Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Another round-up of reviews

I read four very different books over the past week.  I can't seem to settle down to write, so I thought I'd try another round of quick reviews.

Under Heaven, Guy Gavriel Kay

This is the fourth of his books that I've read, and it's really excellent - as good as the two Sarantium books that bowled me over earlier this year.  Based on my admittedly-small sample so far, I think I'll prefer his later books to his earlier.  This one was published in 2010, and that year it won the ALA award for Best Fantasy Novel.  It is set in a world that mirrors the T'ang Dynasty in China.  I know very little about the actual Dynasty, even its dates (according to Google, 618-906 CE).  In this world, Shen Tai, the son of a famous general, has spent the two years of formal mourning for his father on a battlefield.  He hasn't been fighting, but burying the thousands of bones that remain, which releases their spirits.  To honor this work of mercy, a princess from his native Kitai, now exiled in marriage to a foreign ruler, bestows on him a gift: 250 Sardian horses, Heavenly Horses, the best in the world.  In Kitai, where horses of any kind are all too rare, Tai is suddenly wealthy beyond compare. Even more importantly, his horses could shift the balance of power in the empire.  After two years of solitude among the dead, he must leave his isolated valley for the intrigues of court.  There are those who would kill him for his horses, and the first attack comes in the valley itself. Tai must find his way not just on the roads to Xinan, the capital, but also through the competing claims for his loyalty, and for those horses.  This is a great story, and I am glad that Mr. Kay included some suggested reading in an afterword.  I'm curious now about China in this period.  I'm also looking forward to his newest book, River of Stars, which is set in the same world.

The Hell Screen, I.J. Parker

This is the fifth in a series of mysteries set in 11th-century Japan, featuring a court official named Sugawara Akitada.  In the course of his duties, he is often drawn into investigating crimes, particularly murder.  As this book opens, he is returning to the capital of Heian Kyo (modern-day Kyoto), after four years as the governor of a remote province in the north.  He is hurrying home because his mother is dying.  I have enjoyed all of the books in this series, but for a while after my mother died, I found that I didn't want to read about other people's mothers dying, so I set this book aside.  (And I couldn't just skip over it because of my OCD need to read series in order.)  The book actually begins with a gruesome murder of a young woman.  Then we jump back to Akitada, traveling by horse, who is forced to seek shelter for the night at a Buddhist monastery.  Later he learns that that the murder took place there, that same night, and he can't help asking questions, as much as it irritates Kobe, the superintendent of police.  With no official assignment, waiting out his mother's illness, he is also recruited to help his brother-in-law, an official of the royal treasury, who has discovered some items are missing and fears he will be blamed.  At the same time he must figure out how to help his youngest sister, their mother's care-giver for many years, who will now be free to marry and start her own family.  In all of these difficulties, he is assisted as usual - when he will accept help - by his patient wife Tamako, his secretary Semei, and his retainers Genba and Toro.  I like Akitada, a man of honor who always tries his best to do the right thing, though he can be awfully cranky at times.  Actually, I think he and Shen Tai would find they have a lot in common.  I also enjoy the setting in medieval Japan, which Ms. Parker skillfully evokes.  In each book, she includes an afterword that explains something of the history and the culture of the time, and in this case suggests a couple of books for further reading.  I already have the next book in this series waiting to be read.

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast

I know Roz Chast primarily from her cartoons in The New Yorker.  Last year the magazine carried an excerpt from this book.  The style of the drawings was immediately familiar, but the subject matter was far from her usual.  It is a memoir of caring for her parents in their last years - or trying to care for them.  This isn't a happy story of peaceful golden years. Her parents were in denial for many years about their increasing frailty, her father's mental confusion.  Ms. Chast lived in Connecticut, her parents in Brooklyn, in the apartment where she had grown up, to which she returned reluctantly.  She had a difficult relationship with her mother, a domineering woman given to angry outbursts she called "Blasts from Chast."  I couldn't help noticing that in the family photos interspersed with Ms. Chast's drawings, she is never smiling in any taken with her mother - only with her father.  In December of 2005, her mother had a bad fall and ended up hospitalized twice.  Her father came to stay with her, which is when Ms. Chast realized how far his mental state had deteriorated.  Though her mother came back to their apartment, it finally became clear that they could no longer live alone, even together.  Ms. Chast found them a place at a retirement community near her home.  She then began clearing out the apartment where they had lived for almost fifty years.  At the same time, she had to deal with their declining physical health, and with the worry of how to pay for their care - with all the day-to-day anxieties and difficulties, which she discusses in vivid detail.  Though I was not involved in the day-to-day care of my mother, much of this book felt familiar, including the guilty feeling that you are never doing enough.  In the end, I think Ms. Chast finds a balance in remembering her life as their daughter, and the terrible ordeals of their last years.  It is a hard book to read, but with moments of grace, especially at the end.

