Book Review of Songs of Willow Frost

by Jamie Ford

Historical fiction is a wonderful vehicle to learn about history. Jamie Ford sets Songs of Willow Frost in Seattle’s Chinatown during the by Jamie FordDepression of the 1930s. In this specialized locality, the story takes us through desperation into hope on a very personal level. It centers around William Eng on his quest to find his ah-ma, who he believes is Willow Frost. The reader walks with William at the orphanage and on the streets of Seattle. We also learn of Willow’s struggles as a beautiful Chinese American in the early 1900s.

Ford proves his skill at weaving-a-yarn in a traditional literary fashion, while providing a history lesson of a part of America we don’t often consider. The historical context of Seattle’s Chinatown infuses every aspect of the story, while Ford compassionately gives readers an understanding of the culture and limitations of the times.

Flashbacks and descriptions of feelings, places and people abound. None of it is dry or devoid of interest however. Ford’s vision becomes real as he mixes memories into action scenes making them ever more poignant.

We believe the story’s truth. We hurt for the characters, and we deplore our collective history. Regardless, we read on–eager to know what happens.

Ford doesn’t let the reader down. He leaves us with tears, understanding and a hope for redemption. Thank you Jamie Ford for telling us Willow’s and William’s stories.

Chapter 1 Analysis

First chapters provide readers a sense of an author’s writing style and a promise of what will come. I started the week thinking I’d study the first chapter of a half-dozen books, but stopped. My study was sidetracked with Songs of Willow Frost in which Jamie Ford captured my empathy and interest with his depiction of an orphanage child in 1934 Seattle.

From the first line, “snapping leather belt and the shrieking of rusty springs”, I questioned the circumstances to come. Although this orphanage wake-up scene compels the reader to continue, Williams’s thoughts peak interest even more.

Long paragraphs of backstory including the brutality of being beaten for peeing in bed and memories of pre-orphanage days push readers out of a scene in order to explore varied facets of William’s life. For example in the boys birthday sojourn to the movies cryptic memories of finding his ah-ma in a bath tub, as well as growing up in the orphanage, interrupt and extend the scene.

Chapters often end with cliff-hangers. The first chapter’s ending leaves us wondering if the actress in the movie really could be his mom. Regardless, William’s quest is defined at that moment, when he becomes driven to find the actress.

Ford’s most popular novel is his first book published in 2009, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. It won the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in 2010. He was also a runner-up for the 2009 Langum Prize for historical fiction and it was named the #1 Book Club Pick for Fall 2009/Winter 2010 by the American Booksellers Association. If you like Songs of Willow Frost, perhaps another of Ford’s books is in order.

Book Review of Songs of Willow FrostSongs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford
Published by Ballantine Books on September 10th 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 331
Goodreads

Twelve-year-old William Eng, a Chinese-American boy, has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage ever since his mother’s listless body was carried away from their small apartment five years ago. On his birthday—or rather, the day the nuns designate as his birthday—William and the other orphans are taken to the historical Moore Theatre, where William glimpses an actress on the silver screen who goes by the name of Willow Frost. Struck by her features, William is convinced that the movie star is his mother, Liu Song.

Determined to find Willow, and prove his mother is still alive, William escapes from Sacred Heart with his friend Charlotte. The pair navigates the streets of Seattle, where they must not only survive, but confront the mysteries of William’s past and his connection to the exotic film star. The story of Willow Frost, however, is far more complicated than the Hollywood fantasy William sees onscreen.

Shifting between the Great Depression and the 1920s, Songs of Willow Frost takes readers on an emotional journey of discovery. Jamie Ford’s sweeping book will resonate with anyone who has ever longed for the comforts of family and a place to call home.

Book Review, The Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman

Alice Hoffman writes historical fiction to her own drummer. The Marriage of Opposites draws from the painter Pizzarros’s family’s by Alice Hoffmanlife, but it brings a depth of compassion in the telling. Not until the end of the book did I consider the historical implications of her story.

