Review: The Miniaturist, Jessie Burton

Review: The Miniaturist, Jessie BurtonThe Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
Published by Ecco ISBN: 0062306847
on June 2nd 2015
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 416
Format: E-Book
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four-stars

Set in seventeenth-century Amsterdam—a city ruled by glittering wealth and oppressive religion—a masterful debut steeped in atmosphere and shimmering with mystery, in the tradition of Emma Donoghue, Sarah Waters, and Sarah Dunant.

"There is nothing hidden that will not be revealed . . ."

On a brisk autumn day in 1686, eighteen-year-old Nella Oortman arrives in Amsterdam to begin a new life as the wife of illustrious merchant trader Johannes Brandt. But her new home, while splendorous, is not welcoming. Johannes is kind yet distant, always locked in his study or at his warehouse office—leaving Nella alone with his sister, the sharp-tongued and forbidding Marin.

But Nella's world changes when Johannes presents her with an extraordinary wedding gift: a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist—an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways . . .

Johannes' gift helps Nella to pierce the closed world of the Brandt household. But as she uncovers its unusual secrets, she begins to understand—and fear—the escalating dangers that await them all. In this repressively pious society where gold is worshipped second only to God, to be different is a threat to the moral fabric of society, and not even a man as rich as Johannes is safe. Only one person seems to see the fate that awaits them. Is the miniaturist the key to their salvation . . . or the architect of their destruction?

Enchanting, beautiful, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth.

I can’t remember when I bought this book for my Kindle. I think maybe it was one of those deals, and the book had caught my eye in any case because of its cover. However, it looks like it’s been shelved on Goodreads since June 2014, which is around the time it was released, I believe.

I read most of this book (nearly 2/3 of it) today in one pretty big gulp. It takes a little while to get going, but once it does, things seem to be happening left and right. The book feels well-researched, with strong historical details that ring true. The book even has a glossary detailing further information about economics and Dutch terms from the seventeenth century. The characters are also vivid and interesting. One thing that struck me as I finished this book is one constant in human history is man’s inhumanity to man as well as the perseverance of strong women in the face of the world’s cruelty. On the other hand, some details don’t ring true—women characters in historical fiction are often more a reflection of our own times than theirs, and I can see why. I don’t really want to read about a meek woman who keeps her mouth shut and does as she is told, either. Perhaps the least plausible aspect of the book is Nella’s devotion to Johannes. He hasn’t been all that great of a husband, truth be told. And while certain aspects of his behavior would be viewed differently today than in seventeenth-century Amsterdam, the way that he consistently ignores Nella and her feelings didn’t engender a whole lot of sympathy from this reader.

Many times when I am reading a book, I am curious what others on Goodreads have to say about it, and in the case of this book, one reviewer noted she thought the conceit of the miniaturist was unnecessary. This might merit a spoiler alert, but really, we never do learn much about the strange miniaturist who knows so much about Nella’s home and the dangers coming or what motivates the miniaturist, so in that sense, I can understand why some might consider the character unnecessary. I am undecided, myself. Mainly, I was curious as to what inspired the book, because it reads like something definitely inspired it, and I found this snippet from an interview Jessie Burton gave in advance of the BBC’s miniseries based on The Miniaturist:

I was in Amsterdam on holiday. We went to the Rijksmuseum and that’s where I first saw the real dolls’ house, which is actually called a cabinet, which became the symbol of the novel and my point of focus for writing it. I was immediately struck by how beautiful it was and how imposing it was, as well as intricate and intimate. Then when I found out that the woman who owned it, Petronella Oortman, spent as much money on it as a real house, I became interested in the psychology of the cabinet house and what it symbolised, both in regards to the city of Amsterdam and this woman is her domestic, claustrophobic existence. It took her 19 years in total to complete it and she hired the services of over 800 craftsmen and women in the city of Amsterdam and beyond. In my mind’s eye all I could see was one woman, Nella, turning up at this imposing merchant house in Amsterdam.

Using the real Petronella Oortman as inspiration, Burton invented Petronella Oortman Brandt. I didn’t realize it had been made into a miniseries before searching for information about the book’s inspiration. I don’t believe the miniseries has been released in the USA.

