Wednesday, March 1, 2017

March Books

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See
For those of you who were first entranced by Lisa See's debut back in 2006 (Snow Flower and the Secret Fan), you will be happy to know...she's back, and I mean really back.  I loved her first book, 'meh' on her second book, liked her Shanghai Girls series, and heartily disliked her latest, China Dolls.  However,  in her latest book due out in March 2017, Lisa See has hit another home run.  This time, she sets her story in the tea mountains of rural China in 1989 where we first meet Li-yan, a little girl part of an ethnic minority group called the Akha.  This community has never been touched by the modern world, with no electricity, a spiritualism based on nature, and strict traditional rules that go back thousands of years.  The tale moves back and forth between Li-yan's life, and that of her daughter, adopted into an American family after a tragic decision forced upon the young mother by her culture group.  As the novel delves into the secret and hidden world of the tea trade, it exposes the corruption, the wealth, and the fascinating details of how tea is not only grown and then fermented, but marketed and sold to the greedy collectors.  I read voraciously and ceaselessly, and finished with a satisfaction I had not felt for quite some time in See's novels.  What a pleasure to not only be entertained, but to take a peek into another world and their ancient traditions.

Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister
Perfect timing for a historical fiction that highlights a bad-ass woman, doing a man's job, and kicking ass.  Oh...and it is based on the real woman.  Many of us have heard of the famous Pinkerton Detective Agency, born in Chicago, and hired by presidents, railroads, and banks to recover stolen goods or track down criminals.  However, did you know they hired women?  Kate Warne, the main character and real-life widow, applied and was hired as the first woman detective, ultimately heading a department of women investigators.  Macallister's story covers Kate's first cases, the discrimination of the men, the attempted assassination of Lincoln, and ultimately, the incredible system of Union spying the Pinkerton detectives did during the Civil War.  This was an eye-opening saga into a little-known piece of American history.  Yet, more than that, it is an incredibly engaging book with a stellar main character leading the charge into women's rights through her actions, her bravery, her sass, and her intelligence.  This book is suitable for teens as well - no bad language, minimal sex, and an inspirational bit of history by which younger readers can be inspired.  Greer Macallister knows how to write and make you turn pages; her first novel, The Magician's Lie, was a winner as well.  Girl in Disguise is another hit - thanks Net Galley!

A Colony in a Nation by Christopher L. Hayes
Thanks to Net Galley, I was able to read this fascinating new book by MSNBC anchor, Chris Hayes. Hayes writes a scholarly yet engrossing new book looking at the various nuances of law and the explication of so-called 'order' in today's America.  Borrowing the quote from Richard Nixon for his title, he explores the great divide in our country between the disenfranchised of our nation who still live as if in a separate colony, while the privileged 'nation' attempts to maintain the status quo. While he focuses on people of color, poverty and the inequities of the educational system also play a role.  It begins in Ferguson, where Hayes was on the ground reporting the aftermath of the shooting of a young black man, Michael Brown.  His insight into the past history not only of Ferguson, but also the surrounding areas, highlights information that is pivotal to the understanding of the Black Lives Matter movement.  American history is used to inform the reader of past practices in law enforcement: the fall out of tariffs all the way to revolutionary times, the statistics of stop-and-frisk, the community policing movement, the 'broken windows' policy, and many more.  Hayes also fully embraces his own white privilege and his Ivy-league background, honestly and provocatively displaying his own prejudices and forcing the reader to look in his or her own mirror.  This is not a book for the reader who wants a fast, thrilling mystery, but it is a book for our time, a book we should all read, a book that will not only make you smarter, but will force you to ask questions of yourself and the rules of society.  Do we want order or do we want to be safe?

Strange the Dreamer by Laini Taylor
When I picked up this book, I needed escape.  I was tired of politics, of satire, of real life tragedy.  Thirty pages in and my skin began to tingle; I had been transported to a magical world of monsters, storytellers, gods, and warriors and it was just what I needed.  Taylor sets her story in a magical city renamed 'Weep,' after the goddess of forgetfulness wipes away its memory. The cast of characters is extraordinary: Lazlo, the orphan child apprenticed by librarians, fascinated by the unseen city, and a gifted storyteller; Eril-Fane and Azareen, citizens of 'Weep,' victims of the gods, tortured by their past; the 'godspawn' children, trapped in the citadel above, waiting for a chance for vengeance; and Sarai, the Muse of Nightmares whose humanity is stronger than her godlike magic.  The writing is simply gorgeous, as are the well-developed and thoughtful themes of humanity, of compassion, of justice.  If you like fantasy, if you like writing that will take your breath away, if you want to turn pages late into the night, do not miss this book.  It is magic.

Mercies in Disguise: A Story of Hope, a Family's Genetic Destiny, and the Science That Rescued Them by Gina Kolata
Admittedly, I do love a good medical story:  The Tennis Partner by Abraham Verghese, Better by Atul Gwande, The Remedy by Thomas Goetz.  If you are interested in genetics, medical research, impact on families, then this book is your thing.  The Baxley family is one of those "All-American," stereotypical, quintessential Southern families, the type whose father was the small-town doctor, church attendees, and tight ties with one another.  However, a mysterious genetic disease has ruined the picture for generations.  This book is the search for an answer, not a cure.  Author Gina Kolata does a masterful job of looking back at the history of this strange disease, one that causes the sufferer to slowly lose control of his or her body, speech, and brain.  Kolata goes far back in time and space to New Guinea where a young doctor sees a people devastated by disease and isolated culturally.   Kolata slowly builds the puzzle as doctors fight charges of quackery, advances in testing creates more questions, and false roads are taken.  As DNA testing evolves, we see all the pieces start to come together, all while the story of the Baxleys is threaded throughout.  It is a profound look at how science can impact a family, what one might do if given a chance to see their future, and the often futile attempts for normalcy in the face of great challenges.

One of the Boys by Daniel Magariel
A story of a mentally ill, drug-addicted father who takes his two sons away from their mother, this was a tough book for me. As a former teacher, I understand tragedy surrounding a dysfunctional family. I have seen children with bruises, angry-at-everything students, and I have met with some 'interesting' parents. I could see the great sorrow in this family as well as the effects of drugs and mental illness, yet I also saw great anger. My problem with this book was two-fold. First, I did not find the writing admirable; lots of choppy sentences and repetitive beginnings of sentences with little variety. Perhaps that was the author's intent; however, I found it unappealing. Secondly, I found little in these static characters to admire, to cheer for, to wonder about, or to even like even a little bit. None of the characters seemed to grow or change, creating little tension in the book. I was, to be honest, thankful it was so short as it was just one chapter after another of a crummy life for the two boys, leaving one with no hope for their future. I don't need a picture perfect ending, all tied up in a bow; I love complex, frustrating endings that make me think. This one just left me with a 'meh' feeling.

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