Tag Archives: women

Spotlight on Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio

I am currently reading Blackberry Winter by Sarah Jio.  Let me say this is my absolute favorite of all her novels!  She is truly a master at weaving together past and present storylines.

From Goodreads:

“In 2011, Sarah Jio burst onto the fiction scene with two sensational novels–The Violets of March and The Bungalow. With Blackberry Winter–taking its title from a late-season, cold-weather phenomenon–Jio continues her rich exploration of the ways personal connections can transcend the boundaries of time.

Seattle, 1933. Single mother Vera Ray kisses her three-year-old son, Daniel, goodnight and departs to work the night-shift at a local hotel. She emerges to discover that a May-Day snow has blanketed the city, and that her son has vanished. Outside, she finds his beloved teddy bear lying face-down on an icy street, the snow covering up any trace of his tracks, or the perpetrator’s.

Seattle, 2010. Seattle Herald reporter Claire Aldridge, assigned to cover the May 1 “blackberry winter” storm and its twin, learns of the unsolved abduction and vows to unearth the truth. In the process, she finds that she and Vera may be linked in unexpected ways.”

 

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Book Review: The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay

 

The Map of Lost Memories by Kim Fay (Ballantine Books; 326 pages; $26).

 

            When author and former bookseller Kim Fay was a little girl, she became fascinated with Southeast Asia.  Her grandfather played a significant role in her growing obsession.  He was a sailor in the Orient in the 1930s and told Fay stories about his life.  Together, they would study photographs from that era; Fay was entranced.

 

After graduating from college, Fay traveled to Asia for the first time and promptly fell in love.  Everything about the region heightened her senses and made her feel alive.  Later, she moved to Vietnam and learned of a French couple, Andre and Clara Malraux, who looted a Cambodian temple in the 1920s to raise funds for the Communists.  Just like that, Fay had an idea for a story.  Thus, The Map of Lost Memories was born.

 

Part adventure (think Indiana Jones, but with a female lead), part quest, part mystery, The Map of Lost Memories is passionate, fast-paced, absorbing, and full of plot twists.  The lush, green vegetation of Cambodia and the rhythms, habits, and culture of the country come to life.  This reviewer felt like she had been transported into the story herself.

 

Like Fay, Irene Blum grew up on stories of Southeast Asia.  Her mother, in fact, was kidnapped in Manila when she was pregnant with Irene.  She died when Irene was little.  After her death, it was just Irene, her father, and the mysterious Mr. Simms, a wealthy friend of the family.

 

In 1925, Irene is devastated when she is passed over for a job she has dreamt of for a long time: that of curator at the Brooke Museum in Seattle.  The museum has been part of Irene for as long as she can remember.  Her father worked there as janitor until his recent death.  The institution has earned a prestigious reputation in art and archaeological circles, but only because of Irene’s hard work and fastidiousness in acquiring priceless artifacts, many of which were illegally obtained.  She is passed over, though, in favor of a man, despite all she has done for the museum.

 

Understandably, Irene quits in a fury.  Mr. Simms offers Irene the adventure of a lifetime instead.  He gives her a rare map that supposedly leads to a set of copper scrolls narrating the history of the ancient Khmer civilization of Cambodia.  This history was thought to be lost.  Irene cannot resist, especially when she reads the 1825 journal of an American preacher who was part of an expedition that first found the scrolls.

 

Irene sets off on her journey.  I can just hear the Indiana Jones music.  I can see the map overlaid on the screen showing movie watchers exactly where Dr. Jones was traveling to next.

 

For Irene, the journey will not be easy.  Then again, no quest is ever easy.  Fay knows just the right obstacles to put in Irene’s way.  Everyone who comes to Southeast Asia, Irene is told, “has something to hide.”  What an apt phrase.  Irene herself plans on stealing the scrolls and bringing them back to the United States and back to Mr. Simms.  Discovering the lost history of the Khmer will finally mean Irene is “someone” in art and archaeological circles.  Museums will beg her to be their curators, Irene thinks.  Fay paints Irene as calculating and driven, qualities she would be expected to have after being passed over for the coveted curator spot.  It quickly becomes apparent that Irene will do anything, anything, to get her hands on those scrolls.

