Continuing this occasional feature…
Barbara Kingsolver achieved her greatest fame with the book
I honestly like the least of her entire list—The Poisonwood Bible, nominated for a Pulitzer and multiple other awards. But before she wrote this serious tome, Kingsolver penned several shorter books that caught my imagination:
Taylor Greer grew up poor in Kentucky, with the dual goals of avoiding pregnancy and getting out. On her drive west to seek her fortune, she is unexpectedly “gifted” with a three-year-old American Indian girl, who is dumped in her car in obvious need of mothering and more. So Taylor’s plans change abruptly, and she puts down roots and begins to build a community to help her care for her new foster daughter, Turtle. This is the story of The Bean Trees; in the sequel, Pigs in Heaven, Turtle witnesses an event that has repercussions for her life with Taylor, exposing her to her heritage and her past. These two books are a wonderful combination of charming and heartfelt, with lots of humor but also with a serious message about the family you inherit and the family you choose.
The third book Kingsolver wrote right around the same time period is Animal Dreams, a love story, an environmental inquiry, and an exploration of Native American culture. I was captivated by all three of these books and have revisited them several times. If you are looking for short but intense fiction with an American southwest setting and eccentric characters, try any or all of these three by Kingsolver.
I featured the original covers here, because they are the ones with which I am familiar (and also, I really like them), but all three of these books have been re-released in trade paperback and are easily obtainable, if in a more bland, less culturally celebratory package.
I hadn’t previously read anything by Liane Moriarty, although several librarian friends had recommended her to me, so I decided to start with Big Little Lies, since the TV series stars some of my favorite actors and I’d like to have read the book before embarking on that.
I didn’t know anything about the book, except that it’s classified by some as “women’s fiction,” a category title I have always found insulting. Joyce Saricks, readers’ advisory guru, defines women’s fiction as consisting of “books written primarily by women for women, that feature female characters, and that address the issues women face in their professional and domestic lives.” I find the descriptor “women’s fiction” to be dismissive and ghettoizing. When men were the primary writers of fiction, it was all just fiction, whether literary, mainstream, or genre-based. Why do we need to use condescending terminology that puts female writers in a “less than” category?
It is true that the three main protagonists of Big Little Lies are women with issues (some of them dark): Madeline, Celeste, and Jane. It’s also true that this is primarily a book about white privileged people whose children attend private school. But it’s ultimately a story of parents acting badly, and it features the real lives of children, teens, friends, husbands, wives, second wives, and exes. And the interplay between all these characters, primary and secondary, is smart and witty, making the book completely engaging.
It’s also suspenseful, given that the pivotal moment (which is mentioned at the beginning and then built up to in timed chapters) is a death at the annual Pirriwee Public School Trivia Night, an annual fund-raising event. You know what happens, but not to whom, nor how, nor why. There are small glimpses fed to you in the guise of gossip shared with an unknown interviewer by various secondary characters at intervals throughout the book, which lend further tension as some get it entirely wrong and others come perilously close to guessing secrets they’re not supposed to know.
I loved the way Moriarty sets up the story—the countdown to the trivia contest, the fragments of gossip and commentary, the glimpses into all the lives involved in the broader story. But I particularly loved the entire array of characters, both main and secondary. This is a quintessential example of a character-driven plot, and although its stated theme is suspense, the real content of the book lies in understanding every woman portrayed here. The character development is fresh, intuitive and nuanced, and doesn’t stop with the first few moments of set-up on their personalities, but portrays complex, flawed people with real issues. Moriarty is equally good at capturing the quirks and personalities of all the children involved, and she seasons serious interactions with moments of humor and even hilarity.
I didn’t figure out the climactic moment ahead of time, and honestly spent the second half of the book hoping passionately that she wouldn’t kill off any of the people in which I had invested so thoroughly!
I have put three more books by Moriarty on hold at the library.
