Monday, November 29, 2021

Review: Marilla Before Anne

Everyone knows and loves the story of Anne, the plucky orphan who won the hearts of the people of Avonlea and her adoptive parents Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert. But who was Marilla before the events of Anne of Green Gables? When we first encountered Marilla in that book, she was a dour woman determined to shut everyone out. Louise Michalos imagines Marilla as a teenager and young woman, as she falls in love and suffers great tragedy.

I am a huge fan of L.M. Montgomery's characters and stories. I love the books and am reading the first to my daughter. I've enjoyed both the movies from the 1980s and the recent Netflix miniseries. I know that people who love Anne and Green Gables feel very strongly about changes, and your appreciation of this story will depend on how you feel about a revelation that will change everything  you knew about Marilla. 

In Marilla Before Anne, Louise Michalos does a lot of things well. It's lovely to get some back story on the characters you know and love, especially the relationships between Marilla and Matthew and Marilla and Rachel. But the major change Louise Michalos has made to Marilla's story means that the story of the Cuthberts is forever changed. If you are willing to have the story changed so drastically, Marilla Before Anne is a wonderful way to spend some more time with the characters you already love. But if you hold very tightly to the tale that you've always known, this probably isn't the book for you.

Marilla Before Anne
By Louise Michalos
Nimbus Publishing May 2021
256 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Friday, November 12, 2021

Mini Reviews: Home Now and The Liturgy of Politics

Lewistown, Maine had been a relatively thriving small town. But then the mill closed and people started to leave. Residents wondered if the streets would ever be full of shops and neighbors again. Slowly, the town started to fill with new residents, until 1/6 of the town's population was made up of Muslim refugees. Cynthia Anderson looks at the ways the town came together and split apart across racial and religious lines by examining the experiences of people from a Congolese refugee applying to college in the US to members of an anti-Islamic group. What can one town teach us about the way we treat immigrants and the things we hold most dear? 

Anderson's goal in writing Home Now is a laudable one. She saw all the ways that her life and her family were like those of the refugees she interviewed, and she integrates a good deal of that into her book. But I often felt like it lacked a direction. Anderson could recount stories from long-time residents and refugees who just arrived this week for many years to come, and the conclusion would be the same--it is difficult to live in community with other people and all too easy to blame our difficulties on others. But if you are looking for an interesting glimpse into the ways we can find space for everyone's culture and traditions within one city's limits, this might be a good read for you. 

Home Now:
How 6000 Refugees Transformed An American Town
By Cynthia Anderson
PublicAffairs October 2019
336 pages
Read via Netgalley

There are two things we're not supposed to talk about at the dinner table: religion and politics. Nothing makes people argue faster than presenting opposing views on these topics. But Kaitlyn Schiess argues that our faith should inform our politics, and that the structure of our churches is shaped by politics (even if we refrain from talking about the president at the church potluck). While liturgy may be an unfamiliar concept to some people, the idea is that we are shaped by what we repeat--whether that is watching our favorite pundit on the news or attending church. This book directs readers to ask themselves, "what am I being formed to love?"

Scheiss began writing this book while she was studying at a seminary during and following the 2016 election. While she and her fellow soon-to-be pastors did not want to tell people how to vote, they recognized that our faith shapes our politics and our politics shape our faith. She believes that if Christians keep their allegiance to God above allegiance to any party or politician, the ways we should act (and vote) can become clearer. This book may make readers uncomfortable, and that's a good thing. While the ideas may challenge readers, the writing is not overly academic. The Liturgy of Politics just might make people re-evaluate what is forming them and how their beliefs and actions impact the people in their communities. 

The Liturgy of Politics:
Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor
By Kaitlyn Schiess
InterVarsity Press September 2020
220 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Review: Black Sun

In the city of Tova, the priests and leaders of the Sky Made clans are preparing to celebrate the winter solstice. Sun Priest Naranpa has finally ascended to the position she has worked towards for years, but her new role allows her to see all of the cracks in their system. Far away from the glamour and prestige of the city, a sailor named Xiala is asked to transport a strange passenger to Tova. The man on her ship is Serapio, who has great power and great anger towards the priests. He is on a mission to make them pay for their sins against the Crow people. 

This story takes place on the Meridian, inspired by the Incans and Puebloans before European colonizers arrived. The world created on these pages is beautiful and sweeping, and you will feel like you are on the cliffs of Tova or sailing the dangerous seas with Xiala. There is a perfect balance here between an expansive world and a focus on the characters. Each one of them is grappling with finding their place in a system and culture they did not create, as well as the ways they are perceived by the people around them. 

Rebecca Roanhorse has nimbly walked the line between giving readers all the information they need while preparing them for a second book where all these storylines will converge. Black Sun is a book you won't want to put down, and I can't wait to find out what happens to  Naranpa, Xiala, and Serapio in the sequel (expected in April 2022).

Black Sun
(Between Earth and Sky #1)
By Rebecca Roanhorse
Gallery/Saga Press October 2020
461 pages
Read via Netgalley

Friday, November 5, 2021

Mini Reviews: A Spy in the Struggle and The Nobodies

Yolanda Vance is used to working hard, but she also believes in honesty. When her law firm gets raided by the FBI, she turns over evidence against them and goes to work as an agent instead. The FBI is watching a group of black activists who claim that a local corporation is intentionally hurting their neighborhood, and Yolanda is the perfect person to send undercover. As she discovers what is really going on, she is caught in the impossible position of doing her job and hurting people she has come to care for or breaking the rules and fighting back. 

