Mr. Smith, the protagonist of Francis Spufford’s historical novel Golden Hill, set in small-town 18th century New York City, is a mystery. Neither the characters around this aptly named any man, nor the reader for that matter knows what he’s about when he shows up in New York newly off the boat from England with a note for a large sum of money to be paid by a particular man at a well-known counting house. The money can’t be paid out immediately, so Mr. Smith goes about his mysterious business, making friends and enemies, getting into trouble with the locals, all the while staying mum on his identity and his mission.
Throughout this novel, the question lingers: who is this Mr. Smith? When Mr. Smith’s purpose is revealed, finally, I wished Spufford had spent more time on that story than building a complete narrative out of Mr. Smith’s mysterious circumstances. As a whole, Golden Hill, quickly paced, smartly written, and rich with historical touchstones, offers a glimpse of early life in America and the makings of a complicated nation.
Conspiracy of Ravens is the second in Lila Bowen’s The Shadow series starring Nettie Lonesome. Conspiracy of Ravens picks up right where Wake of Vultures ends; Nettie, now fully identifying as Rhett Hennessy, gathers his strength in the wilds of Bowen’s fantastical Southwest and sets out with his posse to hunt evil, monsters and men, as the Shadow.
I loved Wake of Vultures and liked Conspiracy of Ravens. Both are surprising, intense, bloody, and groundbreaking, though Bowen’s plot blocking and narrative structure started to feel formulaic and mechanical in this second book.
The transformation of Bowen’s mixed-race trans hero/ine, from Nettie to Rhett, from gritty boyish girl to the Shadow, offers a new and refreshing coming-of-age story in a genre where so many main characters in fantasy are young white cis men who go to wizard school and discover their great magic skills.
Set in Victorian London and the countryside of Essex, Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent follows Cora Seaborne as she journeys with her son and his nanny, Martha, to the marshy (fictional) village of Aldwinter for a change of scenery after the death of her cruel husband. There, Cora learns about sightings of a mythical sea serpent whose potential is fueling the imaginations of the locals and inciting creature panic.
While in Essex, superstition and religion intersect, friendships are born and tested, and the lives of Perry’s characters are forever changed.
I was hoping for something intensely readable like Sarah Waters’ Fingersmith or Michael Cox’s The Meaning of Night, but the reading of this was fairly laborious. It’s a hefty book with some smart writing and well-crafted passages, but the story never fully grabbed me and the book put me to sleep a few nights in a row.
Allison Amend’s Enchanted Islands is a fast, plot-driven novel with a quasi-interesting main character, Frances Conway. Frances, born in Minnesota, positioned as bookish and smart, is made to go to secretarial school by her immigrant parents instead of finishing high school, runs away to Chicago with her best friend Rosalie, moves to San Francisco, and eventually ends up in the Galapagos Islands in the lead-up to WWII married to a handsome and complicated spy.
As intriguing as that storyline sounds, I wasn’t charmed by Frances and this was a hard book to write about. On the one hand, I enjoyed aspects of this story; Amend is a strong writer who creates a real sense of place within her narrative. Most notable were the sections in which Frances lives rough on one of the Galapagos Islands. These sections were vivid and rich, a pleasure to read.
On the other hand the novel is disjointed and full of holes. As a reader I couldn’t reconcile that the author glazed over 30 years of the Frances’ life in a few paragraphs, taking her from just under 20 to 50 in one page with a literary not much happened in those years shrug. Really? Also, the female friendship aspect of the story, Frances’ friendship with Rosalie, felt forced and flat. Frances, for all her experiences, remains fairly naive and boring despite her early bookish years, and I couldn’t quite understand what glue held their friendship together for so long.
Poignant and gut-wrenching, Han Kang’s Human Acts excavates the moments leading up to and during, and the devastating aftermath of, the 1980 Gwangju (where Kang grew up) Uprising of students in South Korea from various narrative perspectives.
Human Acts opens with “The Boy, 1980,” told from the vantage of Dong-ho, a young boy looking for the body of his best friend whom he saw get shot in the street. “The Boy’s Friend, 1980” (my favorite perspective in the book) voices the experience of that friend, now dead, one soul among a jumbled heap of bodies left to rot for days in the forest. As in The Vegetarian, Kang doesn’t shy away from graphic depictions of the body, she pushes characters to the physical limits of life and beyond; in Human Acts, bodies endure torture, carry the scars of mutilation, are mercilessly shot and killed, bodies bloat and blacken with decomposition. In “The Boy’s Mother, 2010” Dong-ho’s mother speaks tenderly to her dead son, addressing “you” as she wonders if her inaction played a role in his death. Dong-ho, both alive and dead, makes appearances in all of the narratives, which, as a whole, create a breathtaking and acutely brutal portrait of human cruelty, frailty, and endurance.
