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Quick takes: recently read fiction

I’m not a prolific blogger, but even by my own standards, my posting has been sparse this year. It’s just been hard to simultaneously possess the mood and the energy and the time for it.

Anyway, rather than do separate posts for the below fiction reads, here’s my quick takes on them:

In February, I read Sabaa Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes, first in a YA dystopian fantasy series. It was really really boring. I only finished it because I own it.

In March, I read Alejandro Zambra’s Multiple Choice. The author is Chilean and used a standardized test format as a vehicle for satire. I can’t say that it made much of an impact on me, but it was good to try some translated slightly experimental fiction.

I don’t read much middle grade fiction, but my sister gave me Cynthia Kadohata’s kira-kira as a gift a couple Christmases ago. Winner of the Newbery Medal, this novel is about two Japanese-American sisters who move with their parents from the Midwest to Georgia in the 1950’s. I appreciated the relationship between the two sisters – loving, but not immune to sibling squabbles – and the family dynamics and the setting had a great specificity that was very interesting. And it’s a tear-jerker too, so, you’ve been warned.

My book club read for this year was Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing. It’s a family saga that follows the descendants of two half-sisters. One half-sister is taken on a slave ship from Ghana to the United States. The other half-sister’s family is – at least initially – complicit in the slave trade while remaining in Ghana. Each chapter captures the story of one generation in each family line. As with all novels in this format, there will be certain people’s stories that resonate more than others. I found the Ghana chapters fascinating because it was a history that I was less familiar with. However, the chapters that were most emotionally resonant with me were the one about a descendant in Baltimore living in fear of the Fugitive Slave Law and a later chapter about a descendant in the Reconstruction-era South arrested under ridiculous pretenses and, as a prisoner, forced to work in the mines. An impressive book overall.

I read most of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies in an airport. It is the perfect airport book – page-turning family drama, great character dynamics, a little mystery. The ads for the TV show made me curious about the book, and now I want to watch the TV show.

In the romance vein, I read new-to-me author Joanna Bourne’s The Spymaster’s Lady, which I really enjoyed. I also read Lucy Parker’s Pretty Face, her follow-up to Act Like It. I think I liked Pretty Face even more than Act Like It. The challenges of the relationship are real, the dialogue is great, and it’s just a perfect combination of chemistry and humor. I also picked up the latest Julie James’ The Thing About Love. I think this is her first that has a female FBI agent as a protagonist? (She has a whole series that is FBI agents and district attorneys.) Anyway, Julie James is a reliably good author and The Thing About Love was no exception.

Despite romance being nearly every girl’s goal in Rona Jaffe’s 1950’s classic The Best of Everything, it is not a romantic book. Set in New York City, the book follows three young women who work for a publishing firm. All are working girls, but the expectation and hope of each is to find love and marriage (with the possible exception of Caroline, who seems to have more career aspirations than the others). However, the world is of course horribly sexist and the women find themselves having to navigate the minefields of lascivious bosses and callous rich playboys. Jaffe is writing a world that she knew and it shows – she captures a scene and an era with storytelling flair.

Just before the fifth book of the Megan Whalen Turner’s The Queen’s Thief series came out, I read the second: The Queen of Attolia. As with the first book, the slow build-up absolutely pays off. Turner has a gift for hiding plot twists and revelations in plain sight. Her surprises never feels hokey. I love the character of Gen, and his character evolves in this book in compelling ways. The only part of the book I did not love was protracted passages of military strategy. I know it supported the world-building, but I just wanted to get back to scenes of conversations and action.

The most recent fiction book I’ve completed is Elizabeth Elo’s North of Boston. It’s a mystery set mostly in Boston. Elo packs a lot into her book. I particularly enjoyed the complexity of her main character, Pirio Kasparov. The book starts with the funeral of Pirio’s friend, who died in a boating hit-and-run. Pirio was on the boat too but managed to miraculously survive floating in the cold water for a long time (which makes the US Navy very interested in her). There are some plot turns that stretch credulity, but I didn’t really care. I liked the crazy stuff. I was however super annoyed that Pirio was given a love interest. It wasn’t believable and it wasn’t necessary. It came late in the book, so I had been getting excited that I might have a book in my hands about a single person who stays single throughout. But alas, here came a rushed romantic subplot – a tiny one, but a terrible one.

