Nina's Reading Blog

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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

An Appetite for Violets

Posted by nliakos on January 17, 2019

by Martine Bailey (Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin’s Press, 2014)

This is a really fun read, full of interesting historical tidbits from the setting (England, France, and Italy in the 1770s). The narrator/main character is Biddy Leigh, under-cook at Mawton Hall, near the Welsh border. Biddy (short for Obedience) is a delightful character, bright, hardworking, loyal and passionate. The reader cannot help but like her and be drawn in to her story–and what a story!

After the master of Mawton, Sir Geoffrey, marries Lady Carinna Tyrone, who is Biddy’s age (early twenties) and at least 40 years younger than her husband, Biddy’s life is upended. Her intended marriage to the local heart-throb, Jem, must be postponed while she travels with Lady Carinna; Carinna’s snobbish and unfriendly lady’s maid Jesmire; her footman, the Batavian slave Mr Loveday; and Sir Geoffrey’s steward, Mr Pars to London, Paris, and finally Tuscany to Villa Ombrosa, Carinna’s uncle’s estate. Biddy quickly makes friends with Mr Loveday, but she mistrusts and/or dislikes her remaining traveling companions, although she feels somewhat sorry for the sickly Carinna and promises to help her out of a difficult situation. Helping Carinna involves impersonating her to the lecherous Count Carlo, which leads Biddy to Carlo’s cook, Renzo Cellini. Renzo and Biddy, both lovers of good food and cooking, have much in common, but Biddy is afraid to tell Renzo who and what she really is. . .  until she has no choice.

Each chapter includes a recipe, and I was fascinated and sometimes repelled by the dishes described, like Viperine wine (To make a potent brew to prolong life and promote vitality drown several vipers in your wine and drink as you require) and Manus Christi (First take your sugar clarified and melt it in water of roses. Seethe these two till the water be consumed and the sugar hard, put in four grains of crushed pearls and precious stones, made in fine powder, then lay it in cakes on a marble stone anointed with oil of roses and lay on your gold.)

In addition to Biddy’s chapters (supposedly from a journal she kept in an old book of recipes given to her before she left Mawton), there are third person chapters from the perspective of Mr Loveday, letters from Mr Pars to his brother, and one extraordinary chapter (the first) about Carinna’s brother’s fruitless search for his sister in Villa Ombrosa, reminiscent of Miss Havisham’s creepy wedding banquet in Great Expectations.  There are many unexpected twists and turns to the story, but everything gets sorted out in the end. I loved it.



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The Japanese Lover

Posted by nliakos on January 5, 2019

by Isabel Allende (Atria 2015)

I went to the library the other day and picked out three novels off my to-read list–really unusual for me. I needed to take a break from all the seriousness of The Color of Law and similar books. It’s interesting how no matter how awful truth is, it doesn’t make me cry, but I’m a sucker for tear-jerker fiction.

The Japanese Lover is about passion, friendship, racism, injustice, trauma and its lingering effects, Japanese internment camps during World War Two, sex trafficking and internet child pornography, homosexuality and AIDS, aging and death. Deep stuff. Alma Belasco, saved by her doomed parents who sent her out of Poland ahead of the Nazis, has two loves in her life: one, Ichimei Fukuda, is the son of her aunt and uncle’s gardener, while the other, Nathaniel Belasco, is her cousin. Her feelings for them are strong and deep, but very different. Irina Bazili, a young Moldovan fleeing an abusive past, comes to work in the nursing home where Alma has gone to live, to the dismay of her wealthy family. Alma’s devoted grandson Seth is immediately attracted to Irina, who holds him at arm’s length. These characters and others have their own chapters as Allende weaves together their individual stories into a tapestry that spans almost a century. For example, she follows the Fukuda family to a hastily converted race track where thousands of innocent Japanese-Americans and immigrants where held until the Topaz internment camp opened in the Nevada desert, where they spent the remainder of the war, having lost everything they had worked for in this most shameful episode in our history. Allende brings this history to life and makes us care about each character, even the minor ones.