 

Yet, Irene cannot accomplish this gargantuan task on her own.  She needs help.  Fay introduces two minor, yet very important, characters into the story.  The first is a renowned temple robber and Communist, much like the real Clara Malraux, named Simone.  The second is Marc, an elusive Shanghai nightclub owner who deals in information.  Like Irene, these two also have “something to hide.”

 

The Map of Lost Memories is not the typical “Westerner in the Orient” type of story.  Most of those tales featured a Western man as the protagonist.  Fay gives us a story in which a Western woman travels to the Orient, a strong American female who knows what she wants and is not afraid to go after it.  One of the helper characters is also a woman, a female who makes a lot of men quake in their boots.

 

Colonialism is a recurrent theme in The Map of Lost Memories.  Simone believes a communist revolution is necessary in Cambodia.  Only then, can the Cambodians govern themselves and restore their pride.  Of course, in the early 1970s, communism and revolution in the form of the Khmer Rouge hit Cambodia hard.  Countless lives were lost.  Horrible atrocities were committed.  Interestingly, Irene seems to think the Cambodians unworthy of the scrolls, ignorant of their history.  Irene, though, cannot be faulted.  She is a product of her time, an era when colonialism still flourished in this region.

 

Perhaps Clothilde, Mr. Simms’ Cambodian servant, says it best: “Idealists!  You’re certain you know what’s best for the natives.  You think there’s nothing more romantic than living in a grass shack.  Try living in one during monsoon season.”  Simone, thinking herself above reproach since she was born in Cambodia, too, counters: “This is my country as much as it is yours.  I know what the Cambodians want.”  Clothilde points out that Simone was “born into the privilege of French citizenship.”  The scrolls contain history.  They are an important account of a lost civilization.  Irene wants them for her own purposes; Simone wants them for the communists.

 

Don’t the Cambodians have the right to own their own history?  Irene will have to answer this question for herself.  She will have to decide what is most important to her.

 

The Map of Lost Memories is an engrossing debut by a talented novelist.  Fay’s heart and soul is within these pages.  Filled with adventure, danger, and even some romance, The Map of Lost Memories takes readers on a journey of epic proportions.  I’ve never physically been to Cambodia, but, reading Fay’s story, I became an armchair traveler to a land very far away.

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Saving Grace

Saving Grace

 The Lifeboat by Charlotte Rogan (Reagan Arthur Books; 288 pages; $24.99).

The sea can be unforgiving, mysterious, dangerous, and even brutal.  The ocean can cool and renew us, yet it also has the power to kill.  The water may look inviting, but that same liquid can be deceiving.  Curiously, the sea can be a metaphor for life.  Sometimes it’s sink or swim.  Sometimes we must dogpaddle to stay afloat.  Sometimes we are in danger of going under.

 

Sometimes we must make horrible choices in order to survive.  Such is the case in Charlotte Rogan’s gripping debut The Lifeboat.  The phrase “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” never rang truer.  Rogan’s main character, Grace Winter, despite her faults, is one of the strongest female characters I have encountered in a long time.

 

Grace manages to live through an excruciating ordeal, one in which many die.  The Lifeboat is chilling as Grace and others must struggle and sacrifice in order to survive.

When Rogan introduces us to Grace, she is widow on trial, along with two other women, for murder.  Her lawyers urge Grace to write an account of what occurred.  She reluctantly agrees and begins a diary.  Her narrative is the basis for Rogan’s story.

 

While crossing the Atlantic Ocean in 1914, there is an explosion on board the Empress Alexandra.  People shove others out of the way to get on lifeboats.  Grace’s new husband, Henry, forces her onto Lifeboat 14, but he does not follow.   Rogan draws eerily similar comparisons to Titanic, yet this is no love story.  Far from it.

