Sunday, January 2, 2022

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

genre: magical realism, historical fiction

Rue isn’t a slave any longer, not technically, since the War is over, but her childhood was spent at the side of her enslaved mama Miss May Belle who healed and midwifed on the plantation where she and Rue lived.   Having learned from Miss May, Rue’s role as a healer and “conjure” woman has put her at dark bedsides and quiet vigils and she learned early which secrets needed to stay kept.  When a strange child is born that the village fears, Rue’s own secrets threaten to slip out of her grasp.

Atakora has dug into the complicated and traumatic life of women on a plantation before, during and after the Civil War. The narrative skips around in time a lot, which required a bit of piecing things together, but always there are women - strong because they have no choice, finding moments to love but with the contestant knowledge that it can all be ripped away in an instant, the physicality required to carry a chid, to birth it and then keep it alive. It was very slow going for me, I had to keep forcing myself to pick it up until I was about 2/3 of the way through - but I cared enough to want to finish it despite its dark nature.

The relationships in Conjure Women are complicated as so rarely are individuals actually allowed to choose the life they lead - between the horrors of slavery and the downright hell of just being a woman in the first place, no one ever seems to get what they actually need to lead an emotionally healthy life. So it’s a tragic and hard story but one that reels you in with the hope that maybe Rue or really, any one at all, will get the peace and rest they deserve.

Thursday, December 23, 2021

The Collector's Daughter by Gill Paul (audiobook)

 genre: historical fiction

The real Evelyn Herbert grew up in the luxury that is Highclere Castle, the location for the modern tv series Downton Abbey.  As the daughter of the Earl of Carnarvon, she spent much of her young adulthood in the company of her father and his friend the archeologist Howard Carter, whom he is funding in his quest for Tutankhamun's tomb.  When she is only in her early 20s, the Egypt-obsessed Evelyn is present when King Tut's tomb is open - and thus changes the trajectory of her life.

This IS the story of Evelyn's life, told in two time periods - the early 1920s/30s as Evelyn falls in love, explores in Egypt and learns how to behave in society.  The other part of the narrative takes place during the 1970s as Eve is recovering from a medical event and a stranger comes to her with questions.  The Collector's Daughter is a novel of treasure and consequences, it's about the power of memory and the ebb and flow of a marriage.  It's about wealth and the ethics of antiquities collecting.  I found myself intrigued by the plot and interested in where it took me.  I kept wanting to look things up, to see what was true and what was fiction (much is surprisingly true!).  I'd read before about "Tutankhamun's curse" and I appreciated that this book delved into it without ever really veering into paranormal.   I enjoyed it.

Wednesday, December 15, 2021

The Holiday Swap by Maggie Knox (audiobook)

 genre: contemporary romance  

 Charlie and Cass Goodwin are identical twins living very different lives in California.  Cass has settled down in their hometown, helping to run the family bakery.  Charlie, however, is living a more glamorous life in LA as the co-host of a baking reality show.  When an accident leads to Charlie being unable to taste and smell, she begs Cass to secretly switch places with her so she doesn't loose her job during a seasonal bake-off.  And the shenanigans begin with romance and kerfluffles and home-town holiday warm fuzzies abounding.

Yes.  It is 105% a Hallmark movie in book form.  Super clean romance, silly misunderstandings and maybe a couple eye-rollingly cheesy minutes.  But it is also the sort of brain candy that busy Decembers need and I liked the two different romantic plots.  You can just imagine their hometown bakery and it's customers, the snowstorms and the over-the-top ending.  But I knew I was getting that when I started it so no complaints from me.  It's cute.

Saturday, December 11, 2021

The Photographer by Emmanuel Guibert, Didier Lefèvre, Fréderic Lemercier

genre: graphic non-fiction, memoir

Didier Lefèvre was a French photographer who chose to accompany a Doctors Without Borders team into war-torn Afghanistan.  He chose to go as to witness,  to record the work these professionals do in the barest of circumstances.  His journey is illustrated in a graphic-novel format, heavily interspersed with his original photographs and contact sheets.  It is a harrowing experience, both the getting to the hospital as well as the way home and throughout Didier is frank about his choices as well as the mishaps that befall him.  It's like another world, this Afghanistan, seen through our photographers eyes and lens.