In all, I enjoyed the book quite a bit for what it was—an interesting peek into the life of a merchant’s wife in seventeenth-century Amsterdam rendered with some very nice passages of good writing.

  

This book counts for the Literary Voyage Around the World Reading Challenge, the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge, and the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge due to its setting of seventeenth-century Amsterdam, Netherlands. March’s motif for the latter challenge is “Travel the World.”

 

four-stars

Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey Ratner

Review: In the Shadow of the Banyan, Vaddey RatnerIn the Shadow of the Banyan by Vaddey Ratner
ISBN: 1451657714
on September 1st 2012
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Pages: 322
Format: Paperback
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four-half-stars

A beautiful celebration of the power of hope, this New York Times bestselling novel tells the story of a girl who comes of age during the Cambodian genocide.

You are about to read an extraordinary story, a PEN Hemingway Award finalist "rich with history, mythology, folklore, language and emotion." It will take you to the very depths of despair and show you unspeakable horrors. It will reveal a gorgeously rich culture struggling to survive through a furtive bow, a hidden ankle bracelet, fragments of remembered poetry. It will ensure that the world never forgets the atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge regime in the Cambodian killing fields between 1975 and 1979, when an estimated two million people lost their lives. It will give you hope, and it will confirm the power of storytelling to lift us up and help us not only survive but transcend suffering, cruelty, and loss.

For seven-year-old Raami, the shattering end of childhood begins with the footsteps of her father returning home in the early dawn hours, bringing details of the civil war that has overwhelmed the streets of Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital. Soon the family’s world of carefully guarded royal privilege is swept up in the chaos of revolution and forced exodus. Over the next four years, as the Khmer Rouge attempts to strip the population of every shred of individual identity, Raami clings to the only remaining vestige of her childhood—the mythical legends and poems told to her by her father. In a climate of systematic violence where memory is sickness and justification for execution, Raami fights for her improbable survival. Displaying the author’s extraordinary gift for language, In the Shadow of the Banyan is a brilliantly wrought tale of human resilience.

In the Shadow of the Banyan is a moving debut. Ratner is a survivor of the Cambodian genocide of the late 1970’s and later came to America. She says in her author’s note that this novel is her own story with some details compressed or changed. It’s quite a lyrical and moving account of the horrific story of the Cambodian Killing Fields from the viewpoint of a child.

Where the novel suffers, if it does, is the focus. Ratner explains she wanted to show us Cambodia as it was before its destruction at the hands of the Khmer Rouge, but as a result, the novel takes a while to get going. The bulk of the first half is devoted to the first few days and weeks after the Khmer Rouge sends citizens of Phnom Penh into the countryside, and the last several years are compressed. For example, in an interview in the back of the book, Ratner says her journey escaping to Thailand was more fraught and would rate a book in itself. While I wasn’t looking for the worst of the story at the expense of fonder memories, it felt a bit of a cheat to magnify some events at the expense of others that might have been more compelling. As a result, the novel feels uneven; however, as a debut, it’s quite powerful with some poetic moments and beautiful storytelling as well as an emphasis on the importance of living and telling your story.

I read this book for several reading challenges:

Due to its late 1970’s setting in Cambodia, this novel counts for the Historical Fiction Challenge. It’s also my third country stop for the Literary Voyage Around the World Challenge. As I enjoyed several cups of tea, mostly Bigelow’s Constant Comment and at least one cup of Simpson & Vail’s Jane Austen Black Tea Blend, it also qualifies for the Share-a-Tea Challenge.

four-half-stars

Review: Alias Grace, Margaret Atwood

Review: Alias Grace, Margaret AtwoodAlias Grace by Margaret Atwood
Published by Doubleday Nan A. Talese ISBN: 0385475713
on November 2, 2017
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 468
Format: Audio
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five-stars

From the number one New York Times best-selling author of The Handmaid's Tale

Soon to be a Netflix Original series, Alias Grace takes listeners into the life of one of the most notorious women of the 19th century.

