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Recent Releases: a Bevy of Reviews

June 10, 2010

Remember my backlist of books to talk about? Well, it turns out I had even more from later April waiting for me! I finally decided to set to, and divide them up into categories that had a least a bit of a theme and also included both books I loved and books I could’ve done without, so that none of my group posts end up too negative. To kick things off, I went with my ‘recently published’ category, since it seemed the most time sensitive. ;) I’m not usually up with publisher’s latest releases, and I’m sure no one arrives at my blog looking for the freshest books, but I happened to read several books in late April/early May that had just come out here in the States. So, let’s talk them, shall we? (I’ve linked the titles to the publisher’s information page if you’d like to find out more about any of the books.) In case you want to jump to a particular book:
God of the Hive by Laurie King
The Girl Who Fell from the Sky by Heidi Durrow
Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

God of the Hive by Laurie King

I began stalking my library’s catalogue in February, waiting to see when the latest installment of Laurie King’s Mary Russell/Sherlock Holmes historical mystery series would show up as ‘acquiring’ so I could put it on hold. It’s rather like pre-ordering a book, only more thrilling for the lack of credit card involvement! ;) Anyway, the second it showed up as ‘waiting for you at the library,’ I leaped in my car to get it and barely resisted opening it at red lights on my drive back home. Then, I attempted to ‘draw it out,’ so it would last longer….but I still ended up devouring it in an afternoon. Good thing too, since that left my mom with time to read it before it was due. From all of this, you might get the idea that I’m a rabid fangirl for the series and had insanely high expectations. You’d be right on both accounts; Laurie King actually guest posted on my blog last year, and as you know I very rarely host authors here at A Striped Armchair…let me tell you, it was an event. My mom, who loves the series as much as me, was so proud. But back to the actual book…God of the Hive completely lived up to my highly-strung hopes, no easy task. But it’s difficult for me to actually tell you much about the book without giving away various plot points from the series, and particularly from the 9th book The Language of Bees, to which this is a direct follow-up. I will say that I squealed out loud to see Mycroft playing a bigger role, and that this one now contains my favourite minor character ever, because I’ve loved the Celtic Green Man myth since I was a teen. I will also say that the series gets better with every book, which hardly seems possible. So if you haven’t yet discovered Mary Russell, you should give yourself a treat and get a hold of The Beekeeper’s Apprentice. If you’re already a fan working your way through the series, have fun because you have such pleasures in store! And if you’re looking for a proper review of this individual novel, Teresa’s had me nodding at the end of every sentence. As for me, last year I started rereading them all, so I’ll be reaching for O Jerusalem sometime soon.

The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi Durrow

This will be a less-gushing review. I think I first heard about The Girl Who Fell From the Sky at White Readers Meet Black Authors, but I know it ended up receiving quite a bit of buzz before its release and I was delighted to be at the head of a long library queue. Here’s the thing: the premise of the book is derived from a newspaper article Durrow read about a mother who went up to the top of a tall building and threw her children off before jumping herself (shades of Beloved, anyone?) that’s full of potential. And the novel does center around Rachel, who’s half African American and half Danish in the 1980s, and who’s the only survivor from her mother’s homicide/suicide attempt and who is now being raised by her paternal grandmother. But it jumps back and forth between time periods, different narrator’s heads, and even a journal. This kind of narrative jumping is tricky to pull off, in my opinion, and unfortunately I found Durrow a bit over-ambitious. It’s a short novel, so the constant changes just felt jolting, and I didn’t think the various narrators’ voices were distinct enough. A third person style might have suited the book better. The book does have its good points…Rachel’s struggles as a biracial girl are particularly well-captured, but I could never completely connect with Rachel because the book covers her childhood through late teenagehood. Since it’s also doing lots of other things, and so short, the Rachel moments felt more episodic than like a continuous narrative. There were also a few plot points that felt thrown in more for melodrama and emotional manipulation than anything else, but that’s more of a personal reading pet peeve of mine than a general condemnation. The sprinkle of Danish culture and words into the book was one of my favourite bits, although I didn’t always find the mother’s journal entries convincing. In the end, I don’t think the book ever quite came together…a bit too overcrowded with themes and messages and ideas so that the characters never get to breathe, but I’m not sorry I read it. I do hope that Durrow continues to write and evolve, since the book definitely has potential. I just felt it needed one more good reworking before going to press.

Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick

I could have sworn Nothing to Envy was a new release, but the publisher’s site says it came out in December 2009. Still, I’m leaving it in here! ;) This is a nonfiction work by an American journalist who used to cover the Korean beat (now she’s Beijing bureau chief: go her!), and it’s the best pop international relations books I’ve read all year. Demick conducted extensive interviews with six North Korean refugees currently living in South Korea and combined their stories with her own travel experiences in DPRK and general recent history of the country to create a moving portrait of one of the most closed countries in the world. Demick has a marvelous writing style, and she really brings the lives of everyday North Koreans off the page…I almost felt like I was walking the streets, seeing these things for myself. The book spans fifteen years, and six very different experiences, but she puts it all together seamlessly. Since it focuses on recent history, the famine is included and let me tell you: those chapters will break your heart. In fact, the entire book will break your heart, especially the tiny details. Unfortunately, I had to return it to the library so I can’t provide an excerpt. But one of her interviewees was an elementary school teacher, and Demick includes a few math problems from a 1st grade textbook that are on the order of: “Little Johnny has a basket containing 10 apples. The imperialistic Japanese soldiers stop him and steal 6 apples. How many does he have left?” I’m paraphrasing (I feel like the actual problems were worse), but you get the idea. I highly, highly recommend this book: it’s page-turning, informative, and important. I’d like to acquire a copy for my permanent library, that’s how much I value it.

A Spy in the House by Y.S. Lee

On a lighter note, A Spy in the House is a wonderfully fun middle grade/YA (publisher says 7th grade & up, but I don’t know enough to know whether that’s MG or YA) historical romp set in Victorian times featuring “an all-female investigative unit called the Agency.” Mary Quinn was just another London street girl until she was brought to Miss Scrimchaw’s Academy for Girls, a charitable institution set up by an eccentric old lady who wanted to give girls an option other than marriage in life. At 17, she discovers that the school is also a way for its headmistresses to find likely girls to join their Agency…they’ve found that since girls can enter the house as governesses, maids, etc. and are often ignored by virtue of their gender, they make invaluable investigators. Mary joins and as her first assignment becomes the companion of the bratty daughter of a trade merchant who seems to be committing fraud in his India dealings. Guys, this book was so fun! Lee has a doctorate in Victorian lit, so she knows her setting well and while this definitely felt like a MG/YA book, it wasn’t overly simplistic or condescending. I LOVE the messages of female empowerment in the book, and I’ve been trying to convince my 13-year-old cousin that she should read it (instead, she’s deep in a Nicholas Sparks novel, alas). ;) The writing is solid, the plot well paced, the characters sharply drawn, the dialogue full of witty banter…what more could I ask for? Oh, have I mentioned Mary’s father was a Chinese seaman (she’s able to pass, although everyone thinks she’s ‘black Irish’)? Definitely a light read, but a satisfying light read…like those brownies that secretly have black beans in them. I’m delighted that it’s the first in a projected series and that the second book is being released in August! I think this would be perfect for a mother-daughter bookclub, or if you’re like me and love to curl up with a girl power adventure every once in awhile. :)

50 Comments leave one →
  1. June 10, 2010 5:50 am

    I work in a bookstore, and more and more customers are asking for mysteries. I believe we have a copy of A Spy in the House, and I’ll have to check it out for our middle grade and YA readers. I probably wouldn’t have noticed it otherwise, so thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    • June 11, 2010 11:15 am

      Definitely check out A Spy in the House: I hope you enjoy it! :)

  2. June 10, 2010 6:27 am

    I’ve wanted A Spy in the House since I first heard about it! I LOVE the Asian bent on Victorian London :-) I also just read my first Mary Russell mystery! I really liked it though I think it felt a little long. I don’t think the whole Palestine section was necessary.

