Tag Archives: Books

Review: Nightingale Point

Another day, another Women’s Prize longlist review! If I can stick to my schedule there should have another coming tomorrow, too. Today I bring you my take on Nightingale Point by by Luan Goldie. Another disappointment for me, sadly.

nightingalepointIn the novel, a devastating tragedy rocks the London-based Nightingale Point apartment building, leaving some dead and more injured, and upending the lives of everyone else who lived there. The book follows five main characters whose lives intersect around this event, all of them affected in different ways by the disaster.

(I won’t name the disaster, as it seems some effort was put into keeping that aspect out of the book’s info. But the nature of this disaster was actually what drew me to this story in the first place, and it’s such a large part of the premise that I personally don’t think the surprise is necessary; it is easy to track this info down on Goodreads and in other reviews, if you want to know before reading.)

” ‘There’s always so much to deal with. It never ends. Getting out of the building should have been the hardest thing we had to do.’ He shakes his head. ‘But sometimes it feels like that was only the start.’ “

The novel opens on the morning of the disaster, with a prologue that flits quickly between points of view and establishes the setting. In the chapters that follow, divided in focus between each of the five main perspectives, the reader sees the lead-up on the day of the tragedy, the event itself, the immediate aftermath, and effects of the disaster up to five years later. It’s an exploration of community and individual response to a large-scale traumatic event.

But oh, I had so many problems with this book. Mainly, the simple, stereotypical characterization combined with the book’s failure to follow up on any of the meaningful commentary it hints at. This book could have been so complex and interesting, and I found myself so incredibly frustrated by how close it brushed to so many worthwhile topics without ever delving beneath the surface.

There’s the teen girl whose father locks her in their apartment “for her own good,” a horrifying circumstance that should have been used as more than a plot point. She apparently had the choice of living with this father or her newly remarried mother, and the reasoning behind her preference for the abusive father is not even touched on, leaving this girl to act as a prop in the other characters’ lives.

Then there’s the boy who severely mistreats a man with a mental disability in spite of (and partially because of) this disability; sure he feels bad about it eventually, but only when he’s given a big reason to, and even then the whole encounter is quickly brushed off and replaced by close friendship with a simple “I’ll try to make it up to you” and no deeper look at why the boy behaved this way in the first place or how it affected the disabled man.

Assumptions can be made, of course, but the novel misses opportunity after opportunity by failing to make any statements about such problematic incidents, treating them instead as an “ordinary” part of life in this apartment block. (Even their ordinariness could have made a statement, and yet doesn’t.) Goldie mentions in her author’s note that this novel was inspired by real events, and that part of the problem with seeing appropriate community and governmental response to such a devastating event was the fact that the affected apartments housed relatively poor families- people simply didn’t care enough about what would become of them; this would have been another very worthwhile facet for Nightingale Point to explore, and yet while Goldie makes it clear that these are not affluent characters, she leaves it at that.

I could go on, but too many specifics make a review read like a book report, which is boring for everyone. I’ll say instead that I found the character arcs predictable and anti-climactic (all of them but one ending essentially where I thought they would have if this tragedy had not occurred), the focus on only five connected individuals too narrow for a proper glimpse at the community as a whole, and every major thematic point of interest abruptly dropped or overlooked entirely. I found it difficult to care about any of the characters, mainly as a result of the way they’re presented rather than because they’re bad people- I tend to enjoy unlikable characters when their unlikability seems intentional, whereas here I think the desired goal was complexity that just vastly missed the mark for me. I found them completely unsurprising.

The story might have been saved at least somewhat by a compelling writing style, but Nightingale Point lacked that for me as well. I actually didn’t tab any lines I liked in the entire book, which is extremely rare for me; I had to go back through at the end to find a couple of quotes to include in this review.

A few potential saving graces of note are the descriptions of the event itself, which I found morbidly fascinating, as well as the emphasis on long-term mental, physical, and social effects of a large-scale disaster. And the quickness of the read! Despite my mounting frustration at finding this very much not the story I wanted based on its premise, I did manage to finish the book in just over 24 hours, which is a feat for me- I’m a slow reader.

Unfortunately, none of these pluses were quite enough to make this a positive reading experience for me. In the end, it felt more like a basic tragic love story and/or tale of brotherhood than a meaningful examination of how people “rebuilt their lives after losing everything”- the author’s stated purpose. Unfortunately, it seemed to me like a lot of the rebuilding was happening off the page, in the gaps of time where the story jumps ahead hours or months or even years. The narration is written in third person, which keeps the characters’ mental processing of this disaster at arm’s reach from the reader. Absolutely nothing about this story challenged my perspective on the effects of a disaster of this magnitude. Maybe the fact that I’ve been through several museums honoring the victims of large public tragedies, the most recent of which I visited just under a month ago, heightened my expectations for this story beyond what the average reader would experience. But for whatever reason, despite the fast read and the absolute miles of possibility in this novel, it completely failed to come together in a satisfying way, leaving me emotionally cold and baffled at the book’s apparent success.

