La Créole by Cheryl Sawyer

La Créole

When a white writer writes an African American or African character, I worry—especially when that author is writing about slaves. I worried through the first chapters of Cheryl Sawyer’s La Créole. This apprehension never quite went away, but I ended up enjoying this tale of revenge, villainy, love, piracy, slavery, war, and identity. La Créole tells the story of Ayisha, an enslaved woman on the island of Martinique, who escapes to France and spends a year working towards revenge on the man who owned her.

The first chapters set the stage for Ayisha’s revenge before catapulting her to Nantes, Orléans, and Paris. After seeing the man she loves murdered on the master’s orders, Ayisha makes a vow to return and rescue her mother and village from slavery. She’s not sure how to accomplish this. At first, she had vague plans to approach King Louis XVI and begging him to free her people. When that fails, she hatches an even riskier plan: to gamble and win enough money to buy the estate on Martinique and the enslaved people there.

La Créole stumbles in the first third. Though Ayisha shows a lot of spirit and determination, she is curiously passive as she travels from Nantes to Paris. She is mostly willing to go along with anyone’s schemes for her. These chapters read like a picaresque without the humor. Every now and then, Ayisha would show a flash of agency, but it isn’t until she becomes a gambler that she becomes more of an agent of her own future. This passivity could be explained by her naivté about France, I suppose, but I found Ayisha a very inconsistent character until the latter half of the book.

There is far too much plot to summarize, even in the first third, like I normally do. This book is crammed with things happening to and around Ayisha. I read faster and faster because I had to know what came next for our protagonist. Despite her odd characterization, I had to root for her as her fortunes rose and fell (sometimes literally). La Créole is a dramatic adventure and a highly entertaining read.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. 

This week on the bookish internet

  • Sian Cain rounds up author cameos in films based on their books. (The Guardian)
  • Danika Ellis explains what happened when she read for 24 hours straight for Dewey’s Readathon. (Book Riot)
  • Kristen Twardowski offers some ways we can help fund libraries—apart from calling our Congress critters and asking them to save the IMLS or participating in EveryLibrary. (Book Riot)
  • Kristina Pino says we need more words for bookish emotions. I agree. (Book Riot)
  • Danuta Kean explains why she always reads the end of the book first. (The Guardian)
  • Pamela Paul has more bookish advice: read books you’ll hate. (The New York Times)

Underground Fugue, by Margot Singer

Underground Fugue

Margot Singer’s Underground Fugue is a novel that has not only subtext; it has background melody. In this novel, two parents and two children dance uncomfortably around each other in alternating chapters. Esther has returned to London to care for her terminally ill mother, Lonia. Next door, Javad wonders what his college student son, Amir, is really up to when he disappears late at night. Each chapter contains similar motifs to the one that came before, but with variations like the dueling melodies of a fugue.

The characters of Underground Fugue carry a lot of emotional baggage. Esther is still mourning her son and preparing to mourn her mother. Lonia, in a fog of painkillers, is slowly reliving her life in 1939 Czechoslovakia and Poland. Meanwhile, Javad is still angry over his long ago divorce and misses his family in Tehran. We don’t learn until much later what Amir is carrying and, until the conclusion, he feels a bit superfluous. All of the characters have to deal with their betrayals of the people in their lives, experience tunnels of one kind or another, traveling across vast geographical and emotional distances, and being outsiders everywhere they go.

Most novels with multiple protagonists will move their narratives closer together, so that all of them are involved with the same problem. That’s not what happens, quite, with Underground Fugue. Each of the characters is distinct. It’s more as though they met, then diverged, then came together before parting once more—over and over again. Because the chapters mimic the patterns of a fugue, I wondered more than once if I just wasn’t clever enough to work out what was going on in this novel. I’m not musician enough to pick up on all the references.

I have mixed feelings about Underground Fugue. There were parts I very much enjoyed. I sympathized with Lonia and Javad, but was more equivocal about Esther. I pitied Amir, who was mostly the wrong color at the wrong time and place. Because of the structure, however, I think the plot suffered for trying to be too baroque. (I had to make the pun.) Gimmicks like this rarely work; they tend to take over and detract from characterization and plotting. Those are the parts of books I love most, so I freely admit that I might be overly harsh on this book because of my own preferences.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration.

A Square Meal, by Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe

A Square Meal

Jane Ziegelman and Andrew Coe’s A Square Meal: A Culinary History of the Great Depression is much more than its subtitle promises. Not only do Ziegelman and Coe write about what people were able to scrape together for themselves and their families between 1929 and 1939, they also thoroughly discuss how Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and their Congresses approached relief (welfare) during those hungry years. The end result is a much darker history of the Great Depression than I’ve ever read.

