Janice Lee’s new book The Expatriates immerses readers in the lives of three women who must navigate the affluent and insular world of American expatriates living in Hong Kong. The twists and turns of their intertwined lives make this book impossible to put down. Lee’s characters are amazingly realistic and beautifully drawn. Readers cannot help but feel compassion for them even when they aren’t exactly likeable. In this sharp social satire, readers are invited into the funniest moments of their lives as well as the darkest.
Mercy is floundering with no plan after graduating from Columbia, so she decides to look for opportunities abroad. Shortly after her arrival in Hong Kong, a tragic accident causes her to collapse in on herself, unable and unwilling to try to move past this event. Hilary is desperate to have a child, hoping it might save her shaky marriage. Margaret and her family move when her husband accepts a career opportunity, and she is content with her new role as a stay-at-home mother. When the family suffers a horrific loss, she can no longer recognize herself or begin to figure out what to do next.
These women exist in a “fishbowl” where everyone seems to know everyone else and their story, but Lee illustrates how the self presented to the world can be completely different from the self rippling beneath the surface.
Hong Kong is so much a part of the story that it becomes another complex and vibrant character itself. Lee only really delves into the “American Zone” of the city, but she creates a clear sense of this strange place, and we can see how the city is as changeable as the characters inhabiting it.
Readers who enjoy this will love Lee’s first novel The Piano Teacher, as well as Paradise City by Elizabeth Day.
South Korea is claiming a seat at the world’s literary table with the February release of female novelist Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Londoner Deborah Smith. The novel was originally published in 2007 in South Korea as three separate novellas. The Vegetarian unites these related stories, which all center around Yeong-hye, a young woman described by those close to her as plain and unremarkable. That is, until she becomes tormented by recurring dreams of unspeakable horrors — dreams she associates with eating meat.
Her husband, the narrator of the first part of the novel, is alarmed when he finds her frantically throwing away the animal contents of their refrigerator. He immediately reminds her of the monetary costs, to no avail. Yeong-hye not only avoids all animal products but eats little at all and begins to rapidly lose weight. Her health declines but the dreams continue. Others scoff at her newfound vegan diet, while her blustering, domineering father decides to force-feed her during a family dinner to disastrous, far-reaching results.
The second part of the novel takes us forward in time, and this time the narrator is the husband of Yeong-hye’s sister, who is a successful and driven businesswoman and mother. The brother-in-law is an artist who has yet to find an audience for his work. He is obsessed with Yeong-hye, determined to use her as the centerpiece of an artistic, sexually graphic film conceived with her in mind. This middle portion of The Vegetarian takes the quiet yet alarmingly dark tone of the beginning and adds a brooding, hypnotic eroticism. What is it about Yeong-hye that bewitches him and causes him to risk everything? Is he driven by art, or merely lust?
The final part of The Vegetarian is told by the sister, whose life has been upended by both Yeong-hye’s actions and her stubborn convictions. Yeong-hye’s mental health is rapidly declining, or so it seems. Is there something much bigger lurking beneath her usual, seemingly placid exterior? Her rejection of the human world takes her to a startling place.
The Vegetarian is calm, cool, unflinchingly dark and unsettling. Readers looking for an intellectual and philosophical challenge will enjoy working out the rich symbolism for themselves, making this an excellent choice for book clubs with a literary bent.
Music connects us regardless of gender, age and race, articulating emotion in a way few other things can and uniting us during horrific events. A perfect example of this plays a vital role in M.T. Anderson’s new nonfiction book Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad.
Using Dmitri Shostakovich’s life as the framework for the story, Anderson begins with his childhood in St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution. Later, we see Shostakovich as a composer of classical music under Joseph Stalin after St. Petersburg was renamed Leningrad. But this isn’t just a biography of a composer; Anderson delves into the fears and struggles of living under Bolshevik rule to the Soviet Union’s entrance into World War II and the disastrous siege of Leningrad. Shostakovich wrote part of his 7th Symphony while in the besieged city. And as the Nazis’ attack on Soviet soil continued, that symphony became a symbol of endurance and resolve for the people of Leningrad, in particular, and the Soviet people as a whole.