I really liked the premise of this book--why don't we have more stories about women (particularly women of color) who are detectives and spies and agents? Aya de Leon does a wonderful job of showing through Yolanda's experiences that it is not always easy to know who is good and who is bad. Unfortunately, the character of Yolanda fell flat for me; it seemed that the author hadn't really decided who Yolanda was outside the parameters of this story. 

A Spy in the Struggle
By Aya de Leon
Kensington Books December 2020
352 pages
Read via Netgalley

Joan Dixon doesn't really want to be working at a place where her bosses are a decade younger than she is, but it's hard to be a working journalist and Bloom was hiring copywriters. As she adjusts to working at the tech start-up, she starts to make friends among her coworkers. But the good times don't last--Joan discovers there may be a major problem with her idyllic company. This could be the story of a lifetime, but it could also destroy her only steady job in years and the relationships she has been building.

The Nobodies is unfortunately not my favorite Liza Palmer novel. Joan is a tough character to follow, as she seems to fumble everything in her own life. But Palmer really captures the feeling of failure well. When Joan's latest story is rejected by an editor or an attempt to make a friend goes awry, it's enough to break your heart and bring back every terrible memory of your own rejection. If you love a book set in the world of tech start-ups or a story about a woman determined to make her own way in the world, The Nobodies might be the perfect pick for you. 

The Nobodies
By Liza Palmer
Flatiron Books September 2019
266 pages
Read via Netgalley 

Thursday, November 4, 2021

Review: Great Circle

Marian Graves is a woman accustomed to close calls. As an infant, she and her brother were rescued from a sinking ocean liner. The orphans are sent to live with their uncle, and Marian transports alcohol during Prohibition to keep food on the table. As a teenager, she drops out of school and makes a dangerous bargain to achieve her goals of learning to fly and circumnavigating the globe. 

Great Circle is a massive read, and not just in number of pages. Shipstead includes more characters and settings and plot points than most authors could fit between two covers, and she mostly succeeds in making them all cohesive. It's intentionally huge--the characters are people who want to span the globe or be remembered forever. 

Marian has known from an early age exactly what she wants to do, and she is unwilling to let anything or anyone come between her and her goal. This lack of consideration leads to problems, which are highlighted through the secondary story of Hadley Baxter, a young actress who is researching Marian as she prepares to portray her in a movie. While the women are living decades apart, both struggle with the spoken and hidden expectations of women when it comes to sex, money, power, and control over their lives. 

Shipstead is a writer who has left nothing to chance. While her novel is expansive, nothing is careless. I imagine that a second or third read would reveal connections that we all missed the first time around. Reading Great Circle means deciding to travel the world, cross centuries, and meet characters from bootleggers to WWII pilots to 21st century movie stars. It's evident that Maggie Shipstead loves her characters and you too will find that you need to know what Marian does next.

Great Circle
By Maggie Shipstead
Knopf May 2021
627 pages
Read via Netgalley

Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Review: Smile

Sarah Ruhl ushered three things into the world during the same year--a play that opened on Broadway and her twin babies. After spending months on bed rest and closely monitoring her pregnancy due to cholestasis of the liver, her babies were delivered safely. But the next day, her lactation consultant noticed her face was drooping and Ruhl learned that she had Bell's palsy. Then her babies are rushed to the intensive care unit. When they all finally go home, Ruhl wonders if she is living in a fairy tale--did she trade the face she didn't know to cherish for the safe delivery of her children? 

This story is both deeply personal and terribly universal. Ruhl writes about the number of women who become depressed while on bed rest, women who develop severe conditions during pregnancy or after giving birth, and the parents who anxiously wait for answers about their babies. Many parents can remember the specific exhaustion of waking up to feed a baby or the uncertainty in helping an older child navigate a changed family. Hopefully, all of us can remember the moments when someone showed up for us like they do for Ruhl--for an important achievement at work, to drive us home from the hospital, or to walk our newborn in soothing circles while we catch a few moments of sleep.

I first experienced the magic of Sarah Ruhl's words when I read some of her plays for a theatre class in college. Playwrights, by necessity, are sparse writers. There is not a lot of room for extra words when actors must keep the audience interested in what is happening onstage. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about the right words and facial expressions to convey meaning, it was devastating for Ruhl to not be able to pronounce p sounds as she read to her daughter or smile to convey warmth and friendliness. "I felt inside a paradox: I thought I could not truly reenter the world until I could smile again; and yet, how could I be happy enough to smile again when I couldn't reenter the world?"

Smile is indeed the story of a particular face. It's also a chronicle of a mother with an intense career and a woman who has to navigate a health care system that often fails its patients. Ruhl is funny and relatable and there are moments it seems ridiculous that she can make a story about her pain so compelling and delightful to read. I'm glad she decided to share this story with the world and hope that it will help more people discover both her prose and her plays. 

Smile: The Story of a Face
By Sarah Ruhl
Simon and Schuster October 2021
256 pages
Read via Netgalley