Friday, September 23, 2016

Review: Homegoing

Effia and Esi are half sisters who are born in different villages in Ghana. Effia marries a powerful Englishman and lives in luxury at Cape Coast Castle. Her sister is imprisoned beneath the castle and shipped off to America as a slave. The sisters never meet, but both women are the matriarchs of generations who achieve things their ancestors could never have imagined. Effia's children and grandchildren deal with the devastating consequences of the slave trade and the conflicts between the Fante and Asante people. Esi's descendants are forced into lives of slavery before escaping and facing the danger of coal mining in Alabama and discrimination in 20th century New York City.

Homegoing is Yaa Gyasi's debut novel and it is a powerful, unforgettable story. The book is told in alternating chapters, as we travel 250 years with Effia's family and Esi's descendants. Each story is brutal, but there is also an inescapable feeling of weight as generation after generation is the victim of hatred and abuse. Slavery has consequences for generations for both the enslaved and the countries and families they are ripped away from. Each chapter is rich with research, without that unfortunate feeling of info dumping that can happen in historical fiction.

The heart of Homegoing, of course, resides with the relationships. We see parents sacrifice for their children, a man searching for his pregnant wife, a son reuniting with his mother, and a young woman who feels torn between her grandmother and history in Ghana and her life in America. While it can occasionally be frustrating to leave behind characters you've come to care for, it's a testament to Gyasi's writing that you want to stay with them for a longer time. Each moment in time is carefully constructed and, taken altogether, this novel is a heartbreaking and beautiful testament to the legacy of both pain and love.

By Yaa Gyasi
Knopf June 2016
305 pages
From the library

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Mini-reviews: Amy Snow and Smoke

Amy Snow is abandoned as an infant on the Hatville estate and eight-year-old Aurelia takes her in, despite her parent's objections. Amy grows up in between two lives, as a charity case/servant of the house and the companion of a wealthy and privileged young lady. When Aurelia dies in her twenties, Amy is unceremoniously kicked out of the house. But her best friend has not abandoned her, even in death. Amy is given a letter that leads to one last treasure hunt that will change her life forever.

Amy Snow is a lovely read. As Amy reads each letter and discovers the next step she must take, we learn more about Amy, Aurelia, and their friendship. There are also some really great secondary characters, including (of course) two love interests. The end game of Aurelia's last treasure hunt was quickly obvious to me, so this may not be the book for you if you like to be surprised. But, if you like Victorian-era historical fiction or stories about                                                                                                                       friendship, Amy Snow would be a great choice.

Amy Snow
By Tracy Rees
Simon and Schuster June 2016
575 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thomas and Charlie are classmates at an elite boarding school. They live in an alternate Victorian England where smoke is emitted from your body if you commit a sin. Smoke tends to be a problem for the poor, while the rich and influential are trained from childhood to not smoke. When the boys go to visit Thomas' relatives, they soon find out that everything they were taught about the smoke was a lie.

I appreciate authors who imagine new worlds for us to immerse ourselves in, but I sometimes find that writers give us both too much information and not enough. I found places where Vyleta explained things I already knew, but I was still left with a lot of questions at the end. It seems like he drops us into interesting locales or situations, only to whisk us away to a new thing. There are so many interesting ideas in this novel, but the story never really came together for me.

By Dan Vyleta
Doubleday May 2016
448 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Readalong: The Fox Edition

Readalongs is a new feature here at Literary Lindsey. As you probably know, I have two littles (8 and 3, respectively). It's fun to read beloved childhood classics with the kids in your life. But it can be even more fun is to pair books for kids and adults that have the same kind of stories. So, welcome to volume 2 of Readalongs!

This is Sadie is written by Sara O'Leary and illustrated by Julie Morstad. This picture book follows a small girl through her day as she imagines herself on all sorts of adventures. She knows that the best way to spend a day is inside a story, whether she is reading one or using her imagination to make one from scratch.

