Tuesday, October 31, 2017

November

A Tangled Mercy by Joy Jordan-Lake
This is just a gorgeous, fascinating, oh so topical historical fiction book. Set in Charleston, South Carolina, the story takes two roads: 1822, as the city awaits the beginning of a slave rebellion and 2015, as a young woman searching for her family's history discovers the past. Both stories contain compelling characters. The famous weapons maker of the rebellion and his lover, the daughter of a slave owner with her own rebellious streak, and the masterminds of the uprising draws one into both the beauty of Charleston and the underlying ugliness of its history. The modern day story is equally as compelling, as Kate examines the past and its connection to today as she is pulled into Charleston life through friendships with a judge, a member of the old blue blood elite, and an artisan and his son as she tries to uncover the mystery of her mother's past. The author seamlessly weaves the tragedy of the AME church massacre of 2015 into the story line as she deals with today's issues of race in a thoughtful and powerful manner. This was a book I could not put down.

In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende
After reading The Japanese Lover early in the year, I was excited to receive an early release of Allende's latest book. What has always impressed me about Allende, a much celebrated Chilean-American author, is her ability to shift genres throughout her long career. Her last book encompassed a rich white California family with WWII and the Japanese, and her latest book is a complete departure from that.  In the Midst of Winter is a beautifully drawn, character-driven novel that begins during the blizzard of 2015, yet takes the reader to Brazil of the 90's, Chile in the 70's and 80's, and Guatemala of today.  The three main characters, who are faced with a blizzard, a sick cat, and a dead body, share their lives and inner souls with one another as they try to solve the various crises: Richard, owner of the Brooklyn brownstone where they are all stuck, a recovered alcoholic and NYU professor, unfriendly and snarky, but with a deep well of sadness inside; Lucia, a free-spirited Chilean adjunct professor who rents out Richard's basement, owner of a one-eyed chihuahua, and a tragic family history from the authoritarian takeover in Chile; and Evelyn, a young Guatemalan girl whose car accident precipitates their meeting, and who bears a past that is almost beyond surviving.  It is an oddly compelling story, full of humor, sadness, and great hope; it was a perfect read on chilly fall days.

Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstances by Ruth Emmie Lang
This is an extraordinary tale of an extraordinary boy, who grows into an extraordinary, and rather complicated, man.  It stretches belief. It is rather unbelievable actually; be prepared to suspend the 'rules' of nature and man, and go into some magical realism.  You see, where ever Weylyn Grey goes, strange weather follows him.  His parents are killed in a freak snow storm, leading Weylyn to meet and live with some 'interesting' characters.  This story is peopled with humorous, caring, cruel, kind, complex humans, folks from all walks of life.  The pivotal relationship is with Mary, who Weylyn meets as a young child. Their lives are meant to be entwined forever as we see these two children grow to be young adults, and beyond.  Admittedly, I love magic and fantasy, and I am impressed with how Lang weaves a strong engrossing story together with a beautiful fairy tale. This is a solid debut for a new young writer.

Odd Child Out by Gilly Macmillan
The second in a series by a fairly new British author, this is a surprisingly solid book.  I say 'surprisingly,' as it is hard to characterize it.  It nominally has to do with a death and a police detective, but it is so much deeper than a mere mystery.  Jim Clemo is a detective with a past (explained in the first book What She Knew which I have not read, but will definitely consider reading next), and he has been given an 'easy' case upon his return to get his feet a little damp.  Fortunately for this policeman, he gets waaaay beyond damp as he and his partner slowly and methodically pull bits and pieces of evidence out into the light. On the surface, it is an argument between two teenage boys, with one found in the river in critical condition, and the other one unwilling to talk. However, with a variety of intriguing characters as well as the backdrop of Somalian refugees and the horror they escaped to carve out a life in Bristol, England, this book takes us into some dark, complex arenas.  This one is a hard one to put down, with quite a twist in the end.

Einstein and the Rabbi: Searching for the Soul by Naomi Levy
I have a tendency to choose books in regards to what is happening in my life, or occasionally to avoid specific topics that are too sensitive in that moment (re. my mother's death last year had me avoiding death books and skewing towards magical fantasy escapism). This last month of recovering from surgery, with time on my hands to think about new directions in life, led me to this gorgeous book.  On long walks through the beautiful PNW woods, I listened to Rabbi Levy explore the history, mysticism, and beliefs in not only Jewish religion, but in her own life.  She uses an incredible letter from a young rabbi who liberated Buchenwald concentration camp to the most famous scientist of his time, as this young rabbi searched for answers of his own son's death. I found myself often stopping, writing down notes, rewinding just to hear some lines once again, and heading to my bookstore to find a physical copy to explore more slowly in the months to come. It not only soothed my soul, but it expanded it; this book brought me back to a place of spirituality that I have missed in my life as a confirmed agnostic, and brought me a level of great peace that had been missing. When you need some spiritual salve, this book will provide it.

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
In my many decades of obsessive reading, I have read a lot of WWII books, and I mean A LOT.  In fact, I rather avoid them now as I'm a little burnt out. Yet, this book has been on my radar for almost two years.  A Goodreads YA Fiction award winner and a Carnegie Medal winner of 2016, this author discovered a long hidden and forgotten story of great bravery, and incredible tragedy. The story flips amongst a variety of characters: a Lithuanian nurse, a young Polish girl, a mysterious Prussian soldier, and a German enlistee. As this group tells their tale of the treacherous escape to the Baltic Sea, as Germans, refugees, and soldiers, I felt myself tightly wrapped up in their tale, feeling my stomach tighten when they try to cross the frozen bay while Russian planes fly overhead, the fear when past stories of abuse are remembered, and my heart wrenched when some travelers fail to survive. Yet the story is not over when they reach the ships that will take thousands of refugees across the Baltic to Germany; it is just beginning. I still cannot believe this is a historical event that has never been broadcast, made into books and movies, or wept over for generations. If you like historical fiction and seek a new 'angle' on WWII, I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. It is powerful, beautifully written, and utterly fascinating.

Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham
And yet here is another YA historical fiction that focuses on an incident that has been covered up, forgotten, and deliberately hidden for generations...the 1921 white race riots in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Latham, in just her second novel, does a spectacular job of moving between two time periods: in today's world, 17 year old Rowan whose best friend is black and asexual, whose father is a white powerful business and mom is a bad-ass public defender who happens to be black, and who discovers a mysterious skeleton hidden in her backyard; and the story of long ago told by William, a seventeen year old biracial boy of 1921 Tulsa, whose father is a white Victrola salesman and mom is a wealthy Osage native, whose learning curve of race relations in his town is a high and furious curve. Oh yes, so many things are brought into this book...the treatment of black and natives, the role of oil in Tulsa, the murders of the Osage women and their headrights, the treatment of blacks, particularly young black teens, in today's society. It is an olio of 'issues' and author Latham handles them with aplomb. A beautifully written book, with a serious mystery that will keep one turning pages, and a feeling of shock of all the things that have been hidden away from us in America's history surrounding race, this is just a fantastic book. It would be a fantastic book to use in a secondary classroom, or a book club, as the provocative topics will definitely stimulate conversation.

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