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Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck

1962. 214 pages.

Recommendation from: Jenny and Teresa of Shelf Love

In January, I read John Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley: In Search of America. In 1960, the author went on a road trip around the U.S. with his dog Charley. (I loved that one of his first visits was to Maine, my home state.) As with his novels, Steinbeck displays good humor and is incredibly insightful about people, to include himself. Reading this book so soon after the Presidential inauguration, this passage about Steinbeck and his sisters seemed appropriate:

Each evening we promised, “Let’s just be friendly and loving. No politics tonight.” And ten minutes later we would be screaming at each other…

“Father would turn in his grave if he heard you.”

“No, don’t bring him in, because he would be a Democrat today.”

“Listen to you. Bobby Kennedy is out buying sacks full of votes.”

“You mean no Republican ever bought a vote? Don’t make me laugh.”

It was bitter and it was endless. We dug up obsolete convention weapons and insults to hurl back and forth . . . A stranger hearing us would have called the police to prevent bloodshed. And I don’t think we were the only ones. I believe this was going on all over the country in private. It must have been only publicly that the nation was tongue-tied.

Steinbeck’s descriptions of nature, too, are evocative – there’s a passage about redwoods that I particularly liked.

As far as the subtitle goes, Steinbeck makes no conclusions or pronouncements about America, but he does capture some of the country’s appeal and also its sins. Toward the end of the book, he stops in New Orleans to witness “The Cheerleaders” – a group of women who had been gathering at a school every morning to scream obscenely at young black schoolchildren who were being integrated into the school. The sight and the conversations he has later with other people in Louisiana on the way out make him feel very weary.

I love travel memoirs and I loved Steinbeck’s novel East of Eden, so this book was definitely right up my alley.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Book Chase – “I admit to being a little disappointed that Steinbeck misrepresented the origin of some of what he claims happened in Travels with Charley mainly because it makes me wonder if he simply set out with a specific agenda in mind and made sure that he got the answers that supported his own views about the social condition of the country.”

Pining for the West – “As I said, I really loved this book but for me it was too short. I would have liked more details. Things like how far he was actually travelling between various states and maybe a bit more in the way of descriptions of the scenery. It probably didn’t occur to him that such details would be of interest to someone sitting reading it in Scotland, or for that matter someone reading it 50 years after it was written.”

Teresa of Shelf Love: “Travel stories bring out the humor, especially when the travel is unconventional and involves a dog! But for me, it was his treatment of the people he met that really stood out. He does seem to want to find the dignity within each one”

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In Wartime: Stories from Ukraine by Tim Judah

Wartime Judah

2015. Tim Duggan Books. Hardcover. 257 pages.

Review:

British journalist Tim Judah’s book In Wartime is a collection of short dispatches from towns and regions around the country of Ukraine. These dispatches are mainly focused on current events – the aftermath of the Maidan Revolution, the annexation of Crimea, the fighting in the east. However, the book is also an exploration of Ukraine’s history and its citizens’ framing and understanding of that history.

I was not keen on the structure of this book. The author could not seem to decide whether the chapters were independent pieces or part of a greater whole. That said, I learned a lot about Ukraine that I didn’t know before. It’s a country that has seen repeated upheaval of its population: the Holocaust, war, famine, forcible exile and relocation. Many towns and regions are full of residents who have only lived there for a generation or two.

There were also thematic through-lines, even if the structure didn’t develop those themes as much as it could have. Themes include the interpretation of history (as mentioned before), the complicated nature of national identity in the region, and the havoc wreaked by corruption.