It's 1843, and Grace Marks has been convicted for her involvement in the vicious murders of her employer and his housekeeper and mistress. Some believe Grace is innocent; others think her evil or insane. Now serving a life sentence, Grace claims to have no memory of the murders.

An up-and-coming expert in the burgeoning field of mental illness is engaged by a group of reformers and spiritualists who seek a pardon for Grace. He listens to her story while bringing her closer and closer to the day she cannot remember. What will he find in attempting to unlock her memories?

Captivating and disturbing, Alias Grace showcases best-selling, Booker Prize-winning author Margaret Atwood at the peak of her powers.

The miniseries Alias Grace is a Halfire Entertainment Production made for CBC and Netflix.

I think I’ve mentioned this before, but my husband and I like to listen to audiobooks while we cook dinner, and I have picked most of them. We made a deal that I would pick one more, and I was supposed to surprise him and pick whatever I wanted, and then it would be his turn. We had tried to listen to Lincoln in the Bardo, but I just couldn’t follow the story in audio. That was the last book my husband picked, I think. I thought long and hard about which book to pick. I almost picked The Handmaid’s Tale because I don’t think he’s read it, but I have read it, and I had wanted to read Alias Grace. I thought maybe my husband would like it because it is based on a true crime story, and he is something of a true crime aficionado.

Both of us liked the novel quite a lot. I think we are planning to watch the Netflix series, too. My husband remarked several times about what an excellent writer Margaret Atwood is. I am not sure if we were meant to think about Dreiser’s An American Tragedy, which was also based on a true crime. To my way of thinking, Alias Grace has more than a healthy dose of Naturalism as well. It explores themes of mental health, treatment of women, sexuality, and gender as well as social issues involving Irish immigrants. Grace emerges as a sympathetic character, but at the same time, it’s difficult to know who she really is, especially by the end. Atwood weaves the narrative together well through the frame device of Dr. Simon Jordan, an American interested in mental health issues, who visits Grace to learn more about her story and the infamous murders that resulted in her imprisonment as a teenage girl.

Sarah Gadon plays Grace Marks in the Netflix adaptation of the novel, and she does a worthy job with the narration of this novel as well. This one is definitely worth a listen.

five-stars

2018 Reading Challenges: Part One

challenge book photo
Photo by Upupa4me

It’s that time of year again! We’re halfway through December, and the new year is in sight. Time to sign up for reading challenges. I like to figure out where I might focus my reading each year, but in all honesty, I don’t actually complete most of the challenges I take on. Still, the challenges make me think about what I want to accomplish in the reading year ahead. Thanks to Kim and Tanya for collecting a great list of reading challenges and updating the list each week.

The first challenge that catches my eye is the Author Love Challenge. I’m in for five of James Baldwin’s books.

I think I participated in the Back to the Classics Challenge a couple of years back, and it was a great one for helping me focus my reading. Like a lot of people, I have a list of classics I keep meaning to get to. I’m just now reading 1984, for example. I’m in for six categories, but I’m not sure which ones at the moment.

I like to do some kind of challenge involving reading books from the UK because I love British literature. This year I participated in the British Books Challenge, and I plan to participate again next year. I’m not sure what I will read. This year, I completed the challenge with ten books, but I didn’t review most of them because most of them were re-reads. I think this year, I will try to read at least five, all of which are new to me.

I’m in once again for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge. I have done this one many times. I don’t think I’m meeting my goal this year, but that’s fine. Historical Fiction is my favorite genre, but because I’m trying to branch out, I’ll shoot for five books—Victorian Reader.

I love theme-y types of challenges, and the Monthly Motif Challenge looks like a fun way to diversify my reading selections. I’m going to try to participate each month and read a total of 12 books toward the challenge.

I can’t resist any challenge that asks me to “travel” through books. I’m signing up for the Literary Voyage Around the World Challenge, and I’m shooting for Literary Hitchhiker, 25-40 countries. I’d like to think I could branch out a bit more and do more than the minimum, but looking at my usual reading patterns, I think 25 will even be a stretch for me. It will be a good excuse to diversify my reading.