It's long.  It's eye-opening.  It especially makes Afghanistan real, it puts a face on its people and reminds us of their humanity.  We see the eyes of their children and grandpa's.  We have to face the corruption of some and the innocence of others.  It's a complicated place and Didier as a complicated experience but overall, what the book does is take us to a desert world that would otherwise be unknown.  And even if it went on TOO long for me, I appreciate the important story this book tells.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

The Book of Lost Names by Kristin Harmel (audiobook)

 genre: historical fiction

Eva Traube is the French daughter of two Polish immigrants and while she's lived in France all her life, it is her family's Jewish identity that is going to change the course of her life.  When the Nazis come for them, she manages to escape to small mountain town where she stumbles into the role of a forger of false papers for Jews fleeing from or fighting against the Nazis, mostly children.  In this clandestine world, Eva's mind is all that is keeping the true identities of this children safe until she and a fellow forger come up with the idea of a Book of Names.  While it does her heart good to try and help, the rest of her Eva's life is a warzone and keeping her and her loved ones safe is a race against time.

I like French Resistance stories and this is an interesting twist.  There is definitely a strong romance thread, which I liked for the most part, and I appreciated when Eva tried to listen to the part of herself that knew that to do something was so much better than to do nothing in the face of evil.   It moves along quickly and ends in a satisfying way, I just thought the writing was nothing special.  It felt sorta bland, like a box cake with can frosting.  It's good, and yes, I'm gonna eat it and enjoy it, but nothing about the language or story really struck a strong chord.  

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Go Ask Alice by Anonymous

 genre: young adult

This book is the supposed "real" diary of a teenage girl who falls into a life of depravity because she gets hooked on drugs.  I distinctly remember reading it when I was a young teen myself, so clearly there is some draw for teens and my memories are mostly that it did scare me away from doing drugs, to a certain extent.  I needed to read a book by "anonymous" for a book challenge so I tried this one.

However, reading it as an adult is a totally different story.  I read online that there is some controversy over whether or not it was actually written by an anonymous teen or by an adult, a youth counselor no less.  This would actually not surprise me because, while I know I myself wasn't a teenager in the late sixites/early seventies, the author does NOT sound like a teen.  The language is obviously a bit dated but I just had a really hard time believing some of the more existential thoughts of this drug-addicted girl.  Also, I couldn't get myself to believe that she really kept her diary on old trash bags that somehow managed to make it back to her home after all she's gone through.  See how I didn't give any spoilers there?  But her journey is just too much for me to believe.  It IS sad, though, to watch someone's life train wreck and maybe it did some good, I don't know.  I mean, drugs CAN lead to a really messed up life, this just feels like creepy didactic playacting instead of a truly personal journey.  

Yep, there is strong language and adult content in here and for me, just not enough worth reading to ever want to try it again.

Wednesday, December 1, 2021

97 Orchard by Jane Ziegelman

 genre: nonfiction

    The subtitle of this book is "An Edible History of Five Immigrant Families in One New York Tenement," which I feel is just about right! 97 Orchard is in sections, chronologically, based on the families that lived in one tenement on the Lower East Side throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Located in a  predominantly immigrant neighborhood, the families who lived at 97 Orchard reflected the world around them: German, Irish, Eastern European Jewish, Italian - and with each new family came new foodways. I really love that word "foodways" because it means "the intersection of culture, traditions, and history" as it relates to food preparation and consumption. THAT is what this book is about. It's about what each different culture brought with them from the old country, what stuck around, what changed, and what became such an integral part of American life that it's hard to remember it actually was once never here.

    I know this isn't a book for everyone but I really enjoyed learning what it had to offer me!  I LOVE to learn about the lives of common people (especially women)  in different times and places.  This book gave me both an intimate look into the kitchen and pantry of several specific women, it also looked out on a grader scale as people went out into the community to sell or purchase what they needed to feed their families.  97 Orchard is history, it's recipes, it's context for the different waves of immigrants the came into this country.  It's pretzels and sauerkraut to knishes and gefilte fish and spaghetti.   If you are also interested in the space where food and history meet, I'd be surprised if this one disappointed you.

