Sunday, May 13, 2018

Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi: A DNF that I Finally Finished

May has been a month where I've skipped the fun and frothy books and instead dove straight into the tough reads. I can't lie; reading too many in a short time frame tends to bring me down. 

That is part of the reason why I tried reading Homegoing before, and just couldn't do it. I definitely believe in books not only reflecting your mood, but affecting your mood. Homegoing was a tough read for me; I picked it for my book group's May read because it would push me to read it. We meet on Tuesday, and I'm looking forward to the discussion we'll have about this thought provoking novel. 

Homegoing  is about eight generations of people who come from two half-sisters who don't realize the other exists. One sister, Effia, stays in Ghana and is married to a white British officer there to help with the slave trade in the late 1700's--when British interests in acquiring and selling slaves was huge. Unbeknownst to Effia for most of her young life, she has a half-sister, Esi, who was also raised in Ghana, but in a different village and a different tribe. The cruelty of slavery and tribal affiliations begin early with Effia and Esi, as Esi is captured by raiders and sent to the dungeons at the Castle, the very place where Effia is living with her British husband. Esi is shipped off to the United States, to become a slave and begin the chain of events that will shape her descendants into the 20th century. 

Effia doesn't have it all good, either. Despised by her step-mother, caught between two worlds, unhappy with her life, her descendants remain in Ghana for generations, until Yaw, disfigured by an accident as a baby, moves to the United States to teach. Finally, the two branches meet in San Francisco as Yaw's daughter Marjorie and Esi's great-great-great-great-great (I think?!) grandson Marcus travel back to Ghana in a very moving final chapter. 

There are so many stories, and each is heartbreaking. No one in this novel has a happy life. The issue of slavery is so prevalent for both sides that it is soaked into the fiber of their being. Seeing the chain of generations, and reading their stories, it is very clear why, even today, events that took place hundreds of years ago keep thundering through our lives and our nation.  The women in this novel are extraordinary; fierce, strong, and survivors of enormously horrible situations. Sprinkled through the generations, there are also men who stand out. 

The story that I most connected to was H's story. Born into slavery (his mother's story is so sad I can't even think about it!), freed after the Civil War, and sent to work in coal mines as punishment for not being able to pay bail, H is such a strong character through every trial that comes his way. His journey was probably my favorite part of the novel. So, so good. 

Homegoing is a very emotional novel, and that is what makes it hard to read quickly, or in one sitting. You have to sit with it, think about each generation as they tell their story, and follow the chain of history down through the generations. Family history, world history, magic, spiritual belief, ancestor respect-all are a part of this novel, along with the all too often whims of fate.  People sometimes don't understand how something that happened 200 years ago can affect our present day; this novel shows that very thing over and over again, and for that, this is a novel that everyone should read. High schoolers and college age students should read this and discuss it together. 

I am very glad I returned to this DNF and finished it. Not many books have the power to deeply move me; Yaa Gyasi's astounding novel joins that list. 

Rating:  5/6 for a novel that is not an easy read-not because of writing style, or plot, but because of the powerful characters who live, love, dream, and survive tragedy after tragedy through the generations. I highly recommend this for book groups, high school and college students, and anyone interested in history. 

Available in hardcover, paperback, ebook, and audio.

Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Hardscrabble by Sandra Dallas

After reading In Cold Blood and The Hazel Wood, I needed something a little lighter! Enter Sandra Dallas' Hardscrabble, a children's novel about homesteading in 1910 Colorado.  Sandra is one of my favorite authors, and her new adult novel, The Patchwork Bride, is due out in early June.  I simply can't wait!

Here's what I love about Sandra Dallas.  She writes about pioneers, homesteaders, and folks who lived hard lives in the settling of the West and Mid-West. Her main characters are always women, and they're women you would love to know. Strong, loyal, hardworking women who just want the best life they can manage--often times, at the end of a long, rough road.  

Hardscrabble is no different, but it's softened for a younger audience. It centers on the Martin family, who travel to Mingo, Colorado after their farm fails in Iowa.  Belle, her mother and six siblings meet her father at the train station, and soon approach their new home: a sod house.  It's a long way from the beautiful farmhouse they left in Iowa, but they're starting over on a homestead. Neighbors include Lizzie, a single woman living on her own claim, determined to prove up and have her own farm. Two characters from Dallas' adult novel The Diary of Mattie Spencer also live nearby, and I was happy to see them all these years later, thriving and enjoying the rewards of their hard work.  