I’m usually more of a thriller or police procedural kind of mystery reader, with an occasional psychological plot thrown in to keep me thinking, but I couldn’t resist either the town setting or the engaging amateur sleuthing trio of Kate, Jack, and Sara in Jude Devereaux’s Medlar Mysteries, and decided to read #2.
The victim in A Justified Murder achieves the equivalent of being hung, drawn, and quartered; the nice little old lady Mrs. Beeson is discovered by her cleaning lady sitting at her dining room table, poisoned, shot, and stabbed! Who could hate this seemingly innocuous woman so much? And why does everyone in town seem determined to whitewash or downplay his or her own personal relationship with the victim?
After their last murder and some close calls with danger, Jack, Kate, and Sara decide they’re not going to go near this one, and stubbornly turn to their daily routines while trying to ignore what’s happening in town; but everyone else, from the sheriff to Sarah’s old nemesis (and Kate’s boss at the real estate office) to a strange man stalking them from afar, is determined that they will take it on and figure out who killed Janet Beeson.
The “triple murder” of one victim and the delving into her background for reasons was an intriguing beginning, but I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I did A Willing Murder. I felt like Devereaux took the character development of her protagonists to a point in the first novel, and then in this one, when we should have deepened our knowledge of the three detectives, we just got more of the same. We didn’t find out, for instance, anything substantive about Kate’s father, which is the sole reason she initially went to Lachlan to meet her Aunt Sara; we got a lot of flirty behavior from Jack but likewise not much depth; and Sara just kept getting mad and either locking herself in her room or taking out her anger on a punching bag with her boxing gloves.
As far as the mystery was concerned, there was a whole lot about the three protagonists protesting too much while continuing to follow up every clue from beginning to end. I would have respected them more if, at some point about halfway through the book, they had said, “Hey, let’s get real, we’re doing this,” and quit pretending they weren’t. Also, there were so many peripheral story lines involved, not to mention a kidnapping subplot, that it became confusing more than once. Someone would show up at the front door at 2 a.m., crying, and I would have to page back three chapters to figure out who this person was and where they fit into the puzzle of the town’s many involved citizens.
The book wasn’t bad enough to discourage me from perhaps reading her third when it comes out (and I did like the surprise ending), but if that one likewise ignores the expansion of character knowledge, that’s it for me. Half the motivation for reading a cozy mystery series is finding out more about the inner workings of your sleuth(s). I hope Ms. Devereaux figures this out.
I’ve just gone on a reading odyssey not quite as lengthy or labyrinthine as Game of Thrones, but definitely of a complexity that would deter some readers! It’s a series containing four books, each of the first three coming in at around 500 pages, and culminating in a fourth book with a staggering 752! The series, by Kate Elliott, begins with Jaran. I had read Kate Elliott once before when I took a look at her young adult series that begins with The Court of Fives. I liked that one well enough to give it four stars on Goodreads, but not well enough to keep reading the rest of the series. But in my comments, one thing I mentioned that I did enjoy was the portrayal of the societal relations between the conquerors and the oppressed.
That turned out to be something that Elliott does even better in her adult novels, and I was immediately hooked by the deeply complex interrelationship of all the players on the board of this science fiction saga. My response to the first book was that it reminded me of a couple of Ursula K. LeGuin’s Hainish books (and I can’t pay a higher compliment than that). Similar to Rocannon’s World and The Left Hand of Darkness, it’s an anthropological science fiction story, with overlapping alien races who may know about each other but don’t know each other. It’s old school, and yet it’s fresh, and I enjoyed and was engaged by the way it unfolded.
In the first book, we learn that Earth has been subsumed into a vast galactic empire ruled by the alien Chapalii. At one point a human, Charles Soerensen, led a failed rebellion against their dominance, but rather than punishing him, the Chapalii inexplicably made him a “duke” of their kingdom and gave him dominion over an interdicted planet, Rhui. (What it means that the planet is interdicted: The native peoples are prohibited from knowing about space travel, alien or human technology, or anything that is beyond the development of their existing culture.)
