Review: How to Hang a Witch Series, Adriana Mather

by Adriana Mather
Published by Knopf Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Young Adult
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library

I discovered Adriana Mather’s book through the Salem Witch Museum. The museum is terribly cheesy, but they have a good social media presence, and they recently shared a picture on Facebook of books written by Salem Witch Trials descendants that are available in their gift shop. I’m not sure if Adriana Mather is a direct descendant of Cotton Mather, but she’s definitely related. Cotton Mather notoriously played a role on the wrong side of history in the infamous Salem Witch Trials. I’m not sure if Adriana Mather plans to write more books in this series, but I’d read them. I think a good description of these books might be Twilight, but with witches and ghosts instead of vampires. I will read practically anything set in Salem. I’ve spent a good bit of time there and know it fairly well. It is a cute little town that takes its history in weird, kitschy directions. One caveat I feel like I must share: it’s not weird at all in New England to be a descendant of one or even several of the players in the Salem Witch Trials, and it bugged me a bit that the notion of being descended from an accused witch or other players in the trials was somehow unique enough to set “the Descendants” apart. But if you lay that quibble aside, the idea of them wafting through the hallways of Salem High School wearing black from head to toe is fun. Adriana Mather has a fascinating family history, and she was lucky to be able to mine it for her fiction.

I believe this book is the stronger of the two, but that’s partly because Samantha Mather, the protagonist, is more of an outsider, and all the world-building in this book is pretty interesting.

I said I’d read anything set in Salem, and I’m also a sucker for books about Titanic, though, to be honest, I’m not sure I’ve read a good one. I liked the movie when it came out, and I used to play a video game set there that was a ton of fun. I figured out who the antagonist in this book would be early on, but their motive doesn’t make a ton of sense to me.

Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip Williams

Review: The Dictionary of Lost Words, Pip WilliamsThe Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams
Published by Ballantine Books on March 31, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 400
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
five-stars

In this remarkable debut based on actual events, as a team of male scholars compiles the first Oxford English Dictionary, one of their daughters decides to collect the "objectionable" words they omit.

Esme is born into a world of words. Motherless and irrepressibly curious, she spends her childhood in the "Scriptorium," a garden shed in Oxford where her father and a team of dedicated lexicographers are collecting words for the very first Oxford English Dictionary. Young Esme's place is beneath the sorting table, unseen and unheard. One day a slip of paper containing the word "bondmaid" flutters to the floor. She rescues the slip, and when she learns that the word means slave-girl, she withholds it from the OED and begins to collect other words that have been discarded or neglected by the dictionary men.

As she grows up, Esme realizes that words and meanings relating to women's and common folks' experiences often go unrecorded. And so she begins in earnest to search out words for her own dictionary: The Dictionary of Lost Words. To do so she must leave the sheltered world of the university and venture out to meet the people whose words will fill those pages.

Set during the height of the women's suffrage movement with the Great War looming, The Dictionary of Lost Words reveals a lost narrative, hidden between the lines of a history written by men.
Based on actual events and combed from author Pip Williams's experience delving into the archives of the
Oxford English Dictionary, this highly original novel is a delightful, lyrical, and deeply thought-provoking celebration of words and the power of language to shape the world.

This book was one of the most enjoyable I’ve read all year, and I highly recommend it to fans of historical fiction who also love words. I picked it up upon seeing Simon Winchester’s blurb:

“In the annals of lexicography, no more imaginative, delightful, charming, and clever book has yet been written.” —Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary

High praise, considering The Professor and the Madman was one of the more interesting and enjoyable works of nonfiction I’ve read.

Some reviewers mention that this book takes a turn when characters start dying, but honestly, that’s what happens in life: as you age, you lose your parents and friends. It would be unnatural for Williams not to include this aspect of Esme’s story.

The novel was well written on top of telling an engaging story. I loved the characters’ meditations on words, and I enjoyed Esme’s efforts to collect words she feared the dictionary was not capturing.

In an interview in the back of the book, Williams said,

By the time I had finished the first draft of this novel, I had become acutely aware that the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary was a flawed and gendered text. But it was also extraordinary, and far less flawed and gendered than it might have been in the hands of someone other than James Murray.

