Saturday, July 27, 2013

Review: THE SALARYMAN'S WIFE by Sujata Massey

salaryman's wife cover

Rei Shimura is a Japanese-American (father's Japanese, but she was raised in the US) living in Tokyo. Why I'm not sure, since she hates her job and is so poor she has to live in one of Tokyo's worst neighborhoods, sharing a crappy apartment the size of a postage stamp. Obviously, she needs a vacation, so for New Year's she travels to the small mountain town of Shiroyama. Unfortunately, while she's there, one of the guests in her hotel dies. The police think it's suicide, but Rei knows there's something suspicious about the death of the salaryman's wife.

Penny from Penelope's Romance Reviews recommended The Salaryman's Wife to me when I said I love anything having to do with Japan in my review of Ink. I'm so glad she did! I loved Sujata Massey's voice and the setting was fantastic. Rei was also a very sympathetic, intriguing character, even though her determination to live in Japan never made total sense to me. If it's because she likes Japanese antiques, that doesn't seem like a strong enough reason to work at job you hate and live in penury. I can understand her deciding to take a chance and move to Tokyo without a job lined up, but most people who do something risky like that give themselves a time limit to make things work, which Rei apparently didn't.

I had some other minor quibbles with the book: who the murderer was and the motive was pretty obvious, and other plot twists and clues practically had a notation next them in the text saying, "This will play a role later in the novel!"

But none of that bothered me too much because The Salaryman's Wife tells a great story. It's not so much a mystery as a book about a young woman finding her place in the world. When The Salaryman's Wife starts, Rei is very sensitive about her mixed heritage and the fact that she's a foreigner who doesn't fit in. She doesn't know what she wants to do, just that she's not doing it. What she does know is she wants to stay in Japan. By the end of the book she's confident, knows what she wants, and is pursuing her dreams. And the way in which this happens is incredibly implausible and 100% delightful.

I also liked Massey's writing style. She doesn't spell everything out and lets the reader do some work to discover what's going on sometimes. The personalities and motivations of the secondary characters are slowly revealed over the course of the book, too, and the story never dragged or seemed boring.

Plus, romance! There's a romantic subplot with Rei and a Scottish lawyer named Hugh. While I did like the romance (of course), I'm still not too sure about Hugh. He can be pretty insensitive sometimes, and what was with the coterie of women that kept treating him like a gigolo? I'm a little worried he won't be there for the long haul, which would be upsetting since I am sort of attached to him, despite my reservations. But he's coming back in the next book, which makes me happy since I'll definitely be reading it!

This is a great mystery I'd recommend, especially if you're a fan of Elizabeth Peters.

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Saturday, July 20, 2013

Review of THE LADY VANISHES by Ethel Lina White

cover of the lady vanishes book

(Actual title is The Wheel Spins, but Amazon and Goodreads have apparently decided to rename it. To be fair, The Lady Vanishes is a much better title.)

Iris Carr is a spoiled, wealthy young woman on holiday at some vaguely Alpine resort filled with English tourists. After catching the last train out to Trieste, Iris meets the bubbly Miss Froy, a middle-aged governess returning to England after years abroad. Iris decides to take a nap and when she wakes up, Miss Froy has disappeared. Even more strange is that everyone denies she was even on the train! Certain that something terrible has happened to Miss Froy, Iris enlists the help of the men folk, but they think she's crazy. After a while, Iris starts to wonder if they aren't right.

If you've seen the movie by Alfred Hitchcock, The Lady Vanishes, Ethel White's novel is very similar (in Fear in the Sunlight, Nicola Upson painted Hitch as someone who had no respect for the original work when adapting novels to film; she obviously knows shit-all about Hitchcock movies), right down to the time symbolism and British ethnocentrism. Honestly, the only difference between the book and the movie is that White gives us a ton of backstory about all the other English passengers on the train and why they don't mention they've seen Miss Froy, plus scenes of Miss Froy's family waiting for her in England. So we know from the outset that Miss Froy is real and not a figment of Iris's imagination, which kind of takes the fun out of the whole thing. I also really didn't care about the other English passengers. At all.

In other words, the movie is better than the book. Don't feel the need to read The Wheel Spins/Lady Vanishes, even if you love the movie.

That being said, I found the elaboration of themes in the novel interesting. You might be familiar with a story Hitchcock told Fran├žois Truffaut in their 1962 interview about The Lady Vanishes and how it was based on a "true story" of a mother and daughter who traveled to Paris at the start of the Paris Exposition and checked into separate rooms in a hotel. When the daughter woke up from a nap, her mother was gone, her luggage had disappeared, and the room didn't appear to have been slept in. When the daughter asked the desk clerk, he said she'd checked into the hotel alone, and everyone else from the maid to the coachman who'd taken them to the hotel confirmed the desk clerk's story. People assumed the daughter was crazy. In fact, during the daughter's nap, her mother had died of the plague. The hotelier and city officials, fearing a plague scare would keep people away from the Exposition, decided to bury the body and pretend as if the woman had never existed.

That story is actually in the novel, along with several other urban legends that underscore how women are presumed to be neurotic and delusional until proven otherwise, and also how easily a woman's identity can be erased. I really liked that there are stories-within-stories in The Wheel Spins that served to create an atmosphere of paranoia on the train, although I don't think White cashed in on this as effectively as Hitchcock did.