    • June 11, 2010 11:16 am

      The rest of the books are less collage-feeling re: Mary Russell. :) So I think you’ll enjoy the series even more as you go! And I want to know what you think of A Spy in the House, so go read it. ;)

  3. June 10, 2010 6:50 am

    Having your size of a backlog would completely intimidate me, Eva! Glad to see you’re just buckling down & tackling it.

    Nothing to Envy sounds fascinating!

    • June 11, 2010 11:18 am

      It intimidates me. for sure. And it frustrates me, because some of the books I would have loved to devote a whole post to I just don’t have the time for (since I won’t post more than once a day). Nothing to Envy was definitely fascinating!

  4. June 10, 2010 6:54 am

    Rats, I was hoping you’d love The Girl Who Fell From the Sky since I bought the book and it is begging me to read it! I thought the premise sounded interesting…and I have read a fair number of reviews where it got some accolades…but then there are also some like yours which found the book less than stellar. I guess I will just have to read it and see what I think eventually!

  5. June 10, 2010 7:30 am

    I have Laurie King already on my TBR list from a recommendation you made a while ago, but I added a star. :) That series sounds like something I would love.

    I also think I would love the Lee novel. Fun and entertaining, and full of a little girl power. It is definitely another series I am going to keep my eye on.

    • June 11, 2010 11:21 am

      Add a billion stars! ;) And yep: the Lee novel would give you a good break from your classics. hehe

  6. June 10, 2010 7:41 am

    I just picked up the “Spy in the house” from the library! I’m looking forward to reading it this weekend – it looks good! ;-)

    • June 11, 2010 11:22 am

      I hope you have as much fun with it as I did!

  7. June 10, 2010 7:42 am

    I’ve add Nothing to Envy to my (ever growing) TBR list. Sounds like an interesting read.

  8. June 10, 2010 7:59 am

    I’m just discovering Laurie King and I’m looking forward to read the first one in that series. I inadvertently grabbed one of the later ones and thought I had the first one. Such a disappointment when I came home and noticed my mistake, but now I’ve got it righted and should be reading it by this weekend. I was wondering what others thought of the series and am glad to be finding mostly positive reviews of the work — good to know before you pick up a book. :)

    • June 11, 2010 11:23 am

      Aww-that’s so frustrating! Beekeeper’s Apprentice is a bit untraditional and much more episodic than the rest of the books in the series, so keep that in mind. :)

  9. June 10, 2010 8:01 am

    Now I have to pick up A Spy in the House! The half-Asian protagonist speaks to me, as does the Victorian times. Where was this book when I was in middle school?

    • June 11, 2010 11:23 am

      I totally thought of you while I was reading it! And I’m annoyed the series wasn’t around when I was in middle school too!

  10. Urbana permalink
    June 10, 2010 8:11 am

    I’ve just discovered your delightful blog, and already my reading list is swelling. Thank you for all the fantastic recommendations.

  11. June 10, 2010 9:20 am

    Durrow’s novel is similar in theme to a classic written by Nella Larsen in 1928. Larsen’s autobiographical novel deals with a young woman with a West Indian black father and Danish mother. So, alot of similarities there as the protagonists come to terms with their heritage. I liked Durrow’s novel and enjoyed the alternating POVs. There are alot of characters though and one less would have given more room to develop the remaining more fully.

    • June 11, 2010 11:25 am

      That’s interesting re: Larsen’s novel. Are you talking about Passing or a different one? And yep…I think more pages or fewer characters would have left me enjoy the Durrow more.

  12. June 10, 2010 9:37 am

    Mary Russell! <3 Did I tell you I read the second book? Well, I did. And loved it. I can't wait for it to be September so I can stalk the library for the rest of the series.

    A Spy in the House sounds totally up my alley!

    • June 11, 2010 11:24 am

      I KNEW you’d love the second one w/ its feminism galore! Squee!