Williams’s admiration for Murray’s efforts to bring the dictionary to completion was palpable on every page, but even more than that, her admiration for the lesser-known individuals who contributed to the dictionary was spotlighted.

five-stars

Review: Black Cake, Charmaine Wilkerson

Review: Black Cake, Charmaine WilkersonBlack Cake by Charmaine Wilkerson
Published by Random House Audio on February 1, 2022
Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
four-half-stars

We can’t choose what we inherit. But can we choose who we become?In present-day California, Eleanor Bennett’s death leaves behind a puzzling inheritance for her two children, Byron and Benny: a black cake, made from a family recipe with a long history, and a voice recording. In her message, Eleanor shares a tumultuous story about a headstrong young swimmer who escapes her island home under suspicion of murder. The heartbreaking tale Eleanor unfolds, the secrets she still holds back, and the mystery of a long-lost child challenge everything the siblings thought they knew about their lineage and themselves.

Can Byron and Benny reclaim their once-close relationship, piece together Eleanor’s true history, and fulfill her final request to “share the black cake when the time is right”? Will their mother’s revelations bring them back together or leave them feeling more lost than ever?

Charmaine Wilkerson’s debut novel is a story of how the inheritance of betrayals, secrets, memories, and even names can shape relationships and history. Deeply evocative and beautifully written, Black Cake is an extraordinary journey through the life of a family changed forever by the choices of its matriarch.

I enjoyed this book quite a lot, but part of the reason it earned 4.5 stars for me was the excellent narration which added interest. Had I read the novel rather than listened to it, I might have settled it at 3.5-4 stars. At times I felt that the novel had a bit too much going on. However, it was a thoroughly enjoyable read, and I would recommend the book to others.

One of my favorite aspects of the book was the importance of food in storytelling and history. The New York Times shared this black cake recipe if you’d like to try it after reading the book. I could see it being a fun refreshment for a book club discussion of the novel. Some of the recipe’s reviews offer helpful tips.

four-half-stars

Three Books from My Old TBR Pile and One New Book

by Afia Atakora, Allegra Goodman, Corrie Lynn White, Kiese Laymon
Published by Random House Audio, Scribner, Southeast Missouri State University Press, The Dial Press Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Historical Fiction, Memoir, Poetry
Format: Audio, Audiobook, E-Book, eBook, Paperback
Source: Library

I recently finished reading three books I’ve had in my TBR pile for a long time. In fact, The Cookbook Collector and Heavy have been on my Kindle for years. Here are some quick reviews.

Full disclosure, Corrie Lynn White and I attended a Kenyon Writing Workshop for Teachers some years ago. We were not in the same group, so I didn’t hear much of her writing at the workshop, but I did hear her work at our final reading and was very impressed. I enjoyed her collection. My favorite poem was “To Mother or To Be Lonely,” mainly because the line “They put stale cornbread in their milk and let it soften” made me think of my grandmother, who used to crumble cornbread into her buttermilk.

I was a bit disappointed that this book had a misleading title. I thought it would be much more about this old bookstore and the collection of cookbooks. I found it kind of improbable that some of the cookbooks in the collection existed, as I know a bit about collecting cookbooks—I collect them myself. A “signed Mrs. Fisher“? Doesn’t exist!  Details like that will just take you out of the plot. The book was much more about the Dot-Com Bubble. I can see this book is pretty polarizing on review sites. It seems like a lot of people hate it. I didn’t. It was good, even if it wasn’t what I was expecting. However, I don’t think anyone does Allegra Goodman any favors by comparing her to Jane Austen. The only comparison I see is that the plot is loosely lifted from Sense and Sensibility.

I struggled with how to rate this one. The characters and story were compelling, but the story dragged in parts. The book is clearly well-researched, and Bruh Abel is like a character out of Flannery O’Connor or William Faulkner. Atakora has excellent writing chops. I think the storytelling could have been more taut. Moments in this debut novel dazzle, but finishing this novel was hard-going at times.

Heavy is a fantastic, well-written memoir. It’s unflinching, honest, raw, and beautiful. Fair warning: it is extremely sad and deals with some difficult issues, including addiction, weight fixation, anorexia, physical abuse, psychological abuse, sexual abuse, and racism.

Review: River Sing Me Home, Eleanor Shearer

Review: River Sing Me Home, Eleanor ShearerRiver Sing Me Home by Eleanor Shearer
Published by Berkley Books on January 31, 2023
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 336
Format: E-Book, eBook
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
four-half-stars

Her search begins with an ending....

