Review: The Good Lord Bird, James McBride

Review: The Good Lord Bird, James McBrideThe Good Lord Bird by James McBride
Narrator: Michael Boatman
Published by Penguin Audio on August 20, 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Length: 14 hours 35 minutes
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Library
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Goodreads
five-stars

Henry Shackleford is a young slave living in the Kansas Territory in 1857; the region is a battleground between anti- and pro-slavery forces. When John Brown, the legendary abolitionist, arrives in the area, an argument between Brown and Henry s master quickly turns violent. Henry is forced to leave town with Brown, who believes he is a girl.

Over the ensuing months, Henry, whom Brown nicknames Little Onion, conceals his true identity as he struggles to stay alive. Eventually, Little Onion finds himself with Brown at the historic raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859, which was one of the major catalysts for the Civil War.

An absorbing mixture of history and imagination, and told with McBride s meticulous eye for detail and character, THE GOOD LORD BIRD is both a rousing adventure and a moving exploration of identity and survival.

I absolutely loved this book, and I think listening to the audiobook was a major reason why. Michael Boatman’s narration is excellent. I loved his characterization of John Brown and Owen Brown in particular. In style, this book reminded me a great deal of Mark Twain, particularly Huckleberry Finn. McBride’s portrayal of John Brown is sympathetic yet realistic. Through the voice of his narrator, Henry, we have a full picture of a complicated man: a religious zealot called by God to end slavery and a man who truly believed all people are equal. I honestly haven’t read enough about the real John Brown to know if the characterization is completely accurate, but it definitely rings true.

I love it when historical fiction asks me to research, too, and this book had me checking out other sources so I could learn about John Brown. Confederate President Jefferson Davis once said that what he feared was “thousands of John Browns.” It’s interesting to ask what might have happened had John Brown not conducted his raid on Harper’s Ferry or engaged in the skirmishes in Bleeding Kansas. Would the war have happened later? Would the South have organized in the face of ardent abolitionism? In any case, it’s difficult for me not to admire his dedication to the cause of freedom for African Americans at a time when that was not just unpopular but illegal. His tactics were violent, but it’s probably true that nonviolent protest would have accomplished nothing. After all, it took a bloody war to resolve the question of slavery, and the question of racism is still open.

I appreciated McBride’s invention of Henry as a narrator. He offered an opportunity to interpret John Brown’s actions through the lens of one of the enslaved people Brown was attempting to free and also to offer an outside perspective that is both sympathetic and critical of Brown. This balance makes it easier for McBride to draw a more complex picture of Brown and his followers than if he had chosen a narrator from among them or even a further outsider.

There is a chunk of the story in the middle when Henry is separated from Brown that I didn’t find as enjoyable. During this section, Henry is working in a hotel/whorehouse and falls in love with one of the prostitutes. However, he is disguising himself as a girl, so it’s complicated. I’m wondering now, as I finished the book, if that section added to the story or not. I suppose it depends on whether the reader sees this as a story of John Brown or a story of Henry Shackleford. I tend toward the former, and I will admit that part of the book slowed down the story’s momentum a bit for me, but not enough for me to dock any stars.

One literary aspect I appreciated was McBride’s clever use of motifs. For example, on several occasions, Brown wants to stop and pray when the group is in danger, and his son Owen is often the one to tell him to wrap it up so they can get out of danger. Another example is Brown’s directive to Henry to “hive the bees,” or try to rouse support for Brown’s cause among the Black population. He brings both motifs back touchingly at the end of the novel. We know how John Brown’s story ends, but McBride managed to make it satisfying and true to the characters he created. The first thing I did upon finishing this book is to check out Deacon King Kong, another of McBride’s novels. I wanted more. I can’t wait to watch the film!

five-stars

2021: Reading Year in Review

Once again, we’ve reached the end of a year, and I like to reflect on the reading I’ve done in a final end-of-year wrap-up post

In spite of the pandemic, I had a great reading year, courtesy of audiobooks. If not for audiobooks, I’m not sure how many books I’d have been able to read, but I listened to audiobooks as I took my daily walks, washed dishes, and cooked. I feel particularly good about how many books I checked out of the library. I’m fortunate to have a really good library with an extensive collection available via Overdrive, and I discovered using Libby to listen to library audiobooks this year. I actually prefer the Libby app to the Audible app. It has more fine-grained controls.