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The Violinist of Venice: A Story of Vivaldi

Posted by nliakos on November 21, 2018

by Alyssa Palombo (St. Martin’s Press 2015)

I was in the library, looking for Red, by Orhan Pamuk. It wasn’t on the shelf, but my eyes strayed over to Palombo, and I saw two historical novels by the same author: one about Botticelli and the other about Vivaldi. Those looked interesting, kind of like The Girl with the Pearl Earring, which I loved, so I borrowed one.  The Girl with the Pearl Earring this is not, but it held my attention for about 24 hours. Palombo’s narrator is the musically talented, stubborn, eighteen-year-old Adriana d’Amato. Having read that some people believe that Anna Girò, the much-younger woman whom Vivaldi was rumored to have had an affair with, was in fact not his mistress, but his daughter, Palombo imagined who the mother and actual mistress might have been, and came up with Adriana, who approaches Vivaldi one dark night asking for secret violin lessons, which ultimately culminate in a scandalous love affair between this daughter of a wealthy Venetian social climber and the Red Priest.

In addition to Adriana and Antonio, there is a bastard brother, an abusive father, faithful servants, BFFs Vittoria and Giulietta, various suitors (the older, boring senator; the handsome, fabulously wealthy son of a great Venetian family), the eventual children who are all beautiful and musically talented…. Except for the impossible relationship with the composer-violinist, Adriana turns out to have a pretty cushy life. And things happen without much fanfare. Palombo doesn’t bother to build her story line slowly. (In two sequential sentences, Adriana’s half-brother Giuseppe begins courting her widowed friend and marries her eighteen months later.) Everything is tied up neatly and efficiently: for example, unwanted spouses conveniently die so that would-be lovers can marry, and the bastard child given up for adoption magically reappears to study singing with Vivaldi.

There’s rather a lot of sex. . . .  no bodices are actually ripped, but there’s a lot of passionate attraction among Venice’s beautiful young people (and a few lecherous old ones too).

And Adriana seems more like a liberated young woman of today, insisting on making her own choices (like nursing her babies and composing music) even when those are not done in her society. Another author quoted on the cover, Roberta Rich, proclaims the novel “realistic”. That’s not an adjective that came to my mind while reading it!

It wasn’t deep, but it was a satisfying read in a way. I can’t claim I didn’t finish it.

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Maigret’s First Case

Posted by nliakos on October 7, 2018

by Georges Simenon (in English translation by Ros Schwartz, Penguin Classics 2016; originally published in French as La première enquête de Maigret in 1949)

This could be the first Maigret roman policier I have read in translation; or maybe not; if I had read another one, I don’t remember doing so. But I am pretty sure I have not read this one in any language. Jules Maigret is a twenty-something employee of the Saint-Georges district police station (secretary to the chief inspector), very young, totally inexperienced, in love with his nascent police career and full of ambition to rise in the ranks and eventually work at the Quai des Orfèvres (the police headquarters in Paris). The chief inspector assigns him his first case: a young flautist, walking down a fancy Paris street late one night, sees a young woman leaning out of a window and screaming for help, and hears a gunshot. What happened? Was anyone injured (other than the flautist, who tried to intervene and was beaten for his pains)?

Maigret sets to work, aided by the flautist, Justin Minard. His modus operandi is not very different from what would become his signature style later: immersion into the world where the crime was (or was not) committed, getting to know all the people involved, watching and waiting and taking notes and thinking. But at this stage of his life, he lacks confidence in himself and his gut feelings, and doors do not open for him, or people jump to do his bidding, as they will later. He even comes to suspect that the Chief Inspector, for whom he has enormous respect, does not wish the case to be resolved. . . .

It’s interested to read what is essentially a prequel to the other books. The story is set in a Paris where automobiles like the De Dion Bouton share the streets with horse-drawn carriages. Maigret is a slim young man, in contrast to his later heft. He has not been married long, but a youthful Mme. Maigret is as accommodating, understanding, and trusting as ever.

Favorite quote: “He hadn’t slept with his moustache net on and he had to straighten the tips with a hot curling iron.” Really, a moustache net? Who’d have thought?

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Two by Simenon

Posted by nliakos on September 17, 2018

Maigret au Picratt’s (English version: Maigret in Montmartre), 1950

Maigret en meublé (English version: Maigret Takes a Room/Maigret Rents a Room), 1951

(in Tout Simenon Vol. 5, Presses de la Cité 1988)

I was recently inspired to re-read Maigret au Picratt’s when I watched it on my local PBS station, starring Rowan Atkinson (aka Mr. Bean) as Maigret (likable, but not at all how one imagines Maigret while reading). I was pleased to find that it was in one of my four Tout Simenon volumes (it’s a 25-volume set, each of which has about ten novels and whodunits), so I immediately started to read. When I lived in France in the early 1970s,  I used to love reading Maigret mysteries, which for some reason were not difficult for me to understand (compared to the novels), and I read a lot of them. I guess there was a lot of repeated vocabulary from one to another. I don’t remember looking up words as I read, and all these years later, I can still read them without relying on a dictionary, but it was so easy to check a word on my phone (with a choice of monolingual and bilingual dictionaries!) that I sometimes opted to do that (mostly finding that the words meant what I had thought they did, thus demonstrating the effectiveness of Understanding Vocabulary in Context).

