Jade Dragon Mountain

Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart

On the mountainous border of China and Tibet in 1708, a detective must learn what a killer already knows: that empires rise and fall on the strength of the stories they tell.

Li Du was an imperial Chinese librarian. Now he is an exile. In 1780, three years of wandering have brought him to Dayan, the last Chinese town before the Tibetan border. He expects a quiet outpost barely conscious of its place within the empire, but Dayan is teeming with travelers, soldiers, and merchants. The crowds have been drawn by the promise of an unmatched spectacle; an eclipse of the sun, commanded by the Emperor himself. 

Amid the frenzy, Li Du befriends an elderly Jesuit astronomer. Hours later, the man is murdered in the home of the local magistrate, and Li Du suspects it was no random killing. Everyone has secrets: the ambitious magistrate, the powerful consort, the bitter servant, the irreproachable secretary, the East India Company merchant, the nervous missionary, and the traveling storyteller who can’t keep his own story straight. 

Beyond the sloping roofs and festival banners, Li Du can see the pass over Jade Dragon Mountain that will take him out of China forever. But he cannot ignore the murder that the town is all too eager to forget. As Li Du investigates, he begins to suspect that the murderer intends to kill again. The eclipse is coming. Li Du must solve the murder before the sun disappears. If he does not, then someone, perhaps Li Du himself, will never again see its light.

This was my suggestion for book club this month, but I actually chose it because I almost bought the second book in the series, The White Mirror, in a book shop in Estes Park, Colorado. When I realized there was another book, I bought News of the World instead. I was pleased when my book club chose my suggestion of Jade Dragon Mountain because I was still thinking about this series and how interesting it sounded.

I loved this book from start to finish. A historical fiction mystery set in China? Yes please. This book delivered on all fronts and was really even better than I had imagined it would be. The world Elsa Hart created was absolutely beautiful, elegant, and exotic. The mystery didn’t feel forced, but natural and I neither suspected the culprit, nor saw the final twist coming.

I learned a great deal reading this book, which is always fun. I can’t think of any others books I’ve read that are set in China except for those by Amy Tan. It was fun to discover a new author and one with as intoxicating a style as Elsa Hart.

My edition of this novel had an interview with the author and well as information about some of her source materials for the book. She has really lived an interesting life and I enjoyed reading about that as well as the books that helped with her research…including some that made it into the pages of Jade Dragon Mountain!

I’m excited to keep reading about the adventures of Li Du in The White Mirror – now on my short list of books to purchase (though I’m at that point again where I should really not be buying more books….)

Also, I really, really, really love dumplings and tea. The descriptions of both in this book ignited some major cravings! Anyone have a favorite place for dumplings in San Diego?

News of the World

News of the World by Paulette Jiles

Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd travels through northern Texas, giving live readings from newspapers to paying audiences hungry for news of the world. An elderly widower who has lived through three wars and fought in two of them, the captain enjoys his rootless, solitary existence.

In Wichita Falls, he is offered a $50 gold piece to deliver a young orphan to her relatives in San Antonio. Four years earlier, a band of Kiowa raiders killed Johanna’s parents and sister; sparing the little girl, they raised her as one of their own. Recently rescued by the U.S. army, the ten-year-old has once again been torn away from the only home she knows.

Their 400-mile journey south through unsettled territory and unforgiving terrain proves difficult and at times dangerous. Johanna has forgotten the English language, tries to escape at every opportunity, throws away her shoes, and refuses to act “civilized.” Yet as the miles pass, the two lonely survivors tentatively begin to trust each other, forming a bond that marks the difference between life and death in this treacherous land.

I don’t remember how I first heard of this book, but when I found myself needing to go to the bookstore on vacation to buy another book, I picked this one up because I remembered wanting to read it. Also can we talk about how great of a title News of the World is?!

I really enjoyed News of the World. I read it pretty much in one sitting on the plane ride home. It’s a lovely little historical fiction novel. In fact my only real complaint is that it was over too soon and I wish there was more to it!