My progress with reading challenges was mixed, as usual. I came close to completing the Book Voyage Around the World Challenge. I didn’t read a book set in South America. Aside from that, I managed to read a book set in each of the zones around the world. I really liked this challenge. I think it encouraged me to read more widely than I usually do. My performance on the Southern Literature Reading Challenge was a bit of a joke. I finished the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge and managed to read more than I expected, so I increased my initial goal. I did okay with the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge. I love that challenge, but I have trouble meeting the prompts each month. Maybe in 2022!

Some quick reading stats, courtesy Goodreads:

  • I read a total of 52 books.
  • I read 18,155 pages (not sure how accurate that is given I listened to so many books).
  • My average book length was 354 pages.
  • The most popular book I read was Frankenstein (which I read along with the Obscure podcast).
  • The least popular book I read was Shelley’s Ghost (only 42 other Goodreads users have shelved it).
  • I rated books an average of 4.6 stars (which is an indicator of how good the books were!).

The 52 books I read in 2021 break down as follows:

  • 21 books of fiction (one I read twice, so counted it as 2 books)
  • 27 books of nonfiction
  • 3 books of poetry or verse
  • No dramas
  • 35 audiobooks
  • 9 re-reads (I re-read The Underground Railroad twice)
  • 2 graphic novels/comic books
  • 3 children’s books
  • 2 YA/middle-grade books

For the first time ever, I believe, I read more nonfiction than fiction.

I usually pick my favorites from each category, but that’s going to be so hard this year as I read so many great books. I decided to try to pick my top picks from each category, though even narrowing it down this much was hard.

Fiction

Klara and the Sun Middlemarch The Final Revival of Opal & Nev A Brief History of Seven Killings

Nonfiction

I didn’t really have a favorite poetry book, and given that my favorite was a re-read, I opted not to profile it here. Below, you can see (and purchase) all of the books I read in 2021.

2021 Reading Challenges

The good news is that I am in the dissertation writing phase of my doctoral studies, and I anticipate finishing by June. Obviously, writing the dissertation will take time, but I have already made good progress, and I will have a little bit more time, I hope, to dedicate to reading, particularly reflecting on my reading here on the blog. In any case, I will certainly have more time by June.

On December 31, I’ll post my reading recap for the year, including my progress on 2020 Reading Challenges. I’m excited to try some new challenges and also to engage in some challenges that have been a part of my reading habits for years.

The Book Voyage: Read Around the World challenge is new to me. I have kept a Google Map for several years now with pins for the settings of each book I read. A challenge I used to do (seems to be defunct) involved tracking locations for reading, but this challenge is unique in that it encourages reading in different regions of the world rather than simply raising awareness of setting. I also like that the challenge author, the Book Girl’s Guide, provides reading suggestions for each region, which may make it easier for me to find books set in each region. Each month is focused on a different region, so the goal is to read a total of twelve books set in each region.

It has been a little while since I focused my reading deliberately on the South. I lived in several Southern states for many years (1989-2012), and my family origins are Southern. I have a really complicated relationship with the South, however. A family history of racial violence and slavery and a great deal of political and historical ignorance clouds my appreciation for a beautiful region with some rich history and cuisine—which I credit largely to African Americans. I don’t think I’d ever want to live there again, but I also cannot deny that it’s a part of me. I have always felt the South produced some of the best literature, and I might argue we are living through a Southern literature renaissance, especially with Black authors and cookbooks, so I am hoping to focus my reading for the Southern Literature Reading Challenge on reading BIPOC authors and cookbooks. I’m planning to participate at the “Level 2—Pull up a seat and stay a while! (Read 3-4 books)” level. However, it’s possible I might read more. It depends on what I discover this year.

I participate in the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge pretty much every year. This year, the challenge has a new host—the Adventures of an Intrepid Reader. Historical fiction is my favorite genre of fiction. I love history, and I find reading historical fiction to be a satisfying way to learn about the past in a way that feels immediate. I am setting my goal at Victorian Reader (5 books), though it’s possible I’ll read more, which is what happened this year. For the purposes of this challenge, I’ll define any book set 20 or more years before the year of publication as “historical fiction.”

The final reading challenge is also not new to me, but I’ve never actually completed it before: the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge. It seems like each year I sort of come close, but I never manage to read all twelve books and complete each monthly motif. Hope springs eternal! We’ll see what happens this year. I do like the challenge of finding books that fit each month’s motif.