Another thing I found interesting was the role of men in the story. There are only a few male characters, but the women are completely dependent upon them because only the men can communicate with the outside world (well, except for Miss Froy: she speaks 10 languages, although we never actually see her speaking any foreign language during the course of the book). The Professor and "Hare" (a reference to the white rabbit from Alice in Wonderland?), two Englishmen who help Iris, are both linguists and fluent in whatever language the locals speak; but even men who don't speak the language can communicate with the outside world. For example, the clergyman who stayed at the same hotel as Iris left every day to sit with the locals in the village, leaving his wife behind to remark that she didn't know how he communicated with them when he didn't speak one word of the language. A big deal is also made of the fact that Iris is absolutely terrible with languages, so that everything she says to local people on the train is interpreted through a male voice—and a misogynist male who thinks she's by turns annoying and delusional, at that. The Wheel Spins really underscores female dependency on men, much more so than The Lady Vanishes.

I actually did enjoy the first half of The Wheel Spins, but Iris started to get annoying because she constantly runs to either the Professor or Hare to fix things for her when that is CLEARLY not working. Why doesn't she do something herself? The second half is also filled with literally paragraphs upon paragraphs of exposition telling us about character motivation. TELLING, not showing. The conclusion of the novel was also a disappointment. I love the end of The Lady Vanishes movie because Miss Froy turns out to be a badass, and there are a ton of fun magic references and a shoot-out. That does NOT happen in The Wheel Spins. I won't spoil the ending for you, but it was really lame, drawn-out, and anti-climatic.

Basically, you could spend five hours of your life reading this book, or ninety minutes watching the movie. Not to mention the book isn't in the public domain (and yet the movie is... makes no sense), so you actually have to pay for it. Not worth it. I'd only recommend The Wheel Spins/Lady Vanishes to those with a vested interest in Pre-War women and literature.

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Friday, July 12, 2013

Rock Stars and Rakes: Two Novellas

I've been reading a lot of novellas lately, because that seems like all I have the attention span for at the moment, and these are two of the most memorable. I don't think either warrants a full review, but as a pairing? Why not.

the scandalous dissolute no good mr wright cover

The Scandalous, Dissolute, No-Good Mr. Wright by Tessa Dare

Eliza would love to go to balls and parties like her sisters, but her dad has decided she's a troublemaker and must wait until all of them are married before she can make her debut. In the meantime, she meets Harry Wright, a rakehell who likes to encourage her to misbehave. Is it possible these two crazy kids will get together???

This is the first book I've read by Tessa Dare, and I really enjoyed her voice. It was light-hearted and fun and clever, kind of like Julia Quinn but better (I've never been a big Quinn fan, for what it's worth). That being said, I did have a few problems with this novella.

First (and most) of all, The Scandalous, Dissolute, No-Good Mr. Wright (hereafter known as TSDNGMW, because carpal tunnel) has a prologue. In a novella??? Are you freaking kidding me? What in the name of... ::deep breaths:: Naturally it's not labeled as a prologue, and normally the subsequent rage I would feel over this fact would make me immediately DNF a book; so I think it's a testament to Dare's writing style that I was able to keep reading and not get too upset about it. Somewhat. I tried not to think about it and that almost worked.

The thing with the prologue (yes, I'm going to keep harping on it) was that 1. I could tell while I was reading it that it was a prologue, just because it had that tone of "Oh, I need to capture the reader's attention with a super-intense meet-cute scene;" and 2. the prologue was substantially better than the rest of the book. WHICH IS WHY I FREAKING HATE PROLOGUES. I'm not going to pretend I understand the psychology of writing prologues, because begin at the beginning is like the number one rule of storytelling, but it seems as if prologues are always either different (read: better) stories from the actual novel OR they're just boring and pointless infodumps. And when it comes to the former, one really should be bringing one's A-game that way for the entire book.

That's not to say the rest of TSDNGMW was bad, though. It was still very entertaining and Eliza and Harry had insane chemistry. I also liked how Harry's true character was gradually revealed, although I felt like more could have been done with the story of Eliza's supposed indiscretion. The ending was kind of sappy, hard to believe and didn't gel well with the rest of the book. The heir to a dukedom is going to join the army as a PRIVATE? Yeah, right. That stretches the bounds of credibility even for a romance novel.

Nevertheless, like I said, I did enjoy Dare's writing style and would be willing to read another book by her. As long as it didn't have a prologue.

one hit wonder cover

One Hit Wonder by Elyssa Patrick

Jane is the personal assistant to Damon Suarez (there's an attractive name), a singer who peaked as a teenager with his single hit song. Now in his 30's, Suarez is still living the life: performing in concerts, hanging out with groupies, and perpetually planning his big come-back. Then Jane throws him for a loop when she gives her two weeks notice. He has no idea that Jane is quitting because she's hopelessly in love with him. Will these two crazy kids get together before Jane gathers up her resume and leaves?

russel brand
Visual approximation of Damon Suarez.

One Hit Wonder was kind of hokey and cheesy, but what really bothered me about it was Damon. Imagine if Russel Brand and David Cassidy had a baby with the fashion sense of Rod Stewart and you have a pretty good idea of what Damon is like. Why is this attractive? I don't know. It was kind of a train wreck. Also: why is a one-hit-wonder teen idol considered a "rock star" in this scenario? I'm sorry, but no. If you're going to title your series "Rock Stars in Love," you need to have actual ROCK STARS as your heroes. Not pop stars, not rappers (although I would totally read a book with a rapper hero), not jazz musicians, not folksy singer-song writers, but ACTUAL. ROCK. STARS.

So my sensibilities were offended on that account. Other than that, the romance was kind of meh, the dancing sounded almost as embarrassing as the clothes, and I swear the author mentioned Damon had brown eyes like eighty-five times. I did like the sex scenes, though. wink wink, nudge nudge

Despite my problems with this novella, I would like to read one of Elyssa Patrick's full-length novels, more because I love rock star heroes than because I was terribly enamoured of her writing style. Just as long as the novels have actual rock stars.

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