Anderson blends musical theory, sociology and war history into a compelling examination of the events, philosophies and people that led to such an appalling tragedy as the Siege of Leningrad. While not an easy read in terms of content, Anderson’s writing is accessible for readers from teens to adults. His thorough research provides readers with greater context into this particular event during WWII as well as Russian and music history.
Much like the music at the heart of the story, it’s a book that stays with you after you’ve finished it, reminding us not only of the atrocities we can — and have — perpetrated on each other but also the resolve and strength we can find within ourselves to triumph over the darker side of human nature. Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony can be checked out at BCPL or heard performed by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. For more information on the Siege of Leningrad and the starving orchestra who played Shostakovich’s symphony in Leningrad approximately one year after the siege began, check out Leningrad: Siege and Symphony by Brian Moynahan.
For writers, musicians or artists, Jessa Crispin (founder of bookslut.com) introduces a unique method of working through problems in your creative life: Consult the tarot. You will learn everything you need to know in her new book The Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide to an Inspired Life.
Crispin begins by outlining the tarot’s murky origins as a card game and eventual transformation to a fortune-telling medium. She details her own experience with tarot readings and explains that, rather than predicting the future, the cards tell you a story about what is happening in your life. This story can differ from the story you’ve been telling yourself and help you gain a valuable perspective.
Essential for any book on the tarot is a detailed description of each of the modern deck’s 78 cards. An intimate understanding of each card is necessary to interpret your own tarot spreads. Many books merely explain how the card might be interpreted, but Crispin takes it a step further and includes a short section entitled “Recommended Materials” for each card. This short list of writings, music recordings, films, works of art (and more!) can be studied to better understand the particular nature of each card. She often compares the cards to various people or situations to make them less theoretical and more relatable — for example, The Star is “The Ziggy Stardust card,” in honor of David Bowie’s outrageous alter ego, while the Five of Coins is compared to painter Leonor Fini, who felt alienated from the Surrealists in 1930s Paris because she was a woman.
The Creative Tarot includes everything you need to get started, except the cards themselves. But Crispin talks you through choosing a deck, explain how to set up a reading and gives examples of how to interpret various spreads in reference to your own creative projects.
Northern Alaska in winter…your dream destination? Probably not, but it is the perfect setting for Rosamund Lupton’s latest thriller The Quality of Silence. A fast-paced, bone-chilling tale about a mother and daughter who trek through northern Alaska to find her missing husband that includes a wild ride in a hijacked tractor trailer to the Arctic Circle (complete with menacing stalkers), threats of hypothermia, a blizzard and fear at every turn.
What would you do if you were told your husband was killed in a fire at a remote northern Alaskan village? Would you hijack a tractor trailer to drive through Alaska’s most treacherous landscape with your 10-year-old deaf daughter? Believing her husband Matt is alive and alone in the desolate, frozen tundra, Yasmin is determined to find him despite the bitter cold, constant darkness and barely passable snow-covered roads. But her and her daughter, Ruby, must also outrun the truck keeping pace behind them, and then there are the cryptic emails from an unknown sender. Who is following them? Who is sending the emails? And why? Unrelenting fear presses down on Yasmin and Ruby not only from outside factors but from the silence they experience as well. Will they conquer their fears? Will they find Matt? Will they survive?
Grab a cozy blanket and something warm to drink, for Lupton’s description of northern Alaska will make you shiver, both from cold and fright. You will urgently read this icy page-turner to find out what happens to Matt, Yasmin and Ruby. After warming up, go to Lupton's website for photos of her recent trip to Alaska. Interesting, believe me! Still want more Lupton? Then check out her other moving and suspenseful novels, Sister and Afterwards. Both great reads!