Ziegelman and Coe start their history before World War I by describing how most Americans ate. More than half of Americans lives in rural areas, eating close to home. The war lead to rapid changes in how food was produced and eaten, and years of plenty during the 1920s changed food even more. Americans in urban areas ate out more during the 20s and chased convenience at every turn. When the stock market crash hit in October 1929, all of those changes were thrown out the window as up to 25% of Americans lost their jobs. Ziegelman and Coe also discuss the history of relief before the 1930s, portraying it as a deeply humiliating experience that was only used as a last resort before absolute destitution.

Throughout the Depression, Ziegelman and Coe explain, there was a constant tug of war between those who wanted to spend their way out of the Depression and those who were adamantly opposed to “handouts.” On the one hand, a lot of people were hungry, homeless, and jobless with no prospects. On the other, a lot of politicians argued that just giving people food and money would kill their work ethic. And besides, they said, where would all that money and food come from? (As I read, it became clear very quickly that America is still having this argument.) Between 1929 and Roosevelt’s first year as president, the general policy was:

When granting relief, officers [local administrators who decided who did and didn’t receive aid] followed the old rule of thumb that families “living on the town” must never reach the comfort level of the poorest independent family. (122*)

In the early years of the Depression, under Hoover, some relief was given, but not nearly enough to help all of the Americans who were out of work and hungry. Under Roosevelt, things got better before the president turned away from direct relief. World War II and America’s mobilization for war finally put enough Americans to work to turn the economy in the right direction after a decade of struggle.

When I was going to high school, I got a rosier picture of the Great Depression than I should have from my teachers and John Steinbeck. I was taught that Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration and other programs helped keep things from getting too dire. But Ziegelman and Coe’s history revealed that most, if not all, aid was determined partly by that old rule of thumb and partly by semi-scientific guidelines about calories and nutrients that had been developed around the turn of the twentieth century. These guidelines and that old rule left many people malnourished and hungry during the worst years of the Depression. There is evidence that people starved to death.

The cruel irony of all this hunger and starvation is that there was plenty of food in the fields for everyone to eat. It was just too expensive to transport and process. Farmers and ranchers destroyed their stock because they couldn’t make money. Until the Department of Agriculture started buying up the surplus and distributing it, the unemployed and poor had to watch while food was wasted, burned, and slaughtered.

When Ziegalman and Coe talk about food directly, I was alternately fascinated and appalled. I was very interested in the transformation of food in America as the developing science of nutrition took hold. At times, scientists and home economists (who taught people how to feed their families on pennies a day) were disturbingly clinical about food. They reduced eating to calories and nutrients, leaving taste and satisfaction by the wayside—which leads me to the appalling parts. Many of the recipes reproduced in A Square Meal sound absolutely disgusting. I know there’s only so much one can do with root vegetables, but once the home economists started messing around with gelatin and milkorno, I was out culinarily speaking.

While A Square Meal didn’t include as much food history as I was hoping for and the ending was very abrupt, I’m very glad I read it. I realize now that I was missing out on a lot of history. I also have a lot of sympathy for my grandparents, who would have been teenagers in the 1930s, and their parents who managed to keep everyone fed during the leanest of years.

* Quote is from the 2016 hardcover edition from Harper.

The Long Drop, by Denise Mina

The Long Drop

How do you write a biography for a liar? Denise Mina found one way with her novel, The Long DropThe events in this book are based on the investigation and trial of Peter Manuel. Mina took what is known about Manuel and his crimes, the investigation, court records, and other documents and stitched together a tale of what might have happened in a series of murders in Glasgow between 1956 and 1958. It makes for chilling reading.

The Long Drop begins in the middle of the story (fitting enough, considering how much is unknown about Manuel). A solicitor and his client meet with an informer who claims to know what happened to the client’s wife, daughter, and sister-in-law. The three women were murdered in September of 1956. The husband and father, William Watts, was the Glasgow police’s first and only suspect. He began to investigate the murders himself, since the police wouldn’t look at any other suspects. As the night goes on, however, Watts and others slowly learn that Peter Manuel—the informer—knows a lot more than he should. The longer anyone knows him, the more they realize that there is something deeply wrong with the man.

The novel then starts moving back and forth in time, revolving around the night Watts and Manuel got profoundly drunk and shared secrets. We never see the murders reconstructed. Mina leaves them ambiguous, making us wonder if Manuel really did commit them. We do see a lot of Manuel’s trial in the second half of the book. We also get to see the last weeks of Manuel’s life before his execution.

