Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Review: If, Then

Clearing, Oregon is a typical kind of town. Ginny and Mark are a couple trying to find time for their marriage in between raising their son and their busy careers as a surgeon and a biologist. Down the street, Samara mourns the death of her mother and wonders if she should go back to her old life or follow in her mother's footsteps. Cass rocks her baby to sleep and wonders when she will have the time or mental strength to get back to work on her PhD. One ordinary day, each of the neighbors sees a vision of life as it might be: a life where they are married to different people, where a deceased parent is still alive, where they have a second baby, or a life where a terrible catastrophe destroys their neighborhood and impacts everyone who lives there. What are these visions? Are they seeing possible futures or whimsical dreams of what could be? Will their actions prevent these events or make them reality?

If, Then is a story that can be classified as sci-fi or magical realism, but it focuses not on the how or why of these visions, but their impact on the people who have them. In fact, it is sometimes difficult to tell which version is real and which is a possible version of events. It is an inescapable part of life to wonder how our lives would be different if we had made different choices and Kate Hope Day lovingly renders the pain and the potential of these musings. But this isn't a book where the plot meanders for the sake of character development; the choices that these characters make change their lives and families in big ways. This is one of those stories where it's easy to convince yourself you will read just a few more pages, only to find that you've been reading for an entire hour.

I really enjoyed this debut novel. The author makes the reader really care for each character as we jump from one potential timeline to another, all the while wondering if Ginny, Mark, Samara, and Cass will be able to find fulfillment and happiness. I will certainly be picking up whatever Kate Hope Day writes next.

If, Then
By Kate Hope Day
Random House March 2019
272 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

My Favorite Stories from How Long 'Til Black Future Month?

Novelist N.K. Jemisin's recent publication of a short story collection made fans of sci-fi writing very excited. I started this collection from a unique perspective: although I've been meaning to read Jemisin's Inheritance and Broken Earth trilogies for a while, this was my first time reading her work.

Like most short story collections, some selections resonate more than others. I found it a bit difficult to get into this book because the first story is told in a distinctly distant manner. An unnamed narrator takes the reader through the city of Um-Helat on the Day of Good Birds and shows us all the ways their society is different from ours. But once I started reading the second story, I was pulled right into Jemisin's incredible imagination, the very different worlds she created, and the characters she brought to vivid life. I discovered that the stories I loved best had a historical flair to them as opposed to being set strictly in a future world, but you may fall in love with the tales of a girl whose intelligence means she will be taken from her family or a woman who goes missing on another planet among an alien race with big secrets.

Here are a few of my favorite stories:

Red Dirt Witch is an early story that follows Emmaline and her children in Alabama. Emmaline has a gift for dreaming prophetic dreams, so she knows that the White Lady will be coming to visit them. But she doesn't expect that the woman will demand one of her children in return for safety for the rest as change comes to the South, full of violence and struggle. This one might be perfect for readers who love Neil Gaiman's Ocean at the End of the Lane. 

L'Alchimista is the story of a grumpy chef in an Italian inn named Franca. After a delicious meal, a stranger offers her an unusual challenge: follow a recipe and make a specific dish using the strange, perhaps impossible, ingredients he has provided.

The Effluent Engine is a steampunk story set in New Orleans. Jessaline is determined to find a scientist who can take the waste from rum production and turn it into methane gas, but she didn't expect to have competition or discover that the scientist's beautiful sister can make the theory a reality and steal her heart in the process.

Cuisine des Memoires starts off unremarkably, with Yvette inviting her friend Harold to dinner. But Harold soon learns that the Maison Laveau serves very unique meals. In fact, they claim that they can recreate any meal from any place in the world throughout history. When the kitchen serves up the very meal that his ex-girlfriend made for him, Harold is determined to find out how they make this miraculous food.

Sinners, Saints, Dragons, and Haints, in the City Beneath the Still Waters is the last story in the collection. The water is rising and the levee is about to break, but Tookie is still in New Orleans. He is going to need the help of a talking lizard and his elderly neighbor Miss Mary to get through the flood and survive whatever is living in the floodwaters.