The time and place of this novel is so well researched you definitely feel as if you’re there. I haven’t read any books set during the Reconstruction era, at least that I can remember. It was a nice change of pace to be reading about something that is rarely explored in historical fiction.

The two main characters of Captain Kidd and Johanna were just wonderful. I hope this book gets made into a movie at some point…I’d love to see these two come to life!

Funny side note about this book: When I was doing my research for my WPW on the colors of lightning, I kept finding references to a book called The Color of Lightning. Turns out the Paulette Jiles is also the author of that book!

This was my first book by this author and am interested in reading some of her others – does anyone have recommendations for me?

Dragon Teeth

Dragon Teeth by Michael Crichton

The year is 1876. Warring Indian tribes still populate America’s western territories even as lawless gold-rush towns begin to mark the landscape. In much of the country it is still illegal to espouse evolution. Against this backdrop two monomaniacal paleontologists pillage the Wild West, hunting for dinosaur fossils, while surveilling, deceiving and sabotaging each other in a rivalry that will come to be known as the Bone Wars.

Into this treacherous territory plunges the arrogant and entitled William Johnson, a Yale student with more privilege than sense. Determined to survive a summer in the west to win a bet against his arch-rival, William has joined world-renowned paleontologist Othniel Charles Marsh on his latest expedition.  But when the paranoid and secretive Marsh becomes convinced that William is spying for his nemesis, Edwin Drinker Cope, he abandons him in Cheyenne, Wyoming, a locus of crime and vice. William is forced to join forces with Cope and soon stumbles upon a discovery of historic proportions.  With this extraordinary treasure, however, comes exceptional danger, and William’s newfound resilience will be tested in his struggle to protect his cache, which pits him against some of the West’s most notorious characters.

It’s always interesting reading a book published posthumously. You always have to wonder how much of the book was “found” and how much was ghostwritten. Since Michael Crichton died, there have been three novels of his published posthumously: Pirate LatitudesMicro, and now Dragon Teeth. I’ve read both Pirate Latitudes and Micro as well as Jurassic ParkThe Lost World, Congo, Prey, The Andromeda Strain, Timeline, Rising Sun, and Next.

I had pretty low expectations for Dragon Teeth. I liked Pirate Latitudes, but not as much as Jurassic Park, The Lost World, Prey, and The Andromeda Strain, which are my favorite Crichton books. I did not like Micro much at all. So coming off of that, I was not expecting much. But this one proved me wrong.

I’ll admit that with the writing of my own novel, my brain has been permanently stuck in the later part of the nineteenth century. So take that as you will. But I really, really liked this one. It was a little rough around the edges, but the concept was fantastic and manages to deliver. Hunting for dinosaur bones in the Wild Wild West? Sign me up!

The story rattles along at a great clip, managing to blend the speed of a thriller with true history and scientific fact. My only criticism is that the narrative voice in this one is a little weird. The introduction purports that the narrator is someone from the future telling the story of William Johnson. Which, ok, that’s fine. It gives a little narrative distance to the story. But it also means that the narrator sometimes delivers a page of straight historical fact or does some really heavy-handed foreshadowing that feels at odds with the story. It wouldn’t be so bad if the narrative came full circle back to whomever this distant narrator is, but the narrator kind of fades out from the story. And the author’s note states that William Johnson is entirely fictitious. So the issue of the distant narrator is never satisfactorily explained.

Aside from these momentary oddities, this is a very solid novel. According to the afterward from his wife, it seems Crichton might have been working on this book as early as 1973. So possibly some of the stuff that’s rough around the edges is merely the work of a less experienced writer that didn’t get edited out because they wanted to leave the story intact as they found it? I have no idea, but I think it’s a plausible theory.

I will say though, in my opinion while Dragon Teeth does not squeeze out any of my top four Crichton novels, it’s earned itself the last spot in the top 5. It’s a fun ride from start to finish.