That’s it for now. I’ll write a new post for any additional challenges that I might want to do. I’m purposely not doing any challenges that require me to tackle books I already own or that are already in my TBR pile. I found those challenges limiting and hard for me to complete, especially when really good books came out that I wanted to read—those books tended to go on my TBR pile, and I wound up spinning my wheels a bit.

Review: The Scribe of Siena, Melodie Winawer

Neurosurgeon Beatrice Trovato books a flight to visit her historian older brother Ben, who raised her after the death of their mother, in Melodie Winawer’s debut novel The Scribe of Siena. Ben dies suddenly of a heart ailment before her flight, but she decides to go anyway, this time to settle Ben’s estate. He had seemed so happy in Siena; he had finally found his home. Ben’s studies involved medieval Siena during the Plague (1347-1348). He had apparently uncovered some interesting information and was preparing to publish it before his death. Beatrice feels compelled to take on his work and protect it from rival scholars. As she takes up Ben’s research, she finds herself entranced by the story of fresco artist Gabriele Accorsi. She has Accorsi’s journal from the 1340’s, and as she studies one of his frescoes, she is stunned to find her own likeness in the corner. Before she knows what is happening, she is swept into the past, to Siena in the summer of 1347… right before the Plague is about to devastate Siena. Beatrice must figure out how to avoid catching the deadly disease and return home safely, but she finds herself even more entranced by the real Gabriele Accorsi than she was by his journal, and she establishes ties in medieval Siena as she becomes a scribe in the Ospedale, today a museum called the Santa Maria della Scala.

A few of the details and mechanics involved with time travel might bother some readers (admittedly me among them), but this was a pretty good read. For one thing, Winawer is a doctor herself, and the descriptions of Beatrice’s surgeries and medical knowledge rang true. Often when I read time-travel novels, the past is romanticized to such a degree that the parts when the protagonist is in the present are irksome (Diana Gabaldon is pretty guilty of this), but I found Beatrice’s present as interesting as the past she travels to. In fact, maybe a little bit more (but not by much). Winawer argues in her book that one reason Siena has maintained its distinctive “medieval” character is that its evolution was stunted by serious losses to the Plague. Siena may have lost up to half its population, more than other comparable cities in Tuscany. Winawer comes up with an appropriately sinister explanation for why, too. If the mechanism for time travel is a little fuzzy, at least the historical details are mostly accurate (admittedly, I found one big historical error that really bothered me), and the story moves along at a nice clip. Ben’s discovery, which Beatrice must uncover, makes for a page-turning mystery. The characters are well-drawn, though one in particular is quite a lot more credulous than seems logical, and in general they feel like real people (with the possible exception of a few caricatures, and you’ll know them when you see them). A Library Journal review touted on the book’s cover proclaims that “Readers of Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander and Tracy Chevalier’s Girl with a Pearl Earring will be swept away by the spell of medieval Siena.” I can’t disagree with that assessment. In many ways, the setting of this book was as much a presence as the people that inhabit it, and I just love it when books have settings with strong character.

I received this book as part of my Cozy Reader box subscription. I’m not sure it would have been on my radar this soon (and perhaps not at all), if not for that subscription.

Rating: ★★★★☆

 

Review: 13 Rue Thérèse, Elena Mauli Shapiro

I found a copy of Elena Mauli Shapiro’s novel 13 Rue Thérèse at a used bookstore in Northampton, MA, where we spent my birthday weekend last year. As such, I suppose this book was a birthday present for myself. I loved the cover, and in flipping through the book, I was intrigued by the premise.

An American historian named Trevor Stratton is given a box of artifacts belonging to a woman named Louise Brunet, who lived at 13 Rue Thérèse in Paris with her husband Henri after World War I. He discovers through piecing together her story that she lost a cousin with whom she was in love and whom she wanted to marry in World War I. She married a man who worked in her father’s shop, and she was desperate for a child. She embarks on a flirtation with a new neighbor, a teacher, who surprises Louise by taking her up on her suggestions. Meanwhile, Trevor can’t explain why he knows things about Louise’s life that don’t appear in the artifacts. How can he know, for example, so intimately how Louise feels and what she does as she goes about her life in Paris in November 1928?

