I read this book because a friend strongly recommended it on Facebook, and while I’m not sorry I did, I didn’t love it as much as she did nor as much as I hoped I would.
The main character is Tookie, an Ojibwe woman with a criminal past. She is convinced by a woman she loves to commit one crime, only to learn afterward that she has been set up to be guilty of an entirely different offense. The judge hands her an extremely harsh sentence, but after several years, her lawyer manages to get it reduced and Tookie is released. Her time in prison turned Tookie into a voracious reader, so she applies for a job at Louise Erdrich’s independent store Birchbark Books. This was the first thing that made it hard for me to connect to the story. To have Louise Erdrich write about herself as a minor character in her own novel felt too meta to me, and I didn’t enjoy the archness of it.
Tookie herself is a complex character, scarred but with the potential for warmth and growth. She turns out to be a great bookseller. Because of the wide and eclectic reading experience she gained in prison and has continued on the outside, she is often able to help customers find books they will love. Her most annoying regular customer is a woman named Flora, who does a great many charitable deeds but also insists without any concrete evidence that she too has Native ancestry. Flora dies on All Souls Day, 2019, but she refuses to rest in peace. Instead, she haunts the bookstore by returning every day at her normal time and moving to all her favorite spots within the building. In particular, Flora is drawn to Tookie, and one of the essential questions of the novel is why.
As the weeks pass, Flora persists and Tookie becomes more and more desperate to figure out how to persuade her to leave. The year draws to a close, and as it does, we as readers know something the characters do not: COVID-19 is coming, and their lives will be forever changed. Not only COVID, but this is Minneapolis, so the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent unrest will become part of the storyline too.
And here is where I experienced my other big disconnect from the story. I expected these two catastrophes to stir me deeply, but they did not. I don’t know if the problem is that I’m still too numb (I lost a dearly loved brother to COVID) or if Louise Erdrich didn’t have enough distance from the events to be able to write about them with power and insight. Either is possible—or both in tandem.
All I know is that the book did not move me in the way I’d hoped. Reactions to fiction are subjective—as an author myself, I know that well—so I don’t offer this as a definitive response to The Sentence. If the premise of the book intrigues you, I recommend that you give it a try and decide for yourself.
I don’t read horror fiction, so I’ve never read much by Stephen King. A few years ago, however, I listened to 11/22/63 and really loved it. So when I saw the promotions for Billy Summers. I was intrigued.
Billy Summers is a hit man with an unusual past; his first murder was in response to abuse, and later he served as a sniper in Iraq, which gave him professional training. To reconcile his conscience with what he does for a living, Billy reassures himself that he kills only “bad people.”
Now in his mid-forties, Billy has had enough and wants to retire. He decides to take one last job—even though he knows from movies and novels that the “one last job” always turns out to be a disaster. His anonymous client is offering a fortune, large enough for him to quit forever, and the temptation is impossible to resist.
The catch is that Billy needs to hole up in a small town for weeks or perhaps months waiting for his target to be extradited from California. He’s going to take the shot from an office building near the courthouse, and his cover for being there is that he’s a writer who needs to be on his own and away from temptation to finish the book he’s promised his publisher. To pass the endless hours, he actually does begin to write his memoir and finds the process of telling his story both addictive and therapeutic. This book within a book is just as engaging as the story that frames it.
However, Billy’s self-protective hackles soon rise as he senses that the job isn’t quite what it seems. The man who’s renting him the office space and supplying the weapon is tense and scared, and Billy deduces that the poor guy is the weak link in the chain and being set up as a patsy. Then, when Billy hears the arrangements that have been made for his own getaway, he suspects that the plans involve putting him six feet under rather spiriting him six hundred miles north. So he goes rogue and puts together his own fake id and method of extricating himself from the crime scene.
More complications arise in the form of an unexpected and unwise relationship with a victimized young woman and an investigation by Billy and his manager into the shadowy figure behind the Byzantine assassination scheme. The reader is left racing through pages to find out if Billy will indeed pull himself out of his underworld life and make it to happily ever after.
I have mixed feelings about this novel. On the one hand, I recognize its brilliance. On the other, I developed no emotional connection to it or to the characters.
The plot is deceptively simple. The narrator, Stevens, has been the butler at Darlington Hall for decades. Most of that time, he served Lord Darlington; now in the mid-1950s, he works for an American and has a tiny staff compared to the house’s past glory days.