” ‘You keep acting like you’re all right to give up everything you worked for, ’cause things have gotten off-track.’

‘Off-track? You call what happened to us going off-track? Are you fucking kidding me?’ […]

‘I want you to be your old self and get back to the original plan: university, internship, career.’ [He] uses a finger to mark off each stage. ‘I don’t get why you’re giving up.’ “

My reaction: 2 out of 5 stars. As much as I genuinely hope other Women’s Prize longlist readers will have a better time with this book than I did, I do hope it won’t make the shortlist. I have no interest in reading further from Goldie at this point, though I remain interested in seeing this subject successfully fictionalized. This just wasn’t where it was at, for me.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

 

 

Review: Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line

The Women’s Prize shortlist announcement is now only two weeks away! I’ve read *almost* 11 of the 16 longlisted books so far and am on track to finish everything but Mantel’s The Mirror and The Light on time. I’ll keep trying, but it would take a miracle for me to finish 7 books (plus the last few pages of my current read) in fourteen days, especially given the size of the Mantel trilogy. But I digress- all this was to say that as I near the end, I have a surprisingly clear idea of which books I would be happy to see on the upcoming shortlist. The most recent read addition to this list is Deepa Anappara’s Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.

djinnpatrolonthepurplelineIn the novel, 9 year-old Jai and two of his friends are disturbed by the news that one of their classmates has vanished. Jai is fascinated with an investigation show called Police Patrol and is eager to soothe his parents’ worries (thus freeing himself from the strict rules they’re laying down)- and so the three children set out to discover what has happened to the missing boy, in hopes of setting their community (an Indian slum) back to rights. As they struggle to find the pieces of the puzzle and fit them together in a realistic way, more children disappear and life in the basti becomes increasingly fraught.

“The headmaster won’t open the main gate fully because he thinks strangers will run into the school along with us. He likes to tell us that 180 children go missing across India every single day. He says Stranger is Danger, which is a line he has stolen from a Hindi film song. But if he were really worried about strangers, he wouldn’t keep sending the watchman away.”

Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line is a mystery of sorts- the question of what has happened to these children keeps the novel moving, though this isn’t a book to pick up for its whodunnit clues and plot twists. (This is reinforced by the fact that Jai’s favorite theory is that evil djinns have spirited the children away, rather than a human criminal.) Instead, at the heart of the novel is the revelation of a greater metropolitan problem- missing children who go unfound and even unlooked for, mainly because of their poverty. Through a series of child narrators- primarily Jai, interspersed with brief chapters about each of the missing children- the reader is given an interesting blend of the worries and delights of youth, who notice the adults’ fears but can’t quite understand them.

“The good and bad thing about living in a basti is that news flies into your ears whether you want it to or not.”

The choice of utilizing a nine year-old as the story’s main narrator is both clever and somewhat frustrating- Jai’s investigations accomplish very little, and among his group of friends he seems to contribute the least to solving the case of their missing classmate; I wouldn’t rate him highly as a sleuth, and his scant role in the unraveling mystery is my greatest criticism of this book. On the other hand, he does have a particular vivacity that’s compelling amidst the book’s grim subject matter. He befriends a stray dog, compares himself to detectives he likes on TV, and makes an adventure of it when his detecting takes him to new places. His innocence buoys the novel’s pace and makes this a surprisingly addictive read despite the dark commentary packed between the lines.

Speaking of commentary, this seems to be Djinn Patrol‘s main focus- the narration digs into many challenges that city children can face in India: the need to care for themselves and sometimes even younger children, the difficulty of getting a quality education, the prospect of working (perhaps even multiple jobs at a time) before the legal employment age. Jai and his friends are often hungry, their families living together in one room, their few belongings used over and over until they are worn beyond repair. The book conveys the difference in expectations and opportunities for Indian boys and girls beginning even before their teen years, the tension of opposing religions leading to bullying and even violence that doesn’t exclude children, and the thick smog that cannot be escaped even when it is cause for canceling school. All this before the novel even touches on the things that can happen to snatched children.

The writing itself is solid, if simplistic- it’s elegance lies in things implied but not said, rather than poignant prose. This worked well for me because it fit the young narrator in a way a more ornate style wouldn’t have. There’s also a good mix of cultural vocab mixed into the story (there is a helpful glossary at the end of the book, though I didn’t realize it and managed to glean almost everything from context, always a plus). The sentences are quick and straightforward, the tone generally light, and the chapters flow easily from one to the next- a bingeable read. But don’t be mistaken- it’s sad as well. This is not a book that ties up neatly with happy endings for everyone involved, which is exactly how it makes such a powerful statement about the ongoing problem of missing children cases in India. There’s certainly a depth of tragedy here, which is essentially why Jai’s perspective works so well. Anappara mentions in her afterword speaking with real Indian children and wanting to capture their “resilience, cheerfulness, and swagger,” and “their determination to survive in a society that often willfully neglected them.” In this reader’s opinion, she delivers with aplomb.

