fiction · historical fiction

Book review: Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See

You ever start reading a book, then get distracted and put it down and don’t pick it up for another…oh, nine years or so? That was Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See (Random House, 2006) for me. I can’t remember if a friend gave me her copy or if I got it from the library, but I got to the parts about the process of foot binding and needed some time. I put the book down, got distracted by another book, and never returned, but I always wanted to. And with the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge having a prompt for a book set in a country beginning with ‘C’, my return trip to historical China through Lisa See’s eyes was booked.

Set in nineteenth-century China, seven year-old Lily is deemed special enough to be matched with a laotong, a lifelong best friend, after her foot binding. The connection between Lily and Snow Flower is immediate and lasting, though Snow Flower’s more refined behavior and education are obvious next to Lily’s poor country learning. But together, the girls forge not only a deeply emotional relationship, but a mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge: Lily absorbs Snow Flower’s more elegant training, while Snow Flower learns the rougher chores of Lily’s daily life: water-hauling, cooking, cleaning. Lily’s unsure how this is in any way equal- when on earth will the more privileged Snow Flower need to know any of this?- but nevertheless, she basks in her friend’s love, the only person who seems to feel that way about her in a world where girls are viewed as ‘useless branches’ and even wives are looked on as little more than servants and a means to an end in the singular goal of everyone’s life- creating male heirs.

As the girls grow, get married, and leave their parents’ houses for the homes of husbands they don’t even know, Lily learns the hard truth about Snow Flower, what her life has been like all along, and the shame of what her life is like now. What Lily does with this information will affect both of their futures, and the futures and status of their families, a tale of deep love, betrayal, pain, and the true power of friendship.

Lisa See’s writing flows so beautifully that while Snow Flower and the Secret Fan makes for an easy read, there are so many nuanced layers in this novel that it will leave the thoughtful reader with much to consider. The society that Lily and Snow Flower grew up in was so restrictive for women, binding their feet so that an adult woman’s foot was only three or four inches in length, crippling her and forcing her to remain indoors- mostly confined to one single room- for the vast majority of her life. Any kind of interest in the world at large was frowned upon, and women, illiterate in men’s writing, communicated in nu shu, secret women’s writing (dismissed by men as lesser; besides, what could women possibly have to think and thus write about?).

Lily and Snow Flower’s friendship is complex, and Snow Flower is a deeply enigmatic character, something Lily never quite holds a focus on and finds reasons to dismiss until it’s too late to ignore. One of the questions in the reader’s guide at the end of the book asks if Lily is the hero or the villain in the story, and I think she’s neither, she’s just human. We see things through the lenses of our own experiences, we dismiss information and ideals that don’t fit in with what we expect from the world, we react emotionally when deeper consideration is needed. Could Lily have done better, tried harder? Possibly, but maybe not, and even though her mistakes had harsh consequences, I can’t find it in myself to demonize her for her behavior. She did the best with what she had at the time. Not every choice we make, even when it’s the best we can do, works out in the end.

This is a devastating novel of not only the strengths and difficulties of friendship, but of the weight everyone carried in nineteenth-century China. While its focus is on women in particular, the men’s lot- responsibility for the crops, for the family’s standing in society, for earning enough money to feed the multiple generations residing in their home and never showing emotions of any kind- wasn’t much better, something that is made obvious, though not necessarily in an outright manner, in the book. War and rebellion, disease and death, starvation, Lisa See flawlessly incorporates the tragedies of the wider world into the constricted women’s sphere occupied by Lily and Snow Flower, in a devastating emotional punch that will have you reaching for the phone to call your best friend in order to bolster your own connection.

The chapters that deal with the process of foot binding are difficult to read- I won’t sugar coat that; it’s what made me need to put the book down the first time I attempted to read it. Be warned if you get squeamish easily. I had an easier time this time around, probably because I knew what to expect.

Have you read this? I’d love to hear your thoughts. This is one of those books that’s layered like an onion and I have the feeling it’s going to be on my mind for a long, long time.

Visit Lisa See’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

Mrs. Everything- Jennifer Weiner

There’s been a huge amount of buzz about Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner (Atria Books, 2019), and, having read six of her other books in the past, I knew I’d eventually get to this one! And as luck would have it, it came up as a suggestion for PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge for a book that passes the Bechdel test (wherein two women must have a conversation which is about something other than a man, and which was named after the cartoonist and writer Alison Bechdel, a fact I didn’t know about until just now!). This book passes that test in spades and is an all-around fabulous read.

