Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Review: Furious Hours

Rev. Willie Maxwell was suspected of murdering several members of his family and cashing in on the insurance money. He got away with it until a relative shot and killed him at a funeral. Even though 300 people saw Robert Burns shoot Willie Maxwell, he was acquitted. Harper Lee was fascinated by the story and decided to write her first nonfiction book. But modern readers know that Harper Lee never published this work. What happened to this tale of poverty, murder, and injustice?

I picked up this book because I adored To Kill a Mockingbird when I read it in high school. A decade and a half later, with an English literature degree under my belt, I can see Lee's talent as well as the ways she protected herself as a white woman. Casey Cep does a masterful job of presenting Lee as a woman who did the safe thing--while she may have believed that racism and discrimination were wrong, she never publicly condemned them.

While Lee is carefully rendered on the page, readers hoping to read 300 pages about her may be disappointed. She shows up only briefly until the last third of the book. The first two sections focus on the man suspected of murdering his family members, and the white lawyer who defended both the reverend and the man who killed him.

Cep is a truly excellent writer. The best nonfiction teaches you and shows you connections you didn't expect; Furious Hours accomplishes this in every chapter. This also may be one of the few books that actually caused me to laugh out loud, and I was surprised to find that I was chuckling about the history of life insurance.

This is a book about individual people--the small town minister who wanted money even at the expense of his family's lives, the lawyer who fought for equality before Alabama was ready for it, and the writer who fell victim to the power of alcohol and fear of failure. But Furious Hours is also a larger look at the cost of success, the victories and corruption of Southern politics, and the power of telling a story.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Review: Orange World and Other Stories

Karen Russell is a highly awarded author whose stories are both beautiful and unsettling. Her newest collection, Orange World and Other Stories, is full of tales of worlds that are just a bit more bizarre than the one we live in.

The book starts with a pair of friends hoping to take advantage of a few marks at a fancy hotel, only to discover that the party they've crashed is attended only by ghosts. In The Bad Graft and Bog Girl, characters spend time in nature as a woman pricks her finger on a Joshua tree and a young man falls in love with the body of a woman pulled from the bog. It's not the only pairing, as men consider their purposes in The Tornado Auction and Black Corfu (although careers raising tornadoes and preventing the undead from rising are as different as can be). The final two stories may have been my favorite, though. In The Gondoliers, sisters traverse the dangerous waters of a post-apocalyptic Florida by singing and in Orange World, a new mother encounters a devil who preys on her fears and demands to be fed.

The stories are often funny and always dropping you into strange, new worlds. Russell is a literary wizard who imagines scenarios that could never exist in any other writer's head. Somehow in the midst of ghosts, zombies, and devils, she makes us think about the most vulnerable moments of our humanity and how we make decisions for ourselves and the people we love.  I can't wait to see what strange and beautiful places Russell will take us next.

Orange World and Other Stories
By Karen Russell
Knopf Publishing Group May 2019
288 pages
From the library

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Review: Save Me the Plums

Ruth Reichl was known for her insightful restaurant reviews. But she wasn't sure she was qualified to run Gourmet magazine. When she was offered the job of editor-in-chief, she overcame her hesitation to lead the publication she had loved for decades. She would work at the magazine for ten years, learning that the things that worked in a review column didn't always work when success was determined by the whims of both staff and readers.

Save Me the Plums is the real-life dishy look inside the day-to-day operations of a magazine that you've always wanted. As you read, you feel like you're tasting a cake in the magazine's kitchen or attending a party with the hottest celebrity chefs. She easily throws off references to Alice Waters and James Beard, but it doesn't come across as braggy; Reichl is just showing you her world from her unconventional childhood to making dinner with her son.

Reichl is a foodie who understands there is more to it than creating a beautiful and delicious plate. She believes that food writing should bring to light the damage we do to our planet in the quest for certain foods and the reality that eating well is not possible for everyone. When she ran Gourmet, she insisted that the magazine feature writing that would inspire and challenge people, instead of continuing to be an old-fashioned magazine for the wealthy. Save Me the Plums is an loving tribute to the heyday of magazine publishing, when fascinating and provocative articles about food were the topics of conversation everywhere.

I can't believe I waited so long to read something by Ruth Reichl. Her love for food is evident on every page, and she has a true gift for telling a great story. I will be happily reading through her backlist this summer.

Save Me the Plums
My Gourmet Memoir
By Ruth Reichl
Random House April 2019
288 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Review: We Will Feast

Kendall Vanderslice grew up loving church and loving the way that eating brought people together. She believed that there was a connection between food and theology and finally found them co-existing at a Massachusetts dinner church. Kendall traveled the country from Texas to Michigan to see how people come together to worship and eat. 