“What is a whole life? If you die when you’re still a child, is your life whole or half or zero?”

My reaction: 4 out of 5 stars. This one wasn’t quite as strong for me as a couple of other commentary novels disguised as mysteries that I’ve read this year, like Long Bright River or Disappearing Earth, but after a string of mediocre Women’s Prize reads I really did have a lot of fun reading this one and it stands out as one of the stronger longlisted titles I’ve read thus far. I feel like I’ve learned a bit about India, and I was entertained at the same time. I’m still working on a ranked list and my shortlist predictions, but you shouldn’t be surprised to see this one feature. 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Dutch House

I’ve been meaning to read some Ann Patchett for a while, so seeing her latest novel, The Dutch House, on the Women’s Prize longlist this year was the final nudge I needed to pick up some of her work. While I’m glad I finally gave it a chance, I’m hoping I’ll fare better in the future with some of Patchett’s other titles, because this one didn’t quite hit the mark.

thedutchhouseIn the novel, Danny and his older sister Maeve spend most of their childhood in the Dutch House, an excessively fancy home that their father loved and their mother hated. When their mother leaves for the last time and a selfish stepmother enters their lives in her place, it is only a matter of time before Danny and Maeve lose the house, their rich lifestyle, and all semblance of family beyond each other. They spend the rest of their lives trying to pick up the pieces, returning frequently to sit in a parked car outside of the Dutch House to ruminate on all they’ve lost.

“We pretended that what we had lost was the house, not our mother, not our father. We pretended that what we had lost had been taken from us by the person who still lived inside. “

The Dutch House begins as a beautifully written, fairy tale-esque account of strangely fortunate and unfortunate children in the 1960’s-70’s. They are well off in some ways, with cooks and housekeepers to make them feel at home in their ridiculously extravagant house. In other ways, they suffer- the missing mother, the cold stepmother, the father who can’t be bothered to express affection or emotion or spend any time with them. It is interesting to see how the house becomes a symbol even while they are living in it for everything that they have and could have had, and at the same time serves as a substitute for the things they are missing. But when Danny is fifteen and Maeve twenty-two, their eviction from the house changes the shape of the story, and the book becomes increasingly frustrating.

What starts as a tale of lonely children in a beautiful house turns into an adult quest of grudges and revenge, in which every character seems frozen in a state of childish emotion, committed to spending decades reacting to a single perceived slight. Instead of unfolding depth and meaning from the monumental event of these characters’ lives, the novel narrows further, spinning in circles and buckling down to defend simplistic characterization that hardly makes sense. There is no backstory or nuance utilized to explain the stepmother’s cruelty toward her husband’s children. The mother is exonerated for abandoning her family with the explanation that she wanted to help the less fortunate. Danny and Maeve, instead of building lives of their own and adding further chapters to their own stories, make their choices based on how best to get back at the woman who hurt them, even though these choices perpetuate their unhappiness- for example, Danny spends years struggling through medical school to use up as much as he can of an educational trust that would benefit his stepsisters despite having no interest or intent in becoming a practicing doctor.

“Norma said that childhood wasn’t something she could imagine inflicting on another person, especially not a person she loved. I imagined pediatric oncology only reinforced her position.”

My least favorite aspect of the book however, is Danny’s narration. Not the prose style in which his story is told, which I actually quite liked, but the simple placement of Danny at the novel’s center. In a story packed with women who must all have more knowledgeable and interesting points of view regarding the Dutch House, we are instead given an oblivious man who seems to expect a pat on the back for realizing years later how difficult a time the women in his life have had while also taking care of him.

Perhaps the point of this maneuver is to demonstrate a disparity in expectations placed upon men and women- Danny free to follow an expensive education to its conclusion and then essentially throw it away (and in doing so providing more unpaid work for his sister), while Maeve spends her entire life sans mother taking care of her brother in lieu of chasing her own dreams (like furthering her own education). Danny also has the Dutch House’s servants and eventually his wife bolstering him up while he continues to focus on himself. But if Patchett is trying to capitalize on the ease of opportunity for men at the cost of stifled women, wouldn’t any of the women involved in the story be able to convey to the reader Danny’s spoiled self-interest, while also providing a more engaging and direct narrative? It is, after all, Maeve rather than Danny who fixates on the Dutch House; Danny’s relative uselessness and the symbolism of the Dutch House do not seem to be making the same point, which further muddies the water of what this book is trying to accomplish.

