The Boys Who Woke Up Early by A.D.Hopkins (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Great historical fiction — peppered with the kind of details that say someone actually lived this story (or something close to it). Most historical fiction can’t help but overlay modern sensibilities on the story, but this one feels completely embedded in the time — from action to dialogue to thoughts.

Thomas Jackson “Stony” Shelor is a high school junior in small town Early, Virginia. His first-person account describes his experiences from Sept. 1959 through Sept. 1960 — working “for free” in the sheriff’s office, getting into trouble with town bullies, hankering after a girl who knows her own mind, and befriending the somewhat crazy new kid in town. This is all amidst much bigger events: massive black voter registration and the resulting Klan rallies; the (very) slowly shifting attitudes of whites towards blacks; and the fine line a good sheriff has to tread to work with corrupt elected officials and still try to keep a town lawful and safe.

It reads like good journalism — no surprise as this is the debut novel of a 46-year veteran journalist. I had forgotten how much I like a real story — not overburdened by excess angst, overly bold characters, and well-defined narrative arcs that bear little resemblance to reality.

I love the way the clean writing describes both the action and our narrator’s perceptions, reactions, and evolving opinions. He does some (to me) stupid things but we are treated to a real understanding of how his worldview and principles led him to those actions. Billed as a YA novel (the main character is 17), for me it was much more a documentation of a particular time and place as experienced by someone growing up in that time period. A nice juxtaposition of history and personal development.

As an aside, lots of interesting details about things like learning to shoot and care for firearms, working at a sheriff’s office, a garage or an apple orchard. Just enough detail to be interesting to someone (like me) that isn’t actually interested in those topics, but never enough to be boring. Also, fascinating attitudes among the largely working class members of the town — they don’t map to any definitions of “liberal” or “conservative” today — just people using their own minds as to the right way to live and treat people.

Washington Black by Esi Edugyan (Literary / Historical Fiction)

Writing: 5+/5 Plot: 5/5 Characters: 5/5

Shockingly good — one of the best books I’ve read in years. The plot follows Washington Black — born a slave on a brutal Barbados plantation in 1818, he becomes a naturalist illustrator, scientist, and inventor via circumstance mingled with aptitude and fortitude. The book defies categorization — it is simultaneously a wild adventure story and a personal reflection on a life propelled by both trauma and serendipity.

The story careens from the Barbados plantation to the open seas to the Arctic to England and beyond. The Victorian pursuit of knowledge and invention permeates every page (especially pertaining to marine life). The relationships across race, sex, and status in a violent and yet rapidly evolving time period are examined in every possible way. I love the depth of that exploration and what feels (to me) like a fair portrayal of the complexities of every one of those relationships — the individuals, the culture, and the time period all coming to bear and the bald fact of each person interpreting behaviors of others in very personal ways — there is no absolute truth, only personal truth. Wash himself is aware that his perceptions are probably flawed and yet that does not change them in any way.

The writing is Pulitzer quality — absolutely stunning — one of the few books I’ve read without skimming a single sentence. I rarely read books about slavery or the Holocaust — I’ve read too many and just don’t want to go there anymore. I picked up this highly recommended book with the intention of reading a couple of pages and then giving it back. I didn’t put it down for 75 pages (and then only because I was called to dinner!).

Highly, highly, recommended.

Here are too many quotes — just know that I winnowed these down from many, many, more:

“Moistening my lips, I sat at a table in the soft, monstrous upholstered chair, across from a white man who possessed the power of life and death over me. I was but a child of the plantations, and as I met his gaze with my own, my mouth soured with dread.”

“The skin round his eyes tightened. He shook his head. ‘Negroes are God’s creatures also, with all due rights and freedoms. Slavery is a moral stain against us. If anything will keep white men from heaven, it is this.’ “

“Christopher Wilde had not your best interests at heart. You were a cause to him, not a person — however much he protested otherwise. You were something to be used to further his own crusade, his own sense of goodness.”