Maigret au Picratt’s follows Inspector Maigret as he investigates the murder of Arlette, a young stripper at a bar named Picratt’s. The night before she was killed, Arlette had gone to the neighborhood police station to report that she had overheard two men in Picratt’s talking about murdering a countess. They didn’t believe her until she herself was found strangled in her room. Maigret takes over the investigation from the long-suffering Inspector Lognon (who is used to ceding his authority to Maigret), but he is not fast enough to stop the killer from murdering the Countess von Farnheim in her apartment the following day. Then it’s all hands on deck to catch the killer before he strikes again. The countess was a drug addict, and the investigation takes Maigret into the seedy underground world of addicts, alcoholics, prostitutes,  and petty criminals. Maigret’s signature investigative style of immersing himself in the culture of the killer and victim is in evidence here, as well as in Maigret en meublé, which I also read because it followed immediately after Maigret au Picratt’s (both were written while Simenon was living in Connecticut, 1950-1955).

In this story, Inspector Janvier, one of the detectives who works very closely with Maigret, is shot while staking out a suspect in the Rue Lhomond, and Maigret becomes obsessed with finding the shooter. Since Madame Maigret is away from home, Maigret rents a furnished room in the building in front of which Janvier was shot, and he immerses himself in the life and people of the little street, chatting up the tenants and the young woman (la grosse fille, in the language of the day) who owns the building and knows more than she will reveal, the neighbors, the shopkeepers and the owner of the bar where he goes to eat and drink beer and white wine. (In doing so, Maigret absents himself from his other duties at the Police Judiciaire, other than checking in on the phone from time to time, but as always, his boss (le chef) seems okay with that.) Maigret becomes increasingly frustrated as his investigation turns up nothing, but eventually, he seems to figure out what must have happened, and then he sets about getting those involved to admit their guilt.

Written in the early 50s, these stories were probably set in the 40s. What strikes a modern reader is that in a time before cell phones, investigators on the street were very limited in their ability to communicate with their colleagues; if they were tailing a suspect, they would have to duck into a café or a bar to use a public telephone. To get from one place to another, they took taxis. Of course, there was no DNA evidence. There were no body cameras. But Maigret and his inspectors generally seem to respect the humanity of the people they are investigating and interviewing. I have no idea how accurate this depiction of the Paris police is!

Anyway, when I went to my local library recently, I checked the fiction and mystery shelves for Simenon’s books and was surprised to find only one Maigret mystery (Maigret’s First Case) and no novels. I checked it out, so soon I may be reading about Maigret in English. However, as usual, I borrowed more books than I can possibly read (four), and then I ordered Fear: Trump in the White House on my Kindle, so who knows if I will have a chance to get to it? 🙂

For a review of Pierre Assouline’s 1997 biography of Simenon, visit Hmmm. . . . not an admirable person. I much prefer Maigret!

For an interesting summary and discussion of Maigret en meublé on the website Maigret of the Month, try

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The Fiddler

Posted by nliakos on August 20, 2018

by Beverly Lewis (Bethany House 2012)

I found this, my fourth Beverly Lewis novel, in the little library of my local senior center.  I took a break from Amerikanah, which I am really enjoying, to gobble down this Amish cupcake of a novel. You kind of know how it’s going to turn out, but Lewis keeps you guessing as to how she is going to get there. It is the love story of violinist Amelia Devries and Amishman Michael Hofsteder, set mostly in and around the invented Amish community of Hickory Hollow, in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Both Amelia and Michael are at a crossroads in their lives. Amelia has the talent to be a star violinist, and her father and her agent are pressuring her to go that route, but she wants a husband and family, and she wants to play music because she loves it–not for money or fame. Michael doesn’t fit very well in his Amish community. At twenty-five, he has yet to join the church, and he gotten a GED and continued on to higher education despite the disapproval of his father. He wants to leave the Amish life and become English, but he is held back by his love for his family and hometown. He wants to be there, but without the limitations that the Plain life require. So the reader can see where this is going, especially since Amelia and Michael are attracted to each other from the first moment they meet, on a stormy night in a remote cabin where Michael has fled after an argument with his father, and Amelia has wound up after getting lost. A visit to Hickory Hollow follows, and Amelia falls in love with the people she meets and the serenity of the place, so different from the high-stress city life of an up-and-coming musical celebrity.