If I come across additional challenges I want to try, I’ll update this post rather than add a new one.

 

2020 Reading Challenges

I always knew I would not meet the challenge goals I set for myself in 2019 because of graduate school. BUT. I will be done with my coursework in May, and even though I’ll still be conducting research and will begin my dissertation, I think I might just have a little bit more time to read what I want to read in 2020. I did plenty of reading. I did A LOT of reading. It was graduate school reading, though.

I enjoy participating in reading challenges because they help me define reading goals, so I have selected the following reading challenges. However, I need to be a bit more realistic this year and pare it down. I am just going to participate in four challenges.

2020 Historical Fiction Reading ChallengeI like to do the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge each year because historical fiction is my favorite genre. I will shoot for the Victorian Reader level of five books. If I have a good reading year, I may increase it, but we will see what happens. I do not know yet what I will read, but I know one of the books will be the third book in Hilary Mantel’s trilogy about Thomas Cromwell, which is due out in March.

I am signing up for a new-to-me challenge called the Social Justice Nonfiction Challenge 2020. I had planned some reading along these lines already, and I am hoping to identify books I might not otherwise have heard about through this challenge.

Social Justice Challenge

I have enjoyed participating in the Monthly Motif Challenge the last couple of years, even though I haven’t finished it. It gives my reading a fun focus. I am not sure what books I will read. I kind of like playing it by ear. They have some fun motifs planned for this year.

Monthly Motif 2020

Last year was my first year participating in the Reading Women Challenge. Again, I didn’t come close to finishing, but I really like the look of their suggested list.

Reading Women Challenge

 

2019 Reading Challenges

I always like to participate in reading challenges because it gives me a focus for my reading. I am planning on doing the following reading challenges in 2019, even though I’m in graduate school.

I enjoyed the Monthly Motif Reading Challenge this year. I don’t think I’ll complete it. I was stumped about what to read for a “Vacation Read” in the summer, so I never did that one. However, I think the motifs for 2019 look interesting, and I’ll give this challenge another whirl. I will try to do the challenge book each month. I am also going to try to do a bit better about reviewing each of the books I read and posting them to the challenge linkup pages. If I commit to completing the challenge, it means reading 12 books that fit the various monthly motifs.

I like to do the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge pretty much every year. Historical Fiction is my favorite genre. I think I’ll go easy this year, though, and just try for the 20th Century Reader level of two books. I am also trying to branch out and try other kinds of books, so it might be good for me to stretch beyond historical fiction.

I also want to try the Reading Women Challenge. I like the fact that this challenge is open-ended. Though there are 24 categories with two bonuses, the goal of the challenge is really just to read as many women as possible. I am going to shoot for completing 12 of the categories, but I’m not sure right now which ones. A lot of them look like fun to me! If I were not in grad school right now, I might try finishing the challenge with 24 books and the bonuses, but I think it might be a bit much for me.

I didn’t do so well last time I tried backlist challenges, but I think that’s because I was doing two of them at the same time. This time, I’m just going to do one. I like the Beat the Backlist Challenge because it has lots of prompts and a Hogwarts House challenge, too. I’m all about that! I’m, of course, competing for Ravenclaw. I think I’ll try to read one book from my backlist for each month, so I’m shooting for 12 books.

That’s it for right now. I’m sure other challenges will catch my eye between now and January 1, and I’ll update this post once I find out about new ones. I usually try to do the R. I. P. Challenge, though I kind of think it’s lost its heart now that Carl isn’t doing it anymore. He was so enthusiastic about it.

I will be creating my challenge progress page in the new year. I’m hoping to find a bit more of a writing rhythm. I lost my balance when I started my doctoral program. Even though I have mostly been able to keep up with my reading, I was not able to keep up with reviewing what I had read. I am not sure how many books I want to commit to reading next year.

Review: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas Adams

Review: The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, Douglas AdamsThe Restaurant at the End of the Universe (Hitchhiker's Guide, #2) by Douglas Adams, Martin Freeman
Narrator: Martin Freeman
Published by Random House Audio on July 3, 2006
Pages: 6
Format: Audio
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four-stars

Facing annihilation at the hands of the warlike Vogons is a curious time to have a craving for tea. It could only happen to the cosmically displaced Arthur Dent and his curious comrades in arms as they hurtle across space powered by pure improbability, and desperately in search of a place to eat.