“I understood. He meant that I had been a slave, and that the savagery of that past left me a ruined being, like some wretched thing pulled smoking from a fire. It did not matter that he accepted me as a thinking man, that he respected my mind, or even that he was in the midst of taking a favour from me. I was black-skinned and burnt, as disfigured inside as without…”

“I had long seen science as the great equalizer. No matter one’s race, or sex, or faith — there were facts in the world waiting to be discovered. How little thought I’d given to the ways in which it might be corrupted.”

“He was a wretched man, a pox, but I did not rejoice at the brutality of his end, however well deserved. He too had been a boy once, desirous of understanding the world. And how he had wasted all his talents, all his obvious facility for learning, twisting every new fact and arranging it into senselessness and cruelty. He had spent years trying to cultivate an ethos, and despite possessing a clear intelligence, he had lived his whole life in avoidable savagery.”

“…her silence was marked by a held-in rage that I have only now, several years later, come to understand as the suppression of will. For she was a ferociously intelligent woman, and it strained her to have to conceal it.”

“The sky was still black where we were, but the wind was already hurling us seaward. I watched the half-cut cane fields in the faint light, the white scars of harvest glistening like the part in a woman’s hair.”

“He was sixty years old at least, with pulsing red hands and extravagant wrinkles.”

“And despite all, his dark eyes seemed to me soft, restless, thoughtful, with a kindness so rarely granted to one like me that, meeting his eyes, I shivered.”

“How was it possible, thought I, that we lived in such nightmare and all the while a world of men continued just over the horizon, men such as these, in ships moving in any direction the wind might lead them? I thought how Titch had risked everything for me. I knew he had preserved my person despite the death of his own flesh and blood, and I knew, too, how strange it felt to be alive, and whole, and astonishingly worth saving.”

“After a long moment of trying to muster my courage to speak, I remained silent.”

“He had a thick black mustache and a very pale, grey mouth, as if his lips suffered for sunlight.”

“I saw him, and I kneeled dripping in the low entrance, staring. For he was short, fat, and under his scraggly whiskers was a face very much alive and quite brutally ugly.”

“For there could be no belonging for a creature such as myself, anywhere: a disfigured black boy with a scientific turn of mind and a talent on canvas, running, always running, from he dimmest of shadows.”

“Staring into her sharp face, her brown front teeth edging over her lower lip, I felt a kind of despair, sensing the solitary mornings of the world fade from me, and grow dim.”

“Sometimes when I spoke she’d stare on with quiet ferocity — but it was not pity I sensed there, nor morbid fascination, but something like a greed to fully enter my consciousness.”

“What an agony it was, to see them together: old Goff, earnest and probing and high-minded and utterly oblivious; Tanna, sharp-tongued and brilliant and stifled and yet somehow devoted to that self-absorbed man. It was clear to me that both were intelligent, kind people, but careless with each other’s feelings, and poles apart in temperament. I liked both immensely; I hated their way together.”

Westering Women by Sandra Dallas (Historical Fiction)

Writing: 4/5 Characters: 5/5 Plot: 3.5/5

Another great novel of the Historical West by Sandra Dallas.

This story brings to life a “wagon train of spinsters” as they make their way from Chicago to California ostensibly seeking good, Christian men to marry. Under the leadership of two preachers, the motley crew of women tackle a five-month trip across prairies, mountain ranges, and deserts in a race to cross the Sierras before winter sets in.

Dallas excels at writing women — their lives, thoughts, and relationships with each other. Starting the journey as a disparate set of individuals — each with something they are anxious to escape — they become more of a family than most have ever had: a real “band of sisters.” The story is set in beautifully described natural scenes and is suffused with well-researched details of life in that time and place: what they ate, how they cooked, what they wore, how they washed clothes, and what they valued. Topics are introduced from multiple perspectives: Mormon polygamy, engagement with Indians, racial injustice, and even different “models” of Christianity. A lot of fairly horrifying men populate the stories, but quite a few wonderful men as well. While I find her action scenes a little terse, I was instantly absorbed by her characters and their journeys — both physically across the country and internally to become a tight community of strong, self-reliant, confident women.

