Thursday, October 24, 2013

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

Jamie Ford researches a book like nobody’s business. His meticulous archival digging resulted in his wildly popular debut novel, The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. In his second novel, Songs of Willow Frost, he mines 1920s and ‘30s Seattle as carefully as earlier settlers dissected the west for gold. Ford’s research uncovered many heroes and villains of Seattle’s Film Row and Chinatown as well as theaters,  racetracks, and the very real Sacred Heart Orphanage.

The book opens on William Eng’s twelfth birthday in 1934. It’s not his actual birthday but at the Sacred Heart Orphanage it’s easier to celebrate all the boys’ birthdays on the same date, September 28, Pope Leo XII’s birthday.  On this day each boy receives a gift, either a saved letter from home or in William’s case, information about his mother.  William learns that on the last day he saw her as she lay bleeding and perhaps dying, his mother was sent to a sanitarium instead of a hospital because as a Chinese unwed mother doctors refused to treat her.  So on this day William has hope that his mother may be alive. The treat for the boys’ birthday is an outing to the movies where just before the movie begins a beautiful woman who looks exactly like William’s mother appears and sings a song. Thus William begins his quest to find “Willow Frost” the movie star who he’s certain is his mother.

William soon escapes from the orphanage with his best friend, Charlotte, a blind girl, who fears her father’s return more than life in the orphanage. Then the book backtracks to trace Willow Frost’s life and the men who abused her and ruined her early hopes and dreams. William’s evil stepfather is one of many one-dimensional caricatures she encounters. Sadly the book’s characters are difficult to discern as all of them have a flat affect and use the same overly sentimental language.

The novel is best when in settings that naturally use Ford’s painstaking research.  The sheet music store where Willow first sings in public, Seattle’s burgeoning Film Row, and the Wah-Mee Club offer an authentic glimpse of the era. Unfortunately, Ford’s contrived use of overtly emotional gimmicks like the orphaned blind girl overshadow the story.

Summing it Up:
Songs of Willow Frost provides intriguing details of Seattle’s Chinese-American community in the 1920s and ‘30s and of early film history which may help cinema and historical fiction fans enjoy the novel despite the flat, soap-opera-like characters.

Rating:   2 stars

Category: Fiction, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition

Publication date: September 10, 2013

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Wednesday, October 23, 2013

What Changes Everything by Masha Hamilton

Oh, the embarrassment of admitting that I had never read anything by Masha Hamilton. Now I’m devouring her backlist the way I wantonly gobble leftovers on my kitchen counter after a party. 31 Hours, The Camel Bookmobile - life is filled with her books and I’m loving every one of them. What Changes Everything, her newest novel, started my Hamilton journey. It’s a spectacular rendering showing our interconnectedness in a perilous and haunting world and a reminder that while we know we should cherish each day, we instead suffer from a “failure to celebrate the plain pillow that catches one’s head each night”

What Changes Everything combines two main stories: one is the present-day kidnapping of Todd Barbery, an American aid worker in Kabul, Afghanistan. The other is the true story of Mohammad Najibullah, the president of Afghanistan during the Communist era, who was imprisoned by the Taliban in 1996.

Todd Barbery is a good guy. His work with refugees in Kabul forges connections and makes things better. He loves his job and tries to stay safe until he makes one small error and is kidnapped. His wife, Clarissa, wants to honor Todd’s love of the Afghan people but she also needs to find a way to bring him home. She wants to trust Todd’s Afghani assistant, his boss, and the FBI agent assigned to Todd’s case but all have conflicting views on the best way to get Todd out safely. Meanwhile Clarissa meets Danil, a graffiti artist who lost his brother to the war in Kabul, and they forge a bond that others find suspect. Toss in Mandy, a Texas nurse, who arrives in Kabul looking for clues to the “country that had chewed up her son and then spit him back.” Hamilton’s “minor” characters grace this novel with a power and depth rarely encountered in fast-paced fiction of this type.

Interspersed with the gripping modern-day story is a portrait of former President Najibullah that documents his capture and long captivity through a series of imagined letters to his daughters. These letters bring the facts of the rising power of the Taliban to life in a way that any recounting of recent history could never manage.

What sets this novel apart from every other novel set in Afghanistan is Hamilton’s inside knowledge of Kabul.  She’s the Director of Communications and Public Diplomacy at the US Embassy in Kabul and was a journalist and news editor with the Associated Press in the Middle East for five years including the period of the first intifada. She also founded the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. Hamilton paints word pictures that enhance the riveting story without interrupting its flow. Her homage to the book’s title:  “war poisons the air half a world away and then travels on the wind to slip into your peaceful lungs, changing everything” slipped into me and will forever influence my thinking.

Summing it Up: What Changes Everything is a powerful missive about the way we’re interconnected and how things half a world away can “slip into your peaceful lungs, changing everything.”  Novels that keep readers up at night flipping pages to find out what happened are rarely peopled with such strong and memorable characters and such affecting language.  This is one soars as it educates the reader. Who could ask for more?
Rating:  5 stars

Category: Fiction, Five Stars, Gourmet, Super Nutrition, Book Club

Publication date:  June, 2013

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