Review: The Magician’s Assistant by Ann Patchett

Ann Patchett was at least 50% of the reason that I bought the Contemporary Women’s Fiction collection. Her gorgeous Bel Canto was the first gift my husband ever gave me and she quickly became one of my favorite novelists. So an Ann Patchett book plus five other books for a bargain price? Sold.

The Magician’s Assistant, like many of the other books in the collection, opens with a death. Sabine, the magician’s assistant from the title, lived happily for many years with Parsifal the magician and his lover Phan. Both Phan and Parsifal were HIV-positive, and after Phan’s death Parsifal married Sabine to ensure that she would inherit his home and money. Sabine has been bracing herself for Parsifal’s decline, but on the first page of the book, Parsifal dies of a sudden aneurysm.

Along with his house and fortune, Parsifal’s will leaves Sabine a shock: he has put aside money for his family. The family he has always claimed was killed in a car accident in his teens. Before Sabine quite knows what is happening, Dot and Bertie Fetters of Alliance, Nebraska are on their way to Los Angeles to meet her.

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Review: The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox by Maggie O’Farrell

I have long felt that Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey is an underrated member of the Austen pantheon. Yes, Cathy is a bit silly and Henry is sort of a drip, but I adore the sendup of the goofy Gothic novel genre. So perhaps I’m not quite the ideal audience for The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, the fifth book in the Contemporary Women’s Fiction collection, which embraces Gothic tropes with unreserved enthusiasm.

Edinburgh shop owner Iris Lockhart arrives one morning to find a mysterious letter waiting for her; later that day, she receives a phone call from a lawyer who tells her that she is the legal guardian of an elderly woman Iris has never heard of. Documents prove that Esme Lennox is the younger sister of Iris’s grandmother Kitty, but Kitty has always claimed she was an only child. Esme has been institutionalized since her teens and must be relocated now that the asylum where she’s staying is closing its doors for good.

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Review: The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones

Amazon’s Best Contemporary Women’s Fiction Kindle collection has become my go-to gift for friends who are sick or on bed rest — what could be better for passing the time than six novels at a bargain price? The collection got lost in my reading shuffle for a while, but this holiday season I finally got around to revisiting it and I devoured all three remaining books in a matter of days. My favorite book in the collection turned out to be the fourth: The Last Chinese Chef by Nicole Mones.

Maggie McElroy is a recently widowed food writer who specializes in writing about popular American cuisine — food at state fairs, local specialties in small towns, and other bites (pun intended) of Americana. She is slowly coming to terms with the sudden death of her husband, Matt, when his co-worker calls with stunning news: a woman in Beijing has filed a paternity claim against Matt’s estate. Maggie must go to China to obtain a paternity test.

Maggie’s editor, hoping to give Maggie something to do besides worry about the lawsuit, suggests that she combine the trip with a writing assignment: interviewing Sam Liang, an American-born chef who is about to open a new restaurant in Beijing. Sam is no American culinary giant opening a satellite restaurant in a busy business district. He is the grandson of Liang Wei, author of the (fictional) classic text The Last Chinese Chef, and he dreams that his Beijing restaurant will showcase the kind of classical Chinese cooking his grandfather wrote about. 

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Review: The Hearts of Horses by Molly Gloss

Lately I’ve been thinking about “strong female characters”, inspired in large part by blog posts like this one by NK Jemisin and this one by Liz Bourke.  I put “strong female characters” in scare quotes not because I scorn the term, but because it’s one that seems to mean a lot of different things to different people.  For some, a “strong female character” has to be one with significant agency — someone who leads others or who changes the world around her through deliberate action.  Think no-nonsense spaceship captain Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan or sassy, independent private detective Kinsey Millhone.  But as Jemisin and Bourke point out, there are traits beyond physical or political power that can indicate strength — enduring terrible circumstances, building relationships, or simply refusing to change just to please the people around you.

I thought about those posts a lot while reading Molly Gloss’s The Hearts of Horses, the third book in the “Best Contemporary Women’s Fiction” Kindle collection.  This quiet, absorbing historical novel is short on plot, but long on a strong sense of place and character.  In particular, it features one of the most intriguing female characters I’ve met in any historical novel.

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Review: Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum

Years ago I used to participate on a book discussion forum that had a board called “Great book! Too hard to read.”  It was devoted to books that were smart and well-written but hard to read because their subject matter was so disturbing.  I thought of that board as I tried to process the second book in the Contemporary Women’s Fiction collection, Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum.  This is a powerful, compelling, beautifully written book.  It is also incredibly upsetting.

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

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Review: Almost by Elizabeth Benedict

Last week, I finally bought a Kindle collection that a friend has been recommending: “Best Contemporary Women’s Fiction.”  To be honest, I held off for a while because the title of the collection bugged me — what makes it “women’s fiction”?  The fact that women wrote it?  We don’t call fiction written by men “men’s fiction”!  Grrr — but in the end I couldn’t turn down six books for $13, especially when one of them was by Ann Patchett.

The first book in the collection is Almost by Elizabeth Benedict.  It is the story of Sophy, a novelist (and occasional celebrity-biography ghostwriter) who has just separated from her husband and moved to Manhattan.  She’s begun a passionate affair with a fellow New Yorker and is struggling with her latest novel when an unexpected call comes: her husband, Will, is dead.  Sophy must leave Manhattan and return to Swansea, the Martha’s Vineyard-esque Massachusetts island where she used to live with Will, to deal with the aftermath of his death.

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