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.”

The Curious Heart of Ailsa Rae by Stephanie Butland (Fiction)

Edinburgh resident Ailsa is not your typical heroine — born with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, it’s a miracle she has made it the age of 28. As the book opens, she is rapidly winding down until she is given the miracle of a matching donor heart. This is the funny, insightful, and intimate story of what happens to someone who suddenly gets to think about a future she never thought she would have.

Ailsa is a blogger. She blogs as BlueHeart — named for the constant bluish tint to her skin due to lack of oxygen. To make the blog more interactive (and to ease the burden of choice from her own shoulders) she polls her large community of followers whenever she needs to make a decision. Post-transplant polls lead her to tango classes, a trip to London to help a new (and pretty sexy) “friend,” and an exciting role in an Edinburgh Fringe Festival gig.

Told through blog posts, emails, and narrative, we follow Ailsa through her adventures of coming to life and forming a relationship with her brand-new heart. Funny, heartfelt, and deeply philosophical, this book took me on a journey I never expected to make (and hope to never have to in real life).

I liked this book, though it felt a bit long in some places, but not quite as much as The Lost for Words Bookshop (which I loved).

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 October 29th, 2019.

Backpacking Book Review #3

The end of the backpacking trip was a little surprising.  Slipping down a sandy friction pitch I was pushed over by the pack and landed right on my face — specifically my poor nose — on a flat but very hard rock.  Did not even realize that this was possible.  Don’t think I’ll include a photo because really — you don’t want to see it!  But no broken teeth or nose, just some very strange bruising and a better attitude to scampering down friction pitches in the future …

Meant to Be Yours by Susan Mallery

Thank you to Harlequin and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on October 22nd, 2019.

Hunky Vietnam Vet Jasper (who is not as “broken” as he thinks) is freshly returned from his book tour. A successful action adventure writer, he wants to finish off one series so he can start another but is flummoxed by his utter inability to write women. Enter Renee Grothen — wedding planning extraordinaire — who herself has given up on men after some very bad experiences. And guess where they both live? Happily Inc — a (fictional) wedding destination town with a real Disneyland flair. We learn this all in the first few pages and we know how it’s going to end — but the journey is fantastic.

I really don’t care for the romance genre but I read everything Susan Mallery writes. Her characters are interesting and nuanced (yes — sexy as well) and the plots are twisty and fun with captivating side stories. To start with, Renee works on theme weddings, and although I am personally not into decorations, weddings, etc, I loved hearing about the “Dallas Cowboys,” Nutcracker, and Apple themed weddings, just to name a few. Add to that a town that features an animal preserve, a horse ranch run by the adopted daughter of the King of El Bahar, and a woman who can actually sense what animals are thinking — and you have all the ingredients of a pretty engaging story. Some extremely well-written and steamy sex scenes as well. This is not a “cozy romance” — the attraction between our two is palpable rather than polite.

Fun read!

Backpacking Book Review #2

Trip was to Desolation Wilderness.  Here are a couple of photos that have nothing whatsoever to do with the book!  But so beautiful! Look past them for the review of Elizabeth Berg’s The Confession Club…

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The Confession Club by Elizabeth Berg

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 November 19th, 2019.

The Confession Club is the third book in the continuing chronicles of Mason, Missouri (aka the Arthur Truluv sequels). Iris Winters — almost 50, renting the house where Arthur Truluv once lived, and continuing Lucille Howard’s baking classes — falls slowly and gently in love. The target of her affections is a man most would consider inappropriate — a homeless man who has taken up residence in a nearby abandoned farm. As a kind of Greek chorus, we also meet a group of women who belong to the Confession Club, where each meeting focuses discussion on one woman’s confession of perceived misdeed or general shame. This opens the story up to interesting exchanges about morals, guilt, and general life expectations.

Berg writes comforting books — books where happy endings exist and joy can be found even by those who least expect it as a possibility. Her characters are not young, hunky, and confused — instead they are older, experienced, and possess beautiful souls rather than bodies. The characters are well developed and endowed with a wide range of personalities — I found it interesting to see which characters I was drawn to, which irritated me, which I found prissy, funny, warm, or refreshingly direct. I’m sure each reader will have his/her own personal reactions to these realistic individuals — they serve as a kind of Rorschach test for understanding ourselves.