Peter Manuel, both in life and in The Long Drop, is a compulsive liar. He has a desperate need to be the hero of his own life. He’s a terrible liar, constantly contradicting himself and spinning completely unbelievable yarns about “what really happened.” Between these lies and the lack of a proper investigation, we can only draw our own conclusions about Manuel’s guilt—which I think makes for a fascinating take on true crime nonfiction. I’ve never read anything quite like The Long Drop before, but I hope to read more from Mina in the future.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 23 May 2017.

New Boy, by Tracy Chevalier

New Boy

I think we keep returning to tragedies with the vague hope that this time things will work out differently. I’ve always felt that about Shakespeare’s tragedies because, after the first reading or viewing, I could see all of the places where things could have gone differently. If only someone had gotten Hamlet into grief counseling…If only someone had told Richard III to shove it the first time he tried to talk that someone into something…If only Othello had listened to Desdemona…I suppose this is why I’ve been paying such close attention to the Hogarth Shakespeare series.

New Boyby Tracy Chevalier, is a retelling of Othello—one of my favorite plays—but transplanted to a playground in Washington, D.C., sometime in the late 1970s. The story plays out over one day, the day that Osei is the new boy at the unnamed elementary school. I’ll admit that the setting had me fooled at first. It seemed like such a radical departure from the original setting and age of the characters. But even though the characters in this version of the story are sixth-graders, I could see the same path towards tragedy start to take shape as the kids meet for recess, lunch, and after school.

Like the original OthelloNew Boy is very much about race and jealousy. Osei here is the son of a Ghanan diplomat who has just been transferred from New York. It’s the fourth school the boy has attended in just a few short years. He knows how to be the new kid, but it’s harder in America where he has been the only black student. The white adults and children react to him either with angry racism, ostracism, or a bewildered kind of liberal tolerance that makes me cringe because it’s really just a different form of racism.

Osei might have been able to weather all this if it hadn’t been for Dee and Ian. Dee is the only classmate who makes an effort to get to know Osei. They fascinate each other by lunch time but, unbeknownst to them, Ian has already started plotting his potential rival’s downfall. Even more than the original Iago, Ian finds it easy to tap into the racism of his classmates. Without that racism—and without Osei’s experience of racism every where he goes—this story might have turned out differently this time.

New Boy is a short novel. It doesn’t need more than five acts set over a single day to do its work. I wasn’t sure about the setting at first, but in Chevalier’s hands the playground and the children make the original story even more tragic than the original. Reading this book is like watching a disaster unfold and not be able to do anything to stop it before you yourself get blown up in the catastrophe. This retelling affected me more than any of the others I’ve yet read.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 11 May 2017.

Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane

Since We Fell

Marriages are odd things when you start to really think about them, especially when the two people getting married have only known each other for a short time. Even when the couple has been together for a long time, how does anyone know that they will still love—or can even stand—the other person in ten, twenty-five, fifty years? I suppose that couples can comfort themselves with the thought that they, at least, will not have as dangerous time in their marriage as Rachel Childs does in Since We Fell, by Dennis Lehane.

Since We Fell opens with a confusing, violent scene, in which Rachel shoots her husband in the chest while he tells her he loves her. We then go back more than ten years, to when Rachel first met Brian. He was a private detective when they met and Rachel wanted him to track down the father who left her when she was just three years old. We also learn about Rachel’s on-air panic attack in Haiti before looping back to the weeks before the shooting.

We learn a lot about why Rachel is the way she is, but very little about Brian. Rachel thinks she knows her husband. After all, he’s been on the edges of her life until he stepped forward to rescue her (literally and psychologically). Rachel is content with her life until small details start to make her doubt. She sees a man who could be Brian’s double, even with the same clothes, when her husband is supposed to be in London. There’re the receipts with the wrong date format. There’s the old friend who hints that there’s something Rachel doesn’t know. A less curious women would have let it go. Rachel, however, is a former journalist and is used to people not turning out to be who they say they are.

Much of this background fills the first half of the book. I was honestly starting to wonder if Lehane had written a dud because the plot so slow at first. But then, just as I was starting to give up hope, things get very interesting. I can’t say much more without ruining the whole book. I can say that nothing is what Rachel (or I) thought it was. I was just as shocked as our protagonist was when I found out the truth. If you can get through the first third or so of the book, the last two third more than make up for the slowness of the beginning. And after reading it, I’m sure a lot of readers will be looking suspiciously at their spouses for a while.

I received a free copy of this book from Edelweiss for review consideration. It will be released 9 May 2017.