Mrs. Everything covers the entire lives of sisters Jo and Bethie Kaufman, born in the baby boom of post-WWII America and coming of age in the turbulent 60’s as the world writhed and changed around them. Jo, the elder of the two, is athletic, always at odds with their mother, and understands early on that she’s different from other girls. Bethie, a people pleaser and their mother’s clear favorite, changes trajectory after the terrible aftermath of death of their father and struggles to find herself and her place in the world. The sisters’ relationship ebbs and flows, internal and external pressures playing a large part on how they relate to and support one another. This is an opus, a love letter to all the women out there who do their best and can only try, fail, and try again.

(Content warnings exist for molestation by a family member, rape, abortion, drug use, homophobia, disordered eating, difficult parent/child relationships, cancer, and death.)

There are a lot of themes running throughout this book, and one of them is the changing role of women in society over the years. Jo and Bethie’s mother had almost no choices in life; Jo and Bethie had more, but still nowhere near acceptable; Jo’s daughters have far more, but it’s still not enough, and the novel ends acknowledging that while women have come so far, it’s absolutely not enough, that men are given passes in parenting and the career world that women aren’t even thought of being granted. Jo makes an astute observation that both she and Bethie kind of fell into their lives, rather than making active choices to create the lives they wanted, and I have to wonder how true that statement is for women in general today. It certainly was for me.

There’s a lot of sadness in this book, as there is in everyone’s life. Jo, whose attraction to women can’t ever really be lived out in the open in her young adulthood, lives what feels like only a half-life, struggling to find a place for herself while taking care of her beloved children and the husband who, as time goes on, feels like less and less of a safe haven. Bethie’s entire self nearly disappears after being molested and raped, and she flits around the world, trying to both lose and discover herself and realizing she can’t run from her pain, nor can she force her sister to live more authentically. It’s all one step forward, two steps back for the Kaufman sisters, a tale as old as time and one that we’re still seeing today.

Despite the sadness, this is a view of two very different lives over a turbulent period of time, a time of growth and a time of difficult realizations. Jennifer Weiner writes with clarity and insight, and even when the subject manner is painful, her tone is light enough that Mrs. Everything is a comfort read, like hearing stories from your own beloved friends and sisters. This was the perfect book to follow up my last read, Dahlia Adler’s His Hideous Heart, an anthology of Poe retellings. I desperately needed something that made me feel hope again, and this fit the bill well.

Have you read this or any of Jennifer Weiner’s other novels? Are you a fan? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Visit Jennifer Weiner’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · historical fiction

The Lost Girls of Paris- Pam Jenoff

This month’s pick for the library book discussion group (which will be tacked on to whenever we meet next, whenever that is!). The Lost Girls of Paris by Pam Jenoff (Park Row, 2019) isn’t something I would have picked up on my own. There’s something about it that just didn’t really appeal to me based on the premise, but I like the group and I’ll read anything they’re going to discuss. Plus you know how I feel about stretching and growing as a reader. 🙂

Told in multiple viewpoints, The Lost Girls of Paris is the action-packed story, based on a true story, of a group of women who worked as undercover radio transmitters in enemy territory during World War II, the woman who headed their unit, and the civilian widow trying to piece together the story of this group after the war has ended. After taking photographs from an abandoned suitcase she found in a train station, Grace is intrigued by them and sets out to find who these women in the photos are. To her shock, she learns the owner of the suitcase was the woman killed in an accident that waylaid her the day before, and suddenly she feels a certain responsibility to both that woman and the women in the photographs. Who were they? Why was the owner of the suitcase in New York City?

Eleanor Trigg has been placed in charge of a group of women she’s recruited to act as spies in dangerous enemy territory. Marie is one of her recruits, a single mother who’s accepted this job for financial reasons, along with a sense of duty. With the clock ticking and the Nazis closing in, terrible discoveries about the recruits’ expendability will be discovered. War truly is hell.

This was…pretty grim, to be honest. I didn’t dislike it, but it wasn’t exactly an uplifting read, so don’t go in expecting a ton of happy endings (there is one, but a lot of the stories are pretty dark). There’s bravery and pluck, and a whole lot of grit from women who never saw themselves in a role like that before the war, but there’s also a lot of dismissal that leads to death (of which there’s also a lot of), and a lot of, “You’re women, why would you think you could do that?” attitude coming from the top. Historically accurate, but perhaps not the lightest read at a time like this.