As with any good fiction, the lives of the story become bigger than our own, if for only those few hours we read. In this case, we walk in the shoes of a Jewish girl, raised on St. Thomas. We learn about the Danish openness to Jews at a time when the world shut Jewish people out. We learn about the heat, the colors of the ocean, the Fragrance tree, the restrictions of religion, the trials of love and family and friends and the making of witches.

Descriptions are full. One never knows when you’ll miss a bit of important information if you skip them, but I must admit, I did skip some of them and still enjoyed the story immensely.

Alice Hoffman Plays with POV

Writing style defines great authors. Hoffman’s style plays with the reader by presenting her character’s story in a mash of point-of-views (POV). Although the POV changes, we never loose sight of Rachel’s story. We see solidly through her eyes for the beginning third of the book, at which time Hoffman steps back. She then writes several sections in third-person. At first the third person narrator introduces us to her son, Jacobo’s views, but it isn’t long before the narration goes into an omniscient perspective that gives the reader a broader perspective of the environment and the people in Rachel and Jacobo’s lives.

For writers, the study of Alice Hoffman’s use of perspective is a worthy endeavor. She slips from one perspective to another bravely and brazenly. Still the story flows. The reader tracks events without a miss and, ultimately, the novel is enhanced by her technique. Only a skilled writer can pull this off with such finesse.

I finished the story wanting to eat molasses on toast with Rachel.

My Rating five-starsBook Review, The Marriage of Opposites by Alice HoffmanThe Marriage of Opposites by Alice Hoffman
Published by Simon & Schuster on August 4th 2015
Genres: Historical Fiction, Romance
Pages: 371
Goodreads

From the New York Times bestselling author of The Dovekeepers and The Museum of Extraordinary Things: a forbidden love story set on the tropical island of St. Thomas about the extraordinary woman who gave birth to painter Camille Pissarro; the Father of Impressionism.

Growing up on idyllic St. Thomas in the early 1800s, Rachel dreams of life in faraway Paris. Rachel's mother, a pillar of their small refugee community of Jews who escaped the Inquisition, has never forgiven her daughter for being a difficult girl who refuses to live by the rules. Growing up, Rachel's salvation is their maid Adelle's belief in her strengths, and her deep, life-long friendship with Jestine, Adelle's daughter. But Rachel's life is not her own. She is married off to a widower with three children to save her father's business. When her husband dies suddenly and his handsome, much younger nephew, Fréderick, arrives from France to settle the estate, Rachel seizes her own life story, beginning a defiant, passionate love affair that sparks a scandal that affects all of her family, including her favorite son, who will become one of the greatest artists of France.

Building on the triumphs of The Dovekeepers and The Museum of Extraordinary Things, set in a world of almost unimaginable beauty, The Marriage of Opposites showcases the beloved, bestselling Alice Hoffman at the height of her considerable powers. Once forgotten to history, the marriage of Rachel and Fréderick is a story that is as unforgettable as it is remarkable.

The Tintern Treasure by Kate Sedley Book Review

 A Roger the Chapman Mystery

Kate Sedley captivates us with her Roger the Chapman mysteries. by Kate SedleyShe takes us to England during the late middle ages. Interesting characters placed in fascinating foreign settings enhances the read.  In this mystery, Roger, traveling trader, stays at a monastery with three wealthy men from his home town. The monastery’s vault remained sealed for over one hundred fifty years when the mystery begins. When the vault is violated, nobody knows what is missing.

Roger endeavors to locate the contents, while he attempts to identify a the traitor to King Richard who would steal from the monastery. Several subplots with those from his past and within the monastery spice up his investigation.

The action in The Tintern Treasure flows easily, but the plot was too obvious. Regardless I enjoyed the quick read.

Kate Sedley’s from Bristol

Known for her Rodger the Chapman series, Kate Sedley follows many England born mystery writers. A list of the twenty-two books in the series can be found on Cozy Mysteries web site.

The Tintern Treasure by Kate Sedley Book ReviewThe Tintern Treasure (Roger the Chapman #21) by Kate Sedley
Series: Rodger the Chapman #21
Published by Severn House Publishers on July 1st 2012
Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 233
Goodreads


An important discovery puts Roger the Chapman’s life in danger . . . -
In the autumn of 1483, Roger goes on an errand of mercy to Hereford, where he is caught up in the Duke of Buckingham’s rebellion against the new king, Richard III. Roger takes refuge in Tintern Abbey, but on his return to Bristol, a murder and a series of house robberies lead him to the eventual discovery of the treasure stolen from the abbey on the night he was there. It also means great danger, not only for himself, but a member of his family . . .

