“A Hundred Suns” by Karin Tanabe

Genre:  Historical Fiction/Women’s FictionA hundred suns
Publisher:  St. Martin’s Press
Pub. Date: April 7, 2020

This historical fiction has moments of greatness. The story is set in Indochina during the late 1920s and the early 1930s. If you are a history buff, you will be delighted to know that this reviewer learned much about Indochina, the French Colony in Vietnam. Unlike any schoolbook, Tanabe makes you feel as if you are there with the ‘coolies’ during their long, impossibly hard workday.   The anti-colonialist roots of communism are captured in the abject poverty of the Vietnamese and the abundance of wealth and luxurious living conditions of the French who ruled and lived in Indochina. The author gave me the gift of detailed knowledge. Thanks to “Suns,” I finally have a better understanding of how the Martin Sheen character in “Apocalypse Now” could go from fighting in the jungles of Vietnam to having an elaborate dinner there, while being waited on by servants, with a wealthy French family who insist that Vietnam is their home.

The tale revolves around an American wife who marries a Frenchman who is a member of the Michelin dynasty. The famous family is a major part of the story. In real life, the Michelin brothers organized two Indochinese rubber plantations in 1925, where they operated until the end of the Vietnam War. The author does a thorough job regarding less known information about the Michelins. Surprisingly, at least for me, the family is painted as part of the wealthy imperialists who cannot understand the pain of the underprivileged. The quality of life for their workers read as horrendous.  Since I have always smiled at the image of “The Michelin Man,” I looked for proof of Tanabe’s descriptions.  I found them to be true.  On just one Michelin-owned plantation, 17,000 deaths were recorded in the 20 years between the two World Wars. “Suns” is written so the reader will sympathize with the communist Vietnamese. The author has the ability to make one question what you learned in school. I will never again read a “Michelin-Star Rated Restaurant Guide” without thinking of how their rubber and money was made.

Turns out, the novel is also written as a psychological thriller regarding the American wife. She has a history of mental illness. The author presents this as an “Or does she?” type of situation.  I didn’t mind this component of the novel at all. It did not interfere with the history.  I actually found it intriguing. My issue is that romance finds its way into the plot. Unfortunately, I didn’t notice that this genre is historical fiction as well as women’s fiction, something I do not usually care for. So my disappointment is on me for not carefully looking over the genre before choosing the novel.  My only strong criticism is that Tanabe did not have endnotes. True facts make historical fiction feel authentic and give the author credibility.  However, this may be due to the fact that I read an Advanced Review Copy and the citations may come once the book is published.  Still overall, I enjoyed this novel very much and recommend it.  The entire plot revolving around the history of Vietnam during those years is powerfully written.  And the thriller part is clever.  Plus, if you enjoy women’s fiction this will be a win-win book for you.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“The Holdout” by Graham Moore

Genre:  Mystery & ThrillersThe Holdout
Publisher:  Random House
Pub. Date:  Feb. 18, 2020

Let me start off by saying I was surprised that I was disappointed in this book. Not because other reviewers gave “Holdout” five stars. (I don’t actually read other reviews on a book until I have finished my own to ensure that I am not influenced. But, I do check out the stars).  The discrepancy between my review and others did not surprise me, because I often disagree with my peers.  I was surprised to be disappointed because the last two books that I read and reviewed by Moore were both superior historical fiction courtroom dramas and historical fiction is my favorite genre.   In “Last Days of Night,” George Westinghouse takes on Thomas Edison in the battle over the light bulb patent.  And, in “The Imitation Game” Alan Turing, the famous mathematician who cracked Nazi codes goes on trial because of his homosexuality, which sadly was against the law during those years.  The focuses on both these books were on the long-forgotten, fascinating historical facts, not really the trials. And both novels blew me away.  Since “Holdout” is a courtroom drama only; I guess for me, it was doomed to be a less stellar of a read than the author’s earlier books.

In this book, a young woman is on a jury for a murder trial.  A black man is accused of killing his white teenage student.  Our protagonist manages to convince the others to acquit the defendant, who were not as positive as she was on his innocence.   Since the jurors are sequestered they have no idea how much hard evidence there is against the defendant.  Once home, the jurors’ lives are forever changed since there is an outcry of fury since it seemed obvious to the world that they freed a guilty man. Up until here, I am okay with the plot.  Now fast forward ten years.   There is a reunion where one male juror has the others get together since he supposedly has new evidence on the decade-old crime.  First issues, why in the world would they want to relive this episode since the trial’s aftermath just about ruined their lives.  In the present, during the reunion this male juror is murdered (no spoiler here).  The prime suspect is our female protagonist.  Oh please.  She is now a defense lawyer herself and does a lot of her own research. Second, oh please.  Is this me or is this a cheesy plot?