Russia’s disinformation campaigns in Ukraine was a topic covered in the book that was of course of interest to me, considering their own disinformation campaigns in my country. I think people overestimate their independence of thought, and underestimate the power of such campaigns to influence popular framing of people and events.

Overall, I found the book slow going due to the structure, but I’m glad I read it, as I feel more informed about Ukraine and the challenges it faces as a country.

I received a copy of this book for review via Blogging for Books.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Hadrian (from Goodreads): “Gives the locals plenty of space to talk about themselves, and takes pains to understand the historical roots (and the exploitation of history) behind current grievances. At turns gruesome and understated. Important stuff.”

Lance Charnes (from Goodreads) “The effect is pointillistic: a quote here, a poignant sight there, a bit of history to explain a particular point, some fact-checking. When you pull back, the dots become a picture. He reports what his interviewees say, but he later debunks their more egregious lies and fantasies (which are distressingly common; weaponized history and fake news are like air there, especially in the eastern part of the country).

Maphead’s Book Blog – “While perhaps not a page-turning, nevertheless it’s probably the best book out there when it comes to showing just how complex and, well, horribly messed-up the situation has been in Ukraine.”

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Everyone Brave is Forgiven by Chris Cleave

everyone-brave-is-forgiven

2016. ebook. Simon & Schuster. 432 pages.

Review:

The excellently-titled Everyone Brave is Forgiven turned out to be an excellent novel all the way through, proving that it is apparently still possible to write a worthwhile addition to the oversaturated market of WWII fiction. The book starts off briskly at Britain’s entrance to the war in September 1939. The three main characters are: Mary North, a young upperclass woman who signs up for the war and is assigned to be a teacher; Tom Shaw, an education administrator and Mary’s eventual lover; and Alistair Heath, an art conservator and Tom’s best friend who signs up for the Army. The novel follows the homefront characters (Mary and Tom) through the London Blitz, while much of Alistair’s story takes place at the Siege of Malta, which I admit I knew nothing about before reading this book. The book ends in June 1942, several months after the American forces arrive in England.

I loved Cleave’s writing, especially his handle on dialogue and characterization. There’s wit, and profundity and tragedy all fixed up together. An example passage:

His men headed for the pubs on the back streets behind the station, where the licensing hours had been quietly surrendered. The soldiers would drink ale until dusk and then switch to whisky and fists. They would fight the Navy if available, other regiments if not, and the RAF as a last resort since it was not good form to bother the afflicted.

Occasionally, Cleave’s figurative language was a little over-the-top for my tastes, but that is a small quibble when I consider how invested I became in the story. Cleave crafts some very harrowing scenes which had me spellbound. I stayed up way past my bedtime finishing this book.

While the book honors the men and women who faced the war, it is no blind paean. As one character jokes to another in gallows humor: “This helpful war. It makes us better people and then it tries to kill us.” Too many lives are lost, among them children. And those with brave and good hearts falter under the psychological and physical trauma inflicted upon them.

One of the novel’s plotlines involves the ugly side of the children’s evacuation from London – the children who are rejected and/or mistreated by the homes in the country, often due to reasons of disability and race. There is no Narnian wardrobe, or Bedknobs & Broomsticks adventure for them, no Mr. Tom. Instead, these outcast children are eventually returned to their families in London, into the path of the Blitz. As Mary tells her mother late in the novel, “We are a nation of glorious cowards, ready to battle any evil but our own.”

Cleave was apparently inspired to write this book based on some of his own family history. One of his grandfathers fought in the siege of Malta, and was also assigned to be the minder of Winston Churchill’s son, Randolph Churchill. One of Cleave’s grandmother’s drove ambulances in Birmingham during the Blitz, as the characters Mary and her friend Hilda do in the novel for a time, but in London. Cleave’s other grandmother had been a teacher.