Book Review, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

Ruth Ozeki covers a lot of ground in A Tale for the Time BeingShe juxtaposits a sixteen year old, troubled Japanese teenager with a Canadian writer’s older perspective. Both characters search for meaning in their live’s. Their thoughts touch on the cord of how similar we are despite distance or age. by Ruth Ozeki

Nao spent most of her childhood in Silicon Valley, before returning to Japan. Back in Japan her father spirals into depressive, leaving Nao on her own to deal with the change. She gains some reprieve in her 104 year old Buddhist great-grandmother. Across the ocean, in a secluded island of British Columbia, Canada, Ruth finds Nao’s diary. The diary inspires the writer who’s career and life lack the spark it once did. 

The book is a little long at four hundred pages. Although the story integrated lots of great information about environment, culture and philosophy into each of the heroine’s journeys, Oseki could cut or integrate some into another book. That said, A Tale for the Time Being is a book to savor. It’s not where the plot is heading that makes this an interesting read, but how it gets there.  An ultimate compliment to the author is that a reread would bring additional insights; learning, seeing, smelling and enjoying the story.

Ruth Ozeki Writes in Two Points-of-View

Chapters alternate between Ruth’s and Nao’s point-of-view (POV). Ruth’s story comes through a step removed in third-person limited, while Ozeki presents a more intimate first-person POV for her Japanese teenager in the guise of the girl’s diary.

Sometimes the change of POV is disconcerting, although most of the time it works well. Lots of great footnotes on Japanese culture at the bottom of pages add another dimension to the story.

If you enjoy A Tale for the Time Being Ruth Ozeki has written many other books you may be interested in.

Book Review, A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth OzekiA Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
Published by Viking on March 12th 2013
Genres: Contemporary, Historical Fiction
Pages: 422
Goodreads

In Tokyo, sixteen-year-old Nao has decided there’s only one escape from her aching loneliness and her classmates’ bullying, but before she ends it all, Nao plans to document the life of her great-grandmother, a Buddhist nun who’s lived more than a century. A diary is Nao’s only solace—and will touch lives in a ways she can scarcely imagine.

Across the Pacific, we meet Ruth, a novelist living on a remote island who discovers a collection of artifacts washed ashore in a Hello Kitty lunchbox—possibly debris from the devastating 2011 tsunami. As the mystery of its contents unfolds, Ruth is pulled into the past, into Nao’s drama and her unknown fate, and forward into her own future. 

Full of Ozeki’s signature humour and deeply engaged with the relationship between writer and reader, past and present, fact and fiction, quantum physics, history, and myth, A Tale for the Time Being is a brilliantly inventive, beguiling story of our shared humanity and the search for home.

Book Review, salt to the sea by Ruth Sepetys

Historical Fiction for All Ages

The brutality of war from the civilian refugee perspective comes to life in Ruth Sepetys’ historical fiction novel salt to sea, the story of refugees evacuating Germany during WWII.

by Ruth SepetysRussia’s invasion of Germany comes alive through four refugee’s perspectives. While they flee, the atrocities behind their struggles and the secrets they carry haunt them. Joanne struggles to protect her travel companions, while nursing everyone she can. Alfred, a german soldier stationed on a ship, writes letters in his head. His love back home destined not to receives them.  Emilia, a fifteen year old polish girl who lost her family, fights the demons trapped in her mind. And Floria, a German civilian who saved Emilia’s life, distrusts everyone, especially himself, as he runs from the country he once honored.

Written in first person point-of-view, Sepetys’ story focuses on  individual refugee’s perceptions and internal struggles.  Short dialogue sequences capture interactions between them.

It’s clear a lot of research went into Sepetys’ plot, but she manages to create a story that touches the cord of humanity so deeply that the historical components of the story support the characters, rather than the other way around. It would do us well, however, to remember this harrowing piece of history lost in common knowledge.