I have other issues with the novel.  The male juror’s death is central to the story, yet it doesn’t happen till near the end of the tale.  Plus, after his death, the other jurors come to a very hard-to-believe solution on how to handle explaining his death to the authorities.  If I say more it will be a spoiler. On the other hand, there are lots of good twists at the end of the book, which did bring my attention back to the tale, but it is too little too late. It is hard for me to understand how the author who wrote “Night” and “Game” is the same person who penned “Holdout.” Maybe, my disappointment is on me.  Still, how can a decent legal thriller possibly compete with the true-life courtroom dramas regarding famous and brilliant men that changed history? Simply no competition.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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“Before You Know Kindness” by Chris Bohjalian

Genre:  Domestic DramaBefore You Know Kindness
Publisher:  Random House
Pub. Date:  Aug. 9, 2005        

Chris Bohjalian is one of my all-time favorite authors.   However, this is not my favorite Bohjalian novel.   Actually, it is probably my least favorite.  “Kindness” is a character-driven novel about the importance of family.  Later I will get to what I didn’t like about the story.  I did enjoy the well-developed characters. The novel centers on a 70-year-old grandmother, her two grown children, her children’s spouses, and her grandchildren, two preteen girls and an infant boy.  The grown son and daughter grew up in their mother’s luxurious apartment in NYC.  As children, they summered in their country home in New in Hampshire. The family has owned both homes for generations. We are talking old money here—lots of it. In the present, at the end of each summer, all three generations meet at the country home for one week of tennis, golf, the club, the pool, the beach, and summer cocktails.

I found the family drama interesting.  Both marriages are in trouble for different reasons.  Bohjalian does a good job of explaining what can happen when one of the husbands is obsessed with his work for animal rights.   And the other is feeling the strain of having a newborn in middle age.  The author does an excellent job of nailing down preteen dilemmas.  Out of the female granddaughters/cousins, one is a bit shy of thirteen who desperately wants to be sixteen.  The other is a bit shy of eleven and her older cousin’s tag-along.  One night the female cousins go to a teenage bonfire where there is pot and beer.  Both girls get in way over their heads while their parents’ lost in their own dilemmas are clueless.

Before the reader even gets to know the family, the novel opens with a prologue describing the aftermath of a tragic accident involving a rifle. As the tale progresses, we learn that the man who is shot (no spoiler here) is the father who is the animal rights activist as well as an advocate and lecturer for abolishing hunting.  These are two noble causes.  My issue with the author’s narrative is that the characters often seem to have been forgotten so that he can write what feels like a lengthy paper on these social issues. There is so much extensive detail on the subject, pages long worth that I found myself skimming.   If the master storyteller simply would have cut out some of the lecturing, this would have read more like his usual novels, consisting of an interesting plot with believable, well fleshed out characters, rather than a close-to-boring term paper.

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“Fensetter Falls” by Jack Young

Genre:  General Fiction/HumorFensetter Falls
Pub. Date:  May 14, 2019

I am starting to wonder if I am the only person who has read this novel or even heard of Jack Young.   After finishing the book I googled the author to learn that he has written two other novels. When I googled “Fensetter Falls,” I could find it on sale in all the usual places, but not one single review on any of the standard reviewer websites. So, I may be the first to tell you that this is a dark comedy.  At times it is very funny.  At other times it drags out.

So here is what we got: Two over-the-top wealthy brothers who have never worked a day in their lives.  They also happen to hate one another.  One is an obnoxiously pious (and probably insane) clergyman wannabe.  The other is an obnoxious drunk who is a woman chaser.  They come home to New Hampshire for Thanksgiving to learn that the family estate is now broke and so are they.  We meet their mother who lives in denial regarding the mental health of her religious son. Their father is simply a dirty old man who enjoys nothing more than to cop a feel on any attractive female. Then we meet a woman from NYC who is a gypsy con-artist raising her streetwise, twelve-year-old nephew.  They both move in with the family.  Throw in a tax lawyer who loves Fensetter Falls, which is her hometown.  And, the sweet local cop who is trying to get the attention of the gypsy but he is clumsy with his interactions with females. There is also the lovable town’s sheriff who will remind you of Barney Fife. Oh, I almost forgot, you will also read about a near-sighted hitman who is sensitive in his own weird way. He too moves in with the family. The mother views him as an Italian, cultured European.  Now keep that all straight in your head. Actually, Young does a good job of balancing all his kooky secondary characters into the plot.

The whole story is a hoot. However, at times there is excessive detail similar to a comedian’s monologue that goes on too long and ceases to be funny.  For example, I really didn’t need to read more than a few sentences on when the religious brother (in middle age!) discovers masturbation. Or how all the male characters enjoyed the size of the con artist’s breasts.  However, there are laughs to be had in the tale. I think what I enjoyed most about this novel is that the author seems to be having so much fun, which allowed him to write a completely unbelievable, yet witty, satire.