Thank you to St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on January 7th, 2020.

This I Know by Eldonna Edwards (Literary Fiction)

Writing: 5 Plot: 5 Characters: 5

I absolutely loved this book — just as I loved her latest book, Clover Blue. The author has such a luminous voice, and Grace — the 11-year old center of the story — completely captured my heart from the first page. There is something compelling about a young voice trying to make sense of the world. I think it must be the start from innocence — it feels fresher and unsullied.

Grace is born with a gift she calls “The Knowing.” She sometimes knows when something is going to happen, she can sense illness and sometimes heal, and she can always talk to her twin brother Isaac — who she remembers from the womb but who never made it into the world alive. Her father is a preacher who worries that Grace’s talents are the work of the devil, while Grace (and Isaac) believe it is a gift from God. And therein lies the context of this delicate and unique coming-of-age story set in rural Michigan in the 60s.

Gorgeous, exquisite, writing; perfect pacing; an array of characters that pull at your heartstrings; and a beautiful, beautiful, ending.

Some great quotes:
“My teachers call me a day-dreamer, but I’m not dreaming. The me who goes places in my head is a lot more awake than the bored me sitting at my desk.”

“I love the soft flesh of Mama’s warm palm against my own even though sometimes I feel a deep sorrow through her skin. Mama usually does a good job of hiding behind her preacher’s wife smile, but sometimes her crinkled forehead gives her away.”

“Daddy tends to leave a dent in soft things. Not just because he’s big, but because he means to. Everything about him is heavy, from his voice to the way his food lands on the floor. Sometimes just in the way he looks at you.”

“Not having Mama as part of our family is like having the thread slip from the needle. She pulled us all into this world and we need her to keep us sewn together.”

“It’s not what I was expecting. And no, I didn’t know that. Lately I feel like a chipped plate at a table set for company.”

“But I can feel him. I feel his loneliness and his sadness as if they were my own. Maybe they are mine. Maybe the reason we get along so well is because we know exactly how the other feels”

“Everyone is offered this gift, but most people turn away from it at a very young age. Truth frightens people. You’re one of the brave ones.”

The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton (Historical Fiction)

A beautifully written, meticulously researched, fictionalized history of the Kindertransport effort which managed to rescue 10,000 children from Nazi occupied Europe in the nine months prior to the outbreak of WWII (relocating them to England which temporarily waived immigration requirements for the effort. A similar effort in the U.S. was quickly quashed by FDR himself.)

We follow two narratives that slowly weave together: one follows Geertruida Wijsmuller or “Tante Truus,” — the Dutch woman who drives the Kindertransport effort from the politicking at home to the many, many, individual rescues in Europe. The other follows children and their families in Vienna who will eventually become part of Tante Truus’ transport.

I loved the characters — particularly the Austrian children. Clayton succeeded in making these children so bright and so real, their pain and determination nuanced and completely beyond the brief words I can find to describe them. Stephan Neuman — a 16-year old, budding playwright — and his five-year old brother Walter. Theirs is a highly cultured family, and I loved the immersion in the rich cultural world that Stephan inhabited. Stephan’s friend Žofie-Helene Perger — a mathematical prodigy whose non-Jewish mother is a journalist who speaks out against the Nazis putting herself and her family at great risk. And how can you not love Tante Truus who literally can’t bear to think about a child getting left behind if there were anything at all she could do to prevent it.