  13. June 10, 2010 9:50 am

    Ive got to get The Beekeeper’s Apprentice so I can start the series. Now I’m thinking I might skip Touchstone.

    • June 11, 2010 11:27 am

      Yay for Beekeeper’s Apprentice! But you were supposed to tell me if I should read Touchstone. :p

  14. June 10, 2010 12:46 pm

    I have just finished The Beekeeper’s Apprentice and loved it. Need to work out which one is next. Didn’t realise there were so many of them. Thank you so much for sharing your love of them with us, I would never have picked it up if it hadn’t been for you and Ana raving about it.

    • June 11, 2010 11:28 am

      Yay! Next is a Monstrous Regiment of Women. :) And yep-King’s been writing them since early 90s, so there are quite a few.

  15. June 10, 2010 1:21 pm

    I have The Girl Who Fell From the Sky and am looking forward to it. It sounds like it was a good effort for a debut novel!

    • June 11, 2010 11:30 am

      It definitely shows a lot of potential. :)

  16. June 10, 2010 2:06 pm

    Brownies can have black beans in them?! Desserts these days… you never know what you’re getting. =) Sounds like good reading though, I can’t wait for the long summer days off of school filled with books!

    • June 11, 2010 11:31 am

      lol! Yes, they can, and people don’t even know unless you tell them. ;) Long summer days are the best.

  17. June 10, 2010 2:31 pm

    I’m disappointed to see that you didn’t love The Girl Who Fell From the Sky.

  18. June 10, 2010 3:19 pm

    Why would there be black beans in brownies? I feel like black beans in brownies would distract me from all the chocolate…

    I’m disappointed that Girl Who Fell from the Sky wasn’t better – I love the cover, and I’ve been eying it speculatively for a while now. But I guess I will direct my attention elsewhere.

    • June 11, 2010 11:31 am

      You don’t even notice the black beans: they’re secret! lol And yeah: Girl from the Sky has a great cover.

  19. June 10, 2010 3:32 pm

    I really wanted to like The Girl Who Fell From the Sky More too, I felt similarly about it. I do feel it was worth reading though.

    A Spy in the House sounds fantastic, I’m adding it to my list. Just wanted to say thanks for the recommendation :)

    • June 11, 2010 11:32 am

      I’m so glad you had a similar experience; makes me feel better! :) And I hope you enjoy Spy in the House!

  20. June 10, 2010 5:17 pm

    I need to read Nothing to Envy. I haven’t read much about North Korea, and this one sounds like a winner. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

    • June 11, 2010 11:32 am

      You definitely should read Nothing to Envy: it’s a total Heather book! :D

  21. June 10, 2010 8:37 pm

    Thanks for reviewing Nothing to Envy. Ever since I saw it in the History Book Club catalog last month I’ve been thinking about reading it. Now after reading your favorable review I will put in on my TBR list.
    Thanks !!!

    • June 11, 2010 11:33 am

      I’m glad to be of help! :) What is this History Book Club catalogue of which you speak?

      • June 11, 2010 8:16 pm

        Ask and ye shall receive…
        I joined it about two years ago to get the “four books for a buck” offer. I’d like to cancel, but they keep mailing me these really cool catalogs.

  22. June 11, 2010 6:26 am

    I didn’t realise the Mary Russell series had 9 books! I think I read the first two and have the Beekeeper’s Apprentice on my TRB pile. Which means I need to hunt out the others…what we do for the love of a series! A Spy in the House also looks great. A wonderful selection of books!

    • June 11, 2010 11:33 am

      Well…Beekeeper’s Apprentice is the first book so if it’s still on your TBR you didn’t read the first one. ;) After that is Monstrous Regiment of Women. I was lucky; I got my mom addicted to the series too, so she bought them all and I could borrow them! lol


  1. Favourites Reads of 2010 « A Striped Armchair
  2. Review: Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick
  3. Bookie Mee | Nothing to Envy: Love, Life and Death in North Korea by Barbara Demick
  4. The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair
  5. A Woman of Consequence by Anna Dean (thoughts) « A Striped Armchair

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