• July 13, 2012

In these snapshots, you’ll find sexual exploitation; a downbeat novel about youthful frustration, disappointment and mistakes of the past; and a dark and stormy night when uninvited guests challenge propriety and expectations.

All Woman and Springtime: A Novel
by Brandon W. Jones
Algonquin Books
372 pp.

The goals of Brandon W. Jones’ debut novel, All Woman and Springtime, are laudable: to portray the misery of life in North Korea and the horrible fate of sexual slavery to which many women are condemned if they do manage to escape. The author’s note warns that the contents “may not be suitable for young readers,” yet the book is written in high YA style, larded with clichés, inaccuracies, two-dimensional characters, highly improbable plot turns and just plain bad writing (“His mouth was dry, and tasted of gin, so he put on a silk robe”). The author sorely misses his mark, for example, by having his heroine smuggled through the DMZ to eventually end up in Seattle. Yes, this is fiction, so anything can happen, but the vast majority of North Korean women who end up as sex slaves are trafficked in China, which routinely returns escapees to North Korea, not to South Korea or the United States, where they could easily claim refugee status. If one were to believe Jones, the streets of Seattle are rife with North Korean prostitutes. In this same tone-deaf manner, the North Korean characters have remarkably American attitudes. One character nonchalantly gives up her virginity, though chasteness and prudishness are deeply inculcated in North Korean society. For the sake of friendship or the possibility of a romantic connection, characters defy the authorities with breezy insouciance, despite having been in labor camps or having had relatives disappear. Heavy on vivid scenes of sex and violence, Jones’ novel reeks of the very exploitation that he purports to condemn.
~Alice Stephens

The Lola Quartet

by Emily St. John Mandel
288 pp

The Lola Quartet
is a novel about the mistakes of the past, and the frustration and discouragement that youths face as they leave the nest and make their way in the world. At the heart of the story is Gavin Sasaki, a young, depressive journalist on the rebound from a breakup, who hangs onto his job at a failing New York newspaper by manufacturing quotes for his stories. When he inevitably falls from grace, he returns to his hometown and rekindles a smoldering obsession with a vanished girlfriend, Anna, who disappeared after high school graduation carrying what he believed to be his child. Marketing for the book promises a tale of suspense, and the story contains much of the window dressing of a real page-turner — drug dealers, sleazy motels, thousands of dollars in missing cash and a bizarre South Florida landscape being invaded by Nile Monitor lizards and other alien species. Yet readers in search of more traditional mystery fiction may find this book slow going. The first half drags, though the pace picks up as the story progresses. As more characters spin in, we spend time viewing the world from each of their perspectives, seeing their hopes and dreams, their shortcomings and sometimes their crushing disillusionment. To this end, the novel is less about whodunit and more about how these flawed but very human beings strive to move beyond their past — or fail to do so. As an emotional story about 20-somethings struggling to escape, or right, their mistakes, The Lola Quartet is a somewhat depressing success. If you are looking for a novel of mystery and suspense, you may wish to look elsewhere.
~Geoffrey Marsh

The Uninvited Guests
by Sadie Jones
Harper Collins
260 pp

An eccentric Edwardian family, hard up in their attempt to hold on to their manor house, is required to house train passengers displaced by a disaster. Their lives are transformed in one revelatory night when they and their guests are joined by one of the passengers, who insists on playing a vicious game that lays bare their basest instincts. Ashamed of themselves, they resolve to help the passengers, people of lower classes, who have been ignored and cooped up in two rooms since their arrival. In a frenzy, the hosts and their invited guests strip the kitchen of its meager provisions to feed the strangers. The intensity of the need to provide for their uninvited guests is reflected in the emotions that surface in the members of the family and their friends, who work frantically together to resolve sometimes bizarre challenges. The author, Sadie Jones, is a master storyteller who creates a benign and amusing Edwardian world and gradually infests it with dark thoughts and images, taking us from Christie to Dante, and, thankfully, back again to a sane but changed place.
~Susan Guthrie Knight

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