The novel also seems intent on pointing out that men can get away with abandoning their children much more easily than women, but again, is Maeve not best situated to make this point, as she is the one who actually remembers their mother and takes on responsibility for her brother’s upbringing from a young age? And if this imbalance of what is expected from mothers vs fathers is the Point, the fact that neither Danny nor Maeve, after acknowledging it, can quite forgive their mother in the end while also lauding their father for loving them more than they knew at the time seems to negate this argument. Ultimately, I think Patchett was either trying to do too much or too little with the novel’s narration and purpose, failing to land either effectively. In my opinion, choosing a different narrator (Maeve seems the obvious choice) might have lent the story an entirely different- and more successful- effect.

” ‘I look at Kevin and May and I think, who would do that to them? What kind of person leaves their kids?’ […] ‘Men!’ Maeve said, nearly shouting. ‘Men leave their children all the time and the world celebrates them for it.’ “

This is turning into a very negative review, and I only have the smallest of positive to notes to end it on (which is making me rethink my rating, actually). While I have nothing but complaints for the characterization and technical choices of storytelling in The Dutch House, I did love the tragic/elegant aura of the house itself, and the sumptuous prose. Despite finding much of the content frustrating, I did appreciate Patchett’s writing style and occasional moments of insight. I think there was a brilliant and beautiful novel in here somewhere, and up to about the halfway point I had a good time reading it.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. A low 3, and not a book I’m hoping to see on the shortlist later this month. But because I liked Patchett’s writing, I am still hopeful that this simply wasn’t the right book of hers for me, and am curious to try more of her work. I’d really like to give Bel Canto a go before the vote for the Women’s Prize winner of winners this fall.

 

The Literary Elephant

TBR 4.20

New month, new books! My March TBR may not have gone so well, but I’m back for a fresh attempt.

Every month for 2020, I’ll be setting a TBR with five of the books I expect to read (and love!) throughout the month. I won’t mention extras even though I may expect to pick up other things, and at the end of the month, finished or not, each of the five are barred from future 2020 TBR appearances.

Here’s what I’ve got lined up for April:

  1. Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara. A Women’s Prize longlister, and my last library book  until things reopen. Since this post is a little late I’ve actually started reading this one already and expect to finish soon- I’m quite enjoying it so far! It’s about a group of children investigating a friend’s disappearance in India.
  2. Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell. A recent release, my first O’Farrell book, and another Women’s Prize longlister. This one features the death of Shakespeare’s son and the play he wrote soon after, titled after the same child. I believe the book focuses on the grief of the entire family.
  3. How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee. Another Women’s Prize longlister. I am planning to read as much of the longlist as possible before the shortlist announcement on the 22nd, so this will be dominating my reading life for a while longer. This book is a Singapore-set dual-narrative novel about WWII and the traumatic aftermath of some of the events of that time.
  4. The Glass Hotel by Emily St. John Mandel. This is a new release that came out at the end of March, and one I’ve been highly anticipating. I don’t know much about it but I think I’m going to love it- that’s one of the criteria I use to put these TBRs together; I wanted to read more high-rating books this year so I try to fill these monthly TBRs with titles I hope will be 4 or 5 star reads for me!
  5. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel. This is the first book in Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell historical fiction series. The third book has been longlisted for the Women’s Prize. It’s the longlister I’m least certain about finishing on time for the shortlist announcement, but I’m hoping that even if I don’t quite make that cut-off I’ll still finish the trilogy in April. I’m including the first book here as an extra nudge to get started!

tbr4.20

Clearly it’s a Women’s Prize-heavy list, but after partially failing my TBR in March I think this is the surest way to stay on top of things. I hope to pick up more of my 2020 reading goals again in May, including my 20 in ’20 list, 2019 releases I missed, and new releases I’m highly anticipating. But for now, these are some of the books I’m most excited to read in April! Hopefully this will only be the beginning.

 

And even though I don’t think I’ll have time to pick any of these up this month (I still need to catch up on March’s new books!), here is the list of new releases for April that I’ve got my eye on. I’ll be watching for reviews on these throughout the month to help me decide what to prioritize.

  • Sin Eater by Megan Campisi. Historical fiction about an orphaned girl tasked with listening to the confessions of the dying, eating foods that symbolize their sins, and thus granting them access to heaven. Out Apr 7th
  • The Ancestor by Danielle Trussoni. A horror/gothic novel featuring a woman who (to her surprise) inherits wealth and a castle in Italy. When she goes to check it out she learns that she’s inherited some dark family secrets as well. Out Apr 7th
  • Notes From an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back by Mark O’Connell. Nonfiction that tells the tale of one man’s quest around the world to see how people from different places and cultures are preparing for what many see as a grim future for planet Earth. Out Apr 14th
  • You Let Me In by Camilla Bruce. A thriller in which a possibly dead novelist leaves behind a manuscript revealing the literal skeletons buried in her past. Out Apr 21st
  • Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh. A literary mystery about an elderly woman who discovers a note in the woods mentioning a dead body- leaving her to question everything about her new home.

