor farm and has never been to a city until she discovers the vibrant, exhilarating city around her. With her new friend, Miao Yan, a worldly senior who gives Ming her first alluring dress and teaches her how to pose in heels, these two women's lives become entwined and bitter secrets from their past come to light, secrets that destroy their friendship but make them both stronger women.

Ming's characterization is representative of the post cultural revolution China of the 90s. Fan Wu does a beautiful job of creating a realistic setting where almost unlimited, but relatively new, freedom contrasts with the tight regime it grew out of. Ming is conscious of this freedom which Miao Yan comes to represent, while she simultaneously holds on to the notion of `good girl' that her parents expect. The tension between the two characters, and the concurrent tension within the university itself propels the story. An undercurrent of fear puts Miao Yan's relaxed cynicism in perspective as uniformed workers from the Security Department patrol the campus looking for overly made-up women or smokers. Governmental control forms a backdrop to the story as Miao Yan struggles with her desire to work in Shenzhen, border controls and dossiers. But everything, including the hint of feminism, which underpins Ming's awakening is handled subtly.

Fan Wu tells this story in a way that isn't clich├ęd or overly dramatic. The emotions expressed in all of the characters - not just Ming and Yan, but also their dorm-mates, fellow students, and the various boys and men that enter their lives - ring true. Fan Wu clearly knows of which she speaks. To fully understand these emotions and attitudes, it helps if one has been to China or personally knows any young Chinese, but any reader, even without having experienced today's China and young Chinese, will recognize and appreciate the characters' dilemmas, thoughts, and emotions.

This story is told in a voice that is simply beautiful and fragile. Wu hides nothing from us, and her honesty and sense of wonder come through beautifully. Her tone is down-to-earth but without any hint of sarcasm, cynicism or irony. And so the reader can relax and be completely absorbed by the book.

I highly recommend this book.

Interview with Fan Wu:

Article about Fan Wu: