Book Review: WELL-READ BLACK GIRL, a book for everyone who loves reading

IMG_2101(1) (1)Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves
Glory Edim

In Well-Read Black Girl, Glory Edim has collected a number of essays from black women writers about what books and reading have meant to them. Some of the essays focus around a particular book or series, some around an author, or some about reading in general. Most of the essays had a similar message. The standard books the women read as children and teenagers had white (often male) protagonists and so limited their ability to see themselves in the pages. When they found books and authors who talked about black girls and women, the results were cataclysmic. Some developed renewed self-esteem, some believed in the dream that they could in fact be writers, others simply felt seen an understood. In sum: representation matters.

In the book, Edim includes several list of recommendations: on classic books, books on childhood and friendship, black feminism, poetry, plays, and science fiction and fantasy. I’m putting several of these book on my to-be-read list. I also liked the design of the book quite a bit. Each chapter began with an illustration of the writer in the style of the cover image. At first I was surprised by this choice, but a later essay talked about how one of the authors received a sheet of poetry with the poet’s picture on it, and it reflected her and meant so much to her she started including photographs herself when she was a teacher.

Well-Read Black Girl Collage

I am not black, but I would encourage women and men of privilege to read this book. First of all, the essays are fun to read, charting how the writers discovered their favorite authors. Everyone who takes joy in reading will understand these moments. Even more important though is empathizing with what it is like to be invisible in literature, in movies, in television. People of privilege should read and celebrate these stories and help tell more of them.

Like any anthology, some of the essays are better than others, though on the whole these are high quality with contributors like Jesmyn Ward and N.K. Jemisin. Gabourey Sidibe offers an irreverent and humorous perspective on a tragic childhood. Kaitlyn Greenidge closes the book with recommendations based on moods that are very funny, like “A Book to Read When Someone Tries to Shame You for Enjoying Cardi B.”

The essays also touch on intersectionality. The women’s sexuality, education, social classes, and countries of origin matter, too. There is always room to go, and always more stories to tell.

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Book Review: SKELETONS AT THE FEAST, a harrowing novel about refugees in the final days of WWII

Bohjalian, Chris - Skeletons at the FeastSkeletons at the Feast
Chris Bohjalian

The Emmerich family has lived at Kaminheim, a beet farm and apple orchard, for generations. But when the Russian army approaches the area, the Prussian family, along with Callum Finella, a POW who was assigned to help the family during harvest and who secretly became lovers with eighteen-year-old Anna, began a difficult journey west into safer territory. Along the way, they face winter weather, starvation, illness, and malevolent enemies. Yet they also meet Manfred, a German corporal, actually Uri Singer, a German Jew who escaped a train to Auschwitz and has survived by impersonating German soldiers. His presence provides opportunities and security they otherwise would lack.

As they make their difficult trek west, so does Cecile, a French Jew, a prisoner at work camp who is evacuated with her fellow prisoners. Their guards subject them to unbelievable cruelty and privation yet Cecile maintains a positive attitude that buoys her and the women around her.

The Russians, feared as barbarians, are at the heels of both groups, and the sounds of war are ever present. They pass the destruction of war: the ruined buildings, the bombed fields, the abandoned belongings. They see the too young and too old pressed into service. They wrestle with their consciences as they face unbelievable losses.

Well-written with interesting characters, Skeletons at the Feast, while joining a wealth of historical novels about World War II, offers a new perspective: that of German refugees fleeing the east for the west. Not only did the refugees have to leave their homes and belongings, they were often targeted by planes, so fleeing was almost as dangerous as staying.

I particularly liked young Theo’s relationship with animals, though hated the representations of how war affected animals, in this story, horses in particular. The historical details resonated and seemed accurate. One thing I liked less, though, was the multitude of perspectives and the frequent shifts between them.

Skeletons at the Feast is a difficult book to read because of the unrelenting cruelty and devastation it depicts, yet it is also valuable to read. I think at some level, it’s our responsibility to witness and remember the atrocities committed to prevent them from happening again. Though Bohjalian certainly takes the Germans to task over the holocaust, he doesn’t present the allies as innocent, including the destruction of Dresden in the pages. Overall, it’s a commentary against war.

Book Review: THE MOTHER-IN-LAW, a well-written page turner

IMG_1760(1)The Mother-in-Law
Sally Hempworth

Successful, proper, and aloof, Diana founded and runs a charity focusing on caring for pregnant refugees. Diana has always intimidated her daughter-in-law Lucy, who, having lost her own mother at a young age, had hoped to have a close relationship with her. Instead, their relationship was fraught with tension and littered with miscommunication and misunderstanding, with Lucy once even pushing Diana and rendering her unconscious.

Everyone was surprised when Diana died and there was evidence of suicide–a note explaining she had breast cancer. But there were also anomalies. The autopsy found no breast cancer, but it did show traces of carbon dioxide and poison, and unexplained gold fibers were found in her hand. Shortly after her death, the family is shocked when they learn that only a few weeks before her death, Diana changed her will leaving her entire estate to her charity, not to her children.

Lucy might have know much more about Diana’s death than she revealed to her husband or the police, but other suspects arise as well, and they all have secrets they were keeping from each other.

The Mother-in-Law is a suspenseful, well-written thriller told from the point of view of two interesting characters, Diana and Lucy. Seeing the roots of their misunderstandings make them even more tragic, though Diana can be quite devilish and Lucy quite stubborn.

This is a great pick if you are looking for a well-paced, well-written page turner!

I won an advance reading copy of The Mother-in-Law through a Goodreads giveaway. Thank you Goodreads and St. Martin’s Press! All opinions are my own.

BOOK REVIEW: Into the Night, murders in Melbourne

Bailey, Sarah - Into the NightInto the Night
by Sarah Bailey

Recently transferred to Melbourne from small town Smithson, Detective Sergeant Gemma Woodstock has a difficult relationship with her partner, Nick Fleet, and is unable to judge what her commanding officer, Chief Isaac, thinks of her. Nursing wounds from a break-up and separation from her son, Gemma’s personal life is a mess. Yet, Melbourne suits her, and she finds comfort in the crowds and the anonymity.

When a homeless man is found, stabbed dead in a tunnel, Gemma is first to arrive on the scene. Yet, Isaac assigned another detective to lead the investigation. But shortly after, Gemma and Nick are able to test their mettle when rising star Sterling Wade is stabbed and killed while filming a key action scene for a Hollywood zombie movie. Yet, everyone they encounter, from Wade’s director Riley Cartwright, to his brother, Paul Wade, seems to have a motive and lack an alibi.

Into the Night falls into the category of literary mystery and has a lot to recommend itself. The writing is solid and the characters multidimensional. In fact, when one very likeable character commits an unforgivable betrayal, it hurts. Gemma herself is complicated, and she has a challenging relationship to the identity of motherhood not often depicted. I enjoyed the backdrop of the zombie movie production and the Melbourne setting. Additionally, the novel shows how a detective squad often has to balance multiple investigations, sometimes privileging one over others due to time or notoriety.

Bailey raises themes relating to celebrity and who gets to claim grief when one dies, the media, and their symbiotic but sometimes antagonistic relationship to law enforcement, and the invisibility and anonymity of the city which can be comforting but also dangerous, all of which were interesting to consider.

My main criticism of the book is that the Bailey chose to write the story in present tense; it didn’t quite work for me, instead feeling a little jarring, unless that was the intent. Plus, at times I found Gemma irritating, rather overdramatic and self-pitying, though I suppose we can all be accused of that at times.

Not until I read the Author Biography at the end of the book did I realize Into the Night was the second novel in the Gemma Woodstock series. The first was The Dark Lake published last year (2017). I plan to circle back and read that at some point because despite the few issues I had with the book, I did enjoy it overall. It will definitely appeal to readers who enjoy literary mysteries by authors such as Tana French.

Thank you to Netgalley and Grand Central Publishing for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: BABY TEETH, an interesting concept but less effective execution

Stage, Zoje - Baby Teeth 3Baby Teeth
Zoje Stage

Seven-year-old Hanna is non-verbal (with no medical explanation) and because she has been aggressive with other children, her mother, Suzette, homeschools her. Hanna, though, is becoming more difficult for her to manage, and she has challenges of her own with chronic Crohn’s Disease that has required several surgeries and a strict diet and regime of medication. In fact, she had intestinal surgery just weeks prior to the events in the novel.

Unfortunately, her husband, Alex, sees Hanna only as a precious, misunderstood child. In some cases, he blames feedback from the school on the administration. In other cases, Suzette hasn’t even told him the full story because she fears that it will shatter his image of the perfect family and imperil her relationship with him. Because of her insecurity due to her illness, she doesn’t want to reveal the extent of her problems at home.

However, Hanna’s aggressive behavior was escalating, and it seemed to be directed at Suzette. Suzette desperately needed Alex as an ally, but no matter what Hanna did, he made excuses for her behavior. She feels less and less competent–physically and mentally–to care for their child, and can’t imagine what must happen to get Alex to see things from her point of view.

The book shifts perspective between Suzette who is concerned, anxious, guilty, and angry, and Hanna, who is creepy though somewhat interesting. I’m not really around children, so I don’t know if Hanna’s behavior is realistic for her age, but I guess that’s irrelevant! As I was reading the book, I kept updating my husband on her latest evil shenanigans, and he kept responding, “What’s the point of this book?”

I think one answer is to question what happens when a person you are supposed to love–your child–is unlovable. Another theme is what happens when a person who is supposed to love you–your husband–doesn’t believe you. But the most interesting aspect of the novel to me was not fully developed, and it was Suzette’s dark side. There were intimations she was not a kind and innocent mother, but as tantalizing as these moments were, they were quickly glossed over. I was very curious how they contributed to the family dynamics.

To me, the writing style didn’t flow smoothly. In fact, if I didn’t know this was written in English, I would have bet a high sum that the novel was translated from a Nordic language. I was also disturbed by the implication that Alex valued Suzette primarily for her looks and Suzette’s acceptance of that. And this is tabling the disservice the book might do to children with mental illnesses.

While the concept was interesting and I was excited to read the novel, Baby Teeth as a whole didn’t work for me.