The middle of the summer was too busy for book reviewing, so I'm covering two months of summer reading in one big post:
→ THE SIGNATURE OF ALL THINGS by Elizabeth Gilbert: Alma Whittaker is born in 1800 to a wealthy Philadelphia couple, experts in the field of botany. She grows up on her family's estate surrounded by visiting scientists and other intellectuals, an upbringing that isolates her from the usual pursuits of young women but soon turns her into an accomplished naturalist. The novel follows Alma through the century as she investigates the world around her and strives for a better understanding of both plants and humans.
I adored this novel, which contains so much more than I want to reveal in a description of the story. It's full of wonderful eccentric characters, fascinating historical and scientific details, love and loss, and unexpectedly thrilling botanical intrigue. At each stage of Alma's life, she faces a new set of mysteries and embarks on a different type of adventure, and every one of these was a pleasure to share in.
I was surprised to realize that a good deal of the story is presented through lengthy passages summarizing stretches of time and that these sections are as gripping as the scenes that play out on the page. Gilbert pulls off this impressive feat by making the summaries vivid and specific, including only the interesting bits, and injecting whimsy into the narration. Since Gilbert is better known for her memoirs and inspirational writing, I'll admit I didn't expect to have so much admiration for her skill at crafting a novel, but this is a book I'll be studying in hopes of improving my own work.
→ THE SLEEPWALKER'S GUIDE TO DANCING by Mira Jacob is a wonderful exploration of how the past shapes and haunts a family. This is a common theme for novels (including my own), but this book stands out with its unusual situations, vivid characters, and perceptive narration. It joins my list of recommended heartbreaking family stories.
Amina is a photographer in Seattle who earns her living shooting conventionally gorgeous wedding photos but fuels her passion by capturing the ugly moments her clients would never want to remember. When her mother calls with concerns about her father's mental health, Amina returns to her New Mexico hometown to investigate. Flashback chapters present important events in the family's past, starting with a disastrous visit to relatives in India when Amina and her brother were young. As the story shifts between time periods, the reader comes to understand how a series of tragedies changed the lives of Amina and her parents.
Near the beginning of the book, I was less engaged with the story of adult Amina and her career issues, but once she reached New Mexico, the story became more compelling, and I was soon fully invested. I loved the characters, who are all well developed, with strong personalities and distinct ways of speaking. The family relationships are believably loving and frustrating, and there's a good sibling dynamic, which I always appreciate. While the overall story is quite sad, humor and beauty are sprinkled throughout. This novel is full of moments I'll remember.
→ FUNNY GIRL by Nick Hornby is set in the world of 1960s British television. The funny girl of the title is a Blackpool native who idolizes Lucille Ball and dreams of acting in a television comedy. Her dreams come true when she moves to London and gets a huge break as the star of a new sitcom. The book charts the course of the show through the eyes of various people involved: the leads, the producer, and most interestingly, the writers, closeted gay men at a time when homosexual acts are illegal.
I found this book entirely enjoyable, though neither as laugh-out-loud funny or emotionally compelling as some of Hornby's other novels. Much of the story focuses on the creative process and the benefits and drawbacks of collaboration, and for me, those parts were the most absorbing, believable, and entertaining. There's also plenty of romance and other relationship drama, and the plot is well-balanced and moves right along. The book makes for an excellent light read.
→ In WHO FEARS DEATH by Nnedi Okorafor, Onyesonwu is marked as a child of rape by the color of her skin. This makes her an outcast in her peaceful town, located in a far-future Africa where rumors fly of distant war and genocide. As Onyesonwu comes of age and undergoes the rite of female circumcision, she discovers that she possesses strange and troubling powers. She soon meets friends and mentors who help her cope with and control the magic she wields. When war draws closer, Onyesonwu and her companions set out across the desert on a dangerous quest to rescue their people.
I was drawn into the novel by the intense, mysterious opening, but unfortunately, my interest often flagged as the story continued. Part of the problem is that I incorrectly thought the book would focus on the post-apocalyptic nature of the setting, but that isn't much explored, and the story is mainly a fantasy, concerned with Onyesonwu's magic and quest. Additionally, I found the pacing slow throughout the middle. However, there are many fascinating ideas within the story, and the violent and disturbing aspects are handled well. Other readers I trust recommend this book, so I wouldn't dissuade anyone who thinks they'd be better suited to it.
→ THE SAMURAI'S GARDEN by Gail Tsukiyama: In 1937, as Japan invades China, a young Chinese man ill with tuberculosis travels from Hong Kong to convalesce at his family's beach house in a small Japanese village. Stephen recuperates through a peaceful life of painting, gardening, and swimming, but he's lonely away from his family and friends, with only the reserved caretaker Matsu for company. In time, Matsu grows more comfortable with Stephen and introduces him to the friends with whom he shares a long and tumultuous past. Stephen comes to feel at home in the village, but as news of the distant war reaches him, he worries for his family and feels out of place in the nation of the enemy.
The novel is packed with cultural and historical details, and a story develops around the relationship between the characters. Alas, there's not much in the way of plot. The occasional reveal of mysteries from the past kept me reading, but I was disappointed by how little happened. I know some other readers who were enchanted, but this book was too quiet for my tastes.
Good Stuff Out There:
→ At The Millions, Matthew Salesses goes In Search of the Inciting Incident: "The first type of scene I went looking for was the 'inciting incident,' the scene that starts the plot on its course. But what I noticed very quickly was that what starts the plot on its course is not usually what incites a novel, as we typically think of it. In other words, the scene that starts the plot isn't usually the why of a novel's existence in place and time, the situation of the story..."