On Rhui, there are two types of people, the jaran and the khaja. Khaja is actually a jaran word for “not jaran,” otherwise designated by the jaran peoples as “barbarians.” The jaran are akin to the Romany people of Earth, in that they are nomadic, dwelling in tents and moving from place to place according to whim and affected only by weather and pasture. They are matrilineal, with female etsanas of twelve tribes deciding what’s best for the people, but the women work in a fairly equal partnership with men, who are the warlike, saber-wearing, horseback-riding element of the tribes. They are proud, romantic, mostly illiterate but nonetheless intelligent people with an oral tradition and an elaborate history. And under the leadership of the charismatic and visionary Ilya Bakhtiian, they have recently grown larger aspirations and are in the process of conquering the khaja within their realm of influence.
The khaja are all the peoples on Rhui who do not follow in this nomadic tradition—those who have settled down into city-states or kingdoms and jealously guard their land for their own people, who speak various local dialects and are unwelcoming to strangers. Their lifestyle differs markedly from that of the jaran, not just because they are not nomadic, but because they follow a more traditional pattern of patrilineal societies in which women have few rights and are treated as chattel. This includes those groups spread out across the landscape of Rhui and also the inhabitants of the city of Jeds, which is the secret stronghold of Charles Soerensen, the aforementioned duke of the planet, known in Jeds as the Prince of Jeds. This city is the de facto capitol of the planet, where there are schools and universities, a library, and supposedly more “civilized” inhabitants, although under their thin veneer of culture, they also subscribe to the unequal treatment of men and women.
The people of Earth associated with Soerensen cautiously visit and explore the planet in various ways, while maintaining a cover as locals. The Chapalii are supposedly forbidden by the interdiction from traveling to Rhui at all, but as the first book opens, we discover they are not all sticking to this contract.
Charles Soerensen’s heir to the “throne” of Jeds (and actually to all his holdings on all planets) is his sister, Tess. She is young, just graduated from university, and is uncertain of the role she wishes to play in Charles’s complex agenda. She is also suffering from a broken heart, and feeling rebellious. So she sneaks aboard a shuttle bound for Rhui, intending to go to Jeds and buy herself a little time to think; but because the Chapalii on her ship are involved in an illegal operation, she ends up getting dumped somewhere out in the wilds, and is picked up after a week of wandering by the leader of the jaran warriors.
Tess decides that she will remain with the jaran people, immersing herself in their society, as the perfect cover for attempting to solve the Chapalii smuggling scheme that put her there on the planet. What she doesn’t reckon with is her seduction by the warmth and inclusiveness of their lifestyle, and her growing feelings for their leader, Ilya Bakhtiian (and his for her).
Whew! That’s a long and complex introduction to an equally elaborate and convoluted story, but if it sounds like something you’d like, definitely invest the time. With each book more conflicts arise, more truths (about each of the peoples depicted) become apparent, and more investment in the future fates of all takes place. And while we do eventually reach an ending that is satisfactory, the potential is there for more about the individuals and the cultures involved, should Elliott ever decide to revisit them. I can’t help hoping that someday she will!
The four books are as pictured above: Jaran, An Earthly Crown, His Conquering Sword, and The Law of Becoming. Don’t be put off by the covers (dated looking and unfortunately not great to begin with); two of the four books are out of print at this time anyway. But this could be considered a good thing: Who has room on their bookshelves for four more 500+-page books? Do as I did and buy them as a four-book set on Kindle. If you’re not sure you want to read the whole series, you can get each book individually for the Kindle, but why spend the extra money? I checked out the first one from the library, and then got tired of being on the holds list for the other three and bought the set.
If you have ever had a romantic dream of wandering on horseback with the Travelers; if you have ever wondered how a matrilineal society might work; if you have ever wondered if there are, indeed, aliens among us; this is the series for you. (And do check out the Hainish novels of Ursula K. Le Guin as well!)