If you’re curious about this book, I recommend downloading the sample first chapter if you have an ereader. If you like the first chapter, you’ll like this book. It is reading the sample that pushed this novel higher on my to-read list, and I’m so glad I prioritized it.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Farm Lane Books – “This book covers a subject that has been written about thousands of times before, but somehow Chris Cleave shows it to us in a fresh light.”

Lit and Life: “Cleave’s writing grabbed me and held onto me with its honesty, intelligence, and emotion. More than once, I found myself thinking “oh, please no” and just as often “oh, yes, this.””

RuthAnn (Goodreads reviewer): “Unfortunately, the ending felt a bit flat to me, and the pacing was off, so not a great finish in my eyes. Overall, though, it’s a book that’s definitely worth reading, and I think it lives up to the hype.

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The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord

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2013. ebook. 308 pages.

Recommendation from: Iris on Books (though I can’t find her review now)

Review:

The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord was the first book of 2017 that I really escaped into, and it was such a relief to fall under its spell, as my mind had become rather consumed by the news in recent weeks.

It is not a dark novel, but the premise of Lord’s book starts with a genocide. The Sadiri planet was fatally poisoned by a rival planet, and only the expatriate and off-world Sadiri (mostly men) are left to carry on their people’s culture and traditions. (In culture and mental capabilities, the Sadiri are reminiscent of the Vulcans from Star Trek.)

A group of Sadiri are sent to the Cygnus Beta colony to investigate it as a possible new home. The Cygnus Beta planet is inhabited by a variety of people groups, and the Sadiri hope to find prospective mates among them who can help keep the Sadiri ways alive for future generations.

The main character is a government scientist of the Cygnus Beta colony named Grace Delarua. Due in part to her rapport with Sadiri councillor Dllenahkh, Delarua ends up on a field assignment that takes her, Dllenahkh and a team of Sadiri and Cygnian government employees on an investigative tour of far-flung Cygnian settlements.

The structure of The Best of All Possible Worlds is episodic, but not in a bad way. It’s kind of like a season of television. Almost every visit to a new settlement includes a little mini-story arc. (Instead of mystery-of-the-week, a TV version of the story would have “settlement of the week”). The various cultures and traditions of the settlements are fascinating. It reminded me of C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader in some ways.

The novel’s ensemble game is strong. Although the relationship between Dllenahkh and Delarua forms a major plotline, Lord has made the group dynamics just as important, and the growing bond between them is readily apparent.

Most of the novel is narrated by Delarua, and I was delighted by her humor and accessibility as a main character. It’s actually laugh out loud funny at times. Another amusing aspect: one of the people groups in this universe is called Terran, which is quite obviously of Earth origin, and it’s fun to see which cultural objects made it to Lord’s far-future setting.

I don’t think this novel will appeal to everyone, but I hope that if any of the story elements above sound intriguing to you, that you will give it a shot because it’s really such a lovely book. Also, I found out after finishing the book that Karen Lord is from Barbados, so if you’re looking to diversify your reading, this may be one to add to your reading stack. I hope to read her first book, Redemption in Indigo, at some point.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Lilia Ford – “… it proceeds with a remarkable absence of the usual melodrama, speechifying and point-hammering that you might expect to find in this kind of story. Instead the ideas and connections emerge almost invisibly through the sum of many encounters, many scenes, where the point is often not obvious.” (Lilia was sold on this novel by someone telling her that it was Jane Austen Star Trek.)

Me, You and Books – “…somehow, the whole of the novel is greater than its parts.  I can’t describe this or that aspect of the novel—its descriptions, characters, plots—as exceptional, but I was totally mesmerized by it.”