We Will Feast is not prescriptive; Kendall visits a variety of congregations and cautions that this kind of church does not work for everyone. But she does wonder how we bring people into church who feel uncomfortable with traditional practices. "For those who have grown up in a church, the code and language of that specific setting are learned unconsciously. But for those who have not developed such a training, stepping into a community can be awkward or even painful. Holding a worship service over a simple meal subverts all expectations of behavior...It can challenge a church to use the Eucharist not only as a sign of God's abundance but also as a practice that uses God's abundance to bring together men and women from a variety of social backgrounds."

Every two months or so, I invite the women of my congregation to come to my house for dinner. We answer some discussion questions, but mostly we enjoy enchiladas or lasagna together. I've realized that people are much more likely to open up about their lives over a meal. It's easier to really discuss something when we know that there is time to take a sip of coffee or break off a piece of bread and consider our answers. Coming around a communion table or a table in a church basement gives us the opportunity to really see and hear each other in a way we can't when we say that we're doing fine while running out the door.

The Bible tells us not just to come together once a week to have a service and then go home. It tells us to live together, and that includes sitting around a table to eat pizza on a Friday night or share a crockpot of soup after we take Communion together. We Will Feast is crucial reading for those of us who attend church. It asks us to think about how we welcome people and how we can include the lonely, the questioning, and people who don't look or think like us in our feasting.

We Will Feast
Rethinking Dinner, Worship, and the Community of God
By Kendall Vanderslice
Eerdmans May 2019
176 pages
Received book as part of launch team

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Review: The Paragon Hotel

Alice James is fleeing across the country. She makes polite small talk with her fellow travelers on a train to Oregon, while covertly nursing the bullet wound in her side. While she might fool some people, Max can tell right away that something is wrong and she needs a safe place. The porter takes a chance on Alice by bringing her to the Paragon Hotel, the only all-black hotel in Portland. Some of its residents are fascinated by Alice and her ability to instantly change her story and her personality; but others are wary of her presence. They have good reason to suspect white people: the Ku Klux Klan is on the rise in Portland and even the Paragon may not be safe for long.

If you read and enjoyed Lyndsay Faye's book Jane Steele, you already know that she has an uncanny ability to tell a dark story that is also ridiculously fun. She makes the same magic happen in The Paragon Hotel. This is a book about people who had no power and no rights in the 1920s--women, people of color, and gay and transexual people. While modern Oregon is seen as somewhat of a liberal mecca, it was a difficult place in the early twentieth century. In fact, is is the only state that banned black people from living there and it had one of the highest concentrations of Klan members in the United States. The Paragon is based on a real hotel in Portland, which was the only place for people of color to safely stay during their time in the city.

As a reader, you are going to be worried about these characters on almost every page. But you are also going to embark on a colorful, joyous adventure with larger-than-life characters. And at certain moments, it does feel like too much. Surely not every single person can be so charming, so fascinating, and have such an unexpected backstory. As you read along, it feels almost as if you are watching a movie because the stakes are always so high and the characters are always bright and compelling. Lyndsay Faye has written another story you won't want to put down.

The Paragon Hotel
By Lyndsay Faye
G.P. Putnam's Sons January 2019
432 pages
From the library

Friday, April 26, 2019

Audiobook Mini-Reviews

Aiden wakes up to the shock of his life: he is inside someone else's body. He is told that tonight a murder will occur. It is up to him to figure out who will commit the murder. If he can correctly name the killer, he will be released from this English estate. If not, the entire cycle will start again tomorrow with Aiden in the body of a new guest.

I am in the minority on this one. Many readers loved this very unique story, but I found it incredibly frustrating. Because Aiden bounces around from one person to the next, it is difficult to remember who is who and next to impossible to really care about any of the characters. In the last bit of the book, the reason for Aiden being there is revealed, along with the framework that holds him on the estate and sends him into the different people. While that was the most interesting part of the story for me, it is quickly case aside in favor of getting back on the merry-go-round of discovering who committed the murder.

The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle
By Stuart Turton
Tantor Media September 2018
Narrated by James Cameron Stewart
17 hours

Assistant extraordinaire Emily Charleston has left New York City with her husband and now works as an image consultant to the famous and extravagantly wealthy. Lately she finds herself missing her work at Runway magazine, especially when her pop star clients keep turning to younger consultants. Her friend Miriam introduces her to Karolina, a former model turned senator's wife whose life has imploded over a faked DUI, and Emily sees a golden opportunity to turn someone's life around and ascend back to the top of her game.