Among Arthur's motley shipmates are Ford Prefect, a longtime friend and expert contributor to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; Zaphod Beeblebrox, the three-armed, two-headed ex-president of the galaxy; Tricia McMillan, a fellow Earth refugee who's gone native (her name is Trillian now); and Marvin, the moody android who suffers nothing and no one very gladly. Their destination? The ultimate hot spot for an evening of apocalyptic entertainment and fine dining, where the food (literally) speaks for itself.

Will they make it? The answer: hard to say. But bear in mind that the Hitchhiker's Guide deleted the term "Future Perfect" from its pages, since it was discovered not to be!

LENGTH 5 hrs and 50 mins

My husband and I finished listening to this one tonight. I had previously listened to and reviewed The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but I hadn’t gotten around to this one yet. After listening to Hitchhiker’s Guide together, we decided to keep going.

These books are relatively short and pretty funny. My husband remarked after we finished the book that Douglas Adams must not have been an outliner, and I agree, this one felt like it meandered a bit—literally like the writer might have been going along for the ride to see where the characters would take him. I’m not sure it is quite as good as The Hitchhiker’s Guide, but it’s not bad, and Martin Freeman is an excellent narrator. The production values on this audiobook are considerable as well. At times, Freeman’s voice is digitally altered. I believe this series of audiobooks was released to coincide with the film in 2005, in which Freeman played Arthur Dent.

The book is no good as a standalone. It picks up right where The Hitchhiker’s Guide leaves off, and it ends without tying together any loose ends. It feels very much like what it is: a book in the middle of a series. It’s definitely a fun book and probably more fun in audio

four-stars

Review: The Movement of Stars, Amy Brill

Review: The Movement of Stars, Amy BrillThe Movement of Stars by Amy Brill
Published by Riverhead Books ISBN: 1594487448
on April 18th 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 380
Format: E-Book
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Goodreads
four-stars

A love story set in 1845 Nantucket, between a female astronomer and the unusual man who understands her dreams. It is 1845, and Hannah Gardner Price has lived all twenty-four years of her life according to the principles of the Nantucket Quaker community in which she was raised, where simplicity and restraint are valued above all, and a woman’s path is expected to lead to marriage and motherhood. But up on the rooftop each night, Hannah pursues a very different—and elusive—goal: discovering a comet and thereby winning a gold medal awarded by the King of Denmark, something unheard of for a woman.

And then she meets Isaac Martin, a young, dark-skinned whaler from the Azores who, like herself, has ambitions beyond his expected station in life. Drawn to his intellectual curiosity and honest manner, Hannah agrees to take Isaac on as a student. but when their shared interest in the stars develops into something deeper, Hannah’s standing in the community begins to unravel, challenging her most fundamental beliefs about work and love, and ultimately changing the course of her life forever.

Inspired by the work of Maria Mitchell, the first professional female astronomer in America, The Movement of Stars is a richly drawn portrait of desire and ambition in the face of adversity.

Amy Brill’s writing reminds me a bit of that of Tracy Chevalier, though perhaps not quite as deft. As the inspiration for Brill’s Hannah Price is Maria Mitchell, I wonder why Brill didn’t just write about Maria Mitchell. I assume she wanted to take some artistic license with the story, especially perhaps in bringing in Hannah’s student Isaac Martin. I might have appreciated the storyline the more if Hannah had continued to view Isaac as a friend a pupil. I didn’t necessarily need a love story. And the love story was impossible for their times in any case.

Brill explains in her author’s note that she changed some dates. For example, Maria Mitchell met Mary Somerville in 1858, but Brill placed the meeting between Somerville and Hannah Price some eleven years earlier. Hannah’s friend photographs Mizar and Alcor in 1847, but the real photograph was taken a decade later. After I read that, I wondered if the technology to take the photograph even existed in 1847. If not, that’s a pretty large issue. Brill paints the setting of Nantucket well, and I enjoyed her characters, especially Isaac.