The master of the Providence plantation in Barbados gathers his slaves and announces the king has decreed an end to slavery. As of the following day, the Emancipation Act of 1834 will come into effect. The cries of joy fall silent when he announces that they are no longer his slaves; they are now his apprentices. No one can leave. They must work for him for another six years. Freedom is just another name for the life they have always lived. So Rachel runs.

Away from Providence, she begins a desperate search to find her children--the five who survived birth and were sold. Are any of them still alive? Rachel has to know. The grueling, dangerous journey takes her from Barbados then, by river, deep into the forest of British Guiana and finally across the sea to Trinidad. She is driven on by the certainty that a mother cannot be truly free without knowing what has become of her children, even if the answer is more than she can bear. These are the stories of Mary Grace, Micah, Thomas Augustus, Cherry Jane and Mercy. But above all this is the story of Rachel and the extraordinary lengths to which a mother will go to find her children...and her freedom.

River Sing Me Home is well-researched and intriguing. It could be just my ignorance, but I haven’t seen many historical fiction books dealing with the “end” of slavery in the Caribbean and South America. I love it when a work of historical fiction prompts me to research the events it describes. My main issue was that in a book about storytelling, so much of the story was “told” rather than shown. That’s necessary because Rachel is not present to experience her children’s stories when she finds them, but something is lacking in the writing that doesn’t quite raise the book to five stars. I wanted Rachel to find all her children, but each time the reunion relied entirely on sheer coincidence. Perhaps the most jarring example was when Rachel found Cherry Jane simply by passing by a building and seeing her in the window. As hard as it is for Rachel to find her children, it’s also a bit too easy—the sad reality is that Rachel most likely would not have to accomplish the task of finding all her children at the time when the novel is set, so the novel feels a bit more like wish fulfillment than reality. That’s not necessarily something I mind—it’s fiction after all, but I want to be able to immerse myself in the story a bit more. I felt the story was compelling enough that it should be more than four stars. The story was propulsive enough to keep me engaged when I was reading the book, but I didn’t have much trouble putting the book down for long stretches. I even had to renew it from the library after checking it out for 21 days, and it’s always a sign to me that something is off when a story this engaging still winds up being difficult for me to finish. Truthfully, I might have given the novel less than 4.5 stars—probably 3 or 3.5 stars—if the plot and characters had been less engaging and if the novel had not offered an opportunity to learn about a historical period and setting I knew little about.

four-half-stars

May Reading Update

by Cheryl A. Head, Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, Paula Brackston
Published by Algonquin Books, Dutton, St. Martin's Griffin Genres: Contemporary Fiction, Fantasy/Science Fiction, Historical Fiction
Format: Audio, Audiobook, E-Book, eBook
Source: Library

I finished several books, and with the busy end-of-school-year, I haven’t had a chance to share my thoughts about them.

I really enjoyed The Mountains Sing, so I felt I’d enjoy Dust Child, and I was not wrong. I am not sure that comparisons to Homegoing and Pachinko are fair, as those books are more family epics. I figured out the connection among the different characters, but I wished for more closure on one loose end—I suppose lack of closure is realistic, however. I was interested to learn that this novel came from the author’s dissertation research.

I don’t understand the hate this one is getting on Goodreads. I put off reading it for something like a decade due to the low ratings! It’s actually pretty good. Parts of it are over the top, but the historical fiction aspects were well-researched and convincing, and I love a good story about someone who has lived through centuries of history. To me, that was the best part of Anne Rice’s books. I would read more of this author’s books for sure.

This was a pretty good mystery. I liked the parts set in the present more; I think the author has a better feel for the present than the past. I thought the author handled the depiction of White allies with problematic families well. The book captures the setting extremely well; I feel certain the author has done a great deal of research.

 

Review: Longbourn, Jo Baker

Review: Longbourn, Jo BakerLongbourn by Jo Baker
Published by Alfred A. Knopf on October 8, 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: E-Book, eBook
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
five-stars

• Pride and Prejudice was only half the story • If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats, Sarah often thought, she’d most likely be a sight more careful with them. In this irresistibly imagined belowstairs answer to Pride and Prejudice, the servants take center stage. Sarah, the orphaned housemaid, spends her days scrubbing the laundry, polishing the floors, and emptying the chamber pots for the Bennet household. But there is just as much romance, heartbreak, and intrigue downstairs at Longbourn as there is upstairs. When a mysterious new footman arrives, the orderly realm of the servants’ hall threatens to be completely, perhaps irrevocably, upended.

