Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

Writing: 4.5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5

Homegoing is a collection of vignettes following two half-sisters in Fanteland (Ghana) — each unaware of the other’s existence — and their descendants through seven generations. One is captured and sold into slavery; the other is sold off to the white Governor of the Cape Coast Castle and serves as his “wench” or native wife. The writing is excellent and the structure — while often confusing — does an impressive and subtle job of weaving together the cross-generational stories. Each story captures the essence or main turning point of one person’s life, but the closure on that life isn’t delivered until the next generation’s story where the impact of the generations before is felt and details recalled.

The family tree in the front pages is essential — if you’re reading an ebook, find the tree online, print it, and refer to it often. Because Gyasi alternates between the descendants of the two half-sisters, generation by generation, it is sometimes difficult to hold to the previous story of one line by the time you get to the next. Similarly, it can be difficult to know what time period you’ve come to — some stories mention a date, others mention an event whose date can be retrieved, others involve more math (it had been 16 years since my mother died).

I have mixed feelings about this book. It is well-written, the characters full of depth, the individual stories emotionally gripping. However, it reads like one long compendium of tragedy. Every storied individual — on each side of the sisterly divide — suffers the atrocities of that generation: from abduction to the slave ships to the hopelessness and cruelty of slavery and the futility of escape attempts. Later generations on the American side suffer from the Fugitive Slave Act, broken families, drug addiction, the loss of family who can pass for white. The African side suffers as well from the impacts of colonization, “well-meaning” missionaries, internecine struggles, and the guilt of their own role in slavery. It is a relentless history lesson which highlights only the troubles and oppression and little of the gains or joys. While it is at times heavy handed, it does not descend into emotional manipulation for which I was grateful.

Definitely worth reading, but keep in mind the larger context — humans of every race and ethnicity have done abhorrent things to each other since the dawn of time — as a species I like to think that we are continually working to tame ourselves and make things better for everyone, albeit not as quickly as anyone would like. While none of the white people mentioned in the book were particularly “good,” she did a good job of not casting blame on whole groups of people for what takes place in these pages.

War: How Conflict Shaped Us by Margaret MacMillan (Non-fiction History)

Thank you to Random House and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 6th, 2020.

This is a surprisingly engaging study of War as a human activity throughout history — rather than the more commonplace in-depth study of a particular conflict. With tight (read non-meandering, non-dry, non-dull) prose, MacMillan studies War from its evolution across the ages: how the ability to make war and changes in human society progress inextricably; the evolution of war across changes in society and technical advancement; the shift from King and Country to nationalism and our view of warriors; what induces people to fight, the role of civilians, and the efforts to control and regulate something as completely uncontrollable as the license to slaughter other human beings. Drawing on a wide variety of examples — from the Peloppenesian and Punic wars to more modern conflicts and everything in between — she brings this uniquely human activity into a sobering perspective.

Like most historians, MacMillan provides an impressive array of sources at the end — what I particularly appreciated is that a significant portion of those referred to individual accounts — diaries, letters, etc. This gave her narrative the perspective of the individual as well as the big picture trends. Her attention to detail pervades from the high-level machinations of governments, kings, and rebels down to the experiences of individual foot soldiers, civilians, prisoners, and diplomats.

Here are some parts that stuck with me for a variety of reasons:

• For much of history the records were made and kept by that minority who could read and write. WWI was groundbreaking in that the majority of combatants were literate.
• We have an antipathy to war that makes us avoid its study and understanding.
• A paradox of war: growing state power and the emergence of larger states are the result of war but can also then bring peace. A strong state keeps a monopoly on force and violence but keeps things peaceful within. For example, Tito kept Yugoslavia together — once he toppled all the ethnic groups within started killing each other. Similarly, the Chinese Qin empire in 221 BC was run by a ruthless tyrant but was remembered with gratitude as the ruler who brought peace and order to China.
• After Waterloo, the British proudly wore dentures made from battlefield dead and used their skeletons as fertilizer.
• Men killed and died because they were embarrassed not to — many came to war to avoid shame, not for glory or duty.
• People at home hate the enemy more than the fighters do. The fighters have pity for each other and understand how similar they are. Those at home see the enemy as one anonymous “they”.
• The longer or costlier the siege, the worse the treatment of the citizens afterwards.
• In WWII, Germany followed International prisoner protocols as long as they considered the prisoners their racial equals — the French and British, not the Poles or Russians.
• The state of the British soldiers during the Boer war was so poor that society started a whole program to improve health of citizenry in order to have more fit soldiers.

While I thought I preferred her deep-dive books to this thematic one, I’ve found these concepts keep coming back into my brain. I’m realizing that it has shifted my way of thinking on the topic — which is exactly what happened to me with her book The War That Ended Peace (highly recommended — all about what led up to WWI). She has an ability to get to the heart of subjects, and her examples are illuminating because while I was aware of some before, I had not been aware of how they exemplified the theme.

Reading this book was both fascinating and depressing, though not in an emotionally wrenching way. While I was aware of all the conflicts she mentioned, the aggregation of violence and mass destruction through the ages makes it harder to ignore. Her concluding point is that we must keep thinking about War, despite our innate abhorrence of the topic, because it has reached a point (Total War, Modern War, high-tech weaponry) where we are threatening all of humanity.

A single quote: “War is a mystery both to those who fight and those of us who are on the sidelines. And it is a troubling and unsettling mystery. It should be abhorrent, but it is so often alluring and its values seductive. It promises glory and offers suffering and death. We who are non-combatants may fear the warriors, but we also admire, even love, them. And we cannot pretend we are not party of the same family, with the same potential for fighting.”

Jade Dragon Mountain by Elsa Hart (Mystery / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 4.5/5
I am loving these Chinese mysteries by Elsa Hart. They go far beyond genre fiction with beautiful language that brings China in the early 18th century to life — detailed descriptions of history and culture embedded in the story rather than a dry droning.

Li Du was a scholar and a librarian in the Forbidden City before events five years past saw him exiled for his friendship with a man found to be a traitor. In his new life as a “scholar recluse,” Du finds himself in the far corner of China near the Tibetan planes just before the Emperor is due to arrive to predict a solar eclipse and strengthen his divine hold on this remote region. When a Jesuit priest turns up dead, Du feels compelled to learn the truth. The story progresses through the six days preceding the eclipse.

That’s the description, but the story is so much more. I was completely drawn to Li Du — a thoughtful, deliberate and highly moral man with a drive for the truth. I was also drawn to the idea of his quiet scholar’s life with quiet, beautiful physical books, and few people. Hart’s powers of description made me slow down and pay attention (I’m not a description person — I usually skim description in favor of dialog, action, or reflection).

This is the first of a three book series — I’ve already read (and loved) the third. I’m sad that I have just the second to go. I really think the BBC should do a mini-series!

Quiet: The Power of Introverts by Susan Cain (Non-fiction)

This book was a real treasure trove of information, and I consider myself an introvert who should have known it all already! Filled with research summaries, statistics, and case studies, it opened my eyes to aspects of our culture (and of myself) that I hadn’t previously considered.

Cain points out that “our lives are shaped as profoundly by personality as by gender or race.” She presents the American “extroversion ideal” — discussing its evolution and whether or not it is subscribed to by all cultures (it isn’t). Her case studies range from the bible (Moses was an introvert — God told him to have Aaron do all the talking) to CEOs to Tech companies (Woz vs Steve Jobs) to political figures (Al Gore).

Section 2 is all about the physiological basis of introversion which I found absolutely fascinating, and Section 3 compares cultures.

The last section of the book goes into tips for introverts who must live in this world: an entire chapter devoted to an illuminating Mars and Venus style dissertation on the communication challenges facing introverts and extroverts and strategies for schools, parents, and introverted kids (there is even a YA version of this book called Quiet Power: The Secret Strengths of Introverted Kids).

I was particularly stunned by her report on Elaine Aron’s research into “Highly Sensitive People,” of whom 70% are introverts. She describes 27 attributes ranging from sensitivity to sights, sounds, smells, pain, and coffee to their difficulty when being observed, difficulty with being judged for general worthiness, their dislike of small talk, feeling exceptionally strong emotions, processing information about their environments unusually deeply, and unusually strong consciences. Is it obvious that I resonated strongly with this? I always just thought I was a pain to travel with 😉

A well structured book with accessible writing — peppered with fun fact implications (did you know that people getting Botox injections are less anger prone because the very act of frowning — which Botox prevents — actually triggers the amygdala to process negative emotions?). I really enjoyed it and am sorry it took me this long to get around to it. I particularly urge all of you extroverts out there to give it a read!

The Bookman’s Tale by Charlie Lovett (Literary / Historical Fiction)

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel immersed in antiquarian book lovers, collectors and sellers. It is full of details on literary research, history, and techniques for binding, conserving and protecting — all seamlessly woven into a novel about love, passion, fascination, and … finding the holy grail of Shakespeare studies — proof of authorship.

The narrative alternates between three timelines: the “present” (1995) where antiquarian bookseller Peter Byerly is trying pull his life back together after the untimely death of his wife; 1983 when Peter is first drawn into the heady world of rare books and meets his wife-to-be; and lastly, a progression from 1592 through the late 1800s following the path of the particular book that may be all Peter has ever hoped to find.

A warning — around page 200 the book suddenly spews up a murder for which Peter appears to be being framed — I almost stopped reading right then. I worried that the entire book would devolve into a Da Vinci Code wanna be (not a compliment!) thriller protesting our hero’s innocence. Luckily — not so. It went back to the literary mysteries with the (somehow less important) murder mystery until the loose ends all tied up and everything was solved. I can see why the murder had to happen, but not why Peter had to be “framed.” Lovett gets dinged for that.

Great levels of depth and sophistication, intricate details about the rare book trade that are somehow never dry or dull, impressive insertion of academic mysteries into story — again not a boggy moment to be found. Lovett has a brand new book about to come out, and I am signing up to read it now!

Bryant & May: Oranges and Lemons (Mystery)

Number 17 in the ever enlightening, ever entertaining Bryant & May series. In this episode, the Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) — finally tipped over the brink of being shut down permanently — is “temporarily” reinstated to solve a series of high profile murders that appear to be following the verses of the age old children’s nursery rhyme “Oranges and Lemons.”

As always, the writing has me in stitches as well as completely gripped by the story. We have an intriguing new character — Sydney — who when queried about whether or not she is “on the spectrum” responds that she prefers to think of herself as “over the rainbow.” When accused of being offended by something, she responds “It’s the millennials who take offense. I’m Generation Z.” I love her. Each of the misfits of the PCU is bursting with an off-canter personality of some sort, especially Arthur Bryant who dwells happily in the arcana of existential English history and alternate forms of knowledge.

And also as always, I never saw the end coming until it smacked me in the face.

This is a unique mystery series — I’ve never read another one quite like it.

Thank you to Ballantine Bantam and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on NovDecember 8th, 2020.

 

Moonflower Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Mystery)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5

Ex-editor / publisher Susan Ryeland is living in a not-so-glorious involuntary retirement in Crete after the events of Horowitz’ Magpie Murders in which her primary author (Alan Conway) was murdered and her publishing company offices burned to the ground. Now she is approached by a pair of distraught parents who want to help find Cecily Treherne, their missing daughter. Why Susan? Because just before she went missing Cecily had called them to say that upon rereading Conway’s Atticus Pund Takes the Case, she realized that the wrong person had been jailed eight years ago for a murder taking place in the Treherne hotel. I love British murder mysteries but I am constantly amazed that anyone is left alive in the country!!

This is a murder mystery steeped in literary detection. Right in the middle of the novel we are treated to the entire text of Atticus Pünd Takes the Case to try to decipher what Cecily read. I didn’t figure it out and neither will you (let me know if I’m wrong — I’d love to hear!). The literary “clues” are deeply embedded in the book and we need the main character to unpack them for us. Luckily there are also a lot of un-literary clues that follow more traditional murder mystery lines.

Lots of fun to read, though I admit to having had a hard time keeping track of the initial characters once the book-within-a-book began (it is not short). Horowitz is an adaptable writer — he does a great job of writing in the style of another (his Sherlock Holmes stories are a case in point). The embedded Atticus Pünd book is in the style of Agatha Christie and Pünd himself is a thinly disguised Poirot (I literally just finished watching the entire David Suchet series so it was easy to spot).

Possibly a little long — especially the embedded book. I like the Horowitz style of writing better than the Agatha Christie-like writing so that also added to the feeling of wanting to get back to the main story a little faster. As always, though, the plot twists were just the right amount of convoluted and surprising. Worth reading.

Thank you to Harper Collins and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on November 10th, 2020.

 

The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman (Mystery)

Coopers Chase retirement village — a place where everyone has done something interesting with his or her life and everyone has a story. And trouble with technology, memory, and joints. They aren’t afraid to play the dementia card if it suits them. The Thursday murder club meets every — you guessed it — Thursday to talk about cold cases to see if they can solve the cases to its own satisfaction. That is, until a real murder falls into their lap. And then another, and possibly a third.

Sounds like your everyday cozy but it isn’t at all. The ocatgenarians of the club are interesting and smart: Elizabeth, with the mysterious background and friends in high and low places who all seem to owe her favors; Ibrahim, the retired psychiatrist, who pores over the cases he failed; Ron, the former trade union leader who loves a chance to get back on the stage; and Joyce, the newest addition, who has the often underappreciated skill of bringing everyone together while remaining invisible herself.

The plot is convoluted with all sorts of intertwining stories, some with actual bearing on the case and others simply with bearing on individual lives. Great writing that had me in stitches, completely gripped, and even tearful at times.

My one word summary: fun! Make that two words: Great fun!

Thank you to Penguin Group Viking and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 22nd, 2020.

 

The Once and Future Witches by Alix E Harrow (speculative fiction)

Writing: 5/5 Characters: 4.5/5 Plot: 4.5/5
Harrow is a fantastic storyteller! I very much enjoyed her The Ten Thousand Doors of January and this second novel is every bit as good if not better. Hooray!

The action takes place in New Salem in the 1890s. It’s a kind of alternate history where the women’s suffrage movement becomes entwined with a movement to bring back witching —benevolent witching being another route to to recover lost power for women in an era rife with female oppression. The three Eastwood sisters — bookish Beatrice Belladona, strong Agnes Amaranth, and wild James Juniper — are at the heart of the story as they work together with a growing sisterhood to bring back the Lost Way of Avalon.

It’s a book focused on women, with a smattering of male characters playing both utterly good and utterly evil men — a male version of the madonna / whore dichotomy. I love it! I also loved the way the embedded fairy tales — written by Charlotte Perrault and Andrea Lang — bore little resemblance to the fairy tales with wicked witches I’ve grown up with. A not so subtle reminder that history is written by the victor!

Lots of action but not the kind that bores me, plenty of interesting characters, and some fantastic malevolence captured in an evil creature of some inner complexity. She even manages to weave in lesbians and a trans person in a completely matter-of-fact manner. Lush prose suffused with magical realism and gripping from start to finish.

Great for fans of Alice Hoffman, Diane Setterfield, and Deborah Harkness.

Thank you to Redhook Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 13th, 2020.

Talking to Strangers by Malcolm Gladwell

I always love Gladwell’s books. This one is about the (sometimes very serious) mistakes we make when communicating with strangers. In typical Gladwell style the book blends research with anecdote with analysis of relevant high profile cases — Ana Montes, Bernie Madoff, Jerry Sandusky, Brock Turner, Amanda Knox, and some police departments. Even if you don’t recognize all of the names, you will recognize the cases.

There are three basic components to the problem. Humans are programmed to “default to the truth.” We like to believe people are telling the truth and unless the doubt becomes insurmountable, we have a tendency to rationalize away any misgivings or even the suspicions of others. Ana Montes and Bernie Madoff fall into this category. Transparency is next problem — we expect people’s internal feelings and thoughts to be reflected transparently on their faces … in the way we expect. We have been trained to expect a certain set of behaviors and expressions in someone who is sad, for example. When someone we don’t know behaves according to our expectations, we are confident we understand their inner state; when they don’t, we can easily misinterpret their behavior. Jerry Sandusky and Amanda Knox are cases that illustrate this phenomenon. Lastly, there is the concept of coupling to context. We don’t (can’t) understand the influence of context in which a stranger’s behavior is taking place. Sylvia Plath and Brock Turner (and alcohol) illustrate this point.

What to me is the most important part of the book, however, is that Gladwell points out that if we optimize for suspicion so that people like Ana Montes and Bernie Madoff don’t get away with their crimes for so long, we can tear the fabric of society apart. Most people don’t lie, commit crimes, or run around with malevolent intent, but if we treat everyone as suspicious — particularly those in a specific neighborhood, or with foreign license plates, or with a different colored skin — we run some terrible risks (which he illustrates in some very compelling ways). Now with Covid, it feels like we are viewing every other human being with suspicion.

As with all of Gladwell’s books — full of insight, completely accessible and utterly fascinating.