 

Tell me about something you’re reading in April! Are you following the Women’s Prize or picking up any anticipated releases?

 

The Literary Elephant

Review: The Most Fun We Ever Had

Back to reviews with another Women’s Prize longlist title! This time we’re looking at Claire Lombardo’s The Most Fun We Ever Had, one of the largest books on the list at over 500 pages. Fortunately, I had a good time reading it, though I can’t say it had much else going for it.

themostfunweeverhadIn the novel, four adult sisters are trying to find their way in the world, both guided and hindered by what they see as their parents’ epic romance, an impressive love story none of the girls is confident about finding for herself. A secret son, concealed by two of the sisters and given for adoption at birth, suddenly reenters their lives fifteen years later, testing the bounds of the familial relationships and finally showing the sisters that there may be more to a “good” and “successful” life than keeping up appearances.

” ‘There’s four of you?’ he asked. ‘What’s that like?’ / ‘It’s a vast hormonal hellscape. A marathon of instability and hair products.’ “

There are quite a few books on this year’s Women’s Prize longlist that look at family, parenthood, and marriage, but The Most Fun We Ever Had stands out as the ultimate family saga. Its page count allows Lombardo to examine- in excruciating detail- the minutiae of day-to-day interactions, a lifetime of decisions and assumptions, and each sibling and parent relationship that is one thread in the greater web of this family. I found the dynamics between characters highly entertaining and enjoyed the writing, but even so I think Lombardo could’ve shaved off two hundred pages without losing anything crucial.

The book opens on one of the daughters’ weddings, from their mother’s perspective. From this glimpse alone the reader can see that there is plenty of interest going on beneath the surface of this happy family, though we soon come to learn that their mother doesn’t know half of it. From here, the narration jumps ahead sixteen years to follow a year’s worth of family drama, divided into seasonal sections. Though this year is presented chronologically, the book also delivers numerous flashbacks that showcase virtually every significant moment in each character’s life, from the parents’ origin story, through their four daughters’ childhoods, and into choices each make as adults, all leading up to this one eventful year. Across all of these moments, The Most Fun We Ever Had demonstrates the duality of affection and pain in familial relationships, showing that what holds people together can also drive them apart, and that it is after all easiest to hurt the ones we love.

“She was just trying to do the right thing, but that wasn’t so easy, because everyone in her life had a different conception of what the right thing was, and she herself was caught somewhere in the middle.”

Thematically, alongside the complexities of parent and sibling relationships, this story looks at wealth and privilege from a number of angles. The adopted boy has, by a bad stroke of luck, spent most of his life in the foster care system, and his sudden need for care provides a rude awakening for the sisters who’ve grown up with two loving parents in a big house with adequate income. A family of six subsisting on one doctor’s salary didn’t exactly equate to the lap of luxury for the four girls while growing up (which isn’t to say they wanted for anything), but most of them were able to improve their circumstances even further as they reached adulthood- their own children are well-situated indeed. In comparison, there is one daughter who survives paycheck to paycheck in a sad apartment with one fork to her name. This woman plays such scant role in the plot that she seems present primarily to balance the scales of the family’s wealth. But despite the thorough setup, the book’s commentary barely dips below the surface of the expected.

In truth, I don’t think there’s anything at all to learn here. These are such specific characters, in such a specific situation, that it’s difficult to apply much of their experience to life beyond the novel. It’s a love story, it’s a coming of age story, it’s a generational story, and yet despite everything the book encompasses, its primary purpose seems to be entertainment. Perhaps the main message here is something like, “love is messy,” or “there’s more to every relationship than meets the eye,” but there’s nothing groundbreaking or life-altering to be gleaned from such platitudes. Unless the takeaway is that we shouldn’t present our children with the model of a solid marriage for fear of setting the bar too high, there’s little substance to take back to the real world after closing the back cover. At its core, The Most Fun We Ever Had isn’t much more than an entertaining drama about four sisters and their futile competition to prove themselves most worthy of their picture-perfect parents- and each other. The ruthless competitiveness between these sisters is the driving force of the novel.

On that note, if you’re looking for likable characters, this probably isn’t the book for you. Though each is sympathetic and suffering in their own way, they do all make poor choices, sometimes for bad reasons. There is certainly some redemptive growth, but it’s a long journey getting there. I particularly enjoyed their contrariness, but it won’t be the right fit for everyone.

“But this was the thing: sometimes being a sister meant knowing the right thing to do and still not doing it because winning was more important. Victory was a critical part of sisterhood, she’d always thought.”