I initially started reading this book some time back and put it down for a while. It had been a long time since I’d put it down, so I just started over again. My reason for reading it now is that the Monthly Motif Challenge theme for April is “Read Locally.” I couldn’t really find much of anything to read that’s set in Worcester, but Worcester does get a mention in this book when the third-person narrator explains that many Nantucketers had moved to find work in the Worcester mills. Close enough!

four-stars

Sherlock Holmes: Nearing the End of the Challenge

I’ve waited a few weeks to do a write-up of my progress with the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. Since my last post I’ve read:

  • “The Adventure of the Illustrious Client”: Sir James Damery consults Holmes on a delicate matter. Violet, daughter of General de Merville has fallen in love with a rogue, and Damery needs Holmes’s help to unmask his evil ways before Violet marries him.
  • “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier”: This story is narrated by Holmes (one of only two). James Dodd seeks Holmes’s help because he hasn’t seen his friend and fellow soldier Godfrey Emsworth, and he fears for the man’s life.
  • “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place”: John Mason, head trainer at racing stable Shoscombe Old Place has noticed some odd events, and he calls on Holmes to investigate.
  • “The Adventure of the Creeping Man”: Professor Presbury’s secretary and future son-in-law Trevor Bennett is concerned about the professor’s unusual behavior and seeks Holmes’s help to get to the bottom of it.
  • “The Adventure of the Dying Detective”: Holmes may be at death’s door, but he calls on Watson help him bring in Culverton Smith.
  • “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane”: The second story narrated by Holmes. Set after Holmes has retired to Sussex, in this case, Holmes examines a local man’s mysterious death, only to see the same strange attack repeated on a dog and another man.

Of these stories, “The Creeping Man” and “The Dying Detective” left the most impression. I barely remember reading the first three on this list, and the final is fresh in my mind only because it’s the most recent read. Only “The Dying Detective” has made its way into the storytelling of BBC’s series Sherlock in the guise of “The Lying Detective.” In this episode, Culverton Smith is a philanthropist who has committed murder through the use of a secret passageway in a hospital, where he kills anyone being treated in a specific room. Holmes starts taking drugs again so he can fall ill and be committed to Smith’s hospital and lead the man into the trap of trying to kill Holmes. The episode is actually a pretty good one, with Toby Jones playing Smith. One of the reasons “The Creeping Man” left an impression is it’s so far-fetched. Really? Injecting yourself with an extract obtained from monkeys is going to make you act like a monkey? Come on, Conan Doyle. One might be tempted to believe Conan Doyle was more or less phoning it in toward the end of Holmes’s career, given the fact that the stories are not as memorable.

“The Illustrious Client,” “The Blanched Soldier,” “Shoscombe Old Place,” “The Creeping Man,” and “The Lion’s Mane” Rating: ★★★☆☆

“The Dying Detective” Rating: ★★★★☆

The Chronological Sherlock Holmes ChallengeI read these stories as part of the Chronological Sherlock Holmes Challenge. They are the 54th-59th stories in the chronology (time setting rather than composition). Next up is the final story in the challenge, “His Last Bow.” I plan to write a wrap-up post when I review that story next week.

2018 Reading Challenges: Part Two

As the year winds down, I found two more reading challenges for 2018. I’m not sure I’ll sign up for further challenges, except for the R.I.P. Challenge, which I participate in nearly every year.

Foodies Read ChallengeThe next challenge that caught my eye is the Foodies Read Challenge. I have been trying to do more cooking and do more reading about food, and this challenge will help me meet that goal. The challenge rules state that “[a]ny book where food is a main part of the plot is welcome,” including cookbooks. I have lots of nonfiction reading about food I’ve wanted to do for a while, and this challenge will encourage me to get going. I have also been collecting cookbooks for a few years now, and reading and trying more of the recipes in the cookbooks is sometimes a challenge. I tell myself I don’t have time. But I do have time if I make it. I’m always saying that we make time for things we value. I haven’t made much time for cooking in the past. Let’s face it: cooking is time-consuming. But the food is so much better, and I can control every single thing about it. Here’s hoping I can make this a New Year’s Resolution, with the support of my family. In any case, it’s a big money saver. The important thing is to plan meals, and despite setting up systems that should have helped me with this aspect of cooking, I have not been good about maintaining those systems.

Share a Tea ChallengeThe final challenge is the Share-a-Tea Reading Challenge. I love tea. I love reading. The demands of this challenge are few: simply read good books and enjoy good tea. However, the emphasis on sharing means growing my blog reading list (and my book reading list) as well as my tea-drinking list. I love flavored black teas. My favorite “every day” sort of flavored black tea is Earl Grey, or Lady Grey if I can find it. I commit the cardinal sin of putting a bit of milk in it, which I understand is simply not done, but I like it that way. I love the Literary Teas at Simpson & Vail and have ordered them a few times. My favorite one is the Brontë Sisters Tea. This challenge might offer some great opportunities to sample more tea.

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.