The novel moves through nearly a year on the homestead, and of course life is not easy, and filled with bad weather, threats to crops, and tragedy. It's nothing we haven't read about in other novels set in the homesteading years of the United States, but Dallas writes from Belle's viewpoint, and that makes it all simply told, with a bit of sass and humor thrown in-just as a young girl would be today.  Certainly fans of Laura Ingalls Wilder will eat this one up.  

This was a quick read, but a lovely, quiet one. It helped reset my internal reading clock a bit.  If I read too many dark themed novels in a row, I get bummed out.  While not everything is smooth sailing for the Martin family, the obvious love in the family, the cheerful attitudes, and the strong presence of Beck Martin, their father, help keep things moving along and light even in sad times. Lizzie's presence as a strong woman on her own, fixing wagons, planting crops, baking, and raising chickens is a bright spot, and a glimpse at the changing world in 1910.  She doesn't want to get married and have to give up her homestead before it's proven to be hers, and she can own it free and clear. 

All in all, a delightful, quick read on one of my favorite subjects: pioneering.  

Rating:  4/6 for a sweet story about the Martin family starting all over again in Mingo, Colorado in 1910. Good times and bad make this a novel about sticking together, working through problems, and loving each other. 

Available in hardcover and ebook. 

Monday, May 7, 2018

The Hazel Wood by Melissa Albert

After reading In Cold Blood, I wanted something completely different; something "fairy tale-ish".  Well, I got fairy tales, just not the light, fluffy tales I was looking for to brighten my reading mood.

I bought this book a few months ago after hearing the buzz about it. The cover, of course, was a big push towards picking up the book.  The cover art is great. I can pick out parts of the story looking at that cover. I am, however, still a bit puzzled as to what exactly I read, and my slight feelings of disappointment/perplextion haven't lessened in the hours since I turned the last page.

Short synopsis: Alice and her mother, Ella, have never stayed in one place for long, in all her seventeen years. Constantly on the move, it seems that bad luck follows them everywhere they go. Finally settling in New York City, Ella does the unthinkable: she gets married. Alice's grandmother, the famous, reclusive author of a book of dark fairy tales, has died, and Ella thinks they are finally free.

But they aren't. Ella is kidnapped--by creatures who populate those dark fairy tales. Those tales aren't tales at all, but in actuality, a place called the Hinterland, and the Hazel Wood is the estate where Alice's grandmother secluded herself and raised Ella. Ella's warning words of never going to the Hazel Wood are ignored by Alice, who sees it as the only chance to find her mother. Alone in the world, she takes a chance and befriends a fellow student, Ellery Finch, who has not only has read the fairy tales, but is an avid fan. As Alice and Ellery realize the Hinterland is bleeding into modern day New York City, the two worlds become more and more entangled, and the line between what is real and what is fairy tale is blurred. 

Alice is a tough character; she's rude, distrustful, and pretty angry. I would be, too, if I never had the chance to settle and have a normal life. Part of her anger stems from feeling rejected by the grandmother she never met, and now never will. The bad luck that seems to follow Alice and her mother is never ending. Ella's unwillingness to discuss her mother, the fairy tales, or the Hazel Wood have left Alice with a lot of dead ends and unanswered questions that can only be answered if she finds Hazel Wood. Is it a real place, or a fairy tale place? Are the fairy tales: dark, cruel, and, quite frankly, murderous, real? 

I was pretty interested in this tale for about 3/4 of the novel. The sense of always being watched; seeing odd ball characters, strange portents that come out of nowhere; these kept me reading. I loved the building of tension, and the wondering, along with Alice of just what the hell was going on. But once Alice arrives at the Hazel Wood, it seemed like a mishmash of absolute nonsense and wild feverish imaginings. I felt like I was wading through, looking for anything to make sense. I couldn't figure out if the Hinterland was trying to kill Alice, or welcome her. And Ellery, well, you'll just have to visit the Hinterland to see where his story goes. 