Short review today; I’ve had this half-written on my computer for about a week and a half when crap started to hit the fan. We’re well-prepared here in my family and our state is on shelter-in-place orders starting tomorrow, which is basically the way we’ve been living for a week, but my time is spent mostly homeschooling my kindergartner, cooking everything we eat, and cleaning so that we don’t feel too stir-crazy in a cluttered home (seriously, clutter and mess is the #1 way for me to feel anxious and terrible, so keep your spaces tidy and this will all be a little more bearable!). I don’t know blogging will look like for me these next few months; I’ve barely had any time to read since I’m so focused on maintaining my daughter’s education, but I’ll do my best to pop in as I can!

Be well, all of you!

Visit Pam Jenoff’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction

As A Driven Leaf- Milton Steinberg

I’ve been aware of this book for years. I think I even picked it up and paged through it when we lived in Nashville (the main library there is seriously awesome; if you’re ever in the area, stop in and take a walk around. The collection is pretty good- some slightly dated material, but still pretty phenomenal, and the building is gorgeous. There’s even a large outside courtyard with a huge fountain, a large stage for performances and talks, and a children’s puppet theater. It’s been almost six years since I was last there, so who knows what other updates have been made since then!), but for whatever reason, I chose not to read it at the time. But during our first week in my Introduction to Judaism class, the rabbi recommended it and I figured it was finally time to pick up As A Driven Leaf by Milton Steinberg (Behrman House Publishing, 1939). I’m always a little nervous reading older books, since I still have a little bit of holdover fear from being made to read things like The Scarlet Letter in high school (I still can’t stand Nathaniel Hawthorne), and I’ve had some not-so-great experiences with dry, dusty historical fiction, but that wasn’t at all what I found between the covers of this book.

Elisha ben Abuyah, the son of a lapsed Jew, is raised adhering more to Greek tradition in the years of Roman rule in Palestine, but when his father passes, his uncle insists he study the Law of his people. After becoming a rabbi and becoming part of the Sanhedrin, doubts about his faith begin to appear, and though he tries hard to hold on, his questions can’t be ignored. Willing to risk everything for solid answers, Elisha begins a journey of discovery, of finding irrefutable evidence of what the truth really is, but this search will have devastating effects on him, on history, and on the lives of everyone he knows and loves.

This is an incredible book, one I cannot recommend highly enough. Elisha ben Abuyah (an actual historical person, though this is a fictionalized account of his life, with much conjecture and imagining) is an engaging, thoughtful character, and the era in which he lives is vividly alive in Steinberg’s elaborate, yet not overdone, description. Elisha’s arc is tragic; his unhappy arranged marriage and his search to view faith solely through a lens of logic ends disastrously for nearly everyone, even those not immediately involved, and there are some seriously gruesome scenes in here (torture, Roman murder, and a lion-versus-gladiator fight scene that turned my stomach and had me wide-eyed while reading in public). Steinberg doesn’t shy away from the difficult realities of life under Roman rule, nor does he tone down the more hedonistic aspects of the society Elisha found himself in after his excommunication and abandoning Palestine for Antioch.

It’s difficult to elaborate how fascinating I found reading fiction set in this time period (I believe the only other book I’ve read set during Roman rule is The Bronze Bow by Elizabeth Speare George, also a fantastic read). I haven’t ventured too much into the world of historical fiction; it’s not that I dislike it, but I’ve encountered some that have been dry, and so much of it seems to be centered around World War II that As A Driven Leaf seems absolutely…modern…by comparison. A breath of fresh air in that genre, if you will, despite the book being eighty-one years old. It’s an era I haven’t literarily-traveled to that often, so I really enjoyed my journey back in time to admire Elisha’s intelligence and dedication while still wincing at his bullheaded perseverance despite the consequences. (And because of the book being set during this time, I’m counting it as my pick for the BookRiot 2020 Read Harder Challenge prompt to read a historical fiction novel not set in WWII. Finally, I’m on the scoreboard with this one!)

This isn’t an easy book to review, as there’s so much going on and Steinberg’s messages are so profound, but it’s a deeply enjoyable read, one that can be read on multiple levels. It’s a glimpse into the past, an inspiration, a warning, an encouragement to search and an injunction to be prepared for the consequences. It’s thought-provoking in a multitude of ways, no matter if you agree or not with Elisha’s final conclusions. As a Driven Leaf is beautifully written and will leave you intrigued and wanting more from this thoughtful author, or at least for the book to never end.

