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

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Review: Golden State

Laszlo Ratesic is proud to work for the Speculative Service. He is one of the few people who have the ability to tell when someone is lying and he spends his days pursuing those who choose to lie. In his society, truth is of the utmost importance, everyone is under surveillance, and those who don't tell the truth are arrested and punished. When people meet, they greet each other by reciting math equations or scientific facts. Laszlo and his new partner are called to investigate what seems to be an accidental death, but this one case will cause him to question everything he believes about the Speculative Service and the importance of truth.

Laszlo is a sympathetic character and it's hard to watch as everything he believed about himself, his colleagues and friends, and the good of their work comes crumbling down. As he investigates the death of a construction worker, he discovers that a whole week of his records are missing. In the Golden State, everyone is required to keep meticulous records of their days because truth can be verified if there is proof of everyone's movements and interaction. The lack of record leads Laszlo to do some investigating of his own, where he finds that truth is only required for some and that power (of course) trumps truth.

Ben H. Winters is a fascinating writer. Every time I read one of his books, I am fully immersed in a unique story and find myself grappling with some interesting and difficult questions. Golden State is no exception and I found myself thinking about the complexity of truth and the point at which it becomes harmful instead of good. This is a smart story and Winters is not afraid to play with form or the expectations of his readers. But there were also moments when he seems to be showing off just how clever he can be. In spite of this, I would heartily recommend Golden State to anyone who enjoys dystopia or any reader who appreciates good writing and inventive storytelling.

My reviews of Underground Airlines and The Last Policeman 

Golden State
By Ben H. Winters
Mullholland Books January 2019
336 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, January 15, 2019

Review: Winter of the Witch

The Winter of the Witch begins just moments after the events of The Girl in the Tower. There is really no way to write about the plot of this book without giving a lot away about its predecessors. As usual, the story moves at a breakneck pace and Katherine Arden manages to include an incredible amount within the covers of this book.

Throughout these three books, Vasya is a woman torn between realities: she lives within the walls of Moscow, but yearns for the Russian countryside; she is committed to protecting her family, but also compelled to return to the frost demon Morozko; and she is pulled between the religious traditions she grew up with and the knowledge that magic is real and she has a powerful gift for it. All the threads from the previous two books come together here and it is impressive to see that no character or plot point was haphazard. In the midst of this, Arden introduces new characters and new facets to the magic we thought we understood, and it works beautifully.

Vasya has always been a compelling character. She is talented and committed, but she is not immune. In Winter of the Witch, we see that there is a cost to bravery and there are consequences for you and those you love when you run into danger instead of fleeing from it. She is determined to forge her own path, but she quickly learns that her understanding of both human politics and the history of magic are limited. It's a fascinating to watch Vasya realize her potential and then learn when to act on her own and when to ask for help.

In this series, Katherine Arden has achieved something remarkable. Her characters are easy to love and readers will race through the pages to find out what happens next all the while lamenting that they are reaching the end of the story. Each of the books in this trilogy is teeming with Arden's love for magic and Russian folklore. I can see myself returning to Vasya's adventures each winter, happy to be reunited with these characters and the possibility that magic might be just beyond those trees in the dark, cold forest.

My reviews of The Bear and the Nightingale and The Girl in the Tower

The Winter of the Witch
Winternight Trilogy #3
By Katherine Arden
Del Ray January 2018
336 pages
Read via Netgalley