It's a good book, but I felt it was disjointed, and maybe the author wanted the reader to feel all topsy-turvy and confused. I myself am not a fan of that-especially when I leave the fun house and am still wondering just what the heck that was all about. 

Rating:  2/6 for a novel about very dark fairy tales, and what happens when you mess with them. Also a novel about a young girl who has to grow up, become stronger than she imagines she can be, and finding her place in the world.

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.

Thursday, May 3, 2018

Reading a Classic: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

I've realized for me, reading classics pretty much came to a halt after college. So many new titles to read, I just didn't have time for "the old stuff". Twenty-four years later, I still don't read classics. Shame on me. While high school was full of the usual suspects: The Scarlet Letter, Huck Finn, Pride & Prejudice, Animal Farm, Fahrenheit 451; college added a few: Frankenstein, Beloved...it seemed to be more of a movement away from older classics and a move towards new writers and what at the time weren't classics, but now after 20 odd years, are classics. I just didn't get to read everything I should have, and would have liked to read. 

I hope to change that going forward, and make more of an effort to look back at what I've missed and add a classic into my reading choices every once in awhile. In Cold Blood is in this month's read simply because I had to read a novel that was written the year I was born for a book group.  It was a toss up between this and Valley of the Dolls.  I did buy both, and I plan on reading VOD this summer. I was born in the middle of the 1960's; when Vietnam was raging, the Beatles were famous, and people were either protesting or, like my parents, raising kids and living a very middle class life in the burbs. I don't remember any of it, and only vaguely recall Nixon as President. I was busy playing outside and looking at National Geographic magazines at  home (I think pretty much every middle-class family had a subscription to Nat Geo!).  Loved the pictures, couldn't read just yet. 

So onto In Cold Blood. It's a book I handled hundreds of times while I worked at the bookstore; shelving it, putting it on summer reading tables; finding it for customers. I knew the basic story, but it was always "one day I'll get to it". Never intrigued enough to actually read it. 

My first night starting the book, I was hearing Truman Capote in my head. As I got closer to the night of the murders, I put it down and went to bed. Up again in the wee hours of the morning, I had to search the internet and find more about the Clutter family and why Capote wrote the novel. It is, after all, a true crime story; so why not a non-fiction book?  Simply because, while it is based on a true incident, there are enough speculative conversations and what is clearly a fictional scene at the end to make it fiction.  So if you're looking for this book in a bookstore, or in a library, it will be in fiction. 

What I found in my short spurt of research made the book that much more interesting to me.  Capote spent years on this, interviewing everyone in the small town of Holcomb, Kansas; interviewing the two suspects: Richard "Dick" Eugene Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, and even spending time in the Clutter home. It became an obsession for him, and caused a sensation when it was published.  

Here are the bones of the story: On November 15, 1959, the Clutter family: Herb, his wife Bonnie, and his teenage children Nancy and Kenyon were bound, gagged, and brutally shot to death in their home. Herb, a rancher, had not only been shot, but his throat slit. An outstanding community member, Herb had no enemies and no one could figure out why anyone would harm the Clutter family. The phone line had been cut, and it looked like robbery was the motive. Everyone in Holcomb knew Herb never had cash on him; he paid for everything with checks. A prosperous rancher, he put everything back in to the ranch, and lived simply. 

The only clues left were bootprints-one in Herb's blood. Police had little to go on, and it looked like this might end up being an unsolvable murder. It's hard to remember this was a time before the advances in forensics we have today, so I had to cringe when folks burned the blood stained mattresses and couch ONE DAY AFTER THE MURDERS. What?!

Dick and Perry, however, take up most of the novel. Leaving Holcomb, they end up driving to Mexico, and then wind their way back through Miami, Kansas, and Las Vegas in the six weeks after the murders. The two of them are ex-cons, out on parole. You don't know what exactly happened that night until both men are arrested in Las Vegas, and Perry confesses on the ride back to Kansas. Four people murdered, for $40, a radio, and binoculars. But who did the shooting? Perry confesses to killing Herb and Kenyon, but claims Dick shot Nancy and Bonnie. They had heard about the Clutter ranch, and that Herb kept $10,000 in a safe at home, and decided they were going to rob it, and leave no witnesses. They came prepared to kill. The complete lack of emotion and regret is astounding. Yet while reading about these two criminals, I was struck by Capote's attempts to make them pitiful and sympathetic. They became the focus of the novel, and the Clutters, I felt, were quickly relegated to the background.  We never get to know the Clutter family much at all; and for that reason, I can see why the two surviving Clutter daughters (neither lived at home) were so upset by this work, and to this day, have not granted interviews and do not discuss their family tragedy. 

