During January, I read two novels by two authors whose work I admire. One is a bestselling traditionally published author, and the other is an Indie Author who I’ve followed since the publication of her first novel.
Both have written novels set in the west – one in San Francisco and one in an anonymous location either in western Canada or western United States. And both populated their new releases with characters overflowing in narcissism. Not only are the antagonists under the illusion that the world revolves around them, but the protagonists also suffer from this affliction. And most importantly, both novels are captivating reads filled with tension created by a certain depravity within the human condition.
China Dolls by Lisa See – I was first introduced to Lisa See in 2009 when my sister-in-law lent me a copy of Peony in Love. Since reading that haunting love story, I’ve been a fan and read most all of her books. Her latest release China Dolls is no less captivating, but not quite as poetic as some of her other books.
Set in San Francisco following the depression in the years leading up to World War II, this novel follows the lives of three very different young women as they follow their dreams and hearts. One of them, Ruby, is Japanese trying to pass as Chinese to avoid the bigotry and fear of her ancestral homeland. The other two, Grace and Helen, are Chinese but from very different circumstances and families. The three of them meet in 1938 and end up in a very fragile and volatile trio of “China Doll” performers.
All of the three protagonists think only of themselves when crises occur, and they hit with vicious frequency. It’s hard to imagine how they could be friends again after some of the things that happen. But they are sewn together with a thin thread that sometimes breaks, but is always mended by some invisible force sewing them together in a patchwork quilt of familiarity.
China Dolls is a compelling read, and even though I didn’t really like the three main characters, I couldn’t wait to find out how they might squirm out of their most recent predicaments.
The novel explores the internment policies of the United States during World War II, and the reader is taken into the camps where the Japanese were herded during those dark and scary days. Given what’s happening today with all Muslims marked by those claiming to follow Islam, the story is a haunting reminder of what we did previously, and why it didn’t work then and should never be considered now. It’s worthwhile to read for this part of the story alone.
I did find one aspect disturbing and thought the author had a chance to speak out against domestic violence in the life on one of the characters (trying not to give out a spoiler here!), but instead she chose to push it aside. Instead, the abuser is excused because of the hardships in his early life. In my mind, there is no excuse for abuse of anyone, particularly a young defenseless child.
Lisa See is a master storyteller, and she shines in this novel. How else to explain why I continued reading with anticipation a novel dotted with characters I didn’t admire or want to be? These three women are anti-heroes in some ways, yet their stories are compelling and presented in a fascinating package.
Maelstrom by Francis Guenette – The title of this thriller is appropriate on several levels. The plot is a maelstrom of conflicts. The characters are embroiled in a maelstrom of emotions. The events could be described as nothing else besides a maelstrom.
Also, the creation of this work of fiction created a maelstrom of emotions in its producer and writer, who took the draft of a manuscript began by her mother, June Guenette, many years ago. After June’s death in 1997, the manuscript went to Francis’ son and was seemingly lost until a few years ago. Francis took the original seed of an idea and turned it into the page-turning, twisted story of a fictional town in the rugged western regions of the North American continent. But as she took typewritten white placemat pages and turned them into a manuscript, the author suggests she went through her own maelstrom to bring the novel to publication.
If you’ve read any of the books in the Crater Lake Series by Francis Guenette, be prepared to be as shocked as I was. There are very few likable characters, until perhaps the end. And any compassion felt for some of the younger ones is born of pity and not true empathy. Never will you meet such evil, narcissist folks as the ones who roam and rule the streets of Haddon. I don’t usually read books filled with such horribly violent scenes, such as populated the pages of this novel, but because the author created a compelling story, I found myself guiltily escaping back to my Kindle to find out if and when the worst of the worst would get their due.
Ms. Guenette once again proves her prowess as a gifted storyteller with her descriptive setting of the isolated town and its towering castle on the hill, Casa Destino. Long-held resentments and prejudices dominate the action of the novel. The two main antagonists, Sheriff Calder and Mayor Thatcher, dominate the scenes. The man set to inherit Casa Destino after the death of his adopted father, Myhetta, appears to be unfeeling and unemotional through much of the story. But eventually, some redeeming qualities do appear toward the end. But he has been so damaged, as has everyone around him, that it’s unclear what fate holds for him. Never have I read a novel filled with so much human depravity. I feel as if I need a very hot shower to wash it all away.
As with the previous review, this novel explores the dangers of bigotry and genetics. It’s a lesson in how not to live life. One relationship stands out as one with some virtue, and that’s the one between Myhetta and his best friend, Laird. Loyalty above all else withstands all the tests. And the love of a mother for her child shines through in both Myhetta’s mother, Ayha, and Laura Thatcher for the son she adopted when she married the mayor.
Myetta and Laura emerge as the main characters, eventually. They change the most during the course of the novel, and for once, it’s in positive ways.
Fast-paced and riveting, this novel requires a score card. The characters are many and their intertwined lives require the reader to always pay attention or be lost in the maelstrom.