Ruth Sepetys Writes for Writers

Beyond the integration of history in Sepetys’ story she offers much to learn for any writer. She uses every means she can to develop character. Note the sparse language used to create settings and establish emotions, while still driving the story forward.

Instead of each chapter telling what that person did, Sepetys often choses to develop characters through others’ observations. An example from Emilia’s chapter follows. “The shoe poet woke early, rapping our feet with his walking stick.”

Another example from Joanne’s perspective: “I had woke in the middle of the night and imagined I saw the German standing above me in the dark. When I blinked he was gone and I realized it was a dream.” or was it?

The climax wraps around the converted cruise ship Wilhelmina Gustoff. For pictures and a history of the Cruise Liner Wilhelm Gustloff check out feldgrau.com

Book Review, salt to the sea by Ruth SepetysSalt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Published by Philomel Books on February 2nd 2016
Genres: Adventure, Historical Fiction, Romance, Young Adult
Pages: 393
Goodreads

Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.
Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.
As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.
Yet not all promises can be kept.
Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.

Book Review of Sacred River by Debu Majumdar

The Story of a Temple Gold Heist,

In Sacred River, A Himalyan Journey, Debu Majumdar introduces us to East Indian characters from all walks of life.  He weaves them Sacred River by Debu Majumdartogether as they journey to the source of the Sacred River, each for their own reasons. The meld of characters on their disparate quests immerses the reader in the complexities of India’s rich and diverse culture.

The question of ‘what happens to the gold that monasteries receive from worshipers’ became the focus of the murderous prologue scene. From there we follow three primary story lines. The poor farmer Jaglish, a light to cherish, begins and ends Majumdar’s story. Persons associated with the SMS society contrast with the farmer’s endearing role. The SMS needs money for philanthropic endeavors. Although work by the SMS helps the poor, its leaders  plan to grow the charity exponentially, thus putting them into a precarious financial position. When they acquire an old manuscript with a mysterious sequence of numbers, they make plans to rob a temple at the source of the Ganges.

Majumdar introduces Shovik in chapter 5. Although Shovik grew up in India, he married and lived with his family in the USA. His midlife crisis drew him back to India. Majumdar intertwines the three story lines, with each character reflecting a different aspect of India.

Backstories peppered throughout enlighten the reader on motives and personal challenges. We travel through a couple childhoods which took me out of the main plot. But ultimately, the story returns to the gold heist.

Debu Majumdar Writes India as a Character

India exists as a character itself in Majumdar’s tale. Rich detail on the intricacies of Indian culture impregnate every page. His descriptions take you there. You walk the streets and meet the people.  Majumdar blends history and religion, while Hindu folk tales add yet another layer.

The cover fooled me. It gave me the impression of a spiritual book, rather than a fiction novel. While the spiritual transformations that the journey to the source of the Ganges prompts is the theme of the story, the gold heist functions as the plot holding everything together. The heist itself is a fun read.

Majumdar wins

Literary Suspence/Adventure

Book Review of Sacred River by Debu MajumdarSacred River: A Himalayan Journey by Debu Majumdar
Published by Bo-Tree House on October 10th 2016
Genres: Contemporary, Historical Fiction
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"Mystery, love and beautiful scenery wrapped into a terrific journey."
- Jim Porell, Pine Plains, NY.
An Indian-American journeys to mystical Gangotri Glacier in the Himalayas, searching for peace and renewal. As he travels, a pilgrimage temple near the glacier becomes the target of a gold heist. Pilgrims, thieves, tourists, and events flow toward the temple independently with their individual stories. The life struggles of an illiterate farmer, lofty goals of a charitable organization, desire for fame, romance, and cultural nuance, along with Indian myths and legends, supply colorful threads to the story. Their paths cross and re-cross until the ultimate denouement. As little tributaries flow together to make the magnificent Ganges River, each thread is woven to make a beautiful tapestry with an uplifting conclusion. While, on the surface, all action centers on the treasure heist, underneath, this is a story of a spiritual quest invigorated by Indian mythological and folk tales. The novel is also a travelogue of India; through the events of the journey and planning for the gold heist, the reader comes face to face with the real India. A Himalayan journey that will touch your soul.