Capote's writing is, however, masterful. His spare, unemotional writing reflects the coldness of the murderers, and the Kansas winter; wind sweeping over the plains, and cold, quiet nights. He sees the unwinding of a small town, as people move away, become less trustful, and absorb the enormity of the murders. 

I'm interesting in watching the movie Capote, which takes place during the In Cold Blood years. There is a new documentary about the Clutter murders, produced in 2017 called Cold Blooded: The Clutter Family Murders.  I haven't been able to find it to watch it, but I will! 

So, what did I really think of this novel? It took me over a week to read it, because I was filled with dread in the first 25 pages.  I just didn't want to read about the murders. I put it down, then picked it up again and read it through. Dick and Perry are cold blooded, unfeeling killers, and no bad childhood or mental diagnosis will ever make me feel differently about them. It was an interesting crime novel, and I'm glad I read it. I loved Capote's writing style, and now I understand just what lies in between the covers of a book I've held in my hands so many times.  I think it would make a good book group discussion, and I'm sure it has, many times. For crime fiction or non-fiction crime fans, this is considered the first fictional non-fiction crime novel, and set a standard for the genre. 

Rating:  4/6 for the suspense of the novel, and the writing of Truman Capote. I felt the Clutter family were mostly ignored, and Capote's obsession with the two killers was foremost in the novel. I'm not telling you how the two were finally caught and arrested. Read it and see. 

Available in paperback, ebook, and audio. 

Monday, April 30, 2018

May Reads: Revisiting a DNF and a Favorite Author

May brings me a lot of difficult choices in my reading. I've certainly got a lot of choices, and I'm having a hard time making a decision. But there are certainly a few books I'm determined to read this month, one way or another. May is kicking off a busy summer season, and May brings a graduation party, an out of town baptism, work, and scrambling to work on yard projects. Without further ado, here's what's on tap for May:

I'm reading this novel based on an actual horrific murder in 1959 Kansas. I've started it, become fascinated by the Cutter family, and want to know more. It is not an easy read, however, and I've got a few weeks to finish it before my book club meets.  Our group's theme this month was to read a book that was published the year we were born. One of those books I've always wanted to read, but never did. Until now. 

 Saw this at the bookstore and thought it looked like fun. Three women open a bookshop in Scotland and murder soon follows. I've read a lot of mixed reviews on this, so it will be interesting to see what I think of it. 

Bought this months ago, and finally plucked it off the bookshelf. A YA novel of mystery, magic, and adventure. 

While I await Sandra Dallas' next adult novel, I will read her children's book about a young girl and her family's struggle to homestead in 1910 Colorado. I absolutely love the cover art, and Sandra is a favorite author of mine. 

Oh, Homegoing. I tried and failed to read you before, and I'm giving it another go because I assigned it to a book group for May. Yes, I assigned this novel to make myself finish it this time. And I will. I look forward to discussing it with my group in a few weeks. 

I will probably read something fun and frothy, or at least lighter than what I've picked for May. Two are required for book groups; the others are my choice. I hope I enjoy them all--we'll just have to wait and see. 

Here's to sipping iced tea on the deck, enjoying the sun, and relaxed reading in warm weather. Cheers!

Saturday, April 28, 2018

Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi

It took me a few weeks, but I finally finished Children of Blood and Bone this morning. I  don't read a lot of YA novels and shame on me for missing some pretty good stuff in the past few years. The buzz around Tomi Adeyemi has been high, and I couldn't ignore it.  I bought a special edition at Barnes & Noble on the day it was released; it has an annotated chapter and a fold out map. It's always fun to read author notes and see what they were thinking as they wrote scenes, so if you have a chance, check it out. 