The real brilliance of Clayton’s book lies in the meticulous portrayal of the many tiny details that comprise life at that time — the underground tunnels, the linotype machines, and mouthwatering descriptions of the chocolatier’s trade. Hovering like a black cloud over these small details, the progressive hardships and changing attitudes of neighbors and friends, the slow shame that creeps up on children who are suddenly treated as different, the insidious and constant fear, disbelief, and tension that inhabits every moment. At the same time, the macroscopic details of global policies — the committees, the bureaucracy, the movements, and the fear on the part of foreign populations and governments as they slowly turn their backs on what was happening to the Jews (and other undesirables) in Europe as the Nazis plow their way through the continent. The book is utterly gripping.

For me, this is the best of the recent spate of WWII / Holocaust books: it felt incredibly real, and I was surprised to learn new things about a topic in which I’m quite well-read. I appreciated that the ultimately uplifting story was focused on survival and rescue, rather than the horrors and despair of the camps. A surprising extra: enduring the frustration (with our characters) of watching countries closing their borders to such desperate need (even though Jewish societies had offered financial support to ensure that host countries would not bear the costs) gave me a new perspective on the refugee crises facing the world today.

Thank you to HarperCollins Publishers and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 10th, 2019.

Heaven, My Home by Attica Locke (Mystery)

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

Thank you to Mulholland Books and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on September 17th, 2019.

Race is always front and center in this second “Highway 59 Mystery” book following the work of black Texas Ranger Darren Matthews. In this episode, he is investigating the disappearance of a 9-year old white boy whose father (now incarcerated) was big in the Aryan Brotherhood. At the outset, it seems likely that the boy will be following in his father’s footsteps based on his early and nasty harassment of his black and native American neighbors. Set in the time period of the Trump election, the plot tangles together potential hate crimes, peculiarities of East Texas geography, and convoluted connections to history, family, and communities whose borders are not always what they seem. The latter is where Locke really shines.

The writing is good, the characters have real depth (FYI the black characters are far more sympathetic than any of the white ones). Darren Matthews is a great lead — strong, competent, and human — driven from an intense moral core. I appreciated his constant struggles with the morality of his actions, coupled with an awareness of his own flaws.

I read an advance reader copy and did find the writing to be a little muddier and in need of editing than the first novel (which I thought was spectacular). This is a solid mystery — convoluted plot, deep characters, good writing — but it doesn’t achieve the literary level of book one in which I found many, many, lines of perfect craft and deep beauty (see my review of the prior novel — Bluebird, Bluebird  — at:https://bibliobloggityboo.com/2018/11/07/bluebird-bluebird-by-attica-locke/).

The Bloodletters Daughter by Linda Lafferty (Fictionalized History)

Yuck.

This is the *worst* kind of fictionalized history. I’m not a fan of fictionalized history to begin with — combining fact with imagination without clear separation is irritating. But in this case the author went one step further — she simply threw out any real history that didn’t support her story and added in a completely false story, using with real historical characters. If she wanted to write a melodrama and place it in an historical context, why not just pick a time and some fake characters and go from there? Instead, she uses a real King (Rudolf II, the Holy Roman Emperor, King of Bohemia, and King of Hungary and Croatia from 1576 – 1612), his bastard son (Don Julius), and a rumor that the latter abused, killed, and disfigured the local barber’s daughter and turned it into a giant melodrama featuring a lunatic (Don Julius), a ravishing and determined “simple Bohemian bath girl” (the barber’s daughter), and an entire people who simultaneously lived in fear because the King was so powerful that Don Julius could do whatever he liked and yet forced the King to leave his throne at the end because they were so angry that Don Julius killed an innocent girl.

Honestly, the whole book was stupid from beginning to end. There were some poorly integrated sections referencing conflict between the Catholics, Protestants, and the Ottomans, and some others talking about Kepler, Galileo, and Brahe but they had absolutely nothing to do with the story.

Normally I would have stopped reading after the first references to the “azure eyes” and “russet hair” of the heroine — clear markers of a frivolous book — but this was a book club selection so I had to see it through to the end.