Saturday, November 27, 2021

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion (audiobook)

 genre: contemporary fiction

Don Tillman is an organized thinker.  And an organized doer.  He likes his orderly, predictable existence as a genetics professor at Australian university. And if his life isn't full of friends, he doesn't mind it, but he does know that he'd like to have a wife.  At some point.  As long as it's the RIGHT wife.  And so he embarks on the "wife project" in which he creates a questionnaire to help him choose the most desirable subject to pursue.  Except life isn't ever that orderly and for Don, social situations and conventions require a skill set that is not his speciality.  Enter Rosie.  Who throws a giant wrench into his project and his life with a project of her own - a project he is uniquely suited to assist Rosie with.  But at what cost to his orderly life?

Okay. This is dang cute.  And funny.  Not laugh-out-loud but I did chuckle and several parts were funny enough I shared them with my sisters who also enjoyed it.  It's chick-lit but not really a romance novel, per say.  Some language in here but also a lot of heart as Don tries to figure out where he can improve and what's worth looking hard at in his own life.  I appreciated Don as a neurodiverse main character - yes, he's quirky, but also very articulate about what's happening in his brain as he struggles with things that happen so effortlessly for most people.  It's not completely believable but I enjoyed the ride.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Z: a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald (audiobook)

 genre: historical fiction

Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald, a pampered southern belle from Alabama, knows that she wants her life to MEAN something.  So when she meets a young yankee soldier who is determined to become a writer, she sees. him as her ticket out into the real world.  And he's her ticket all right - just not to where she thought she was going. Because as the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, you are on the cusp - on the cusp of life, of excitement, of a movement - you ARE  the Jazz Age and all it's flapper extravagance.  But there is a price for all the glitz and glamor and while the parties with the A List of society and the privilege of celebrity fill a hole inside Zelda, it's not enough to give actual peace and happiness.  That needs to come from somewhere else - and it's oh so hard for Zelda for find.

I know this is a novel and that I need to take things with a grain of salt in terms of truth and fiction, but this book was a great starting off point for making me interested in both Zelda, Scott, and this particularly raucous period of time.  Her mental illness, her destructive marriage, the many relationships with friends that cause so much drama - it plays out in a way that makes Zelda both the hero and the villian in her own story.  She's complicated, that's for sure, and I find myself interested enough in her and the world she lived in to maybe even read a real biography - she was alive and trying to thrive at such a crossroads in history, a woman who wants so much but finds that the fact that she's a woman is an actual, tangible hinderance.  It's hard to see, how she had to be shoved into a box over and over because of her gender.   It's not a particularly happy story, watching people self-destruct, but somehow it doesn't feel necessarily dark or heavy - just realistic in a sad sort of way.

The writing is solid.  A little formulaic maybe, not amazing, but it really moved along and kept my attention.  I can't really compare the Zelda of this book to the "real" Zelda, but again, I knew I was reading fiction so I just let myself enjoy being seeped into a world of artists and wordsmiths who saw themselves at the top of the world.  

I really enjoyed the audio performance.

Thursday, November 18, 2021

The Moon, the Stars and Madame Burova by Ruth Hogan

 genre: adult fiction

By the time Madame Burova - Imelda - is ready to retire from her life of reading palms and telling her clients the stories she sees in her tarot cards, she feels the weight of the secrets she's kept.  She knows it is time to let some of them go - fully aware of the ripples such a move will cause.  As she's grown in the seaside town of Brighton, Imelda has watched people come and go from her booth on the pier and while most people flit in an out, those that stay will make a lasting impression, so much so that a few of them will change her stars.

Billie middle-aged and floundering in the wake of her father's death, gets the kind of news that upends everything and leads her from her London world to a pier in Brighton where, while unlikely, the answers she needs just might be waiting.

Told in two time periods, Imelda's and Billie's lives are intricately linked both both choice and providence.  The 1970s storyline of Imelda's youth delves into some tricky issues with compassion and while the modern storyline requires just a LOT of suspending my disbelief with all the amazing coincidences, there is a coziness here that worked for me.  It's a make-your-own-family kind of story, with the special kind of vibe that exists at a touristy seaside town, but with a backstage look as we spend our time with the locals and seasonal staff.  It didn't require much of my brain and left me feeling good, even if I had a hard time believing it all.  I liked it.

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