I do think Lombardo’s a good writer- I loved seeing how well she fleshed out all of these characters, how the four very different sisters’ personalities tracked across decades of their lives and how they all interacted with each other. I don’t have a sister, myself. I have two brothers, but we’re not close. Perhaps someone with stronger sibling ties might get more out of this one than I did, or find more to identify with at least. Instead, I found this story engrossing and fun, but surprisingly shallow.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I had a good time with this book, I really did. But I expect more from the Women’s Prize than a simple good time, and I didn’t find any standout depth or technical skill here. It’s not a bad book by any means, but it’s a straightforward story that neglects to go the extra mile. I might be interested in picking up more of Lombardo’s work someday, but I won’t mind if this one doesn’t make the shortlist.

 

The Literary Elephant

 

Wrap-up 3.20

Things that happened at the beginning of March already feel like they took place a year ago, so this will be interesting.

To get started, a little refresher on my TBR goal for March:

tbr3.20

As I’m doing for every month this year, I set myself a goal of five specific books to read in March. For the first time in 2020, I did not manage to read all five books. I knew when I started out that this would be a tricky month to plan ahead of time, and I did make a conscious choice about halfway through the month to set this list aside to in order to focus on the Women’s Prize longlist. I managed to finish 3/5 of these books, plus I made progress in The Vagina Bible– I passed the halfway point. I didn’t even start The Heart’s Invisible Furies. These books won’t be appearing in future TBR sets, but I do still expect to read them this year; I might be able to finish The Vagina Bible next month, and The Heart’s Invisible Furies is one of my 20 in ’20 titles, so if you’re looking for my reviews on those they will still be coming eventually. As it is, I’m satisfied with my 3 out of 5 for now.

Here’s what I have been reading:

  1. The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall – 3 stars. A gothic murder mystery wrapped up in historical fiction, this was a fascinating read. Some of its many elements worked better for me than others and the ending didn’t quite satisfy, but overall this was a good time.
  2. Things in Jars by Jess Kidd – 4 stars. I liked everything about this historical fiction mystery set in Victorian London except its whimsical writing style, which grated considerably for me. I probably would have adored this about ten years ago, but this month 4 stars felt generous.
  3. In the Dream House by Carmen Maria Machado – 4 stars. An absolutely stunning memoir of abuse in same-sex relationships. It’s full of important content and incredible writing, a nearly perfect read.
  4. The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave – 5 stars. This historical fiction novel re-imagines a terrible storm and a bad case of witch trials in a small sea town of northeastern Norway. I was utterly drawn in by the characters and the author handles the subject deftly, making room for new conversations about centuries-old witch hunts.
  5. Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson – 4 stars. A short family drama following three generations in Brooklyn and the choices that set them apart and bind them together. I would’ve liked a little more from this book but overall had a nice time reading it.
  6. Fleishman is in Trouble by Taffy Brodesser-Akner – 4 stars. Despite a whole lot of infuriating characters, I very much admired what this book set out to do. Even though it didn’t quite come together as well as I’d hoped, I loved the writing and commentary and was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the read.
  7. Girl by Edna O’Brien – 2 stars. I picked this one up with low expectations and it still managed to disappoint. It focuses on the kidnapping and abuse of hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls, but the perspective and approach left its brutal content feeling sadly flat and ineffective.
  8. Dominicana by Angie Cruz – 3 stars. Featuring a young Dominican Republic girl who enters a loveless marriage in hopes of helping her family immigrate to the United States, this book failed to impress and yet was nevertheless very readable for me.
  9. The Most Fun We Ever Had by Claire Lombardo – 3 stars. A family saga in which four daughters aspire to find the level of perfect romance modeled by their parents; a secretly adopted son returns to the fold and shakes things up. I found this such an entertaining read, but wished it had more to offer than fun. Full review coming soon.
  10. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett – 3 stars. Another family saga, this one follows two children who were rich for a short time and lived in a fancy house, only to be turned out and faced with poverty. I loved Patchett’s writing but found myself increasingly disappointed with the book’s characters, plot, and structure. Full review coming soon.

wrapup3.20

This was actually a great reading month, if you consider that I barely read for an entire week while on vacation in early March and still managed to finish one more book than my recent average of nine. I feel on the verge of a reading slump but I’m trying to push through at least until I’ve finished with the Women’s Prize. I’m saving some of the titles I’m most looking forward to for last, so hopefully I’ll have better luck soon.

Some stats:

Average rating – 3.5

Best of month – The Mercies

Owned books read for the first time – 2 out of 10. I read so many library books this month, and I won’t even mention how many books I acquired but it’s a lot more than 2- which my own-unread TBR grew considerably this month. But I only have one library book left and am not planning to check out any more (physical copies at least) until the lockdown has ended, so I expect to spend next month (if not longer) crossing quite a few own-unread books off my list and fixing this balance.