Jo Baker dares to take us beyond the drawing rooms of Jane Austen’s classic—into the often overlooked domain of the stern housekeeper and the starry-eyed kitchen maid, into the gritty daily particulars faced by the lower classes in Regency England during the Napoleonic Wars—and, in doing so, creates a vivid, fascinating, fully realized world that is wholly her own.

I just loved this book. It’s hard for me to believe a retelling of Pride and Prejudice could be better than this. The lives of the servants, some of whom rate barely a mention, are fully realized in Jo Baker’s Longbourn. Mrs. Hill’s backstory is fascinating (and entirely believable, based on what we know of Mr. Bennet); she is mentioned only a handful of times in Austen’s novel. Sarah is mentioned only once in Pride and Prejudice, and the others are never mentioned by name.

I liked seeing Mr. Collins get a more sympathetic portrayal—he’s much kinder to the servants than some of the Bennets themselves. Jo Baker’s Wickham is odious—this story puts his elopement with Lydia in an entirely new and disturbing light. I appreciated Baker’s empathy for Mrs. Bennet. In her hands, Elizabeth Bennet is imperfect and a bit thoughtless.

In addition, Baker captures the setting well. Longbourn and Pemberley are drawn in vivid relief from the vantage point of the kitchens, servants’ quarters, and stables. There are some beautiful descriptive passages of the scenery, particularly near the end of the novel.

Austen doesn’t say much about the Napoleonic Wars; many critics have pondered the oversight. Baker makes them a central part of one character’s story. I also appreciated the way the book didn’t shy away from issues of race and class. It’s clear from the context that Mr. Bingley has earned his money somehow as part of the slave trade, and his former slave Ptolemy Bingley is a brilliant character.

I highly recommend this book to fans of Jane Austen, but even if you read Jane Austen and felt like something was missing, this book might be what you’re looking for.

five-stars

Review: The London Séance Society, Sarah Penner

Review: The London Séance Society, Sarah PennerThe London Séance Society by Sarah Penner
Published by Park Row on March 7, 2023
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
three-stars

A spellbinding tale about two daring women who hunt for truth and justice in the perilous art of conjuring the dead.

1873. At an abandoned château on the outskirts of Paris, a dark séance is about to take place, led by acclaimed spiritualist Vaudeline D’Allaire. Known worldwide for her talent in conjuring the spirits of murder victims to ascertain the identities of the people who killed them, she is highly sought after by widows and investigators alike.

Lenna Wickes has come to Paris to find answers about her sister’s death, but to do so, she must embrace the unknown and overcome her own logic-driven bias against the occult. When Vaudeline is beckoned to England to solve a high-profile murder, Lenna accompanies her as an understudy. But as the women team up with the powerful men of London’s exclusive Séance Society to solve the mystery, they begin to suspect that they are not merely out to solve a crime, but perhaps entangled in one themselves…

I did not enjoy this book as much as Sarah Penner’s first book, The Lost Apothecary. The story was not as compelling to me. The ending held some surprises, and I liked the scripted process Penner created for the séance. I also appreciated the fact that Penner created a plausible Victorian lesbian romance—it didn’t feel tacked on, but I think Lenna thought about her attraction to Vaudeline at weird times—like when she was angry with her. Vaudeline, the medium, was an interesting character. I didn’t find Lenna or her deceased sister Evie compelling, and Mr. Morley was a cartoonish Snidely Whiplash type.

Too much of a caricature. I also wanted a bit more of a feel for the setting, which is something I got from The Lost Apothecary. There was a bit of a feel for the setting, but not much. I saw a Goodreads reviewer describe this book as a “great concept, average execution.” That’s exactly the way I felt.

three-stars

Review: The Girl with the Louding Voice, Abi Daré

Review: The Girl with the Louding Voice, Abi DaréThe Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré
Published by Penguin Audio on February 4, 2020
Genres: Contemporary Fiction
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
five-stars

The unforgettable, inspiring story of a teenage girl growing up in a rural Nigerian village who longs to get an education so that she can find her “louding voice” and speak up for herself, The Girl with the Louding Voice is a simultaneously heartbreaking and triumphant tale about the power of fighting for your dreams.