Did you read this story collection? Which one was your favorite?



How Long 'Til Black Future Month?
By N.K. Jemisin
Orbit November 2018
416 pages
From the library 

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Review: Guidebook to Relative Strangers

Camille T. Dungy is a poet and professor and her work often takes her to lectures or book signings across the country. After her daughter was born, she realized that it would be easier to take her baby along with her instead of finding care for her when she was gone and her husband was working. As she traveled, she found that people paid attention to a black woman with a baby who stood out in a sea of white people. These essays are her observations about motherhood, writing, nature, travel, and being a black woman and raising her child in a white world.

Essay collections like this one can be amazing reading experiences or fall flat. After all, anyone can write about the moments of their lives, but the thing that makes it unforgettable is the author's insight into those moments and the beauty with which they express them. Camille T. Dungy has both of those things, as well as a careful understanding of American history.

She opens the book by reflecting on her stay at a writer's colony shortly after she returned home from Ghana and went from being one black woman in a crowd of them to being the only person of color at the retreat, with the expectation that she can and should speak for all black people. She is able to connect seemingly unrelated moments in her own life and in American history in a beautiful and profound way. In one essay, she weaves her memories of growing up and her diagnosis of multiple sclerosis with the implications of Ronald Reagan's election on their community and a visit to a memorial for victims of a lynching. She notes that "When I am writing, it is always about history. What else could I be writing about? History is the synthesis of our lives."

One of my favorite pieces is the one where she reveals the reasons behind her daughter's name and nicknames and realizes the impressive gift she has to been given to teach her about words and the world around her. Not content to reflect on her own motherhood, Dungy contrasts it with a group of women who traveled to California and the children they carried and lost along the way. "I don't know if there is a name for this in any language, this hope and hurt and hunger I hold when I hold you."

Guidebook to Relative Strangers is a thoughtful, moving, and beautiful book and I'm so glad that I read it.


Guidebook to Relative Strangers
Journeys Into Race, Motherhood, and History
By Camille T. Dungy
W.W. Norton Company June 2017
256 pages
From the library

Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Review: The Golden Tresses of the Dead

After years of trouble and sorrow, the de Luce family is ready for some joy as Ophelia marries Dieter. But the festivities take a turn when the bride cuts into her cake and discovers a severed finger. Her younger sister Flavia is thrilled to have another mystery to solve and takes the finger to her laboratory. Since she has recently joined the detective business with the family's devoted valet Dogger, figuring out whose finger it is and how it got into the cake seems like an excellent first case.

Ophelia and Dieter's wedding is the perfect occasion for our characters to take stock of their shared history and the possibilities of their future. While Flavia is brilliant, she is still a twelve year-old girl whose parents have died and whose sister is leaving the family home. One of the highlights of this book in particular is seeing how relationships have grown throughout the series, as Flavia works alongside Dogger, interacts with her neighbors in the village of Bishop's Lacey, and discovers the new dynamics of the de Luce estate with some family members gone and a new addition there to stay.

In some of the later books, I haven't found the mysteries themselves to be that compelling and I'm hard-pressed to tell you a few weeks later who committed the crime or why. But following Flavia and her family on a new adventure is always a good use of a few hours. Author Alan Bradley stated that this might be the last book in the series, so we shall see if this is Flavia's swan song or if she insists on coming back for a few more mysteries on our bookshelves.

For my thoughts on earlier Flavia de Luce stories, hop over here.

The Golden Tresses of the Dead
Flavia de Luce #10
By Alan Bradley
Bantam January 2019
352 pages
Read via Netgalley

Saturday, February 9, 2019

Review: All the Lives We Ever Lived

Katharine Smyth adored her father, even as he sabotaged his relationships and refused to address his alcoholism. He used his charisma and adoration for his daughter to ignore the impact of his addiction and cancer on his family and the way he baited and fought with his wife. And so Katharine loved her difficult father in life and mourned him after he died. In her grief, she looked to a book about complicated relationships that was written after the loss of a parent: Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse.