Mr. Fox by Helen Oyeyemi is also a book about imagination. Our protagonist is St. John Fox, a novelist with a propensity for killing off his female protagonists before the final page. He has (of course) named his artistic muse Mary Foxe and she inspires him to put pen to the page...until she comes to life and forces him to reevaluate his writing and his relationships.

Both books use imagery of foxes throughout. Sadie loves foxes and careful readers will see that her stuffed fox and fox mask make several appearances throughout the book. In Mr. Fox, the names of the characters are obviously references. But foxes will make a few more appearances in the stories that St. John and Mary create.

The second similarity is that both books are about the nature and magic of story. Sadie boasts that she is never bored, because there is so much to do. She loses herself in the stories of Mowgli, Alice, and other beloved fairy tales. She has wings (of course) and proclaims that she loves to spend her days with her friends, both real and fictional. St. John is a writer, a creator of stories. Oyeyemi's novel looks at the responsibilities of a writer for his characters and tales and the ways that authors are irrevocably connected to their stories.

            This Is Sadie   

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Grownup Friends and Reading MWF Seeking BFF

Rachel Bertsche is newly married and living in Chicago with her husband. She is far from all of her friends and realizes that she misses having people in her life to make impromptu plans, and who she can count on when times get tough. She decides to go on 52 friend dates (one for each week of the year) and investigate every possible way to find a new friend. Bertsche gets recommendations from mutual friends in other cities, meets up with people who read articles about her experiment, enrolls in different classes, and even rents a friend.

I picked up this book because I'm feeling that I could use a few more friends in my life. My best friend since high school is across the country these days, none of my three sisters live especially close by, and I don't work in a large company where I could go out with co-workers. My husband is the pastor of our church so while I am close with many people there, thing tend to be a bit more complicated. Our neighborhood has a lot of older teachers with grown children and I have an eight year old and a two year old. I'm also an introvert, so the idea of chatting up total strangers tends to give me a bit of anxiety.

Reading MWF Seeking BFF was reassuring for me as Bertsche confirmed that I am not the only one who gets a little jealous when I read about people calling friends over for a spur of the moment visit. Making friends as an adult is much harder than it was when I was in kindergarten and asked the girl at the next cubby if she wanted to be my friend.

It also confirmed something I dread as an introvert. To make new friends, you really have to put yourself out there again and again. Some people will not want your friendship and some people won't click with you. But on occasion, the woman you chat with at the indoor playground will offer to exchange numbers (true story; this happened the other week). So I'm going to do my introvert best. I'm going to try to talk to more people. I'm going to see if taking a class or pursuing a new interest will lead to some new friends in my life.

Bertsche has a very easy conversational writing style and I think she hits a great balance between her own experiences and sharing some research about the benefits of friendship. However, there is a point about halfway through the book when she has met a lot of new people and is finding that her schedule is almost insanely full. For the second half, it feels much more like a stunt memoir where the author has to go on a certain number of outings with potential new friends, even though she has no more time or attention to give them.

Making friends as an adult is difficult. Free time is precious and it's hard to know who is interested in starting up a new relationship. Reading a book like MWF Seeking BFF can certainly give us all some ideas for making new friends and encourage us that we are not alone in needing a friend or two.

MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search For A New Best Friend
By Rachel Bertsche
Ballantine Books December 2011
349 pages
From the library

Sunday, September 11, 2016

It's Monday and we're back to school!

It's been an exciting week around the literary house. D started third grade on Tuesday. So far, he likes his teacher and is happy that several of his friends are in his class. Of course, they didn't really do any work last week so we will see how he feels when he actually has homework!

The little girl and I are trying to settle into some semblance of a routine, but a normal schedule is a bit of a misnomer around here. September and October promise to be plenty busy, with a few weddings, trips, and a vacation thrown in the mix.

