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.

Pet by Akwaeke Emezi (YA)

Writing: 5/5 Plot: 3/5 Characters: 4.5/5

There are no Monsters left in the town of Lucille. Long ago, in a time not often spoken about, the Angels rid the town of Monsters and left the inhabitants with a peaceful existence. But when Jam’s mother, Bitter, paints a picture that comes alive when accidentally touched with Jam’s blood, it appears that perhaps not all of the Monsters in Lucille are gone after all. It appears that “Pet” has come hunting a Monster, and it is closer than anyone would like…

The book’s description did not prepare me at all for the vibrant, powerful, writing. It is vivid and visceral — the kind where every phrase says far more than its constituent words would suggest. Strong themes of righteous vengeance against evil combined with realistic and subtle explanations of what people do. “Monster” is the epithet for people who do bad things, but “Angels” and “Monsters” aren’t pretty or ugly like the pictures in a book: “It’s all just people, doing hard things or doing bad things. But is all just people, our people.”

The plot is actually a bit simplistic (aimed at a middle school audience), but the characters, writing, and themes make it impossible to put down. Emezi is going right on my “follow” list.

Some of my favorite quotes:
“Jam always felt lucky when she stood in the path of her father’s joy.”

“Everyone, everything deserved some time to be. To figure out what they were. Even a painting. Bitter finishing it was just her telling it what she thought it was, or what she’d seen it as. It hadn’t decided for itself yet.”

“You humans and your binaries, Pet said. It is not a good thing or a bad thing. It is just a thing.”

“It built a stone of guilt in her chest, and Jam added it to the pile that had been forming there since she told Pet to stay.”

“That’s precisely the point, little girl. Your knowing, you think it gives you clarity, sight that pierces. It can be a cloud, a thing that obscures.”

“Jam nodded, even though the fear was still a tangled necklace in her stomach, heavy and iron.”

“The creature growled low in its throat and changed its body language, small shifts that bled naked menace into the room.”

“But Jam could still feel the anxiety and fear like a spilled sourness soaked up by the floor, circulating through the house.”

“Not one of my concerns in this life, to be nice, to sound nice, what is nice.”

“Your world is unpleasant, your truths are unpleasant, the hunt is unpleasant.”

Thank you to Random House Children’s 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.

When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald

Writing: 4/5 Plot: 4.5/5 Character: 5/5

21-year old Zelda is obsessed with Vikings. Drawing inspiration from Viking lore, she is writing (and living) her own legend, tackling life with courage and loyalty to her tribe. She was also born on the fetal alcohol syndrome spectrum (FASD) and is aware of needing to take things slowly, follow rules, and study things more thoroughly than others. Her brother Gert — with his shaved head, tattoos, and a thug-like exterior — has been taking care of her since he extracted both of them from the abusive Uncle who took them in when their mother died.

A remarkable cast of characters populates this unique coming-of-age story as Gert gets into some questionable means of support in a neighborhood rife with violence and trouble … and Zelda tries to help. It has one of the most beautiful, heartfelt, and meaningful endings I’ve ever read. It wasn’t the traditionally happy ending I was expecting, but one in which people had to learn some hard truths about themselves and the people they loved. I particularly appreciated the way nobody was presented as all “bad” or all “good” but merely people trying to do their best, not always succeeding, and coming to terms with how to make the best of what they had.

Zelda’s voice is quite engaging. While many reviewers call it “humorous”, I actually found it to be innocent and completely lacking in artifice — which I found quite refreshing. From Zelda directly, galvanized by her Viking research: “Dagaz means to become awake or to transform. That is what I want to do in my legend: I want to go from a normal Viking to a hero.”

Highly recommended.

Thank you to Gallery/Scout Press and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on Jan 28th, 2019.

Witches’ Dance by Erin Eileen Almond (Fiction)

Thank you to Lanternfish Press 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.

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

An ambitious novel about a young violinist who must fight her own inner demons while in thrall to an extremely talented — and potentially crazy — teacher and former prodigy. The chapters rotate through the perspectives of the three main characters: Hilda, the young violinist who we meet at age 15; her mother Claire, a ballerina whose career was killed by an unplanned pregnancy; and Phillip Manns, a former prodigy who suffered a nervous collapse eight years previously and is only now allowing music in some form back into his life.

The story is gripping. While there were some wonderful musical references, the story is far more about the melodrama of their relationships and personal discovery (or lack thereof). Personally, I would have enjoyed more about the music, the drive, and the “art” portion of those with artistic sensibilities. This is more of a drama with an excellent musical background than a literary piece that manages to convey what it means to be such an artist. For example, while Hilda spends an astonishing amount of time practicing, all her thoughts and reflections are bent towards her obsession with Phillip Manns. Manns, on the other hand, is obsessed with the music but is haunted by the memory of his “beautiful, doomed mother,” Domenica. Claire is struggling to both hide and express the “Secret Mother” within her — the mother who wishes she wasn’t a mother at all.