Lilli de Jong, by Janet Benton

Lilli de Jong

Stories about new mothers tend to stop with with the birth and the implication that everything will now be all right. Janet Benton’s Lilli de Jong, however, continues after the eponymous character has her daughter in 1883’s Philadelphia. Being a new mother is challenge enough, but Lilli has to contend with prejudice against having children while unmarried, being shunned by her family and church, and not having many ways to make a living for herself and her daughter. Lilli de Jong is a much needed rebuttal to the assumed happily ever after of so many stories about pregnancy.

Lilli, when we first properly meet her after a scene-setting opening chapter, is a good Quaker daughter mourning her mother. Her father has fallen away from the high ideals of their church, to Lilli’s disgust. Yet, Lilli is not entirely a paragon because she decided to sleep with her fiancé before they get married. (Partly because Johan is leaving to get a job in Pittsburgh.) Their one night together results in pregnancy, which Lilli tries to hide for as long as possible.

Once Lilli is too big to hide her condition anymore, she seeks refuge at a women’s charity for unwed mothers. The plan is to give up her child for adoption and pretending that the whole thing never happened. But when Lilli meets her daughter, Charlotte, for the first time, a fierce protective love springs up. Everyone tells Lilli that keeping her child without a husband is impossible. In spite of the horror stories, Lilli seeks a job—eventually finding a position as a wet nurse for a prickly, upper class mother. The job pays well, but comes with heavy emotional costs.

Lilli de Jong is full of ups and downs (mostly downs) for Lilli and Charlotte. If Lilli wasn’t such a striver, I think this book would have been very hard to read. (There are still some very harrowing moments, especially towards the end.) Lilli’s inner grit and her faith—Quakers have a tradition of doing hard things they believe are right, e.g. fighting for abolition and participating in the Underground Railroad—are a wonder to behold because she has such a very difficult life. Lilli de Jong is an intriguing look into the hard parts of being a single mother.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 16 May 2017.

This week on the bookish internet

  • Maddie Rodriguez hypothesizes about what makes a great plot twist. (Book Riot)
  • Scott Esposito writes about the importance of writers who keep the tragedies of recent decades in our thoughts. (LitHub)
  • Deepali Agarwal explains why we need to take writers seriously when they tell us about sexism and racism in publishing. (Book Riot)
  • One more reason to love libraries: Lynchburg Public Library is feeding hungry kids. (WSET)
  • Doree Shafrir reflects on why book clubs don’t work for her. (Buzzfeed)
  • Rebecca Donnelly tweeted 17 things you can do for your public library. (Republished on Book Riot)
  • Nikki Griffiths writes about the efforts to rebuilt the Mosul Central Library. (Moby Lives)

The Scribe of Siena, by Melodie Winawer

The Scribe of Siena

When I was younger and just getting into history, I used to think a lot about which time and place I might travel to if I ever got the chance. (Before I got older and realized that I would be burnt as a witch in most times and places.) One of the last times and places I ever wanted to go was 1348 in Europe. Unfortunately for the protagonist of Melodie Winawer’s The Scribe of Siena, that’s exactly where she ends up when she suddenly slips through time.

Dr. Beatrice Trovato has just left a career as a neurosurgeon to take care of her recently deceased brother’s affairs in Siena when, one fine day, she finds herself in 1347. All she knows is that an artist’s journal and one of his surviving frescos has somehow pulled her through the past. Otherwise, Beatrice manages to cope fairly well in the medieval city (barring a few mishaps with sumptuary laws). She lands a job as a scribe—being one of the few people the brothers and sisters at the Ospedale (hospital and pilgrim hostel) who can read and write—after a nun takes pity on her. Beatrice desperately wants to go home. She knows that in only a few months the Black Death will arrive and hit Siena hard.

When she meets the artist who painted the fresco (which has a figure with her face in it), everything changes. Gabriele is a kindred spirit for Beatrice, and it isn’t long before they fall in love. At this point, anyone who’s read Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander is going to start making comparisons. Both female protagonists are doctors who fall through time. Their lovers are curiously understanding men from the past. Beatrice is different from Claire Fraser in that she seems to have a mystical sort of empathy (which ends up being a deus ex machina more than once). Beatrice is also different from Claire in that she seems to travel through time more easily, so The Scribe of Siena has a bit more back and forth with the present than Outlander.

Winawer clearly did a lot of research, but has a light touch with the information. This book is rich with detail. So much that I felt like I was traveling with Beatrice and enjoying the food of pre-tomato Italy. The Scribe of Siena is also jam-packed with plot. Once it gets going, this book races along and Beatrice and her Gabriele have to contend with Yersina pestis and Medici schemes. In spite of its similarities to Outlander and loosey-goosey approach to time travel, I enjoyed The Scribe of Siena.

I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 16 May 2017.