Rose Cottage, Mary Stewart

After three rather intense books, I was in the mood for something lighter, particularly while recovering from a migraine.  I know that Anbolyn is planning a Mary Stewart reading week for September, but Jane's recent review of Stormy Petrel made me disinclined to wait.  Rose Cottage is one of her last books, published in1997, and certainly one of her quietest.  Set in 1947, it is narrated by Kate Herrick, returning to the Sunderland village of Todhall where she grew up, and where she was known as Kathy.  Born to an unmarried mother, she was raised by her loving grandparents after her mother left home, to escape an aunt who hated the sinner as well as the sin.  Both Kate's grandparents worked for the local squire's family at "the Hall," their Sunderland house, and in the summers on their Scottish estate.  The family is now planning to covert the Hall to a hotel and to sell off Rose Cottage, where Kate's family lived.  Her grandmother, comfortably settled on the Scottish estate, wants Kate to go down to the cottage to retrieve some things left behind.  The most important of these are stored in a small locked box, concealed in one of the walls.  Kate, widowed in the war and a bit at loose ends, is glad to do so.  When she returns to Todhall, after seven years' absence, she meets old friends again and revisits familiar scenes.  Not much really happens in this book, as Kate becomes Kathy again.  There is a little mystery about the box and its contents, a lot of reminiscing, and a little bit of romance.  It was perfect for a quiet day at home.

Now I am off to tour Hampshire by pony-carriage, with two enthusiastic Janeites in 1902.  I'm also watching the 1970s drama "Emergency!" on Netflix.  I used to have such a crush on Dr. Brackett!


  1. I loved Under Heaven and it might just be my favourite of GGK's books. River of Stars is also excellent and I really enjoyed seeing GGK's take on the Song dynasty. Looking forward to hearing what you make of it!

  2. Claire, it might be mine as well, as much as I love Sarantium. I'm so glad that your reviews inspired me to try his books again.

  3. I've been wondering about Roz Chasts's book, but it may not be the best thing for me to read right now. Glad Mary Stewart was able to provide you with a little relief reading!

  4. Under Heaven sounds great, but I bought a copy of The Last Light of the Sun recently so I should really read that one first. I think Rose Cottage is probably my least favourite of the Mary Stewart books I've read so far, but I agree that it's a nice, relaxing story and perfect for when you need something light and gentle!

  5. I think the Roz Chast book would stir up too many sad memories for me but I do like the sound of the I J Parker mysteries - not an author I've heard of before.

  6. Ah, Mary Stewart--comfort reading for me for sure. I really liked Rose Cottage, but then I like everything by Mary Stewart.

    Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? sounds difficult to read, although the subject is fascinating and it sounds well-written. I think it's one of those books that you need to be in the right mood for.

    I've wanted to start reading Guy Gavriel Kay for awhile now, but still haven't made room on my shelf for him.

    Great posts--I like the potpourri approach to reviews at times :)

  7. JoAnn, I know what you mean about Roz Chast's book. I don't think I could have read it even last year.

    Helen, I don't have The Last Light of the Sun, yet - I have been so bad with books lately, so I'm trying to wait to buy any more. But that one will be on my list.

    Cat, I came across one of the books in I.J. Parker's series at the library & was immediately hooked. The first one I read actually came late in the series, so it's been interesting filling in the gaps.

    Jane, I like the term "potpourri approach" :) and I've enjoyed all the Stewarts I read so far, except Wildfire at Midnight. And it wasn't awful - though I will still avoid the convent one!

  8. I can't seem to settle down to write these days either - short reviews seem like the perfect way to go.
    Rose Cottage sounds really lovely even if not one of Stewart's best, but I think I might skip it in September for the reading week. The Ivy Tree is the one I am eyeing.

  9. Anbolyn, I think The Ivy Tree should definitely be at the top of your reading list. I may even re-read it myself :)

  10. Isn't The Ivy Tree fantastic? Even thought I read it fairly close to Tey's Brat Farrar, which was the better book for me on that theme, I'd still definitely read it again. I am saving Rose Cottage for a treat: I'd hate to run out of Stewarts!

  11. vicki, I keep meaning to re-read Brat Farrar, since it was so much in my mind reading The Ivy Tree. I still have a good few of MS's books on the TBR stacks, and some I haven't tracked down yet.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!