The Help

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Twenty-two-year-old Skeeter has just returned home after graduating from Ole Miss. She may have a degree, but it is 1962, Mississippi, and her mother will not be happy till Skeeter has a ring on her finger. Skeeter would normally find solace with her beloved maid Constantine, the woman who raised her, but Constantine has disappeared and no one will tell Skeeter where she has gone.

Aibileen is a black maid, a wise, regal woman raising her seventeenth white child. Something has shifted inside her after the loss of her own son, who died while his bosses looked the other way. She is devoted to the little girl she looks after, though she knows both their hearts may be broken.

Minny, Aibileen’s best friend, is short, fat, and perhaps the sassiest woman in Mississippi. She can cook like nobody’s business, but she can’t mind her tongue, so she’s lost yet another job. Minny finally finds a position working for someone too new to town to know her reputation. But her new boss has secrets of her own.

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk. And why? Because they are suffocating within the lines that define their town and their times. And sometimes lines are made to be crossed.

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Back when I started Isle of Books, over 5 years ago (wow!), many, many people told me I needed to read The Help. To which I agreed, but then never got around to reading it until now.

I can see why it got so much attention. This was a great book! Really hard to put down. I ended up staying up super late one night to finish it. I really liked all three viewpoint characters, though I wish Minny had had more chapters. Skeeter and Abileen definitely got more “screen time”. But all three characters were interesting and had a unique voice. The multiple narratives kept the story moving along quickly. I also liked that this novel didn’t have a pat, happy ending. Life is messy, as the women discover while working on their project.

The atmosphere and sense of place are a strong point of this novel. I could see the town of Jackson, Mississippi and the people and feel the sticky heat of the south. I can’t wait to see the movie interpretation, hopefully they did justice to this wonderful book! I read the move tie-in edition of this book and I have to say, I think Emma Stone will be a great Skeeter!

On a side note, I can’t believe this was the author’s first book. That kind of makes me a little sad. This was such a wonderful book that hit all the right notes, it’s unbelievable that this was a first novel. Most first novels are passably good with room for improvement. I seen Kathryn Stockett hasn’t published another book since The Help. I wonder how it will compare, hopefully it won’t be a sophomore slump!

All the Light We Cannot See

By Anthony Doerr

Marie-Laure lives with her father in Paris near the Museum of Natural History, where he works as the master of its thousands of locks. When she is six, Marie-Laure goes blind and her father builds a perfect miniature of their neighborhood so she can memorize it by touch and navigate her way home. When she is twelve, the Nazis occupy Paris and father and daughter flee to the walled citadel of Saint-Malo, where Marie-Laure’s reclusive great-uncle lives in a tall house by the sea. With them they carry what might be the museum’s most valuable and dangerous jewel.

In a mining town in Germany, the orphan Werner grows up with his younger sister, enchanted by a crude radio they find. Werner becomes an expert at building and fixing these crucial new instruments, a talent that wins him a place at a brutal academy for Hitler Youth, then a special assignment to track the resistance. More and more aware of the human cost of his intelligence, Werner travels through the heart of the war and, finally, into Saint-Malo, where his story and Marie-Laure’s converge.

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I had seen All the Light We Cannot See make the rounds on the blogs and win the Pulitzer prize before my book club picked it.

I knew it was set during WW-II which made me uneasy. I just am not a fan of reading about this time period, even though the last time WW-II era book we read, The Book Thief, I loved. I wasn’t in a hurry to start it this book so it sat on my bedside table for awhile.

Once I did start the book though, I was hooked. The chapters are very short (a few pages at most) and the writing exquisite. I heard that Doerr author worked on this book for over ten years… I guess that’s enough time to really polish your sentences!

This book never seemed to slow or get boring, just wrapped me up in beautiful sentences that seemed to describe life in a way I never could. The intertwined stories of Marie-Laure and Werner were both very enjoyable. One a blind girl, daughter of a humble museum locksmith, entrusted with an in incredible secret. The other, an orphan in Germany, tapped by an elite Nazi school for his brilliance with radios.