Despite the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in her path, Adunni never loses sight of her goal of escaping the life of poverty she was born into so that she can build the future she chooses for herself - and help other girls like her do the same.

Her spirited determination to find joy and hope in even the most difficult circumstances imaginable will “break your heart and then put it back together again” (Jenna Bush Hager on The Today Show) even as Adunni shows us how one courageous young girl can inspire us all to reach for our dreams... and maybe even change the world.

This book is fantastic. I picked it up as part of the Book Voyage Challenge. The March book is a book set in Africa, and the recommendation for this one was so compelling that I decided to pick it up, and I’m so glad I did. Adunni is an inspiring heroine. The other characters in the book are complex—never just straight “bad” or “good,” they’re a realistic mixture of both. Daré even manages to help the reader feel compassion for her antagonists.

I listened to the audiobook and cannot compare it to the print text, but I thoroughly enjoyed Adjoa Andoh’s narration. Some listeners might have trouble with Adunni’s dialect, but I found as I listened that I got an ear for it and could follow the narration without too much trouble.

I’ve read a couple of critiques about this book, the gist of which is that the plucky girl who wants an education is a trope in Nigerian fiction. I can’t speak to that as I simply don’t have enough reading experience, but perhaps those who have read more might agree that the story is predictable and cliché. That was not my experience, but it seems that plenty of other reviewers felt that way. One criticism I’ve seen that I don’t think is fair is how Adunni sometimes waxes poetic. Dialect is no indicator of intelligence, and just because she is uneducated doesn’t mean she isn’t poetic.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and I’m glad I read it.

five-stars

Review: Above Ground: Poems, Clint Smith

Review: Above Ground: Poems, Clint SmithAbove Ground by Clint Smith
on March 28, 2023
Genres: Poetry
Pages: 128
Format: Audio, Audiobook, Hardcover
Source: Audible
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
five-stars

The number one New York Times bestselling author, intellectual, and spoken-word poet Clint Smith gives his devoted readers a collection of poetry straight from the heart. It is a meditation on the country he studies through the lens of all he has learned from fatherhood. The poems are manifestations of Smith's wisdom and latest observations, starting with the precarious birth of his son, to the current political and social state of the country, to childhood memories, and back again. Smith traverses the periods of his life from four different cities and the process of realizing what it means to build a life that orbits around his family. Amid all of it, he has watched as the country has been forced to confront the ugliest manifestations of itself, and he has thought about what it means to raise children amid the backdrop of political tumult. Smith is a poet who uses the form to interrogate his own autobiography and the state of the country today, affording those who prefer reading poetry a shot of news, and those who normally seek out nonfiction, some lyrical beauty. Above Ground is a lyrical, sometimes narrative work of poetry that follows from Smith's first book of poetry, Counting Descent.

I thoroughly enjoy everything Clint Smith writes. My students read Smith’s previous collection Counting Descent, and we engage with his work in other ways over the course of the school year. I was very excited about this collection when I first heard about it and pre-ordered it from Loyalty Books in Silver Spring, MD, so I could get a personalized, signed copy. Smith is my favorite living poet, hands down. I love what he says about poetry in his guest spot on The Late Show.

I downloaded the audiobook to listen to Smith reading the poems as I followed in the book. I highly recommend you do the same because these poems are meant to be savored both in print and in Smith’s reading voice.

Some of my favorites in the collection:

  • “When People Say ‘We Have Made It Through Worse Before'”
  • “Your National Anthem”
  • “For Willie Francis, the First Known Person to Survive an Execution by Electric Chair, 1946”
  • “Roots”
  • “Pangaea”
  • “The New York Times Reports That 200 Civilians Have Just Been Killed by U.S. Military Air Strikes”
  • “Nomenclature”
  • “This Is an Incomplete List of All the Reasons I Know I Married the Right Person”
  • “We See Another School Shooting on the News”
  • “The Gun”
  • “Gold Stars”
  • “The Most Remarkable Thing About Dinosaurs”
  • “Ars Poetica”
  • “The Andromeda Galaxy Is the Closest Galaxy to Our Milky Way”

If that sounds like a lot, well, that’s because this collection is incredible. I really liked all of the poems, but the list above stood out to me as I read.

April is National Poetry Month. Do yourself a favor and enjoy this new collection of poems by one of the greatest living poets.

five-stars