Milton Steinberg passed away in 1950. You can see his other books here on Goodreads.

fiction

People of the Book- Geraldine Brooks

Phew! Last week was ridiculously busy, between life stuff, kid stuff, and the extra reading I have for the class I’m taking. I didn’t have a single chance to sit down and whip up any blog posts, even though I really wanted to! This week looks a little quieter, so hopefully I’ll be caught up in a few days…maybe. A few weeks ago, a lovely woman in the Facebook group for the podcast I’m currently listening to recommended People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks (Viking Books, 2008) to me. I’d heard of it but had never picked it up, and now seemed like just the time for such a book!

Hanna Heath has dedicated her life to preserving and restoring rare books, and she absolutely leaps at the chance to work with the famous centuries-old Sarajevo Haggadah, once thought to have been lost forever. Upon close examination, there are tiny clues- salt crystals, an insect wing, a single hair- as to where the Haggadah has been and who has owned it, sending the reader on a journey through the past to visit all the times and places it’s been. But the Haggadah’s story unearths a few hidden truths from Hanna’s life and illuminates a few paths before her that she never expected.

Bosnia, 1996. World War II Bosnia. Turn-of-the-century Vienna. Venice during the Inquisition. Barcelona during the time of the forced exile of the Jews, and Seville in the years before. People of the Book takes the reader on a journey through time, shedding light on not just the daily life of these times, but Jewish history, world history, allies and enemies, customs and mores. It’s not time travel- Hanna is never present as the reader is learning the details of the Haggadah’s past- but it has that same feel since Hanna’s restoration work and personal drama are interspersed with the Haggadah’s journey through time with each new clue she finds. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book with so much information about rare document conservation before, and I found the descriptions of Hanna’s work with the book to be really fascinating. It’s obvious that a lot of research went into not only the descriptions of what Hanna was doing, but into the history behind the Haggadah, so my hat is off to Ms. Brooks for the intensity and scope of the work that went into the writing of this book.

History is often unkind in general and has been especially harsh to the Jewish people, so there are some content warnings for this book, including murder, death (including the death of children), rape, torture, slavery, and probably other things that I’m forgetting. There’s also a brief mention of a young adolescent being raised as a gender different from what was assigned to them at birth, as was occasionally the custom in their group at the time, but a mention of rape follows after this, so take care of yourself if these aren’t subjects you’re comfortable reading at this time.

People of the Book is an incredible read. It’s history that seems fresh, possibly because so much of what Ms. Brooks covers in the book hasn’t necessarily been overdone in fiction (or, if it has, I haven’t noticed!), and definitely because her writing style pulls the reader in so well, placing them directly in each period and surrounding them with the sights, the sounds, the smells, and the emotions prevalent in each era. The Haggadah’s travels bring the reader through so many different time periods that the reader is always kept wondering where it will turn up next, what excitement, what tragedy it will be witness to. I’m a little surprised I never picked this up before, but again, I think this book found me at exactly the time I needed it and was ready for it. I love when that happens. 🙂

Have you read any of Geraldine Brooks’s other books? I have a copy of Year of Wonders on my bookshelf right now; I’ll get to it eventually! People of the Book was my first book of hers, but I’m absolutely planning on reading more. I’ve kind of shied away from historical fiction in the past; I think I had a few bad experiences with the genre when I was young (looking at you, seventh-grade unit on Johnny Tremain) and that made me leery in general, but I need to move beyond that and cozy up to more of these great books by Geraldine Brooks and other authors, because reading this was an experience I want more of!

And, as luck would have it, People of the Book fits the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt for a book with a map! There’s a lovely map in the book that details the travels of the Haggadah, so I’m happy to not only read a great book, but tick another box off on this challenge. 🙂

Visit Geraldine Brook’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

historical fiction

The Only Woman in the Room- Marie Benedict

It’s a new year, so that means new ambitions, and I’ve resolved to go back to the library book discussion group! I got away from it last year after schedule conflicts and being sick, but with my daughter being in school, I can always hit the Wednesday afternoon group if I have a schedule conflict with the Thursday night group. This month’s selection was The Only Woman in the Room by Marie Benedict (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2019), a fictionalized account of the life of Hedy Lamarr, the Austrian-American actress and inventor of a radio frequency-hopping system for torpedoes. And because of her inventions, which were eventually used by the Navy and which formed the basis of today’s wi-fi, I’m counting this as PopSugar’s 2020 Reading Challenge prompt for a book about or by a woman in STEM.