This book is based on an interesting idea. Shapiro apparently has a box of relics belonging to a real-life Louise Brunet who died alone. The landlord of 13 Rue Thérèse allowed the residents to claim her belongings, and Shapiro’s mother selected this box. From the artifacts in the box, Shapiro constructed this story. I’m not sure how I feel about her taking that kind of license with a real person’s life, especially when so much of the story is speculation and doesn’t necessarily cast Louise in a positive light. She is a likable character, but I wonder what her descendants, had she had any, would have thought about her fictional treatment. There is a time-travel element that is not quite gracefully handled as well. One wonders about the necessity of including Trevor Stratton at all. His story seems somewhat superfluous, perhaps because it isn’t woven into Louise’s story as seamlessly as it might be. I love a good time travel story, but I wonder if this book might not have been better as strictly historical fiction. In addition, I would have liked to have seen the plot hang together a bit more tightly.

Despite some flaws, I didn’t give up on it, and it was a very quick read, if not a gripping one. I think in the case of this particular book, I am probably just not the right audience because many reviewers seem to have liked it more than I did. The QR codes in the back of the book are a nice touch; they allow the reader to see higher resolution photos of the artifacts. I found the color images in the book sufficient. The book is a beautiful book, as well, with a gorgeous cover and thick creamy pages and a pleasant font. It isn’t quite like any other book I’ve read before. You might enjoy it if you like quirky French films.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I’m counting this book for several reading challenges. It’s Paris setting makes it my French book for the European Reading Challenge. I’ve had it on my backlist at least since September when I bought it, so I’m also counting it for the Beat the Backlist Reading Challenge. Finally, it is set mainly in 1928, so I’m also counting it for the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge.

European Reading Challenge 2017 Beat the Backlist

Review: The House Between Tides, Sarah Maine

Sarah Maine’s novel The House Between Tides begins with a mystery. Hetty Deveraux (which feels too much like a name only a novel character would have) travels to a remote manse belonging to her ancestors and discovers a body has been found under the floorboards. Hetty soon finds herself untangling a century-old murder as she tries to determine what to do about Muirlan House—tear it down and try to preserve the island’s unique character, as the inhabitants of Muirlan Island think best, or renovate it into a resort hotel as her partner Giles urges her to do. Meanwhile, Hetty becomes curious about her ancestors. The island had once been the inspiration and refuge of her great-grandmother Emily’s brother Theo Blake, a famed painter. Hetty discovers that Theo’s wife deserted him under mysterious circumstances, and she begins to fear she knows whose bones were found underneath the floorboards of Muirlan House. Meanwhile Beatrice Blake, Theo’s wife, tells her story in flashbacks. The the stories of two women, living a century apart, link inextricably with family secrets and a crumbling ancestral home in the space between them.

I have to admit this book was a slow starter for me, even with the discovery of a body under the floorboards. Maine does a great job of creating the atmosphere of Muirlan Island in the Outer Hebrides, a remote and unforgiving landscape that nonetheless lures both Hetty and Beatrice with its fierce beauty. Once the story gets going, however, it’s pretty good. Some aspects of the plot were a little easier to guess than others, and the unraveling of the mysteries that lay buried for so many years made for a satisfying ending. However, I was a good third of the way through the book and contemplating giving up on it before it started to capture my interest. I enjoyed the rest of the book. The parallels between Hetty and Beatrice were interesting, and the family secrets intrigued me enough to persevere through some of the parts that dragged. I have seen some reviewers claim not to have enjoyed the parts set in 2010 with Hetty, but I actually found them more interesting because the discovery of the body as well as Hetty’s conflicted feelings about her partner and his plans for her ancestral home were intriguing to me. I love historical fiction, and at first, I found Beatrice’s story the less interesting of the two. However, as I kept reading, Beatrice grew on me. The book is compared to Daphne Du Maurier’s atmospheric writing, which is a shame because few writers can create a brooding setting like Du Maurier, and anyone suffers by comparison. I think I need to stop having such high expectations of anyone whose work is compared to Du Maurier’s. Still, it was a good read, and the setting was well drawn, if perhaps the characters were not always—I found the minor characters very difficult to keep straight, and the family trees impossible. I also found parts of the story frustrating as I hoped Maine was going somewhere with a thread that was never quite woven in well enough.