Stevens is the son of a butler and has given years of thought to what constitutes a “great” butler; he concludes that what defines a butler at the top of his profession is not a polished manner or administrative tricks to ease the running of a great house. No, the important quality is dignity: the ability to serve with efficiency, aplomb, and a reserved demeanor even in a crisis and, above all, never reveal when one is dealing with personal difficulties of a physical or emotional nature.
The novel opens in 1956 with Stevens’s current employer offering to let him take time off for a brief vacation: a road trip through the West Country of England. Stevens hesitates at first—he is not accustomed to taking a holiday or indeed doing anything for his own pleasure—but then he justifies the excursion by deciding to visit a former housekeeper with whom he worked for many years. Lately certain inefficiencies and mistakes have crept into the running of the house, and Stevens has decided that augmenting the staff is the answer to the problem. The former housekeeper’s correspondence has led him to think that she is unhappy in her marriage and perhaps has brought it to an end. Therefore, he convinces himself that she would welcome an invitation to resume her old position, and satisfied by that rationalization, he sets off on his trip.
During the several days of motoring, Stevens reviews his past career. In this novel, Ishiguro uses a similar device as in the recent Klara and the Sun: an unreliable and somewhat clueless narrator. Slowly over the course of Stevens’s reminiscences, the reader becomes aware that the true story of the events he recalls, the character of his former employer, and Stevens’s relationship with the housekeeper are somewhat different than Stevens has permitted himself to admit. The message of this story can be found only by reading between the lines.
Which brings me to my ambivalence. I’m not the type of reader who is satisfied by wholly cerebral books. For me, reading should be more than an intellectual exercise. To love a book deeply, I must love the characters. I don’t mind if they are flawed. I do mind if I find them inaccessible. Throughout this novel, I always felt removed from Stevens. And for that reason alone, I consider it a 4-star rather than a 5-star read.
I really enjoy well-written Indian novels. The country is so vast with an ancient history and a wide diversity of regions and peoples. A few years ago, I read and loved Alka Joshi’s first novel, The Henna Artist, the story of Lakshmi, a determined woman who fled a bad marriage and found a way to use her knowledge of herbal remedies and the art of henna painting to support herself, a servant boy named Malik, and the sister who showed up unexpectedly on her doorstep. (The premise grabbed my interest right away because when I was in my late twenties, I attended the wedding of a beloved Afghan friend and got to experience having my hand painted with henna before the ceremony.)
This week, I read The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, which is a sequel to the first novel. Set 12 years after The Henna Artist, it focuses on Lakshmi and most especially Malik. The novel grabs the reader’s attention right away; 20-year-old Malik is in Jaipur learning the construction business from the renowned Singh-Sharma Construction Company, which has been building a world-class cinema for the Maharani Latika of Jaipur. At the grand opening, a disaster occurs when the balcony collapses, killing several people.
The novel then backtracks two months to allow readers both to catch their breath and to catch up with what’s happened to Malik, Lakshmi, and her sister Radha in the intervening years. Malik is now in love with a young woman who is every bit as strong, self-sufficient, and determined as Lakshmi. She’s also a recent widow who comes from a tribe of nomadic hill people, and she has two young children. Lakshmi is not at all sure this is the right partner for her protegé.
Then there is the mystery of why the building collapses. Inquisitive, streetwise Malik is the only person who doubts the official explanation, and he may be the only one who can save family friend Manu Agarwal from unjustly taking the blame for shoddy workmanship.
I recommend the book highly, as I do its prequel. It isn’t absolutely necessary to read the two in order, although the second book does contain some spoilers for the first. (P.S. Isn’t the cover absolutely gorgeous?)
While doing research for my current work-in-progress, I wanted to find vintage photos of teenage boys in the 1945s. Fortunately for me, Life magazine published a photoessay on teen boys in 1945. Fast forward to the 1.54 mark of the this video.
Readers’ Favorite Gives The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte the Gold Medal!
You have reached the author website of Ruth Hull Chatlien, author of The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte, based on the true story of Betsy Bonaparte, and Blood Moon: A Captive’s Tale, based on the tale of Sarah Wakefield, taken captive during an Indian war.
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The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte and Blood Moon: A Captive’s Tale may be ordered at Amika Press or Amazon.
The Ambitious Madame Bonaparte Blood Moon: A Captive's Tale
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