 

Grace recalls, “There were bodies floating in the water, too, and living people clung to the wreckage….”  A toddler reaches out to her, but neither Grace nor any of the others save the child.  This is the first instance where the reader notices how cold and calculating Grace really is.  There is a detachment to her.  Perhaps it is her lack of emotion that helps her survive.

 

Many people are alive in the water.  Three swimmers approach the boat.  On the orders of an officer from the ship, Mr. Hardie, the oarsmen beat the men to death with the oars.  It is truly every man for himself.  The simple, hard fact is that “we could not save everybody and save ourselves.”

 

Mr. Hardie emerges as leader.  This makes sense given he knows the water.  Grace has confidence in his abilities.  In her eyes, Mr. Hardie “knew about this world of water” and “spoke its language.”  The less she understands his “rough seaman’s voice,” “the greater the possibility” that the sea understands him.  Out of necessity, Mr. Hardie makes some tough decisions.  Grace, though, perseveres in her support for him, or at least at first.

 

Because the boat is taking on water, it, in all likelihood, will sink.  The lifeboat supposedly has a capacity of 39 people and holds 38.  In actuality, the lifeboat is capable of holding much less than 39 people.

 

The lifeboat is overcrowded, a fact that is obvious to everyone.  Mr. Hardie asks for volunteers.  Several men and women jump out and into the sea to their deaths.  Soon, Mr. Hardie’s actions are questioned, especially by two women, Mrs. Grant and Hannah.  Mrs. Grant is appalled when Mr. Hardie does not turn back for the child.  She calls him a brute.  Just like that, Grace explains, “Mrs. Grant was branded a humanitarian and Hardie a fiend.”

 

A power struggle unfolds as food and water, necessities for survival, are hard to come by.  Grace’s allegiance to Mr. Hardie teeters.  It becomes obvious that she will support whoever suits her needs best.  She will cheer whoever has the advantage.  Clearly, Grace is interested only in saving herself.

 

The situation on the lifeboat grows bleaker.  At one point, a flock of birds falls dead into the lifeboat.  Both men and women eat the birds and gnaw the bones until they are bare of meat.  Blood runs down their chins.  Such a thing is implausible to me.  I wonder if this might be a veiled reference to cannibalism.  Perhaps the reality of the situation is such that Grace is unwilling and unable to call it what it truly is.

 

You just cannot trust Grace; she is definitely an unreliable narrator.  She often tells half-truths and even lies.  “It’s my experience that we can come up with five reasons why something happened, and the truth will always be the sixth,” she confides.  If this is part of her nature or if it is a result of the tragedy, Rogan chooses not to reveal.  It is through the eyes of the other survivors that Grace comes across as callous and manipulative.  Her cold and calculating nature is nothing new, however, as Rogan reveals.  Grace used these same tactics to lure her husband from another woman.  If you guess he came from money, you are correct.

Rogan plays with Grace’s memory and history in this novel.  When the others discount a memory on the stand, she emphatically denies what they say.  Grace’s memory and history are at odds.  Grace also retreats into herself on the lifeboat.  She withdraws into her own mind to what she calls the “Winter Palace.”  Her retreat may partly explain why she has no recollection of certain events.  Then again, maybe it is her plan all along.  One thing is certain, though: over time, the situation on the lifeboat grows more tenuous and more perilous.

 

The power struggle between Mr. Hardie and Mrs. Grant and Hannah comes to a head.  Grace plays a major role in this battle, which is the reason she is on trial.  Rogan writes this with suspense.

 

It is interesting that three women are on trial.  If circumstances had been different, I do not feel Mr. Hardie would be accused of murder.  It is as if, in 1914 at least, a woman’s place was to create, sustain, and nurture life.  Not take it.  People expect a man to fight, even defend himself if the scenario demands.  Why shouldn’t the same be true for a woman?