The novel covers Hedy’s life from about age nineteen, during the height of her Austrian stage career and just as she was beginning her courtship with Friedrich Mandl, an arms dealer and one of the richest and most powerful men in Austria, through the middle of the Second World War. Even before their marriage, red flags abound, and Mandl quickly turns out to be violent, abusive, and controlling, even going so far as to lock her in their ostentatious home. Hedy uses her intellect to gather intel from various visiting guests, occasionally earning Mandl’s favor, but it’s never enough to change him into the husband she’d hoped he would be. During her house arrest, she learns as much as she can about munitions and radio technology, feeding the insatiable curiosity she developed as a child listening to her father explain the world.

Her flight from the encroaching Germans and her marriage lead to her eventual move to the US, where her film career takes off. Desperate to help the Jews of Europe during this dark time, she works with a musician friend to invent a better torpedo system, but Hedy’s pretty face and the intense sexism of the time lead to nothing but rejection and dismissal.

Hedy Lamarr’s story is one of both triumph and tragedy, and both are shown in Ms. Benedict’s book, though her portrayal of Lamarr’s life ends during World War II. The chapters are fairly short, which makes this an easy read, but I really wish it had gone into more detail and shown more depth. There’s so much to fit in here that the story occasionally feels rushed and devoid of emotion, and there’s so much of Lamarr’s life that she didn’t cover. Her studies and thirst for knowledge are mentioned only incidentally and feel a bit glossed over. During her later life, a period not covered by the book, Lamarr had multiple marriages (only two are covered here; she had six total) and had an estranged relationship with her children (the parentage of one seems to be a controversy, which also isn’t mentioned here and which I was surprised to learn about in further research). A botched plastic surgery led to her becoming a recluse, and she never really gained the recognition for her intellect that she so badly craved.

What the book does cover, however, albeit it a little more blandly than I think deserves, was her shockingly abusive marriage to Friedrich Mandl (obvious content warnings exist for this, including several on-page rape scenes, though none of them are descriptive). Half the book is devoted to her imprisonment at his hands, and it’s a sad, depressing tale, though her resilience is admirable. Mandl is a whole sack of trash, however, switching loyalties based on who makes him the most money and being hideously controlling, jealous, and abusive to his wife. Her mother is no help either, averting her eyes and citing ‘wifely duties’ whenever Hedy shows up for a visit at home covered in bruises.

This book brought to mind a library book discussion group pick from last year, Circling the Sun by Paula Mcclain. Hedy Lamarr and Beryl Markham had a lot of similarities: multiple marriages, estrangement from their children, tense (or nonexistent) relationships with their parents, authorship controversies surrounding books each had written. I’m wondering if this selection was on purpose, in light of our group having read this last year, and I’m really looking forward to the discussion on this particular point.

While I enjoyed this book for giving me a glimpse into Hedy Lamarr’s life, I wish it had gone into greater detail and covered more of her life. What a fascinating, tragic woman.

Visit Marie Benedict’s website here.

fiction

Daisy Jones & The Six- Taylor Jenkins Reid

Everywhere I turned this spring and summer, it seemed like everyone was reading Daisy Jones & The Six by Taylor Jenkins Reid (Ballantine Books, 2019), and with good reason. Having grown up listening to my father’s classic rock music (he had, literally, thousands of CD’s when I was young, the best music collection I’ve ever seen), a fictionalized account of an up-and-coming rock group bringing in an up-and-coming singer-songwriter and collaborating to make one iconic album before self-destructing, told in interview format, sounded amazing. The only time the library had a copy available, I already had five or six (or more…) books at home, waiting to be read, and I couldn’t justify adding another to the pile, but lo and behold, it was my lucky day when a copy showed up on the Lucky Day shelf at the library a few weeks ago. I grabbed it and blew through the book in a few days.

The Six, a rock band headed by recovering (after a while!) addict Billy Dunne, is young, hungry, ambitious, and full of promise. Their first album did well and they toured successfully. They share their origin story, two brothers working together to form a band, pulling in friends and newcomers until they find their perfect sound, working together until they make it. But what really makes them shine is collaborating on a single with California wild child Daisy Jones. Daisy’s been known on the Sunset Strip since her early teen years; sex, drugs, more drugs, and rock stars have been her thing from the beginning, but she’s talented, in both singing and songwriting, in her own right. After some major deliberation, when their collaborative single skyrockets up the charts, she’s in the band, but it’s not without major, MAJOR drama.