Strong, dramatic plot, decent writing, characters that I did not bond with(but you might) and some beautiful musical context. My big takeaway — I want to go to the bi-annual Paganini competition held in Genoa next Fall.

Generation Friends by Saul Austerlitz (Entertainment Industry)

A fun read for those of us who are big Friends fans (and apparently there are a lot of us). I’m not a big TV person — I don’t have cable, and usually just watch a single movie on DVD at night — but I loved Friends, owned all the DVDs, and it was definitely my go to in times of stress. I just never realized how popular it was with everyone else.

The book tracks the show from concept through the ten seasons to the offshoots, residuals, and “where are they now” recaps. Decent (and sometimes excellent) writing, a good structure, and comprehensive in scope, it has just the right amount of gossip and mixes plenty of pleasant recognition with surprisingly fresh insights. I also learned a lot about the making of TV — scheduling, showrunners, production companies vs networks, bidding wars, contract negotiations and some fascinating explanations of what went into the set and costume design.

I liked the first half better — the second half included a lot of bits that needed to be included to be complete but weren’t terribly interesting to me — one female writer’s hostile workplace suit, Matthew Perry’s addiction issues, etc. I didn’t always agree with the author’s conclusions, and sometimes felt there was too much episode recap, but overall I thoroughly enjoyed myself and learned a lot about how things work in an industry far away from my own.

Some fun quotes:
“Chase and Ungerleider had emerged from the same bookish East Coast Jewish milieu as Kauffman and Crane. Chase knew he could instantly summon that overly caffeinated, verbose, linguistically tricky voice.”

“Journalists pored over the results with the nuance of elderly Talmudists, intent on parsing the meaning of the message being sent by the American moviegoing populace.”

“Neither Crane nor Kauffman was familiar with the term going commando, but when the entire staff urged them to include it, asserting that their audience would instantly understand the reference, they acceded. (Eventually, the Oxford English Dictionary would credit Friends with one of the earliest recorded usages of the term.)”

“The world of Friends is notable, to modern eyes,” wrote New York’s Sternergh, “for what it encompasses about being young and single and carefree in the city but also for what it doesn’t encompass: social media, smartphones, student debt the sexual politics of Tinder, moving back in with your parents as a matter of course, and a national mood that vacillates between anxiety and defeatism.”

Thank you to Penguin Group Dutton 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.

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.

The Boy at the Back of the Class by Onjali Q Rauf (Children’s Fiction)

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

This is a British story about the Syrian refugee crisis — focused on one small boy and given a fairy tale ending. 9-year old Alexa gets excited from the first moment she sees the new boy — Ahmet — sitting quietly at the back of the room. She and her three friends befriend him and are introduced to his plight just as the UK is moving to stop the flow of refugees completely by “closing the gates.” Alexa conceives the “MOST AMAZING PLAN” (backed up with an “Emergency Plan”) to help keep the gates open, help Ahmet find his family, and deal with the “haters” of the world (with clearly marked names such as “Mrs. Grimsby” in case you are in doubt as to who they are).

The book is sweet and does an excellent job of portraying the refugee crisis in real human terms by describing one boy’s very sad situation. I do feel that the story was oversimplified and did not like the way everyone was depicted (literally) as “good guys” and “bad guys.” While I support trying to find a real solution to refugee problems, this book was written as a very heavy handed propaganda piece. Anyone who doesn’t absolutely support unlimited refugee immigration is labeled (literally) a “bully,” a “hater,” “heartless,” “selfish,” and by implication stupid, and irrational. I don’t think that was necessary — it would have been just as effective a book if she had focussed on one young refugee’s experience, the way the kids had helped bring attention to his plight, and some positive messages about how refugees can be helped and integrated into society, without including all the nasty labels and overly simplified and often inaccurate portrayals of those with other opinions.

A child in the class — “Brendan the Bully” — is portrayed as a terrible boy with no possibility of education or redemption. And when explaining what is happening in Syria, Alexa’s mother explains: “The bad people are just much stronger than they are and like to feel big and powerful by bullying them. You see, some people think that by taking things away from other people and hurting them, it gives them more power, and the more power they have, the more they want and the greedier they get. So they go on hurting more and more people until everyone wants to run away.” Is that really an accurate description of the Syrian civil war? I don’t think so — and I think that oversimplifying problems for children by blaming and labeling whole groups of people as simply irredeemably bad is a very dangerous proposition.

Thank you to Random House Children’s and NetGalley for providing an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review. The book will be published on August 6th, 2019.