 

A lifeboat takes on ironic meanings in Rogan’s novel.  Lifeboats are lifesaving vessels.  They are places of refuge and salvation.  In this book, though, the lifeboat takes on a whole different sense.  It becomes a deathtrap.

 

I recommend The Lifeboat to anyone who is fascinated with Titanic.  I also would suggest the novel for those who enjoy Yann Martel’s Life of Pi.  I do want to warn you that there is no romance, no magic here.  The Lifeboat is sometimes bloody, sometimes chilling, and always shocking.  It will literally give you goosebumps.

 

More than anything, Grace Winter is a survivor, and you must respect her for having the will to save herself.  Grace never gives up.  Whether you are at sea or navigating the shark-infested waters of life, Grace can teach us all something.  Sometimes we all have to struggle in order to get through this life.

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Going Wild

Going Wild

 Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner; 240 pages; $24).

 

            In Birds of a Lesser Paradise, Megan Mayhew Bergman explores how we are shaped by nature and how, in turn, nature shapes us.  Sometimes our relationship with nature is beautiful, but sometimes it can turn brutal. Bergman’s short story debut collection, which consists of twelve stories, is deeply moving and intensely thought-provoking.

Many of Bergman’s stories concentrate on the theme of motherhood.  Bergman tells all of her stories from the point of view of women.  This technique makes sense.  Women, like female animals, have the ability to create and sustain life.  We nurture and ferociously protect our young.  In “Housewifely Arts,” one of my favorites and one of Bergman’s strongest, a woman and her son go on a desperate journey to find her dead mother’s African Gray Parrot.  What is so special about this creature, you may ask.  The bird mimics the mother’s voice and she wants to hear her once again.  The woman in the story longs to reconnect with her mother; her desire is fruitless.  Other women in Bergman’s tale want to have children of their own.  In “The Urban Coop,” a childless woman is so close to her dog that the canine suffers separation anxiety and an accident when he is not with his mistress.  The dog substitutes for a child.  In “Another Story She Won’t Believe,” an alcoholic holds a wild animal in her arms and seeks atonement for the way she raised her daughter.  In another of my favorites, “Yesterday’s Whales,” Bergman introduces us to a woman whose boyfriend believes the end of the world is nigh.  He sees no point in bringing children into a world that is a ticking time bomb.  The woman gets pregnant and is then forced to make a choice.  Bergman writes with cleverness and compassion.  These stories will fill you with emotion.  However, not all these tales are about motherhood.

Other stories focus on nature and the environment.  In Bergman’s title story and another of her finest, “Birds of a Lesser Paradise,” a young woman hires an unsavory guide to take her and her father on a dangerous quest to find an ivory-billed woodpecker that may or may not be extinct.  Their journey leads to horrific consequences.  Bergman shows that no matter how hard we try, we cannot tame nature.  Indeed, as the doctor finds out in “Saving Face,” there is an animal in every one of us.  Some of us hide it better than others do.  Bergman does not shy away from discussing the precarious state of our environment.  In our world, nature is in danger.  In a story called “2050,” Bergman takes us into the future.  The ocean is dying.  For one woman, her father’s whole life is the ocean and the life it sustains.  As the ocean declines, so does the woman’s father.  This is perhaps the most sobering of Bergman’s stories.  She gives us something to think about.

In Bergman’s stories, the bonds we have with animals and the connections they have with us shine.  Bergman is a wonderful new talent.  Birds of a Lesser Paradise is a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers selection for spring 2012 and an Indie Next Pick for March.  Bergman does so well with her subject for a reason.  She lives in Vermont on a farm with her husband, a veterinarian, and their rescue animals.  If you love short stories or enjoy books about people and their animal companions, then this is a must-read for you.  I happen to think it is an excellent pick for spring.  Read it outside where you can listen to the birds singing.

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