Praise for Sacred River

Sacred River is a deceptively readable novel that begins with murder and ends with a temple treasure hunt. The real treasure, however, is the intervening story which unwraps India itself--its deep history, dramatic geography, captivating people and above all its spirituality, both Hindu and Buddhist. The writing is clear, swift and engaging, as if written for young readers, but readers of every age will enjoy and profit from it. Since at least Tagore, modern Indian writers have offered great gifts to the rest of the world. Sacred River is another one.
- Jerry Brady, former newspaper publisher, Peace Corps staff member, and co-founder of one of the world's largest micro-lending organizations, Accion International.
Sacred River graciously introduces us to the old songs and stories about gods and heroes who make sites sacred and pilgrimages fruitful. And as an Indian story of pilgrimage ought to do, Sacred River also teaches its readers that the best fruits of pilgrimage are reserved for those who do not seek them.
- David Curley, Professor Emeritus, Western Washington University.
A brilliant novel, which gives a wonderfully vivid flavour of India with all its idiosyncrasies and contradictions. It transports you there, from Delhi to the foothills of the Himalayas, and there is an intriguing glimpse into Hindu beliefs and gods with insightful snippets of scriptures and stories. The novel also involves an ancient manuscript, a mysterious number sequence, and a plot to steal temple treasures. Fascinating and thought provoking that will bowl you along, wanting to know more.
- Barbara Hall, Nibley Green, Gloucestershire, U.K.
Mystery, love and beautiful scenery wrapped into a terrific journey. This book has elements of both a murder/mystery and historical fiction. What is unexpected is the spiritual journey that the author took with his characters, which might also be a pilgrimage of sorts for the reader. There are some great life lessons shared in the book, intertwined with a love story, deception and intrigue and a wonderful travelogue on the trip to the head of the Ganges River. All of these different angles are woven together in a very enjoyable way. It is worth every minute!
- Jim Porell, IBM Distinguished Engineer, retired, Pine Plains, NY.

Book Review, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

by Anthony DoerrAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr is a touching story written in 3rd person omniscient. We follow the lives of two main characters from pre-World War II to various points throughout their lives. A blind French girl growing up during the war and a German orphan boy who has a knack for radios, each ferret their way through harrowing times. 

This is one of the best books I’ve read recently. The intensity of the times drew me in, but the characters are the juice that kept me reading.

Anthony Doerr knows Plot

Doerr weaves plot complexities wonderfully. While two main characters create the warp and weft of the story, which we expect to converge, Doerr develops secondary characters. He explores all of them fully, as a result, they add color, depth and intrigue to the overall storyline. Doerr includes well-researched details that build believability in this wonderful piece of historical fiction. He develops locations, scenery, circumstances and his characters with attention to detail.

Doerr addresses all lose ends by the book’s close, except one. We never learn what happened to the mysteriously sought-after diamond. That said, who cares? It’s a great read.

On a side note, the book felt too long in places, but that is largely a matter of Doerr’s writing style, which I consider ‘Setting’ as described by Nancy Pearl. Not my favorite style, but revered by many.

A Pulitzer Prize for Anthony Doerr

The Guardian wrote an article on the author after the announcement of his Pulitzer Prize win. Enjoy getting to know the author.

Book Review, All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony DoerrAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
Published by Scribner on May 6th 2014
Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 530
Goodreads

Winner of the Pulitzer PrizeFrom the highly acclaimed, multiple award-winning Anthony Doerr, the beautiful, stunningly ambitious instant New York Times bestseller about a blind French girl and a German boy whose paths collide in occupied France as both try to survive the devastation of World War II.
Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.
In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.
Doerr’s “stunning sense of physical detail and gorgeous metaphors” (San Francisco Chronicle) are dazzling. Deftly interweaving the lives of Marie-Laure and Werner, he illuminates the ways, against all odds, people try to be good to one another. Ten years in the writing, a National Book Award finalist, All the Light We Cannot See is a magnificent, deeply moving novel from a writer “whose sentences never fail to thrill” (Los Angeles Times).