Books We Loved, Apr. 2019
Yangsze Choo, The Night Tiger (Flatiron Books, 2019)
The Night Tiger is much more than just a fantasy novel—it’s also a mystery, a historical novel, and a love story. Yangsze Choo accomplishes all this in one deft package. Set in Malaysia in the 1930s, in the state of Perak, The Night Tiger closely follows three narrators, mysteriously interlinked by their names. There is a clever orphan named Ren who works as a houseboy; a spunky and funny young beauty, Ji Lin; and a British surgeon, William Acton.
Ren’s former master, Acton’s colleague, has recently died. Before his passing, he implores Ren, his loyal houseboy, to locate his missing finger. Ren has only forty-nine days in which he can bury the finger with the corpse; otherwise, the spirit of his former master will roam as a were-tiger, never finding peace. Meanwhile, Ji Lin discovers the missing finger in her pocket, the result of a chance encounter, and would like nothing better than to be rid of this macabre item. As she and Ren become friends, she realizes they both have names that denote Confucian virtues, as do three of the other characters. But one of the five is deeply flawed and may doom the rest. Ah, but can they discover which one?
Choo’s characters are engrossing, beckoning you into look deep into their psyches, and the setting of colonial Malaysia is a refreshing change from Eurocentric fantasy literature. For an interview with the author, check out New Books in Fantasy.—GM
Katharine Dion, The Dependents (Little, Brown, 2018)
After the sudden death of his wife of fifty years, Gene feels compelled to reevaluate his entire life. Did his wife really love him? Did she keep secrets from him? Did the couple who became their lifelong best friends back in college take advantage of him? Does his daughter understand him? These and other questions take up so much of his time that he allows both the necessities of day-to-day living and even his health to flag. But when his probe into the past is interrupted by the woman his daughter hires to clean for him, Gene finds himself ready to engage with life once again, perhaps more robustly than ever … for a time.
This novel is filled with so much wisdom about aging and grief that it was a shock for this reviewer to learn the author is so young. The Dependents moves along at a slow pace—the perfect pace, in fact, for the unfolding of this beautiful, engaging, and well-told story.—JS
Sarah Moss, Ghost Wall (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2019)
There’s some original Britishness somewhere, that if he goes back far enough, he’ll find someone who wasn’t a foreigner…
Ghost Wall is set in the shadow of Hadrian’s Wall, built by the Romans to mark the edge of their vast empire and to keep out the rebellious Picts. Here seventeen-year-old Silvie is spending the summer with an archeology professor, a group of university students, and her own parents, living as an Iron Age tribe. The reenactment requires the group to hunt and forage for everything they eat, wear, use, and do and to build a ghost wall—a fence displaying skulls around the camp to ward off invaders and bad spirits.
Silvie’s father, Bill, is an abusive bully, and we soon learn that he wants to prove that there is a pure racial line of “Britishness” … on a small island that has seen waves of Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans. This obsession leads Bill to plan an atrocity mirroring the Iron Age ritual of sacrificing people to the bog and sees the men of the camp follow their darker instincts in a Lord of the Flies-type group madness.
Sanity comes by way of the women in a terrifying and sinister scene at the end of Ghost Wall.
This is a slim book with a powerful message about the abundance of the land, the abuse of power, the potential insanity and menace of the group, and the folly of the concept of racial purity. I rarely read dark books or thrillers but this story was so original, powerful, impactful, and relevant that I devoured it in one day.—DAS
Kimberly Stuart, Sugar (Skyhorse, 2017)
My current work in progress is a holiday romance featuring a pair of bakers. So when BookBub recommended the story of a pastry-chef-turned-reluctant reality star, I couldn’t resist. And I was so glad I gave in.
Sugar is what is commonly known as a sweet romance. There’s no raunchiness, no naked bodies or euphemisms for body parts, no heaving this or straining that. And while I typically have no problem with books that contain that stuff, and even read them if the plot sounds good, it isn’t what I write. But this book didn’t need any of that. The characters are developed, the settings well-described, the relationships fulfilling. And as someone who has no time for reality TV, Charlie’s attitude toward her sudden stardom was refreshing and realistic. It didn’t glorify the “look at me” lifestyle that the Kardashians and the Real Housewives seem to need more than air. I’m not sure I bought the idea that Avery would only staff his restaurant with actors, but it didn’t throw me off enough to quit reading. And the romance between Charlie and Kai, while a bit rushed, was sweet and satisfying.
If you’re looking for an entertaining read, and like stories set in the restaurant business, I definitely recommend Sugar.—CJH