Books We Loved, Feb. 2022
At last, the days are lengthening instead of shortening—at least in the Northern Hemisphere—but around here it’s still pretty chilly. Just in time for Valentine’s Day, we have some suggestions that don’t qualify as romances per se—but love, after all, appears in many different guises. And if you are desperate for a love story with a twist, take a look at C. P. Lesley’s Song of the Sinner, which we released just three weeks ago. You can find out more about that by clicking on the title in the previous sentence.
Muriel Barbary, A Single Rose, translated by Alison Anderson (Europa Editions, 2021)
How can a book in which virtually nothing happens be so satisfying? In A Single Rose, the protagonist, Rose, travels from her home in France to Japan for the reading of her father’s will. She’s never met her father. She was raised first by her French mother, then by her grandmother. Now, in her thirties, Rose is forced to confront her absent Japanese father’s history, character, and life before learning how he’s disposed of his considerable wealth.
Each chapter begins with a brief story from ancient Asian wisdom (some Chinese, some Japanese), then enters the point of view of Rose as, jet-lagged and confused, she’s led from temple to temple by her father’s assistant, as his final wishes require. In these visits to the temples she is to learn lessons from her father’s life.
Some lessons are less welcome than others. Rose is not without thorns, and she resents, refuses, and complies in various measures. At times I felt frustrated with the narrative and with Rose herself for not being more sprightly and urgent.
Yet the story is ultimately enlightening, uplifting. Each lesson falls into place, the whole is revealed, and the journey, quiet and unremarkable on the surface, becomes a complete and rich tapestry.
The translation is excellent, and the book is available in paperback and e-book.—CHL
Emma Donoghue, The Pull of the Stars
(Little, Brown, 2020)
We’re in Dublin, in 1918, and the Great Flu is in full force. The sign on the door of the minuscule hospital ward where the greater part of Emma Donoghue’s newest novel takes place reads Maternity/Fever. Late-term pregnant women who are suffering from the flu are quarantined there, under the care, at present, of Nurse Julia Power. Since there’s lots going on in that barely-big-enough-to-fit-three-beds space—and since the hospital is so short staffed that it’s next to impossible to get a doctor to come in for more than a minute or two at a time—an inexperienced volunteer “runner” by the name of Bridie Sweeney is sent to work at Nurse Power’s side.
At home, which we only get a glimpse of, Julia Power lives a quiet life with her brother, Tim, who has recently returned from the war and is suffering from, among other things, having lost his closest friend. Though he has not succumbed to any physical injuries, he now communicates only through facial expressions, gestures, and when absolutely necessary, notes. He spends his days insuring the survival of a magpie he has adopted and preparing meals for his sister when she gets home from work, usually quite late at night. Though we don’t see much of him, Tim and his challenges are always front of the reader's mind, as is the fact that Julia is just turning thirty.
The characters in this book are all fascinating, with Julia and Bridie at the top of the list followed by Tim and then whichever three people happen to be in the three beds at any given time (they come and go) and even the doctors and orderlies who pop in and out. With so much attention paid to each of their personal plights, the interactions among them, and the always brilliant dialogue, you wouldn’t think there’d be space to develop a high-energy, thrilling plot line. But thrilling it is. In the mere three days over which the story unfolds, there are births, deaths, autopsies, romantic encounters, and life-changing decisions. This novel is exemplary, a wonderful, breathtaking, compassionate read written by a real pro.—JS
K. B. Owen, Never Sleep: Chronicles of a Lady Detective 1 (Misterio Press, 2015)
It’s 1885, and Penelope Hamilton is supporting herself by running a boarding house and giving lessons on china painting when she receives a letter from Frank Wynch, the alcoholic husband she walked out on years before. A Pinkerton detective, he wants her to join him in solving a case, as she used to—and he soon makes it clear that’s not the only part of the old days he wants to see restored.
Penelope has no interest in reuniting with her ex, but she misses the excitement of detective work and hopes that success in this case will convince Frank’s boss to hire her as one of his elite group of lady detectives. So she agrees to accept a temporary position at the house of Henry Comstock, the local magnate in the small Massachusetts town where she grew up. Ostensibly, she will be cataloguing notes for a future memoir, but in reality her job is to discover who stands behind a series of sabotage attempts at the Comstock mill. Between fending off Frank’s attempts at reconciliation and dodging the chief suspect, who happens to be a former boyfriend, though, Pen has her hands full with more than the case—especially once her attraction for that old flame rekindles. Too bad it can’t go anywhere until she finds a way to ditch Frank for good.
At less than 100 pages, this is more a novella than a novel. But it’s the beginning of a series (five books to date), and the author crams an amazing amount of characterization and setting into her rip-roaring plot, resulting in an enjoyable read that can be polished off in a single evening. Owen has a second series based around a women’s college; expect to hear more about that one soon. Meanwhile, I have four more novels to go in the Lady Detective series before I can start on the new one.—CPL