Rating: ★★★½☆

I am counting this book toward the following reading challenges:

Beat the BacklistI am counting this book for the Beat the Backlist Challenge. This book has been on my Kindle since last September, but I didn’t start reading it until recently. It was published in 2016, and therefore meets the challenge’s qualification of being released before 2017. I read this on my Kindle, but Goodreads says the paperback version has 400 pages, which is the equivalent of 40 points for Ravenclaw, and posting this review should net 50 more points for a total of 90.

Because about half the book takes place in 1910, I’m also counting it for the Historical Fiction Challenge. In addition, Sarah Maine is a British writer, so this book counts towards the British Books Challenge.

British Books Challenge

Finally, as the book is set in Scotland, part of the UK, it also counts as part of the European Reading Challenge, though this is the only UK book that will count toward the challenge.

European Reading Challenge 2017

Review: Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng

This book has been on my radar since a colleague donated a copy to my classroom library. However, in the last few weeks, it was also chosen as the upper school summer reading selection at my school, so I would have had to read it this summer in any case. I bumped it up in my to-read queue.

Do you ever think that books come into our lives when we really need them? Sometimes I read the perfect book at the time when I absolutely need it, and this book was one of those books for me.

Everything I Never Told You is set in late 1970’s Ohio. The Lee family is a Chinese-American family. Their middle child Lydia, the one upon whom the family pins most of their hopes and dreams, is missing. In fact, the family does not know and will not learn for a while that she is actually dead. The novel is the story of what happens to the family in the wake of Lydia’s death as well as the story of all the events leading up to it. Each family member, including Lydia, suffers under the weight of the conversations they never had. At its heart, this book’s strongest message is about the emotional damage caused when people don’t communicate. However, for those who might be reluctant to pick up a book that might seem to be a downer, I’ll share that there is a note of redemption for the family.

I connected strongly with this book because one of the biggest problems I have is that there are a lot of important conversations I have needed to have with people in my life, especially family, that I have not had. I haven’t had these conversations for the same reasons as Lydia and all of the Lee family—fear. I carry the heavy weight of these conversations around inside me just like the Lee family did. I am learning that I need to change this behavior. This book is more than just a cautionary tale about the dangers of not having important conversations, but it was important for me to read at this time in my life for that reason.

We have recently suffered a tragic, sudden, and unexpected loss in our family as well. I don’t feel right laying out in a book review. I don’t know if that diminishes the loss or not. But having recently finished this book, this loss reminds me too that life is precious and fragile, and we are not promised time. We have to live the lives we want to live now and set aside the fears we have about others and what they will think. That includes family. Perhaps especially family. It’s hard, but our lives are worth it.

Rating: ★★★★★
Set in the late 1970’s, nearly 40 years ago now, this book counts toward the Historical Fiction Challenge.

Review: The Rock and the River, Kekla Magoon

Kekla Magoon’s novel The Rock and the River is the story of Sam, son of a civil rights leader named Roland Childs, who is a friend of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s and a leading voice of the Movement. Sam and his older brother Steven, whom Sam calls “Stick,” find themselves increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress they see. When they are attacked at one of their father’s rallies, they fight back, and Stick winds up in the hospital. Some time later, Sam and his friend Maxie witness the brutal beating and false arrest of one of their friends. Sam finds Black Panther literature in his brother’s things. Though he knows involvement in the Black Panther Party would disappoint his father, Sam finds himself drawn to the group, especially the political education classes, free breakfast program, and the promise of a free clinic. At the same time, he is also attracted to the Black Panther Party’s more militant ideals, especially after the Movement loses Dr. King to an assassin’s bullet, and Sam’s own experiences with police lead him to question whether his father’s way will really bring about change or if there is a another way.