Everything works out in the end, and the twists and turns of the story kept me engaged for the day or so it took me to read it. Back to Amerikanah!

English language learners will probably not find this difficult, but they will have to deal with the occasional Deitch (Pennsyvania Dutch) words (italicized).

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The Execution of Noa P. Singleton

Posted by nliakos on August 2, 2018

by Elizabeth L. Silver (Crown 2013)

Noa is on death row in Pennsylvania for the murder of her father’s young girlfriend, Sarah Dixon. The novel mostly consists of Noa’s memoir, about her childhood and young adulthood, culminating in the night that Sarah died. Noa’s voice sometimes gives way to that of Sarah’s mother Marlene, a hotshot Philadelphia lawyer who attempted to use Noa to force Sarah to leave her lover (Noa’s ne’er-do-well father), and then following Noa’s trial and conviction, turned against the death penalty and is trying to appeal for clemency with the help of a young Welsh lawyer, Oliver Stansted. (Marlene’s point of view comes from the letters she writes to her dead daughter.) Oliver visits Noa many times during the six months prior to her scheduled execution, and he begins to harbor doubts as to her guilt. Noa, for her part, refuses to tell anyone what actually happened. . .  until the final chapters. But her memoir will likely never see the light of day, nor will Oliver ever have the opportunity to read it.

I would have liked the book better had Noa been somewhat more likable, I think. She is not portrayed negatively, but I couldn’t really identify with her or feel emotionally close to her.


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Little Women

Posted by nliakos on July 14, 2018

by Louisa May Alcott (Grosset & Dunlap Illustrated Junior Library 1947)

I was not one of the many girls who adored Little Women when I was younger. I am pretty sure I read it (but not Little Men or Jo’s Boys), but probably just once. It doesn’t feature animals, for one thing. And perhaps I found it too saccharine. It is kind of a goody-goody story. But I enjoyed the performance on PBS this year and resolved to re-read it. I bought it very cheap for my Nook app and alternated between that and a friend’s somewhat dilapidated 1947 edition (Ex Libris: Carmen Valenzuela) featuring color plates and line drawings by Louis Jamber.

This time around, I preferred Part Second, when the sisters are older, to Part First,  during which Mr. March is away ministering to the Union troops in Washington. Almost all the main characters are introduced in these chapters:  next-door neighbor Teddy “Laurie” Laurence, and his crotchety grandfather; equally crotchety Aunt March; and of course, mother Marmee and the four sisters: Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. I think it is common knowledge that Alcott modeled Jo after herself, and I think she is most readers’ favorite character. Jo is a tomboy;  had the story been written now, she could be a lesbian or even, eventually, a trans-gender man. (Even though in Part Second, she bows to convention, falls in love, and marries.) She is a more natural character than Marmee, Meg, and Beth, who are all rather saintly, and more likable in Part First than practical Amy, who will grow up to decide that she should marry for money (so that she can take care of her poor relations). But in Part Second, the girls, now young women, take on more authentic characteristics. Meg, the first to marry, almost squanders her husband’s love and attention by paying too much attention to her children; Beth, facing her own death, inspires her family with her courage and kindness; Jo struggles with her ambition, her sharp tongue, her inability to reciprocate Laurie’s love for her, and the loss of her beloved Beth; and Amy finds true love and a fortune in the person of Laurie, once he has gotten over his crush on her sister. Through it all, the parents are founts of wisdom and good advice, especially Marmee. All of these things are pretty well known. But I cried over Beth’s passing and cheered for Jo and her Professor. Despite its moralistic tone, Little Women can still delight.


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The Map of Salt and Stars

Posted by nliakos on June 23, 2018

by Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar (Touchstone 2018)

This novel by Syrian-American author Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar is actually two novels in one. The first one, set in Syria, Jordan, and North Africa in 2011, is the first-person account of the escape of one Syrian family from the conflict in their homeland. This family consists of the mother, a cartographer, and her three daughters, Huda, Zahra, and twelve-year-old narrator Nour. The family had been living in New York, where Nour was born, but decided to move back to Syria after the death of the husband and father to cancer. They have barely settled in to their home in Homs, and Nour’s Arabic is still quite rudimentary, when the house is destroyed by a shell, and they find themselves homeless. Joined by the father’s best friend, Abu Saeed, they begin to make their way westward, through Jordan, Egypt, Libya, Algeria, and finally Morocco, seeking safety. They confront dangers of many kinds, lose one person when the ferry they are on sinks, are separated when the mother has to remain behind to take Huda to a hospital, and are finally reunited in Ceuta, the Spanish city across from Gibraltar, where the novel concludes.