This week, I read Madeleine L'Engle's Certain Women. It's not my favorite of hers, but I am happily making my way through her entire collection of work. Then I read Smoke, which is a kind of alternate Victorian tale where two boys try to discover what makes poor people emit smoke when they sin and keeps the rich and powerful clean.

             Certain Women   Smoke

Now I'm reading Nadia Hashimi's newest novel A House Without Windows (it's really good) and then I'm going to read The Sun and Other Stars, since I really liked Pasulka's earlier book.

               A House Without Windows    The Sun and Other Stars

What are you reading this week?


Friday, September 9, 2016

Mini-reviews: The Book of Esther and Jane Steele

It's 1942 and Esther is the daughter of a top official in Khazaria. As Jewish refugees crowd into refugee camps and Germania approaches their boarders, Esther seems to be the only one who truly understands the danger they face. She steals one of her father's mechanical horses and sets off with her best friend to seek out the Kabbalists, a group that just might hold the key to winning the war.

The Book of Esther is a somewhat dizzying read, as Emily Barton constantly redefines the kind of book she is writing. It's an alternate history, with a side of steampunk and the supernatural. It's somewhat difficult to read, as Barton has changed a significant amount of history/geography/people of note. But it's sometimes tough to know what is accurate and what Barton has rewritten for story purposes (obviously the werewolves and metal horses are fictional). This book didn't really work for me, but it's an inventive adventure for the reader looking for a very unique story.

The Book of Esther
By Emily Barton
Tim Duggan Books June 2016
432 pages
Read via Netgalley

Jane Steele sees many similarities between her life and the life of her favorite heroine Jane Eyre. She finds herself in horrible situations with her aunt and her boarding school. She flees her school and tries to survive on the streets of London until she makes an intriguing discovery. There are new people in her childhood home and they are looking for a governess. Jane plans to return to Highgate House and reclaim it from its current tenants. But her plan starts to fall apart when, like her beloved Jane Eyre, she starts to fall in love with the master of the house. Jane and Mr. Thornfield both have secrets that could destroy any hope of a relationship and even cost them their lives.

Jane Steele is a wonderful book to read. It's a fun, well-written story that you will be happy to speed through. Jane in her younger years reminds me a bit of a darker Flavia de Luce and I enjoyed imagining what kind of trouble the two girls could get into. Our protagonist struggles with what it means to be a good person when you've done horrible things and made impossible choices. While the book references Jane Eyre fairly often, you won't be missing out if you haven't read the classic yet. I'm sad that I waited so long to read it, but I would recommend it to any reader who likes a little darkness, adventure, and humor while following the best kind of heroine.

Jane Steele
By Lyndsay Faye
G.P. Putnam's Sons March 2016
416 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Review: Marrow Island

When Lucie Bowen was a child, an earthquake rocked her island home and took her father from her. Lucie and her mother moved to the mainland, leaving behind everyone they know. Twenty years later, she returns to reunite with her childhood best friend Katie and to satisfy her journalistic curiosity. Katie is now living on Marrow Island, which was abandoned after the earthquake triggered an explosion at the oil refinery. The Colony that inhabits the island now insists that the island is safe now and that they are bringing new life out of the tragedy that struck the island. Lucie is determined to track down the true story for her friend and for herself.

Alexis M. Smith shot to some literary fame with her lithe debut novel Glaciers. That story was simple and heartfelt. Reading Marrow Island is a very different experience and I am fascinated by this writer's ability to use such disparate writing styles well. Smith slowly and almost imperceptibly builds the tension with each turn of a page. This is not a book that is creepy in the traditional sense, but it will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up as Lucie wonders if she can trust old friends and new acquaintances or if the very nature around her will betray her.

This is a thoughtful story about  resilience and healing - about the ways we try to heal ourselves, each other, and the planet that we inadvertently and purposefully wound. This book could equally be called a thriller or a call for us to think about the ways that we are treating the world around us. Either way, it's one you should be reading.

Marrow Island
By Alexis M. Smith
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt June 2016
256 pages
From the library