I did enjoy this book, but it didn’t bowl me over as did The Story of Arthur Truluv. Whereas I found Arthur to be a believable (and very lovable) character, I had a little more trouble with John Loney, the homeless veteran. He didn’t feel quite as fleshed out or believable (to me) and definitely not a representative sample of the homeless people I encounter regularly in San Francisco.

Backpacking Book Review #1 …

A recent backpacking trip left me exhausted and able only to read genre books — so here are reviews of three Mystery / Women’s Fiction / Romance novels that were quite enjoyable for a relaxing read on a rock facing gorgeous scenery. Review number 1…

Now You See Them by Elly Griffiths

Thank you to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on December 3rd, 2019.

The 5th book in Griffith’s Magic Men series, this episode takes place in Brighton in 1964. The Mods and the Rockers are coming into the public eye, getting into brawls and leading to moral panic amongst the British. DI Edgar Stephens (newly promoted to Superintendent) is investigating a string of missing girls though all the best ideas seem to come from his wife (previously his star sergeant and now frustrated mother of three), her equally frustrated journalist friend Sam, and the very tall, 19-year old, WPC Meg Connolly, a promising new policewoman. For those not in the know (like me), WPC stands for ‘Woman Police Constable” (the term was discontinued in 1999).

I’m a big Elly Griffiths fan, but haven’t read any books in this series. In comparison with the Ruth Galloway series and her standalone novel, I found this book to be a little more disjointed — particularly in the beginning where much of the text seemed extraneous to either the plot or the characters. However, the plot was gripping and I found the focus on intelligent women in constrained circumstances managing to accomplish a great deal fascinating. The sixties seem not that long ago (to some of us), but cultural expectations for women were vastly different than they are now. Reading the descriptions of the earlier four books, they seem to focus much more on DI Stephens and Max Mephisto (the variety magician), while this one seems to relegate them to a secondary role in solving the mystery. Interesting!

A Better Man by Louise Penny (Mystery)

Writing: 3/5 Plot: 4/5 Characters: 4/5
The latest installment of the beloved Inspector Gamache series is a bit disappointing, to be honest. I loved every one of her books until Glass Houses which I thought was terrible. After that came Kingdom of the Blind which was gratifyingly back to Penny’s typical level of excellence. Unfortunately, A Better Man appears to be a regression. It’s a decent story — Gamache and crew try to find a missing, frequently abused, woman and, eventually, identify her murderer. In the background is the threat of an every one-hundred-years flood, Gamache’s demotion to Head of Homicide after a nine month suspension, and the potential clash between Gamache and Beauvoir for the three overlapping weeks where they both wear the same title. Unfortunately, the book is poorly written, repetitive, and trite.

The book is overly emotional — many pages are devoted to Gamache and Beauvoir imagining their own feelings had it been their daughter who had been abused and eventually murdered. And while I love Gamache’s calm, steady, and kind manner, I swear that word kindness was presented multiple times on each page. It was as though Penny didn’t trust her readers to get the message and felt she had to repeat it over and over again. Or maybe she just didn’t have enough plot to fill the pages.

It was not a hard book to read — her writing style is clean and the plot twists were interesting. There were a few scenes in Three Pines which I always enjoy, but even there I think her characters have run their course — there is nothing new, and watching all of the hand wringing has become boring.

She also included a fairly shallow portrayal of a woman named Dominica Oddly — an all-powerful online art critic who, using her extremely popular online presence, could build or destroy artists with a single post. Oddly’s description was “wild black woman in dreadlocks and combat boots,” but she was given no further depth. This was combined with some plot around the dangers of social media with two tweet storms causing real pain for two of the characters. I feel like Penny is trying to update her fictional world but doesn’t have enough real understanding of it herself to give the characters the kind of depth she has been so successful with.

The Stone Circle by Elly Griffiths (Mystery)

I really like Elly Griffiths and I guess I now have to go back to start the series from the beginning. Good writing, appealing characters, twisted plots that I don’t figure out until the end and lots of archeology and pagan traditions thrown in. I did notice that her “families” are largely non-traditional — I actually had a little trouble keeping up with who was partnered with whom and who fathered whose children — but found the variety interesting and possibly more in keeping with the times? Gorgeous (but not too lengthy) landscape descriptions of Norfolk and coastal environs. This is #11 and I’ve only previously read #9. The characters definitely develop across the series so while I was never “lost” I definitely need to start at the beginning if I want to get to know the people as well as enjoying the story. Unlike some other series I’ve read, she is still pumping out full stories and not bulking out with lots of filler because the basic idea has run out of steam…