She’s an addict while Billy fights every day to stay clean. She’s fire and ice, and Billy’s married with kids. She wants one thing, Billy wants another (and the rest of the band is an entirely different story). Daisy Jones and the Six go from one extreme to another, until it’s too much and the entire thing blows like a volcano. Their story, from exciting beginning to overly dramatic ending, isn’t one you’ll want to miss.

Daisy Jones & The Six is told in interview format, the entire thing. If you were around for VH1’s Behind the Music, it’s like watching an episode of that, but in book form, and it’s SO much fun. I adored that show, I adore rock history (I nearly died the day I was listening to NPR and they introduced their ‘rock historian,’ Ed Ward. I was like, “That’s a JOB??? How can I apply????”), and thus I adored this book. Taylor Jenkins Reid obviously loves all these same things and it shows in how much research she’s put into this book and how well she’s captured the zeitgeist of the 70’s, not only with music and drug references, but with speech patterns, clothing choices, behavior… So many times, I sat back, grinning at how well she nailed all of this.

I was so happy to see that she referenced Stevie Nicks in the acknowledgements; I had Daisy pegged as a Stevie Nicks-like character from the beginning of the book, based on her wild ways and her unique, husky singing voice. I listened to a lot of Fleetwood Mac in high school (everyone else was listening to grunge and alternative and I was over there blasting Rumours and every Jackson Browne album on my CD player), and Daisy’s story with The Six fit in so well with what I know of bands of that era. The constant drug use, the terrifying ups and downs of fame, the highs and lows of working with so many different personalities, all of whom are fighting for the spotlight; Taylor Reid Jenkins absolutely nails it all. From time to time, parts of it reminded me of Till the Stars Fall by Kathleen Gilles Seidel, which is probably my favorite book of all time- it also follows a rock group through the 70’s, its origin and breakup, and the fallout it caused for each member, focusing mainly on the romance between one band member and another’s sister (which sounds trite, but it’s not). It’s a novel heavy with emotion, and while it’s a romance, it’s also very much centered on our sense of identity and what we need to keep it intact. I read it mostly as a romance when I first read it at 16; as I grew older, I came to understand the female MC’s feelings of suffocation so much more. It’s an amazing book, so for Daisy Jones & The Six to evoke nostalgia for that book is a testament to how wonderful Daisy and company really are as characters.

Such a great book; I’m so happy I finally got to read it. That Lucky Day shelf really came through for me!

Visit Taylor Jenkins Reid’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · science fiction · time travel

Kindred- Octavia Butler

I’d heard of Kindred by Octavia Butler (Beacon Press, 1979) before; it was the first science fiction novel written (or published, maybe) by a black woman, which is huge. Since I’ve never really been a big sci-fi fan, I never really considered reading it until Anne Bogel recommended it on an episode of What Should I Read Next. As soon as she started to describe the plot, I sat up out of bed in the dark, looked Kindred up on Goodreads, and hit that Want-to-Read button. I. Was. In.

Dana, a black woman, has barely moved into the new house with her white husband when she finds herself thrown back in time to antebellum Maryland, just in time to save a young boy from drowning. The act of doing so nearly gets her killed by the boy’s parents and she returns to her own time with seconds to spare. She’s barely back before it happens again: she’s thrown back to the past to save this boy’s life again, and she comes to realize she’s there to keep him alive, distasteful as he and his slave-owning family can be, long enough to father the child who will become her great-grandmother.

The biggest challenge is, of course, learning to live as a slave. The literal backbreaking work, having no power or control over one’s life, the whippings, the constant disparagement, watching families split apart when someone is sold, it’s almost more than Dana can bear, but she just has to hold on until this despicable boy can become her great-great-grandfather…

What a mesmerizing book. During one of the trips, Dana’s modern day husband, Kevin, is dragged back with her. He poses as her owner, and there are unforeseen consequences that I won’t spoil that really make this novel shine. The descriptions are, on occasion, stomach-turning, and they should be; slavery was a horrible stain in American history and its consequences live on today, so Kindred and books that depict these horrors definitely need to be more widely read. I’m sorry that it took me this long to get to it.

Ms. Butler does a fantastic job at portraying Rufus, the boy who grows up become Dana’s great-great-grandfather, as both a decent human being and a hideous monster. I didn’t quite understand how Dana was able to keep herself from fully hating him, after seeing all the pain he and his terrible father inflicted on the slaves; I’m not sure I could do that, and maybe I’m all the worse for not being that kind of person, I’m not sure. Maybe it was what Dana did in order to survive her time in the past. Either way, though Dana tried her best to influence Rufus to be a better person, both for her sake and for the sake of the slaves on the plantation, for whatever reason, it didn’t take, and his behavior, along with that of his father, is often monstrous.

