Review: Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell, narrated by Ell Potter

Review: Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell, narrated by Ell PotterHamnet by Maggie O'Farrell
Narrator: Ell Potter
Published by Random House Audio on July 21, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction
Format: Audio, Audiobook
Source: Audible
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
five-stars

Drawing on Maggie O'Farrell's long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare's most enigmatic play, Hamnet is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley Street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O'Farrell's new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

Oh, this book. I just loved it. Recently, I shared in my review of Never Caught that the author missed an opportunity to weave historical fiction out of the facts we know about Ona Judge. Anne Hathaway Shakespeare is another woman we know very little about. She was pregnant when she married William Shakespeare (who was quite a bit younger than she was), she raised their children practically alone while he worked as an actor and playwright in London, and Shakespeare left her his second-best bed in his will. From these scraps of information, many scholars have concluded that their marriage was not a happy one. O’Farrell takes a different tactic and imagines a love match for the couple that is nearly destroyed by the death of their son and William Shakespeare’s depression and lack of fulfillment.

O’Farrell chooses to call her Anne “Agnes,” as her father referred to her in his will. Agnes is something of an herbalist (and maybe a witch). She’s every bit as fascinating as Shakespeare (maybe more so, under O’Farrell’s pen). The story alternates between Agnes and Hamnet as narrators, for the most part, with tidbits from other characters such as Susanna and Judith. The story also shifts in time, beginning with Hamnet looking for someone, anyone (but particularly Agnes) to help him—his twin sister Judith is sick.

The historical details ring true. As a bread baker and soap maker, I especially appreciated O’Farrell’s references to Agnes’s talents in both areas. Agnes also keeps bees and is something of a bee charmer. However, my absolute favorite historical detail was O’Farrell’s chronicle of the journey of the flea that carried the bubonic plague to Stratford and, ultimately, to the Shakespeare household. It was utterly fascinating. As we are living in the midst of a pandemic right now, the details are also alarmingly present. How did the virus that infected my entire family with COVID-19 in January make its way to us? How does sickness travel like that? I think I appreciated O’Farrell’s exploration of the way the plague traveled even more for having a personal connection to another form of plague.

I couldn’t help but think of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own when I read. In that book, Woolf imagines Shakespeare’s equally talented sister who is unable to do the things her brother can do because she is a woman, and those doors are closed to her. What if Shakespeare’s wife were even more talented than he? That is actually how I interpret Agnes’s character. Yet she sacrifices so that he can realize his dreams and their children can be cared for. She’s not different from talented women throughout history in this respect.

Ell Potter is a charming narrator. I’m glad the audiobook was read by a woman, as ultimately, I think this a woman’s story. That’s not to say men wouldn’t enjoy it; quite the contrary, and maybe men should read it. Ron Charles has a great review of the book at The Washington Post. I definitely recommend this book to any fans of Shakespeare, though I caution you that he’s relegated to the sidelines. This story is the story of his family.

five-stars

Review: The Arctic Fury, Greer Macallister

Review: The Arctic Fury, Greer MacallisterThe Arctic Fury by Greer Macallister
Published by Sourcebooks Landmark ISBN: 1728215692
on December 1, 2020
Genres: Historical Fiction, Mystery
Pages: 300
Format: E-Book
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
four-half-stars

In early 1853, experienced California Trail guide Virginia Reeve is summoned to Boston by a mysterious benefactor who offers her a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: lead a party of 12 women into the wild, hazardous Arctic to search for the lost Franklin Expedition. It’s an extraordinary request, but the party is made up of extraordinary women. Each brings her own strengths and skills to the expedition- and her own unsettling secrets. A year and a half later, back in Boston, Virginia is on trial when not all of the women return. Told in alternating timelines that follow both the sensational murder trial in Boston and the dangerous, deadly progress of the women’s expedition into the frozen North, this heart-pounding story will hold readers rapt as a chorus of voices answer the trial’s all-consuming question: what happened out there on the ice?