Adeyemi is a gifted writer, and she doesn't shy away from unpleasant situations. There are torture, death, and oppression in this tale of a people who were once magical, but have been murdered for their gifts out of fear and anger by King Saran, who rules Orisha.  Their children were spared, and without magic, they are the downtrodden; "maggots" taxed beyond their means, and treated like dirt. They are known by their snow white hair, which sets them apart from the rest of the people. 

Out of this, two sets of siblings meet and start on a journey to bring magic back.  Prince Inan and Princess Amari are the children of King Saran.  He's a nasty father, and regularly pits his children against each other in battle training. Zelie and Tzain are brother and sister, living in Ilorin, secretly being schooled in fighting, in the hope that one day the Maji and diviners will have a chance to rise up and regain their magic. When Amari is shattered by a close friend's brutal death, she  steals a scroll from her father that, with a few other tools, can bring magic back to Orisha. Running away from the palace, she runs into Zelie, who is selling fish to raise tax money. When the two meet, the story unfolds, and it's an adventure from that moment on to the final sentence on the last page. 

I don't want to give much away, because you should experience this novel on your own in your own way, without any input from me.  I will tell you that it does break down what looks to be a simple good vs. evil into something that reminds us nothing is ever that simple, and that easy to decide. Family loyalty? Vengeance? If magic comes back, how to keep those who would use it for harm from doing so, and creating another potential war? How do you balance the magic with a peaceful kingdom and those who do not have magic in their blood?  I won't even get started on the horrible parenting that Saran uses on his children. Abused kids for sure, yet Inan fights what he knows he should do with his sense of loyalty towards his father, who has never treated him well. It's a classic abuse issue. Amari is seen as a helpless young lady, but she's the one who grows the most in the novel. It's hard to keep remembering that all four characters, and most of the supporting cast, are teens. Yes, Adeyemi does a masterful job wiping that out of your head. That's why this novel is a great read for teens and adults, and anyone who loves mythology and magic. 

It's an adventure, and the characters grow on you. I will have to read the next novel, and I'm sure it will be just as excellent as the first. It's already been optioned for a movie.  In light of all the race issues we have in the United States right now, the immigration issues, the seeing people (we are all part of the human race!) as less than; well, those are all the bedrock of this tale. It has a lot to say. Definitely a book club selection, and I hope high school English classes read it, too.  

Rating:  6/6 for an incredible tale of rising up, fighting for what's right, even if it means you may lose. This tale of magic, adventure, love, and dreams was fantastic. I think of it, and I see so many colors-you'll find yourself smelling, hearing, and seeing the vibrant world of Zelie, Tzain, Inan, and Amari. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio.

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Summer Reading: Make a List or Just Wing it?

Let's face it: every season is a good time to read. I must confess, I read lighter, "happy" reads during the summer. Fall brings out the darker, creepier reads for me, followed by Christmas, when I like to read holiday stories. Spring, so far, has been a catch-all. Three book groups have upped my must-read book list each month. 

 It's finally warming up in Iowa--65 today! and everyone is busy running around outside trying to get in the yard work we usually accomplish in late March. Now I've got to figure out just how I can work in the yard, run, and still have time to relax and read on the back deck. It's my first year with a lovely deck to sit and chill, and I can't wait to sit outside in the early summer mornings, read and relax. When the sun moves around, and it gets too hot, I'll move myself to my front porch. I'm pretty lucky to have both.  

As always, I'm faced with a pile of books that I've accumulated over the months, and haven't read, and I'm struggling with the idea of making a list for the summer, or just diving in and grabbing what sounds good at any given moment.  I'm leaning towards making a list, if only so I may tick them off as the summer progresses.  I've got a few ambitious titles to read:  Leonardo Da Vinci's biography by Walter Isaacson, a Kurt Vonnegut novel (I've never read anything of his), Prairie Fires (a 2018 Pulitzer Prize winner), and a few favorite authors that I've neglected: Kevin Hearne, Sandra Dallas, Paula Brackston, and many more.  It may be time to break out the Excel spreadsheet!

Do you read longer books during the summer, or lighter, quick reads?  What do you take on vacation? Do you have a book you absolutely must read this summer? 

I'll be posting my May reads list this week; I consider May the start of summer reading, so I'll be curious to see what books I've chosen from my bookshelves at home, library, and the bookstore. Lots to choose from, and three book group selections to include in that mix. 

Cheers and happy reading!