Highly, highly recommend this book! Probably one of the best I’ve read this year and I feel like I’ve read a lot of great books in 2015. Bonus: All The Light We Cannot See will look stunning on your bookshelf. The cover is absolutely gorgeous!

Also, my next trip to France will not only have to include Mont Saint-Michel, which I’ve dreamed of visiting for years, but now Saint-Malo.

The Book Thief

By Marcus Zusak

It’s just a small story really, about, among other things, a girl, some words, an accordionist, some fanatical Germans, a Jewish fist-fighter, and quite a lot of thievery.

Set during World War II in Germany, Markus Zusak’s groundbreaking new novel is the story of Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich. Liesel scratches out a meager existence for herself by stealing when she encounters something she can’t resist: books. With the help of her accordion-playing foster father, she learns to read and shares her stolen books with her neighbors during bombing raids – as well as with the Jewish man hidden in her basement before he is marched to Dachau.

This is an unforgettable story about the ability of books to feed the soul.

 

I recently joined a book club and this was our first pick. I’ve heard about this book for quite a long time, but never picked it up, probably owing to my aversion to all things WW-II era. I was quite surprised by how much I liked this book.

Most of the criticism from what I read online has to do with whether or not you liked the narrator. I loved that Zusak used Death as a narrator. Quite unusual and I thought it really worked for this book. I also like Death’s perspective and the way that he talked.

I loved the writing. Loved, loved the writing. Absolutely beautiful from end to end. This is one of those books that, once you get done dissecting the rich story, you can spend forever unpacking the language.

The book’s form was also very creative. You have a regular written text that tells the story, a secondary sort of text that also functions like a footnote or an aside, plus some handwritten books with pictures.

One thing I also found interesting about this book is that, because it covers such a long period of time, the story feels almost more episodic or a chronicle than a plot-driven book, yet another rarity in publishing.

It’s hard to really discuss this book too much as the book makes heavy use of foreshadowing and realizes a lot about the end and the future events right at the beginning, but I’ll just end with saying that I’m really glad I read this book and I’ll definitely be adding this to my stable of “books I always recommend to people”.

Next up: watching the movie

 

Have you read this book or seen the movie? What did you think of one or both?

The Madame

The Madame by Julianna Baggott

West Virginia, 1924: Alma works in a hosiery mill where the percussive roar of machinery has far too long muffled the engine that is her heart. When Alma’s husband decides that they should set out to find their fortune in Florida, Alma has little choice but to leave her three children and ailing mother behind. But when Alma is then abandoned at a Miami dock, she is suddenly forced to make her own way in the world. With the help of a gentle giantess and an opium-addicted prostitute, Alma reclaims her children from the orphanage and forges ahead with an altogether new sort of family. As an act of survival, she chooses to run a house of prostitution, a harvest that relies on lust and weakness in men, of which “the world has a generous, unending supply.”

The Madam is the story of a house of sin. It is here where Alma’s children will learn everything there is to know about “love and loss, sex and betrayal.” Based on the real life of the author’s grandmother, The Madame is a tale of epic proportions, one that will haunt readers long after its stunning conclusion.

This is a very whispery, dreaming book, as if you could somehow manage to stay in the place in between sleep and wake. This book was very engrossing, like being wrapped in a warm blanket you can’t get free of, but don’t really want to anyway. Though I must say, this book was quite sad. I am the type of person that gets upset when other people get “stuck” or have difficult problems they are unable to solve or circumvent. I just want to fix everyone’s lives and it weighs on me when I can’t, even if the problem has nothing at all to do with me. This book was sort of like a never-ending moment of that. Everyone has a difficult, imperfect life, and they struggle, struggle, struggle through every single day of their lives. 

The prose was very beautiful and skillfully done. Though combined with the way the story was written, it felt as if everything were covered in a thin gauze, rather than something visceral you could touch. It was just very dreamy and floated away when you tried to grab hold of it.

This is the first book I have read by this author and I’m interested in checking out more. Hopefully they won’t be quite as sad to me!