There’s a lot going on in this book. Race relations, class, women’s issues, politics, I think I could reread this and still miss quite a bit, because it’s an absolute tapestry of complexity. This is one of those books that I feel like almost anything I say will result in a massive spoiler; if history intrigues you, this is your book. Don’t let the sci-fi label fool you. There are no aliens, no space ships, no dystopian societies with robot overlords. This is time travel, pure and simple and terrifying, and it makes for a powerful novel that everyone should read.

Octavia Butler passed away in 2006.

Visit her website here.

historical fiction

The Solace of Water-Elizabeth Byler Younts

After finishing (and loving!) a novel about an older woman having a relationship with a mega-famous boy bander, I turned around and fell into a multiple narrative historical fiction about grief and an unlikely friendship between three hurting women, two black (one a teenager), one Amish, in the 1950’s.

Is literary whiplash a thing? It should be. But it’s not a bad thing. I’m a big fan of reading widely, reading weirdly, reading all sorts of stories, fiction and non, and there’s nothing I like more than reading stories by people who are different from me, or who live differently than I do. The world is such a fascinating place. The Solace of Water by Elizabeth Byler Younts (Thomas Nelson, 2018) ended up on my TBR list thanks to another blogger’s review, and I’m glad it did, because it’s a lovely read.

Dee Evans is grieving hard after the accidental drowning of her four year old son Carver. Her older daughter, Sparrow, was tasked with watching him that day and got distracted by a boy; now Carver’s gone, Dee is nearly paralyzed with grief and barely able to tolerate being near Sparrow, and the whole family is moving to Pennsylvania, where Dee’s husband will take over preaching at his childhood church. Things are different in Sinking Creek: not necessarily better, but different, and Dee isn’t sure how to relate to the white townsfolk when there are no signs telling her what she can and can’t do.

Her Amish neighbor Emma is another mystery. While Emma’s church’s stance is to not get involved in the racial tension amongst the English, Emma can’t help but find herself drawn first to Sparrow, then Dee. Emma carries multiple heavy burdens of her own and recognizes the pain that her new neighbors carry. Sparrow, however, is carrying more pain and stress than she lets on. While she strikes up an innocent but secret romance with Emma’s son Johnny, she also copes with other, more unhealthy measures, ones that will almost cost her everything when her pain, Dee’s grief, Emma’s desperation, and the town’s racial tension come to a head.

First off, major content warnings for this book. Child death via drowning, stillbirth, alcoholism, self harm, and racial tension and violence are all front and center in this book. If now is not a good time for you to read about these subjects, be gentle with yourself and choose something easier on your soul.

Dee’s grief is a terrible burden, and her anger at Sparrow is perhaps even worse. Because Carver’s death happened on Sparrow’s watch, Dee’s inability to forgive her daughter and Sparrow’s guilt combine to make an absolutely gut-wrenching maelstrom of emotion. At times, each woman’s anguish and desperation are tough to read, but Ms. Younts handles it with aplomb. Also carefully treated is the tension between blacks and whites that simmers in the town; it hadn’t occurred to me that black people who moved from the overtly racist, pre-civil-rights-era south, might be confused and apprehensive about the rules of the not-as-overtly-racist-but-still-very-racist north, and I appreciate the perspective on that that this gave me. I still have so, so much to learn.

Emma’s burden, while different, is no less. Her pain over the loss of her infant daughter, combined with so many years of keeping both her husband’s and her own secret, alienated her from her family, her community, and what she truly wanted in life, and it was easy to both sympathize with her pain and feel her joy at the connection she made with Sparrow and so desperately wanted to make with Dee. While I have no desire to be Amish, reading the descriptions of Emma’s simple ways resonated with me and ended up affecting my next book choice! I love when that happens.

With Emma being Amish and Dee being a preacher’s wife, The Solace of Water is heavy on Christianity and Christian themes like forgiveness, but without being heavy-handed. Thomas Nelson is a Christian publisher, yet I didn’t find this to be overly preachy or even overly religious; the religion and beliefs of the characters are merely part of their lives and not something the author is trying to sell to her readers, which was something I very much appreciated.

The Solace of Water is a cathartic novel, full of pain, desolation, secrecy, and the capacity for suffering and loneliness, but ultimately, it’s a novel of friendship, forged connections, redemption, and forgiveness of self and others. I’m so happy that it ended up on my TBR list, because despite its heavy subject matter, it made for a thoroughly enjoyable weekend read.