Hysteria, hallucination or superstition? Stacy Schiff does not provide readers with the answer, but she does give us all the ammunition we need to come to our own conclusions in The Witches: Salem, 1692.
Massachusetts, 1692. The time and place should be immediately recognizable. It was arguably the darkest period in early colonial American history. The colony was dotted with small villages and towns that lingered on the edge of wilderness and the unknown. Harsh winters and Indian raids kept colonists wearily alert. Religion provided guidance, if not solace, in everyday life but did little to dispel the monotony of winter days spent indoors. Could all of this have led young girls to writhe and contort and then accuse others of causing their discomfort through witchcraft, which then led the accused to implicate their own families and neighbors? All in all, 20 people were executed for witchcraft. Nineteen were convicted of witchcraft and hanged while one refused to enter a plea and was crushed to death under the weight of heavy stones.
Little historical documentation of the Salem Witch Trials survived, either due to the shorthand of court transcriptionists or later loss from war. Much of what did survive comes from secondhand accounts or accounts written down years after the trials. Schiff thoroughly interpreted what little documentation survived from 1692 and 1693. Her take on the trials is heavy on facts with not so much narrative. The Witches is a well-researched book about the Salem Witch Trials that focuses on the leaders of the community.
If you want to balance your nonfiction reading of the trials with fascinating fictional versions, check out The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane and Conversion, both by Katherine Howe, and Arthur Miller's classic The Crucible.
Take one unemployed Yankee, transplant her to Mule Stop, Texas, dig up a job with an eccentric millionaire and you have all the delightful elements of Nancy Martin’s debut mystery Miss Ruffles Inherits Everything. Sunny McKillip moved to Mule Stop expecting to be an administrative assistant at a university. When the job disappears, Sunny is fortunate to land a position with the most influential matriarch in town, Honeybelle Hensley. Miss Honeybelle is president of the garden club and has the most beautiful rose garden south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Her unexpected death bestows her fortune to her dog Miss Ruffles, a Texas Cattle Cur with a Texas-sized attitude. Sunny, the housekeeper and the valet stand to inherit a million dollars each if they maintain Miss Honeybelle’s home and care for the dog for one year. Greedy relatives, university machinations, planned nuptials and garden club power plays abound. Under the watchful eye of Miss Honeybelle’s lawyer, Sunny must keep the incorrigible dog out of the rose garden while untangling the mystery of Miss Honeybelle’s demise.
Nancy Martin’s latest is no ordinary cozy. There are unexpected twists and turns as Sunny negotiates the culture of a small southern town — Texas style. Just when you think you have it all figured out, Martin throws you a curve you won’t see coming.
Nancy Martin is a winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award for mystery writing from RT Book Reviews and is the author of Foxy Roxy, Sticky Fingers and the bestselling Blackbird Sisters mysteries.
I have been a fan of Francisco X. Stork since I read his novel Marcelo in the Real World. In his latest novel, The Memory of Light, Victoria (Vicky) Cruz wakes up in the Lakeview Hospital psych ward not expecting or wanting to still be alive. When asked if she knows how she got there, all of the memories come flooding back — the sleeping pills, living up to her father’s expectations, her nana leaving and her mother’s death. Vicky feels hopeless and is sure she will “try” again if she goes back home. Against her father and stepmother’s wishes, Vicky ends up staying at Lakeview for two weeks. While there, she befriends the others in her group therapy — Mona, Gabriel and E.M. — none of whom have as privileged a life as she.
Vicky’s father does not understand why she is so depressed since he has provided her with a good life. He feels as though she is just not trying hard enough or putting in the effort her older sister Becca has, who is studying at Harvard. In the end, Vicky finally breaks through some of her father’s anger and hurt, and they begin a slow start to building an authentic relationship.
The author notes that he has also struggled with depression and a suicide attempt while attending Harvard. This is a real look at what living with the illness of depression is like. This is a powerful, genuine story that will leave you cheering for Vicky and her friends. This is more than a story about suicide and depression — it is a story about loss, family, friendship and hope.