My first book of 2021! I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book if not for the Book Voyage: Read Around the World Challenge. Before I share some thoughts about the book, I’d like to thank the challenge hosts for two things: 1) offering a list of recommended books for each region in the challenge, and 2) recommending this particular book, which brought me out of a reading funk and kept me up late wanting to find out what would happen next. I love participating in challenges, but I find it difficult sometimes because I don’t know what to read for the challenge, and it is refreshing to have a list of books to consider at least. I probably wouldn’t have heard about The Arctic Fury if not for this challenge, either, or at least I wouldn’t have heard of it for some months.

This book is just the kind of historical fiction I love. It puts women at the forefront of a plausible, well-researched story. I admit I struggled a bit with the notion that Lady Franklin would sink her hopes into an all-female expedition to the Arctic in search of her missing husband, but I was willing to go with the premise. However, without spoiling the ending, I’ll just say that Lady Franklin’s actions make much more sense by the end, and I wound up finding the premise more plausible.

If this book suffers from anything, it’s a little bit of a kitchen-sink approach—the author tackled just about every aspect of being a woman in the 1850s, from race to gender to pregnancy to sexuality to limited options to the threat of violence from men. Some of the aspects included didn’t feel strictly necessary to the story but rather an effort to be inclusive. I appreciated this about the book, but I think including the spectrum of experiences should be purposeful, and it didn’t always strike me that way in this book. Some pretty serious liberties were also taken with the protagonist’s (a known historical figure) story. Even though I understood the rationale for doing so, it bothered me, and I think the only other solution would have been to invent a person who didn’t actually exist to have a similar past. Once I figured out who she really was, I was able to find out what happened to her after what she calls the Very Bad Thing after about a minute’s search.

However, the other aspects of the novel are well-researched and feel authentic, which Macallister attributes to ensuring that “each woman [on the journey] had a real-life counterpart, an inspiration from the mid-nineteenth century [she] could point to and draw from” (401). As a result, each woman was believable. I particularly appreciated that the women each had their own strengths and flaws. They seemed much more human for being well-rounded. Each woman was also given at least one chapter in her own voice, which gave them even more depth and humanity.

I also appreciated the way the story alternated between Virginia’s murder trial and the voyage in the Arctic. The alternating timelines added more suspense to the story. I actually tagged this as a mystery in addition to historical fiction, even though it’s not a traditional mystery per sé. Like some of the best mysteries, neither what truly happened nor how it will all turn out was revealed until the climactic ending.

Bottom line: I definitely recommend this one to anyone who likes historical fiction, particularly with strong women characters. The Arctic Fury is well-written and researched, but most of all, the characters are memorable, intriguing, and real. 

four-half-stars

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.

 

Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi, trans. Jonathan Wright

Frankenstein in Baghdad, Ahmed Saadawi, trans. Jonathan WrightFrankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, Jonathan Wright
Published by Penguin Books ISBN: 0143128795
on January 23, 2018
Genres: Fantasy/Science Fiction
Pages: 281
Format: Paperback
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
three-half-stars

From the rubble-strewn streets of U.S.-occupied Baghdad, Hadi—a scavenger and an oddball fixture at a local café—collects human body parts and stitches them together to create a corpse. His goal, he claims, is for the government to recognize the parts as people and to give them proper burial. But when the corpse goes missing, a wave of eerie murders sweeps the city, and reports stream in of a horrendous-looking criminal who, though shot, cannot be killed. Hadi soon realizes he's created a monster, one that needs human flesh to survive—first from the guilty, and then from anyone in its path. A prizewinning novel by "Baghdad's new literary star" (The New York Times), Frankenstein in Baghdad captures with white-knuckle horror and black humor the surreal reality of contemporary Iraq.


I read this novel at the suggestion of some friends on Twitter. While I didn’t finish it in time for our online book discussion, I resolved to finish it before I had to return it to the library.