I received this Advance Review Copy (ARC) novel from the publisher at no cost in exchange for an honest review.

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The Reading Woman 2019 Calendar: October

The epistle is opened and read—with a little wonder, most probably not a little vexation, …letitia_elizabeth_landontrue it is that no first love-letter ever yet gave satisfaction to either writer or reader. Its delight is another question. … and as many cups of coffee to a sentence, on the strength of which he keeps his bed for a week.–-Letitia Elizabeth Landon, 1802-1838

Better known by her initials L.E.L., her work hinted at the dark secrets of love.

“The Institute” by Stephen King

Genre:  Horror FictionThe Institute
Publisher:  Charles Scribner’s Sons
Pub. Date:  September 10, 2019

I haven’t read the great storyteller, Stephen King, in over twenty years. “It,” (the one where the preteens are against the evil clown) was the last book of his that I read until this one.  Still, I was a fan of his early work.  I enjoy his style of blending the “coming of age” genre with almost believable “horror.”  As a teen in 1974, I read “Carrie,” (who can forget that bloody prom dress) before it became a movie two years later.  His latest novel is similar to “Firestarter,” (the hunted little girl with telekinetic abilities) as well as to “It.”  In other words, it is a story of innocent preteens confronting evil. That is what caught my eye.  Writing about kids is vintage King.  One of my favorite stories by the author is “The Body.”  You may remember the film version, “Stand By Me.”  Set in early 1960, four 12-year-old boys, all from abusive families, tell their parents they will be camping out because they consider it to be a rite of passage. They really are searching for the rumored dead body of another boy.  The horror here is from their youthful imaginations and their living conditions at home. Few writers have King’s ability to create credible preteens. These four boys make corny off-color jokes about Goofy and Mickey, the sort of things that boys talk about before they discover girls. Probably, it is the coming of age part of his books that I enjoy so much.

“The Institute” is set in the present, located in, but where else, Maine, which is King’s home state and the location of most of his novels. The plot emulates “Firestarter,” and “It.” In this one there are no ghosts, devils, clowns, diabolical invaders or magical kingdoms.  The horror comes from the average people who run the place which is similar to “The Body.”  The actual institute may or may not be a secret government project.  Their purpose is to kidnap children with psychic powers and use them to dispatch of targets who are considered dangerous to human survival.  This makes the tale mostly believable.  Think “The Manchurian Candidate.”  They use the kids until they cease to exist.  As one of the kidnapped girls explains to the newbie kid, “The Institute, is like the roach motel.  You check in, but you don’t check out.”  She also tries to sooth the new boy’s fear by reprimanding the other boys who are ignoring him and playing basketball, “don’t you remember how weird it is to wake up here in what looks like your own room?” The author ensures, maybe one too many times, that these kids’ fates are similar to those children near certain US borders. Although I agree with his views on Trump, I am tired of finding the theme in my fiction.  Still, it is terrifying to read about the kids, who are hostages in the institute, who will eventually end up looking like a character from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”  Plus, the woman in charge of the “school” is portrayed as a perfect Nurse Ratched.  She represents how one can desensitize themselves to torture allowing them to dehumanize the children. Basically, King is questioning the theory that the ends can justify the means.

So, once again King writes on the battles between good and evil, just like he did in “The Stand,” (where a super flu virus makes for an apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic tale).  Like many other King fans, “The Stand” is still my favorite.  Maybe this is because in 1978 it was a fresh story. In 2019, the author seems to be rewriting his most popular books. I say, So what?  This reviewer enjoyed the blast from the Stephen King past.   From reading the book’s blurb, I knew just what it was about the book that I was looking forward to reading: a coming of age story in the most severe of situations. I wasn’t looking for something fresh.  I wasn’t looking for a literary read.  I was looking for King going back to his roots.  And that is what I got.  Sometimes, “The Institute,” unlike “The Body,” has 12-year-old slang that is questionable.  Do kids say “necking” anymore? Would they really be able to sing Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart?”  If both are not true, I do not care, it worked in this story. Plus, I would have been disappointed if he left out his trademark musical references.

In between the terror, King teases us by poking fun at himself and how long he has been at his craft. There are a pair of seven-year-old girl twins at the Institute who are reminiscent of the twins from, “The Shining,” (You know the film. “All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy”).  When one boy in the institute meets them for the first time he thinks that they are just like the twins “in some old horror movie” but he couldn’t remember the name of the film.  If you are looking for something new from the Lord of Darkness, this is not it.  If you go in knowing this, you will enjoy this creepy read about a boy who one day wakes up in a bedroom that looks just like his, but isn’t.

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