Visit Elizabeth Byler Younts’s website here.

historical fiction

Sold on a Monday- Kristina McMorris

You know that feeling when you’re about to return a library book and you realize you haven’t taken a picture of it yet, but it’s a really sunny day and you’re in the car and there’s a glare, but you still need that photo?

Behold the photographic evidence of that feeling.
————————————————————>
(My apologies for the terrible photo. I mean, my regular photos aren’t great either- all I have is my cell phone- but this one? Yikes.)

So, one of the tasks for this year’s Modern Mrs. Darcy Reading Challenge is ‘a book you chose for the cover.’ I’ll be frank: I almost never notice book covers, at least not enough to be drawn in or turned away by them. Solves the problem of judging a book by a cover, doesn’t it? I’m far more likely to pick up a book because the title intrigues me, and fortunately, there’s no pithy saying that condemns me for judging titles. 😉

As my library lines new books up with the spine exposed and no cover showing, when I was there trying to find a book specifically for this task, I was forced to yank books out one by one, squinting at the covers and hoping something would pull me in. The little guy on the cover of Sold on a Monday by Kristina McMorris (Sourcebooks Landmark, 2018) did, and into my pile this went. I’d heard about it on another blog; that blogger had had issues with the book, but the premise still interested me enough to give it a try.

Ellis Reed is barely what you could call a reporter. He works for a newspaper, anyway, desperate to move up the ranks, but so far, all his efforts have been for squat. He’s thankful to have any job since the Crash, but he knows he’s capable of so much more. One of the pictures he took recently, however, definitely has a story behind it: a sign in front of a ramshackle house, advertising two children- two boys– for sale. When Lillian Palmer, an overworked secretary with dreams and secrets of her own, shows the boss Ellis’s photo, he agrees that Ellis should write up the story behind it. When the photo is damaged beyond use, Ellis, frantic to prove himself, returns to the scene of the photo, and, unable to recreate it, uses two neighbor children, a brother-sister pair, as stand-ins. What Ellis isn’t expecting is for his story to go whatever the Depression-era version of ‘viral’ is. Suddenly, his photo and story are everywhere, and this has terrible consequences for those two neighbor children. Gutted by the news and plagued by a deep feeling of responsibility, Ellis enlists Lillian’s help, and together, they’ll risk everything in order to make things right again.

There is a LOT going on in this book. Ellis wants nothing more than to prove to his gruff, doubtful father that he can make it as a reporter, but he can barely make rent each month, let alone afford food. Lillian’s got a secret son stashed at home in another city with her parents; she lives in a boardinghouse during the week and travels home every weekend to visit him. She’s trying to save up enough money to be able to afford her own place, where she can live with her son full-time and maybe pretend she’s a widower to escape the shame of being a single mother in the 1930’s, but she also has dreams of doing some reporting of her own. There’s a tepid romance, then a better, more well-suited one, but wait, it’s actually a love triangle of sorts, kinda. Ellis wades into some involvement with various members of the mob in order to gain sources for his reporting. Everyone’s bosses act as though they have shorts full of angry tarantulas, there’s tuberculosis and an asylum, shame, guilt, trauma from the past, several cases of buying children, a temperamental car, abusive parents, an orphanage, child loss, potential career loss, time spent in jail, delusions that makes it okay to replace your dead child with another random one, breaking and entering, an enabling banker spouse, a mobster brother… Are you following all of that?

No?

Is your head spinning? Are you squinting at the words, unable to follow along?

That’s how I felt when I was reading this. I was about a hundred pages in when I started wondering if maybe it was me. Was I heading into a reading slump? Had I been spending too much time online lately and thus lost my ability to focus well? (That happens sometimes.) I’d read for a bit, but I kept getting pulled out of the story and couldn’t quite stick with it. I decided to push through, as the writing is good, so that helped. It wasn’t until I was probably about three-quarters of the way through the book where I was finally able to breeze through the rest of it to the end, and beginning my next book, I had no problems focusing.

Wasn’t me.

While I do enjoy characters having complex lives and backstories, this was maybe a little *too* much complexity, at least for me. Though Lillian is definitely a sympathetic character, Ellis veered a bit towards too calculating, too desperate for power for my tastes. It’s a compelling story, based on a real photograph, and while that should have made for a deeply emotional reading experience, this just didn’t pull me in in the way I had hoped it would.

Do you read books just because of the cover? I have to say, this didn’t quite help inspire me to do that again!

Visit Kristina McMorris’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.