Year total – 28. Goodreads says I’m three books ahead of schedule for my goal of 100 books this year. I’m perfectly happy with where I’m at.

 

If you noticed a lot of historical fiction in my reading list above, it’s partially because I was preparing for my Spotlight on Historical Fiction post. Feel free to check it out and weigh in with your own experience with historical fiction! I had fantasy slotted for my genre spotlight post in April, but since I’m planning to stick to the Women’s Prize list for a few more weeks and haven’t been reading a lot of fantasy lately, I’m swapping fantasy with literary fiction. Stay tuned if this is a genre you’re looking forward to chatting about! Fantasy will feature later this year.

Here’s to April being a better month than March! We need it. Stay healthy, stay informed, escape with a good book. Be well, everyone.

 

The Literary Elephant

Spotlight on: Historical Fiction

Welcome to my Spotlight series! Every month in 2020 I will be focusing on a different genre that I enjoy reading- not because I’m an expert, but because I want to celebrate a worthwhile category of books! I’m hoping this will be a space where everyone feels free to share their experiences with a genre of the month, whether you’ve read one book from the category or a hundred. I’ll share here what Historical Fiction means to me, filling the post with titles and recommendations from my own experience, and then I’ll look forward to chatting with you in the comments about icons and recommendations I’ve missed (because that’s inevitable- I haven’t read everything)!

 

What is Historical Fiction?

I would consider any book that uses artistic license to explore real past setting(s) or event(s) as historical fiction. The clincher is whether the setting/event was in the past at the time the book was published, not at the time it is being read. These are books that are already looking back from the time they’re written, generally with the intent of remembrance or raising awareness.

Mythology is a bit nebulous and I tend to consider original myth stories simply as classics, but I’ll mention a couple of them below in the interest of rounding out my list. I do consider mythological retellings as a firm subgenre of historical fiction.

A note on categorization: I tend to label books with every genre that applies, rather than limiting each title to one genre. Because the point here is to share a wide variety within each genre and maybe convince readers to check out bookish elements they otherwise wouldn’t, my goal in this Spotlight series is to offer an expansive view.

 

My History with Historical Fiction

Little House in the Big Woods (Little House, #1)My interest in historical fiction is surprisingly recent. Most of my earliest brushes with the genre were assigned or recommended to me rather than sought on my own, with the exception of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, which is, admittedly, semi-autobiographical rather than pure fiction. Possibly the fact that I grew up on a Midwestern farm not so far from where Laura had her early adventures made this feel pleasantly resonant, although almost everything else I read around this time appealed to me for its variance from my own life. Other titles I read for school or friends included: My Brother Sam is Dead by James Lincoln Collier and Christopher Collier, Both Sides of Time by Caroline B. Cooney, Across Five Aprils by Irene Hunt, and Song of the Sparrow by Lisa Ann Sandell.

By high school and college I still hadn’t found my stride with this genre and was more interested in time travel than actual history, though I had begun branching out a bit more. I enjoyed Sarah Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Khaled Houseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees, and Tatiana de Rosnay’s Sarah’s Key. Church of Marvels

It actually wasn’t until right after college that I had better luck and started pinpointing my tastes within the genre. Some of my favorites from the tail end of college years and soon after included: Church of Marvels by Leslie Perry, The Girls by Emma Cline, 11/22/63 by Stephen King, and The Revenant by Michael Punke.

 

Historical Fiction Classics

Gone With the Wind by Margaret Mitchell was the first proper classic that I ever read and it opened a lot of reading doors for me. It’s a Civil War story about a plantation owner’s daughter trying to survive the war and its aftermath of upheaval in the southern US. Gone with the Wind

The Color Purple by Alice Walker is more recent, but certainly worth note. It follows the difficult lives of two African American sisters in early 1900s southern US as they find their own ways to overcome abuse and injustice.

To Kill a Mockingbird and Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee are also set in the southern US, beginning in the Great Depression era. The first book is a child’s account of local racism and a controversial trial; the sequel, though considerably less popular, turns assumptions from the first book upside down in a fascinating demonstration of the difference age and perspective can make.

The Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne depicts religious drama in the mid 1600s in a northeastern colony of early US settlers. A woman is condemned for bearing a child out of wedlock, though a key detail is missing amid in the accusations- the identity of the child’s father.

Atonement by Ian McEwan is technically a modern classic but should not be overlooked! A young storyteller makes an accusation that she doesn’t entirely understand, which will have severe consequences a few years later when WWII sweeps through Europe.

The Aeneid of VirgilThe Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer are Greek mythology stories, the first depicting the Trojan War, and the second its aftermath as one of the Greeks experiences ten years of mishaps on his way home.