The Rock and the River is an intriguing coming-of-age story. I can’t recall that I’ve ever read any historical fiction, or even memoir/nonfiction about the Black Panther Party (aside from Wikipedia). Most of the focus of the Civil Rights Movement is on nonviolent social protest and leaders like King. Given the attention police violence against the black community has received over the last couple of years, many young adults will find Sam’s story interesting in offering a historical perspective. After a fashion, the Black Panther Party is one of the first #blacklivesmatter organizations. Some of the good they did for their communities is obscured by violence perpetuated by some individuals in the Black Panther Party. As shown in Magoon’s novel, the Panthers did institute free breakfast programs, legal counsel, and clinics in underserved and forgotten communities. Magoon does not flinch from showing the Panthers’ tensions with the police, either. I found the book to be an honest and balanced portrayal of the group (based on my own research). I plan to recommend the book for my students and get a copy for my own classroom library.

Something I have been thinking about a great deal, as it has come up both in my teaching and in my own thinking, is that we need everyone’s stories. All of us have stories. I know for a long time I heard one story about the Black Panther Party, and it wasn’t a very nuanced one. I think I started digging into my own albeit somewhat cursory research around the time I started reading and later watching Aaron McGruder’s comic/TV show, The Boondocks. The strip’s main character, Huey Freeman, is named after Huey P. Newton, one of the founders of the Black Panther Party. This connection prompted me to read a little bit more about Newton and the Black Panthers. Magoon’s book is the first novel I’ve seen about the group, however. I particularly appreciated the novel’s nuanced portrayal of the Black Panthers. It was an intriguing book and told a story that I haven’t seen told before. There is a danger in hearing only one story or one side. People, and by extension groups of people, are rarely all good or all bad or all black or all white. For that reason, I think it’s important that we hear as many stories as we can and make it our business to listen to one another. I’m glad that Magoon told this story.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Set in 1968 Chicago, this book was published in 2009. I purchased it for my Kindle in 2010, but I hadn’t read it until now. Picking it up enabled me to address a book that’s been on my reader library and in my TBR pile for quite some time. A good start for three challenges in the first week and a half of January!

 

Review: The Historian, Elizabeth Kostova

Elizabeth Kostova’s 2005 novel The Historian was my first read of 2016. I actually started it some time in November, but I set it aside and just dipped in and out until this last week, when I read the bulk of the novel.

The Historian is the story of Vlad the Impaler, sometimes known as Dracula, and the historians interested in tracing his existence and locating his final “resting” place. The unnamed narrator of the story becomes embroiled in the search for Dracula through her father, Paul, who disappears mysteriously. She embarks on a quest to find him, and through some epistolary and framing elements, she gradually learns the story of her own parents’ quest for Dracula, taken up when her father tried to find his missing mentor and dissertation advisor, Bartholomew Rossi.

The novel has been compared somewhat unfairly to The Da Vinci Code because it has elements of scholarship and elements of a literary thriller, but I’m not sure it’s a fair comparison. It is better written, and the characters are somewhat more developed than Dan Brown’s characters; however, there is still the sense that most of the characters are almost sort of like action figures the author is moving around instead of really well-drawn characters. Intriguingly, it is the minor characters, such as Rossi, Helen’s mother and aunt, and the Professor in Instanbul, Turgut Bora, who emerge as more interesting and fully formed than any of the protagonists. I question whether the framing device was really necessary. I don’t think the structure of the plot needed to be quite so complicated because it didn’t really do a whole lot to further the plot. All of the stories within stories were not confusing or hard to follow so much as they seemed unnecessary. Still, even with these criticisms, I would say I enjoyed the book and found it to be a sufficiently creepy vampire story, and not just a vampire story, but also a story of the Cold War and the complicated issues scholars might have dealt with in trying to conduct research behind the Iron Curtain. I have read criticism that the climax in this book is not really a good payoff, and I would agree with that criticism. On top of that, I think the reader leaves the book a bit confused (or perhaps that’s just me), especially as to why the author chose to end the book in the way she did.

I’m a little confused about how to rate this book because while I enjoyed it, it’s not without some serious flaws, and some people might not enjoy the book at all because of those flaws, but ultimately, for what it is and what it does do, I went with four stars. Your mileage may vary.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Set mostly during the 1950’s and 1970’s in many locations in Europe. Some exploration of medieval Romania and Turkey in the characters’ research.