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September 6, 2020

3 Literary Novels that Entertain

by MK French


Literary fiction, also sometimes considered "serious fiction", is a category of fiction that tends to have more literary merit than commercial fiction. Often classics fall into this category. While the story may include elements of mystery, fantasy,  adventure, etc, literary fiction has elements that elevate it beyond what you would find in purely genre fiction. 
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Bestiary by K-Ming Chuang

Bestiary
September 2020; One World; 978-0593132586
audio, ebook, print (272 pages); Asian American
When Mother tells Daughter the story of Hu Gu Po, Daughter wakes up with a tiger's tail. Mysterious events occur in the family as Daughter starts falling for Ben, a girl with powers of her own. The two translate the grandmother's letters, and soon they realize that each woman in her family embodies a myth. Family secrets will have to be revealed to save their destinies.

This story is lyrical, with magic and myth accepted as reality. In a world like this, a girl having a tiger tail is a reasonable reality. "The grass was a ghost of its former green" and similar phrases are the mainstay of the language in this book, melodic words to evoke the pains of poverty and separation between family members, generations or nations. There's a difference between Taiwan and the mainland, and differences between the states the family had lived in while in the United States. Relationships between the generations are strained, yet the ties that draw them together remain in place even with their absences and resentments.

I read this novel much more slowly than usual. Partly this was to absorb the language, which is more like prose poetry, and partly to really visualize what it all meant. As with poetry, there can be multiple meanings to the words chosen, to the events as described. Sometimes the stories within the overall story are like allegories, and it's not the literal meaning that has to be understood. Each of the women here, grandmother, mother, and daughter, have no names but their relationships in the generations. There is a cycle of domestic violence, suppressed rage, frustrated desires and the element of queerness that runs throughout the family. Daughter's love for Ben, another daughter of immigrants, is an organic process and accepted by Mother. Perhaps because she's accepted as she is and Mother doesn't try to change her, she has fewer violent impulses, for all that she's the one with the tiger's tail.

The pervasive sense of loss and distance from family is something that really resonated with me. Families change shape and sometimes lose their own stories when they leave a home country, which was done multiple times within these generations. That loss is a violence of its own kind and has long-reaching effects. In this novel, it's poetically described, but I have hope for Daughter's future being better as she takes possession of the past in her own way.

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Victorine by Drēma Drudge

Victorine
March 2020; Fleur-de-Lis Press; 978-0996012034
paperback (362 pages); historical
Victorine Meurent is a nude model for Manet in 1863 Paris, and she is eager to be a painter herself. She does her best to flout convention and the expectations of her parents and society, as well as ignore the men who disdain her efforts. When the Prussian army lays siege to Paris in 1870, her survival instincts are tested.

Victorine is unconventional and single-minded from the start. She was an artist’s model before she was even eighteen, including nude photographs, attended boxing matches, and slept with whoever caught her fancy. She flits from one thing to another, never content to sit still with any task or relationship. Even her relationships with any gender are brief and tumultuous. The descriptions are flowery and consistent with how Victorine sees the world: “In Paris, beauty is everything and everywhere. From every meal to what one wears, appearances are everything. Life’s brevity makes beauty necessary.” This is certainly how she behaves throughout the novel.

Victorine outlines a lot of the artistic sensitivities of the 1850s through the 1870s. Victorine had always appreciated art and music, and always thumbed her nose at convention. Most of the male artists think highly of themselves and don’t look down on the tendency to love recklessly or live for art, but will belittle Victorine for it. She’s driven by her desire to paint and live true to her emotions and whims; in real life she would probably exhaust her family and friends with how volatile she could be. She’s aware of this, and of how her reputation socially was essentially ruined while men are allowed to go on their merry way; even Manet did the same over time. I do like Victorine is unapologetic about what she wants and is confident enough in herself and her talents. She’s also very pragmatic at times: “Civilized behavior is for those who can afford it.”

I think this novel works best for those interested in the time period, the artists that Victorine interacts with, and those interested in the lives of women in nineteenth-century Europe. This is a fascinating read and look into the mind of an artist of that period.

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The Venerable Tiger by Sam Siciliano

The Venerable Tiger
March 2020; Titan Books; 978-1789092691
ebook, print (352 pages); adventure
Isabel Stone faints on Sherlock Holmes’s steps when she sought his help reclaiming jewels her stepfather was keeping from her. Immediately after Holmes agrees to help her, Captain Grimbold Pratt comes to him, claiming that Isabel is trying to steal his fortune. Holmes can’t help but want to delve to the bottom of this situation and enlists his cousin Dr. Henry Vernier to help him. Together they travel to the Pratt estate to solve the family mystery.

Instead of Watson as our narrator and external look at Holmes, we have his cousin Henry Vernier. He’s the one to find Isabel in the process of fainting as he goes to visit his cousin in the first pages of the book, and Watson is namechecked as writing fictitious versions of Holmes’ cases. This irritates Holmes in this book, and Watson isn’t at Baker Street. Holmes has a great interest in the menagerie at Pratt’s estate, and there is a lot of loving detail in describing the tiger, wolf, and peacocks on the grounds. Their enclosures were created with more care than the manor house was maintained, and we continue to see Pratt’s temper. There’s also a scene reminiscent of The Speckled Band, a nice nod to the canon.

The language in this novel isn’t as formal as the Holmes novels that James Lovegrove writes, and Vernier is more of a romantic than Watson is. He’s more squeamish than his wife, also a doctor, and seems prone to falling for the appearance of things. This makes Holmes appear overly suspicious in comparison, but I also wanted to hake my head at how Vernier seemed only too willing to believe everyone’s story as true. Because we are seeing the story from his point of view, we have a lot of details regarding the countryside and meals, as well as all the details about the people living at the estate. It’s in those details that we have the relationships and the possible inkling of something more than what Vernier sees. Everything is wrapped up neatly at the end of the book, and it’s satisfying to know that justice is served.

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Born and raised in New York City, M.K. French started writing stories when very young, dreaming of different worlds and places to visit. She always had an interest in folklore, fairy tales, and the macabre, which has definitely influenced her work. She currently lives in the Midwest with her husband, three young children, and a golden retriever. 

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