All the Lives We Ever Lived is a slow, meandering read. Smyth writes lovely prose, but the reader has to be content to meander along with her as she carefully finds the parallels between her relationship with her father and the relationships between Virginia Woolf's characters. There are moments when you may have to push yourself to keep reading because there is not a great narrative immediacy, but this is a seamless blend of family memoir and literary criticism.

Katharine Smyth has done a lovely job of writing about what it means to look for answers and for solace. She writes about the limits of truly knowing someone, even a person you have lived with and loved for years. She explores the different ways we grieve, when someone dies and for all the ways our lives could have been different. This is the kind of book that will make you think about your own family, what it means to love someone who makes bad choices, and the books that carry us through our moments of tragedy.

All The Lives We Ever Lived:
Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf
By Katharine Smyth
Crown January 2019
320 pages
Read via Netgalley

Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Review: The Lost Girls of Paris

Grace Healey finds herself adrift. World War II is over, her husband is dead, and she is unsure what to do next. As she walks through Grand Central Station, she happens to see a suitcase hidden under a bench. When she opens it, she finds photos of female operatives and decides to find out what happened to these women. A few years earlier, Eleanor Tigg was given the task of finding and training women who would be dropped into Nazi-occupied nations as spies. One of those women was Marie Roux, who was delivered to France to work under an enigmatic spymaster and send back information via radio.

I have a weakness for World War II stories. I just can't resist reading another when I see it offered for review or sitting on my library's shelves. But I often find myself disappointed and unfortunately, The Lost Girls of Paris did not work for me. The story follows Grace, Eleanor, and Marie, but none of the characters had much depth. Historically, the Allied military was very reluctant to utilize women as operatives, but if this story was any indication, they might have been right to be concerned. Marie does so terribly in spy school that it is difficult to fathom why she was sent into the field. Once she is actually in France, she disobeys orders and often makes terrible choices that put her and her colleagues at risk.

The wonderful thing about historical fiction is that most authors write multiple books set in the same era. While I didn't love this story, Pam Jenoff is beloved by many readers. If you enjoyed her books The Kommandant's Girl or The Orphan's Tale, you might enjoy The Lost Girls of Paris too.


The Lost Girls of Paris
By Pam Jenoff
Park Row January 2019
384 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Review: The Silence of the Girls

Briseis is queen of Lyrnessus, until the Greek army destroys her city and murders her husband. She is given as a prize to Achilles, where she lives according to the whims of a war hero. She finds an unlikely ally in Achilles' best friend Patroclus and starts to form bonds with the other women. But just as she starts to find her place in the camp, she is ripped away again to be Agamemnon's prize. Briseis is considered a symbol of power, to be possessed by the bravest and most important among the Greeks. But she is also a woman who watches and remembers; she will witness the rise and fall of two of the Greek army's most infamous warriors.

Pat Barker's writing is beautiful. This is my first time reading her work and I can certainly understand why she wins major prizes like the Booker. I saw some interesting criticism of this book, where readers were frustrated that Briseis only talks about men instead of interacting with her fellow captives or making a desperate bid for freedom. But the thing I found most compelling and unbearable about this story is that Briseis knows she is powerless. If she wants to live, she will submit. There is no happy ending for her once her city falls and maybe there never was one to begin with, as a woman married off to a stranger as a power play. Briseis is broken, but she has not given up.

The Silence of the Girls is not a romanticized version of the Trojan War. It portrays the brutal violence of war and its aftermath--the rape and trading of conquered women, the filth and disease of the camp, and the murder of the opposition and innocent civilians. Briseis' greatest strength is also the cruelest trait: she understands everything that is happening. She knows that she will be a footnote in Achilles's story, if she is remembered at all. Briseis tries to hold on to some semblance of her humanity, to remember that she is a person as everyone around her views her as something to be conquered and won. This is a difficult book, but it is good for us to read it. Through her story, we hear the story of women through the ages who have been brutalized by the wars of men and who lived to tell about it.


The Silence of the Girls
By Pat Barker
Doubleday Books September 2018
291 pages
From the library