We experience this harrowing journey through the eyes of Nour, who happens to be a synesthete; her descriptions are accordingly vivid, such as “a dog barks silver purple”, “the bare walls will be splashed with color from everybody’s singing”, and “I smell the brown-red brakes before we see the bus terminal”. (I wonder: Is Joukhadar also a synesthete?) She is still grieving for her father, as they all are, in their different ways. She idolizes her eldest sister Huda, but has to learn to love middle sister Zahra, who can be hard to like but who undergoes her own transformation as the novel unfolds. This is Nour’s coming-of-age; it could not happen in a more challenging setting.

The other novel within the novel is the story of another journey, undertaken nine centuries earlier in the same part of the world, that of Rawiya of Ceuta, who disguises herself as a boy so that she can apprentice herself to the famed (actual historic) mapmaker, al-Idrisi, as he travels throughout the then-known world to make the first accurate map of it for the Sicilian king, Roger II. Rawiya (aka Rami) is a kind of super-hero(ine), smart, courageous, highly skilled and seemingly indefatigable. Rawiya and al-Idrisi, together with another apprentice, Bakr, and the poet/singer Khaldun, make their way over the same lands as Nour and her family do, although some of the names are different (Aila for Aqaba, Barneek for Benghazi). This is a story that Nour’s parents have told her over and over again, a story that she tells herself, trying to take on the attributes of Rawiya, who never seems to be afraid, never panics, never loses sight of her goal, whether she is fighting people or mythical monsters (giant serpents, the roc). It is Rawiya’s story that will help Nour to reach the place where she and Zahra are reunited with their mother and Huda.

Both stories were engrossing, both protagonists admirable and likable, and I enjoyed the novel very much.

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A Man Called Ove

Posted by nliakos on April 15, 2018

by Frederik Backman (Washington Square Press, originally published in Swedish in 2014 and translated by Henning Koch in 2014)

Ove is 59, apparently “on the spectrum” with all the difficulties with human relationships that that implies. As a young man, he fell head over heels in love with Sonja, who did not judge him (perhaps because her father had very similar traits), who loved him in return. Ove and Sonja married, but their happiness was marred by a tragic accident. Sonja was able to move past the tragedy and get on with the business of living, so Ove did, too. Until Sonja died, robbing Ove’s life of all its color and robbing Ove of his reason to go on living.

Spoiler alert: Below, there are some details about the story that you might not want to know if you are going to read it. Stop reading here!

So Ove decides to end his life, and the novel focuses on a period of weeks (I think–it’s not entirely clear, and there are numerous flashbacks to Ove’s childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood (meeting, falling in love with, and marrying Sonja) one winter during which Ove attempts to commit suicide several times, in different ways (neatly and with minimum trouble to those who would need to deal with the aftermath, as per Ove’s idea of the right way to conduct oneself). But each attempt is interrupted by others who need Ove’s help: his old friend (more recently, enemy) Rune and Rune’s wife Anita; his new neighbors, Patrick, Parvaneh, and their children; his obese young next-door neighbor Jimmy; the awkward teenager Adrian; gay Mirsad, whose father hates homosexuals; and a nameless stray cat, among others. Slowly and inexorably, they pull Ove back from the brink and show him how to love and live again.

Although she is dead as the novel begins, Sonja is a luminous major character in Ove’s story. Part of the reason that Ove does what he does is because he knows Sonja would approve, and he believes that when he dies, they will be reunited; he doesn’t want her to be angry with him because of what he does or doesn’t do. Sonja’s good qualities shine throughout the story: gentleness, generosity, intelligence, perseverance, a sense of justice and an ability to meet each human being on his/her own terms, without judgment.

Parvaneh, an Iranian immigrant, is also a very important character in the book. Outgoing, generous and practical, Parvaneh also refuses to be frightened by Ove’s grumpy exterior. She does not hesitate to ask for, even to demand, his help when she needs it, thus saving his life on several occasions.

I just loved this book. Especially if you know someone on the spectrum, you may gain some insight into how that person thinks and sees the world. The novel has been made into a movie, which looks good, and I hope to see it soon, but I don’t expect it to surpass the novel. Movies seldom do.

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