The Aeneid by Virgil is Roman mythology, following one man’s escape from the fall of Troy as he goes on to found Rome.

(It’s difficult not to include books set in their own publication era that have now become old enough to feel historical; there are certainly a fair few classics that are very evocative of bygone times [Austen! Dickens!], but I’ll save more thoughts on those for Spotlight on Classics.)

 

Modern Historical Fiction Staples and Recommendations

In recent years I’ve been more interested in reading from different time periods and places around the world as a way of supplementing my education. To this end, I’ve been reading popular historical fiction books like: Han Kang’s Human Acts, featuring an uprising in 1980 South Korea; Women Talking by Miriam Toews, which re-imagines a string of rapes in Mennonite colonies as recently as 2009; Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, Homegoinghighlighting particular struggles faced by Africans and African Americans over the course of 300 years in Ghana and the US; The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht, a Balkan account of the second world war and the political and social unrest that followed; The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave, which fictionalizes a terrible Norwegian storm and the appalling set of witch trials that followed.

Historical fiction is also recognized among literary prizes fairly often; while following various prizes in the last few years I’ve picked up such acclaimed choices as: Esi Edugyan’s Washington Black (a young Barbados field slave befriends an idealistic inventor), Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (a US field slave escapes to the north via an underground train), Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song (his female friends speak about their experiences with Truman Capote), and Suzanne Berne’s A Crime in the Neighborhood (a woman recalls a murder that happened in her suburban neighborhood in the 1970’s).

I haven’t loved all of these, but they’ve helped me hone my preferences- I have learned that I don’t appreciate sensationalized or sentimentalized styles, nor heavy foreshadowing, nor a film of modern values that obscures hard truths about past realities. I do like unsung heroes, unflinching tragedies, and the highlighting of moments history lessons tend to miss.

 

Between Shades of GrayIf you’re new to the genre and, like I was, not sure where to start, I have some recommendations for entrance points to historical fiction based on other categories you might already enjoy (these are based on my own reading, so it’s not an exhaustive list! If anyone has more ideas, please share them below):

If you like YA: Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer, Midnight at the Electric by Jodi Lynn Anderson, My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

If you like sci-fi/fantasy: The Night Tiger by Yangsze Choo, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, The Clockwork Dynasty by Daniel H. Wilson

If you like mythology: The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker, The Song of Achilles and Circe by Madeline MillerThe Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo

If you like contemporary: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, As Bright As Heaven by Susan Meisner, Recipe for a Perfect Wife by Karma Brown, The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah

If you like literary: Trust Exercise by Susan Choi, The Man Who Saw Everything by Deborah Levy, Lost Children Archive by Valeria Luiselli

If you like gothic: A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore, The Silent Companions by Laura Purcell, The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall

If you like family/generational sagas: Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Pachinko by Min Jin Lee, Red at the Bone by Jacqueline WoodsonPachinko

You may disagree with my placement of some of the books I’ve mentioned above, and you may call something historical fiction that I wouldn’t. All’s fair! Genres are slippery, and their main purpose (other than helping publishers market books) is simply to guide readers toward similar books they might also enjoy. Hopefully showcasing some of the many facets of the genre will help anyone who’s not sure where to go next find something that appeals!

 

Historical Fiction on my TBR:

The Mirror & The Light (Thomas Cromwell, #3)Within the year I expect to read Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall (and the rest of this trilogy), John Boyne’s The Heart’s Invisible Furies, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, Alma Katsu’s The Deep, and more. I also have books like Amor Towles’s A Gentleman in Moscow, Ruth Ozeki’s A Tale for the Time Being, and Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth more generally on my TBR.

Other popular choices you may have heard of or might be interested in that are not currently on my TBR (feel free to convince me!) are: Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls, Heather Morris’s The Tattooist of Auschwitz, Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity, and Philippa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl.

 

Why Read Historical Fiction?

This is a genre that entertains and teaches. Historical fiction is full of high emotions and drama, and yet it also lets readers explore actual moments in time and happenings that we have never experienced firsthand- and most likely won’t. It’s a great way to learn about real experiences beyond our own, and to get a better understanding of why the world today is the way that it is. It can also encourage us to use our imaginations to fill in the blanks that the history books have left open.

 

Your turn

We’ve reached the part where I encourage you to drop a comment below sharing anything you love (or don’t) about this genre. Tell me about your own experiences, good and bad! If you have recommendations, if you’re looking for recommendations, if you have questions or hangups that stop you from reaching for romance, mention them below! I’m not trying to pressure anyone into reading what they don’t want to, but I’d love to discuss anything and everything about the genre. That’s the point of this post! A genre can mean something different to everyone, so to take a wider view, I’d love to see what it means to you.

Thank you, in advance, for participating! 🙂

 

The Literary Elephant