Everyone Brave is Forgiven is the newest book from Chris Cleave, author of the highly acclaimed Little Bee (which I liked but didn’t love).
Set in London during World War II, the story centers on Mary North, a beautiful young socialite turned ad hoc teacher who falls in love (with the best friend of the man she’s dating) amidst the upheaval of war.
The premise sounded promising: young love, heartbreak, conflict, war, a distant era… But the book didn’t wow me. With a constant stream of snappy chatter and chummy condescension, the book reads like a movie from the 30’s starring Barbara Stanwyck, only less charming. While the narrative was peppered with some really elegant bits of writing, and the war scenes were harrowing and evocative, the romantic plot just wasn’t convincing and the emotional exchanges left a saccharine aftertaste.
Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred has long been on my to-read list.
Powerful and terrifying, the story follows Dana, a young black woman in 1970’s Los Angeles, who is “called” back to antebellum Maryland when her white ancestor, Rufus, almost drowns. She saves him and is returned to her own time, to her life as a writer, to the home where she lives with her white husband. Over the course of the novel she is summoned again and again to save this ancestor; she forms complicated relationships with Rufus and his parents who own the plantation, and with their slaves. Even though she saves this young white “master,” Dana herself is treated like a slave, forced into physical labor, threatened and physically abused.
The passages that take place on the plantation are stronger than those set in 1970’s Los Angeles, the characters are more developed, the story both brutal and riveting. Because the narrative is told from the vantage of a free, modern, educated black woman, the horrors of slavery are exposed with a modern lens, the cruelty of the white owners and the powerlessness of the slaves are juxtaposed with Dana’s loving and seemingly equal bi-racial marriage. Overall, a fascinating, fast-paced read.
Holy shit. This book. THIS BOOK! Lincoln in the Bardo just might be my favorite book of 2017 thus far.
The story takes place in the space of one night in 1862, a year after the start of the Civil War. President Lincoln’s son Willie, dead from typhoid fever, has just been buried in a cemetery in Georgetown. Lincoln, heartbroken over the death of his son, visits Willie’s tomb throughout the night and takes his son’s body out of the coffin so he that might see and hold him once more. He mourns his son, all the while carrying the knowledge and weight of all the deaths accumulating on the battlefields of the war.
Told by a chorus of graveyard inhabitants, and other voices of the period, Lincoln in the Bardo is unlike any other book I’ve read. The graveyard ensemble inhabits this Bardo (a Tibetan concept/word for a “transitional state”), where they welcome new arrivals like Willie, long for the lives they’ve left behind, mourn those they loved and lost, make friends, squabble, and linger with the souls interned around them. At the beginning I thought, is he really going to pull narrative structure off? And yes, he does. George Saunders has managed, brilliantly, to write a book about history, death, and letting go, that is hilarious, strange, and poignant, and that celebrates the smells, tastes, desires, and emotions of life. Bravo.
A galley of News of the World sat on my shelves for almost a year and, for whatever reason, I just didn’t pick it up. But I’m glad I finally did, it’s a charming book.
The premise: “In the aftermath of the American Civil War, an aging itinerant news reader agrees to transport a young captive of the Kiowa back to her people in this morally complex, multi-layered novel of historical fiction from the author of Enemy Women that explores the boundaries of family, responsibility, honor, and trust.”
At first I was apprehensive that the young girl/older man narrative would veer into cringe-worthy sexual territory, but thankfully it never did. The aging news reader character, Captain Jefferson Kyle Kidd, surprised and delighted me. Kidd’s view of the world is wider than the characters around him, he reads the news aloud to crowds, verbally presenting the world to those who cannot read and/or have no access to newspapers. Because of this world view, his lens positions the story within a bigger historical context and provides insight into that particular time in that part of the Southwest. We get a glimpse of the eradication of Native American tribes, the ramifications of slavery, the appropriation of Mexico, the violent grab for land, power, people, money, all at the complex intersection of new and old, of civilization and wilderness.