Wendy (Bibliosanctum) – “Reading this book gave me the feeling of being comfortable no matter where I was. I felt like I was sitting in my cozy reading chair with these characters, enjoying the story as it quietly unfolded. It’s probably not a coincidence that the story is told in the first person by Delarua, who has the innate ability to calm those around her, even while being a very emotionally expressive person with empathic abilities.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Mrs. Mike by Nancy and Benedict Freedman

mrs-mike-freedman

1947. Paperback. 283 pages.

In 1907, 16-year-old Katherine Mary O’Fallon travels from Boston to live with her uncle in Calgary, Alberta. Soon after her arrival, she meets and falls in love with Sergeant Mike Flannigan, an officer in the Canadian Mounted Police. They marry and his job soon takes them to remote outposts in northern Canada. The novel is about Katherine’s relationship with her husband and it’s also about her relationship with the harsh country and the people who live there. Many of the people she meets are from First Nation tribes such as Dane-zaa (called Beaver in the book) and the Cree.

Mrs. Mike has a brisk pace, of the sort that I really like. Sometimes you want a novel that just moves. In storytelling style, I found it reminiscent of my experience reading Larry McMurtry’s amazing epic Lonesome Dove. Maybe I found them similar because they’re both frontier stories, but I think it’s also the particular liveliness that both books possess that also connected them in my mind. Mrs. Mike is the warmer of the two books, however, and less cynical in its depiction of people than Lonesome Dove.

The cover of my edition of Mrs. Mike touts it as a love story, and that description is true. But Mrs. Mike also has elements of horror as well. There are things that Kathy witnesses and experiences that are raw and terrible, and there are also horrifying stories that are told to her second-hand. One woman tells Kathy of her family’s tragic journey from France to Canada. While on the boat, the storyteller’s sister sickens and dies of the smallpox. The boat’s crew locks the family in their cabins and one by one the woman’s whole family dies of the disease, leaving her the only survivor. It’s an evocative scene, and chilling. But then, tales of epidemics have always left an impression on me.

Mrs. Mike is based on a real person who Nancy and Benedict Freedman met in California, but the veracity of some of the details in the book are apparently questionable. I approached it completely as fiction, however, and enjoyed it as such.

Mrs. Mike is perhaps old-fashioned in some ways, but a number of Kathy’s observations come through fresh and clear. It’s a book that surprised me too in the directions it took, but classic novels are often sneaky that way, taking your presuppositions of the era in which they were published and dashing them.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Becky’s Book Reviews – “I enjoyed the historical aspects of this one. I also liked the romance of it. It was a good, clean read. A book that almost anyone of any age could enjoy–if historical romance is their genre of choice.”

It’s All About the Book – “While I liked this book a lot, I think I would have liked it even more as a teenager. Not sure why exactly. I just think I would have been very much caught up in the adventure and romance, whereas now, perhaps I’ve read too much at this point and the book felt lacking in parts.”

Okay, also must add, I ran across a Goodreads review that panned the book and said each chapter could have been the basis for an episode of a cheesy Hallmark series. Now it’s been a while since I’ve seen a Hallmark show, but I am pretty sure Hallmark productions are not featuring plots full of bear-maulings, disease epidemics and dozens of people being burned alive in a wildfire. Like, what??

 

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Thirteen Days in September by Lawrence Wright

thirteen-days

Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David

Recommendation from: Maphead’s Book Blog

A few years ago, I read Lawrence Wright’s book on Scientology called Going Clear. I was impressed by his writing and research, and later took the opportunity to see him speak at the National Book Festival in 2015. At the Festival, he focused his talk on his most recent book, Thirteen Days in September which is about the 1978 Camp David Accords, a peace agreement struck between Egypt and Israel. This pushed up the book in my priority for reading (I had already had it on my to-read list from Maphead’s Book Blog – see link above).

In Thirteen Days in September, Wright provides details of what happened in the nearly two weeks that led up to the agreement, as well as historical context for the agreement. He provides profiles of the three very different men at the center of the negotiations (U.S. President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and Israel’s Prime Minister Menachem Begin) as well as for members from their respective delegations.

Though the book may sound like it has a narrow focus chronologically, Thirteen Days in September in effect covers the whole sweep of the Middle East conflict from the 1940’s to the present-day. Begin and Sadat’s experience during World War II shaped who they would become as political leaders. For example, Begin’s family and community were all killed during the Holocaust, and this horrific tragedy was a motivating force behind his extreme, uncompromising stances when it came to Israel.