I have to confess I chose this book specifically because Laura Benanti was the narrator. She is a Tony-award winning actress who most of you know as the actress who plays Melania Trump on the Colbert Show, but I will always remember as the actress who shone brighter than even the great Patti Lupone in Gypsy. When she is narrating as Karolina, you can hear shades of her work on the First Lady. Benanti takes a somewhat predictable novel about the extravagances of the wealthy and choosing between your children and your work and elevates it to a fun listening experience.

When Life Gives You Lululemons
The Devil Wears Prada #3
By Lauren Weisberger
Narrated by Laura Benanti
10 hours, 14 minutes

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

Review: The Far Field

Shalini had a complicated relationship with her mother. When she dies, Shalini is devastated and angry. Uncertain about what to do next, she decides to travel to Kashmir to track down Bashir Ahmed. Ahmed was a traveling salesman whose visits seemed to bring her mother rare moments of happiness. But the towns and villages of Kashmir are very different from her privileged upbringing in Bangalore. Shalini doesn't know if she wants to be involved in the complicated relationships and secrets that permeate the Ahmed home, but she may not have a choice.

It is almost difficult to write about The Far Field, because it encompasses so many things. It's a story about the shift from naive childhood to adulthood, about grief and finding the edges of your knowledge of someone you loved and lost. It's a story about privilege and poverty and politics, and realizing that you know so little about the world around you. In the opening pages, Shalini tells readers that "I am thirty years old and that is nothing." After that, the book moves in parallel timelines, as she remembers growing up with her unpredictable, vibrant, sometimes cruel mother, and tries to learn more about her mother and herself in the present.

The book is beautifully written. It's hard to believe that this novel is Madhuri Vijay's debut, because she reveals human emotion and failing so well, while simultaneously making you feel that you are really walking narrow mountain pathways or wandering through the streets of Bangalore. The Far Field is an intimate and sprawling story at the same time, as Shalini comes to terms with the loss of her mother and learns what her place is in a tumultuous, uncertain world.

The Far Field
By Madhuri Vijay
Grove Press January 2019
432 pages
From the library

Friday, April 12, 2019

Review: The Bird King

Fatima lives an unusual life as a concubine to the sultan. While her body and decisions are not her own, she does live a life of privilege in the palace and has plenty of time to spend with her best friend Hassan, the palace mapmaker. Hassan is gay and Fatima is the only Circassian who lives in the palace, so they don't fit in with the rest of the court. They spend their free time exploring the world through the magic doors Hassan can draw onto his maps. When the Spanish Inquisition arrives at the palace, things change very quickly. The sultan is willing to make sacrifices to keep the peace, starting with his mapmaker who is seen as a sorcerer by the Inquisitors. Fatima and Hassan escape the palace, searching for a place where they will be safe and accepted.

The Bird King is unlike anything I have read before. The magic in this story is apparent on every page, but its true focus is the friendship between Fatima and Hassan. While both of them will have romance in this story, their relationship is the heart of this story. It's wonderful to read about friends and see how the two of them support and fail each other in new and dangerous circumstances. There is a push and pull throughout between a blind faith and the work of putting one foot in front of the other, between kindness at your own expense and the expectation of pain and betrayal.

Every few chapters, I could point out another place where the story could have diverted and revealed the history of a relationship or a certain kind of magic. But the 440 pages are devoted instead to Fatima and Hassan's search for a mythical island where they will finally be free from the Inquisition. Fatima is certain that with Hassan's gift for creating places and helping them to get there, they can reach the island they have read about and live under the protection of the Bird King.

When I knew the end of the story was coming, I found that I was sad that my time with Fatima, Hassan, and all of the other characters was coming to an end. Surely this is the mark of a well-told tale, but G. Willow Wilson can also take this as my suggestion that she write another book set in this world!

The Bird King
By G. Willow Wilson
Grove Press March 2019
440 pages
Read via Netgalley

Friday, March 29, 2019

Reading for Sick Days

This is what my bedside table has looked like for the past few weeks.

I think I now own partial stock in Kleenex, my husband and I are familiar to all the late-night cashiers at the local pharmacies, and I have had my first chest x-ray and inhaler.

When we are in our most hectic days, having a few days to sit in bed and read sounds pretty nice. But in my experience, it doesn't really work that way. The kids are sick when you are, so there is less time spent resting in your own bed and more time spent checking temperatures and rocking them back to sleep. Instead of reading through a glorious pile of books during your sick days, it's much more likely you fall asleep in the middle of a page and then wake up to cough all over your book.

But all hope is not lost! Just because someone in your house has been sick for the last five weeks doesn't mean that you can't do any reading at all.

Here are my tried and true tricks for reading when you and everyone you know has fallen victim to the flu/cold/stomach bug.

