Nina's Reading Blog

Comments on books I am reading/listening to

Archive for January, 2014

The House Girl

Posted by nliakos on January 18, 2014

by Tara Conklin (Harper Collins 2013)

This is a novel set in two times (1848 and 2004) and places (Charlotte County, Virginia and New York City). The two protagonists are Josephine Bell, the eponymous house girl (I’ve always wanted to use that word!) to a childless Virginia farmer and his wife, and Lina Sparrow, an attorney assigned to find a plaintiff in a slavery reparations case. Their stories merge as Lina learns that the well-known paintings of plantation life supposedly done by Lu Anne Bell may actually be the work of her slave, Josephine. As she investigates further, she finds a likely descendant of Josephine Bell–only he is not interested in becoming a plaintiff in the case. He may be interested in getting to know her better, however.

So there is a lot going on in this novel. The chapters alternate between 1848 and 2004, with almost all the 1848 chapters taking place on one day–the day that Lu Anne receives a prognosis of death from the doctor and Josephine plans to run away. Lina’s story is more spread out and complicated, dealing with her relationship with the artist father with whom she lives, the death of her mother when she was a baby, her interactions at work and her ambivalence about her job.

Other characters, whom we meet only through their letters, include Dorothea, who helps runaway slaves to escape north on the Underground Railroad and Caleb Harper, her brother-in-law, who tries to help Josephine to escape.

There are an awful lot of coincidences which would probably never have happened if it were real life (like meeting Josephine’s descendant at a show of Lu Anne Bell’s paintings and the aforementioned relationship between Dorothea and the doctor), but the story pulled me along and made me care about the characters, as all good novels should.

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Dick Francis’s Refusal

Posted by nliakos on January 11, 2014

by Felix Francis (Putnam 2013)

I can’t understand why Felix Francis’ titles begin with Dick Francis’s, unless it’s to grab the attention of Dick Francis fans who might not pick up a Felix Francis book otherwise. Felix is the son of Dick, a British steeplechase jockey who eventually wrote 42 books, all but two of which are directly or indirectly about crime in the world of horse racing, which is the world Francis himself knew best. I’ve read all of Dick Francis’ books, even his autobiography (The Sport of Queens) and a biography he wrote about another jockey (A Jockey’s Life: The Biography of Lester Piggott). In fact, I used to wait eagerly for their appearance, usually every year before Christmas. Despite the graphic violence (the narrator-protagonists were always getting beaten up or tortured by the bad guys), I liked his novels because his protagonists were always so appealing: tough, honest, good men. Sid Halley, who was featured in four of Dick Francis’ novels and then again in this one by his son, is one of those good men. Orphaned at fifteen and apprenticed to a racehorse trainer, he became a jump jockey only to be forced to retire after he lost his left hand in a riding accident (, so he became a detective instead, investigating shady dealings around the racing world.

Refusal opens when Halley, now married and supporting his family as an independent investor, refuses to investigate an accusation of race-fixing from Sir Richard Stewart, head of the British Horse-racing Authority. Then Sir Richard mysteriously commits “suicide,” leaving Halley with the list of races Sir Richard believed had been fixed, and Halley begins receiving threatening calls from a mysterious Irishman who also wants him to investigate the same thing–as long as he finds no wrong-doing and reports that to the BHA. Halley tries unsuccessfully to resist the caller’s orders but finds himself inexorably drawn in.

Sid Halley always survives in these books, but there are always some tense moments as he confronts people who have no compunctions about hurting him or other people. In this book, he feels forced to stop the Irishman and his henchmen before they wreak any more havoc, as well as for the sake of the future of British horseracing.

Felix Francis writes a lot like his father, with whom he co-wrote four novels before Dick Francis died in 2010. This book had a bit less violence than the others, which made me enjoy it more.

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And the Mountains Echoed

Posted by nliakos on January 3, 2014

by Khaled Hosseini (Riverhead [Penguin Group] 2013)

I’ve waited months to read this book, because I liked The Kite Runner and  loved A Thousand Splendid Suns. When I finally got hold of a copy this week, it took only a few days to finish it, and it did not disappoint. Hosseini really makes the reader feel for his characters, and the writing is a pleasure to read.

It’s hard to say who the protagonist is; there isn’t one protagonist, and different chapters take the point of view of various characters, sometimes in the third person and at other times in the first person. (It wasn’t really clear to me why Hosseini chose to write in the first person with Uncle Nabi the chauffeur-cook and Markos Varvaris the Greek doctor, while using the third person for everyone else. However, that is what he did.) Siblings Abdullah and Pari are the glue that holds the whole story together, but their stories do not take up a disproportional number of pages; the book begins with their tragic separation when their father gives (more exactly, sells) three-year-old Pari to his brother-in-law Nabi’s employer’s childless wife to raise as her own daughter, and it ends with Abdullah’s daughter Pari meeting her long-lost aunt. But in between, there are the stories of Parwana and her doomed sister Masooma; Nabi and his employer, Mr. Wahdati; Nila Wahdati, half-French, half-Afghan, a rebel even in the pre-Taliban era; Timur and Idris, mismatched Afghan-American brothers; Markos’ painful relationship with his mother, and Thalia, abandoned by her own mother, who could not tolerate her daughter’s disfigurement. Besides Afghanistan, the story is set in Paris, the Greek island of Tinos, and Hayward, California. As the book jacket blurb puts it, the novel is “broad in scope and setting.”  Highly recommended!

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