Egypt and Israel had been engaged in war and hostilities with each other since 1948, but it was a drain on both of their countries’ resources. Carter hoped that by sequestering the two leaders and their delegations at Camp David (the U.S. presidential retreat in Maryland), a peace might be struck between the two countries. All three leaders were risking their political careers to be there, and there were many times during the thirteen days that either Israel or Egypt’s delegation were on the verge of calling it quits. The U.S. delegation team ended up drafting a peace agreement that was then painstakingly modified based on feedback from either side. Names and wording had deep significance for all those involved, and creative solutions had to be made. (For example, slightly different wording in the Hebrew translation of the agreement compared to the English-language version.)

In the end, a historic and lasting peace was made between Egypt and Israel, and Begin and Sadat were later awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their part in it. (Carter won a Nobel Peace Prize many years later for different work and the Nobel committee acknowledged then that he should have received it earlier for his work on the Camp David Accords.) As historic as the agreement was, unfortunately the fate of the Palestinians was not resolved by the agreement. Based on the information in this book, this failure seems to lie mostly at the feet of Begin, who backtracked on part of the Accords soon after the meeting at Camp David. The lack of resolution for the Palestinians is a problem that continues to prevent peace in the Middle East to this day.

I found the passages about the Palestinians very helpful as a frame for understanding where we are presently in the Middle East conflict:

Arab refugees flooded into neighboring countries, and Israel locked the door behind them. Instead of being digested by other Arab societies, the refugees became a destabilizing presence and a source of radicalism and terror that plagued the whole world. Except for Jordan, the Arab states have avoided absorbing the Palestinian refugees in order to keep the conflict alive. The numerous attempts to bring this conflict to an end have failed because of the absence of political courage on both sides to accept the sacrifices that peace would entail.

The last phrase “the sacrifices that peace would entail” really caught my eye. I feel like public discourse is more used to discussing the sacrifices of war (the loss of human lives) than the sacrifices required for peace (e.g. the loss of power).

And this quote also connects the Camp David Accords to where we are today:

In signing the treaty with Israel, Egypt severed its link to the Palestinian cause. Without a powerful Arab champion, Palestine became a mascot for Islamists and radical factions who could only do further damage to the prospects of a peaceful and just response to the misery of an abandoned people.

In addition to being highly informative and well-researched, Thirteen Days in September is written in a very engaging style, capturing the high-stakes drama of diplomacy. If you have an interest in this topic, or are a fan of Lawrence Wright’s previous books, I highly recommend reading Thirteen Days in September. Reading this book at the end of December proved very timely, as the United States had just controversially abstained from using its veto to stop a U.N. resolution condemning the continued building of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territory. I was able to follow this news story with increased understanding thanks to this book.

Excerpts from others’ reviews:

Alan Chong (2/25/15 review from Goodreads) – “Lawrence Wright turns what sounds like a snore fest – the story behind an ultimately failed accord – and turns it into a political thriller, filled with intrigue, deeply compelling characters, and a rich, violent history that stretches deep into the mythologies of three religions. This is deeply interesting stuff, giving me a new respect for Carter, and a complex look into the deeply flawed characters of Sadat and Begin.

Christian (1/16/15 review from Goodreads) – ““Thirteen Days in September” is a blow-by-blow behind the scenes account of what happened during the negotiations. All the research he did was truly amazing. The conversations between all the leaders were told. Many were based on interviews with leaders who took part in the combative negotiations. He got a lot of reliable information on what happened through a variety of sources.

John DiConsiglio (10/12/15 review on Goodreads) – “It doesn’t hit the heights of Wright’s masterpieces, Looming Tower & Going Clear. Sometimes feels cluttered & wonkish. Mideast-lite perhaps, but still a page-turner.

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