1) Put The Nonfiction Down
I know, that giant biography looks really interesting, but you probably can't hack it. I certainly couldn't focus on the intricacies of Benjamin Dweyer's grammar guide or the ins and outs of paleontology in The Dinosaur Artist while I was hacking up a lung. Just put it aside--it will still be there when you feel better.

2) Go Short!
Sick days are the perfect time to tackle the novellas or short stories you've been meaning to read. If you have twenty minutes of attention before the cough medicine kicks in, that's a whole story down! I finally read the first of the Murderbot Diaries while I was sick this time and it was perfect.

3) Stay Familiar
Now is not the moment to start the new series you keep hearing about or finally learn about quantum physics. Sick reading is the time to stay familiar, with characters, authors, and stories you already know. This is your moment to pick up a sequel, re-read a favorite story, or let your inner fan out. Personally, I read Leia, Princess of Alderaan, which was perfect because I already knew some of the characters but I also learned more about our favorite princess/general.

Being sick is the worst. Don't beat yourself up if your reading falls by the wayside, just like the stack of mail on the table and the dishes in the sink. The books will be waiting for you when you're finally germ-free.

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

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

Thursday, January 10, 2019

Review: The Only Woman in the Room

Hedy Keisler was a beautiful actress determined to enjoy her career and make her own choices. But when a powerful Austrian arms dealer courts her and proposes, she realizes that this is a chance to keep herself and her Jewish family safe from the horrors that are about to engulf Europe. Hedy pretends to be a proper wife while listening closely to Nazi information and planning her escape. Once she leaves Europe, she moves to Hollywood and becomes one of the most famous film actresses of her era. But her greatest accomplishment is one that few know about: Hedy Lamarr spent her evenings developing the technology that could help the Allies win the war.

The Only Woman in the Room covers much of Hedy Lamarr's life, but unfortunately Marie Benedict covers so much time that we never really feel like we know Hedy herself. It must be a delicate task to try to bring  a real person to life, but I found myself wishing Hedy had a more compelling voice and we got to really dive into her life instead of skimming through important moments.  I was also puzzled by how she gained enough knowledge to work on her inventions; the only time we ever hear about her being interested in science is when her father read her interesting articles about science or politics. We get no background into her scientific training; instead she suddenly seems to have the know-how to create groundbreaking technology.

I was thrilled to learn more about Hedy Lamarr in The Only Woman in the Room. I knew she was a scientist in addition to being an actress, but I didn't know the details of her life before reading this book. While this version of Hedy's story fell flat for me, I am glad that Marie Benedict is bringing incredible women to the attention of readers and I will certainly be reading more about Hedy's fascinating life and work.

The Only Woman in the Room
By Marie Benedict
Sourcebooks Landmark January 2019
272 pages
Read via Netgalley

Thursday, January 3, 2019

Review: The Book of M

One normal day, an Indian man's shadow vanishes. He is the first of many, as people all over the world find their shadows have disappeared, and their memories soon follow. Max and Ory have managed to stay safe so far by holing up in a remote mountain hotel after the wedding of their friends. When Max's shadow vanishes, Ory is determined to care for her. But Max wants to protect her husband while she still can, and she leaves their sanctuary. Ory refuses to let his love die alone without any memories and goes after her, hoping he can navigate this increasingly perilous world and find Max before it is too late.

Four years later, it still seems impossible for discuss an end-of-the-world story without comparing it to Station Eleven. I think there is a lot of comparison to be made between the two. Neither book is particularly concerned with the why of the disaster and instead, they focus on what happens to people as a result. Both stories take place on the road, which gives the authors the ability to introduce us to different locations and show their characters in varied situations.

One of the joys of reading The Book of M is discovering just how far and wide Peng Shepherd has allowed her imagination to wander. She follows Ory and Max not just on their journeys in the present, but she goes back to how they survived the early days of this crisis, and introduces the first victim, an amnesiac who tries to help him, and a potential Olympian reaching whose sport will be very helpful. This story is expansive and I loved seeing effects of this crisis that I could not have imagined and meeting groups of people who were willing to make different choices and sacrifices to survive.

In stories like this, the characters and the reader wonder if they can truly be human if they set aside things like compassion and beauty to stay alive. In The Book of M, the question becomes if we are still the same without our memories. If we have forgotten everything that makes us the people we are, are we still human at all?

One of the marks of great fiction for me is thinking about what these characters did before the story began and after the final page, and this is definitely a book where I did that. The story and its characters are unforgettable and I'm so glad I experienced the end of the world with Max and Ory.

The Book of M
By Peng Shepherd
William Morrow June 2018
485 pages
From the library