I found the book’s premise intriguing, and I appreciate the fact that it is one of the few books by an Iraqi author that captured the attention of Western readers—which is a shame. However, if I’m being honest, I had no trouble putting the book aside for days at a time. I wouldn’t say I wanted to stop reading it because I did want to finish it. I am also contending with being in graduate school and all the extra time that it takes to finish work for my classes. I also believe the book was engaging and well-written, but perhaps just not for me. I liked a few of the characters, especially Elishva and Hadi. In all, however, I found the book’s various threads a bit disjointed.

three-half-stars

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

 

Review: The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead

Review: The Nickel Boys, Colson WhiteheadThe Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead
Published by Doubleday Books ISBN: 0385537077
on July 16, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 214
Format: Hardcover
Source: Library
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
five-stars

In this bravura follow-up to the Pulitzer Prize, and National Book Award-winning #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida.

As the Civil Rights movement begins to reach the black enclave of Frenchtown in segregated Tallahassee, Elwood Curtis takes the words of Dr. Martin Luther King to heart: He is "as good as anyone." Abandoned by his parents, but kept on the straight and narrow by his grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But for a black boy in the Jim Crow South of the early 1960s, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy the future. Elwood is sentenced to a juvenile reformatory called the Nickel Academy, whose mission statement says it provides "physical, intellectual and moral training" so the delinquent boys in their charge can become "honorable and honest men." In reality, the Nickel Academy is a grotesque chamber of horrors where the sadistic staff beats and sexually abuses the students, corrupt officials and locals steal food and supplies, and any boy who resists is likely to disappear "out back." Stunned to find himself in such a vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold onto Dr. King's ringing assertion "Throw us in jail and we will still love you." His friend Turner thinks Elwood is worse than naive, that the world is crooked, and that the only way to survive is to scheme and avoid trouble. The tension between Elwood's ideals and Turner's skepticism leads to a decision whose repercussions will echo down the decades. Formed in the crucible of the evils Jim Crow wrought, the boys' fates will be determined by what they endured at the Nickel Academy. Based on the real story of a reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative that showcases a great American novelist writing at the height of his powers.


As soon as I heard about the impending publication of The Nickel Boys, it went on my to-read list. Whitehead’s last novel, The Underground Railroad, is one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. One of the things I appreciated most about The Nickel Boys is that it amplified the stories of the boys who attended the Dozier School for Boys, also known as the Florida School for Boys, and their stories should not be lost. Their stories are horrific, but we owe it to ourselves not to look away—to face what we have done as Americans. Plenty of people knew what was happening in this prison, for calling it a school is inappropriate. Many of the stories out of Dozier are coming from white men who suffered indescribable horrors at this school, but Whitehead’s novel shares the stories of their Black counterparts, who suffered the same atrocities with the additional indignities of Jim Crow, segregation, and racism.

While this novel shines a light on the abuse endured by the boys at Dozier, renamed Nickel in this book, this book is really about a young man, Elwood Curtis, hanging on to his dignity as a human being, attempting to maintain his feelings of self-worth, and passing that regard on to his friend Turner, who thinks people are basically irredeemable (where has he had the opportunity to learn otherwise?) and that the best way to make it through is to keep your head down, and scheme for what you can get. The tragic thing is that places like Nickel have crushed young men like Elwood, and they are doing it as I write this, too. America needs to come to terms with the school-to-prison pipeline and the injustice in sentencing that disproportionately punishes Black and Brown men. My personal opinion is that it’s time, past time, to talk about reparations. Like Ta-Nehisi Coates says, we allow the “how” of reparations stop us from considering the “why,” and books like The Nickel Boys provide plenty of evidence for why. 

Ben Montgomery and Waveny Ann Moore ask in their expose on Dozier, “What is the cost to society of such a place?” As the authors argue, “boys went in damaged and came out destroyed.” A former psychologist at Dozier said, “Anytime you’ve got human beings together, you’re going to have people abusing each other.” But we cannot dismiss what happened like that.

Further Reading:

five-stars

Review: The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs, Katherine Howe

Review: The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs, Katherine HoweThe Daughters of Temperance Hobbs by Katherine Howe
Published by Henry Holt and Co. ISBN: 1250304865
on June 25, 2019
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fantasy/Science Fiction
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
five-stars

New York Times bestselling author Katherine Howe returns to the world of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane with a bewitching story of a New England history professor who must race against time to free her family from a curseConnie Goodwin is an expert on America’s fractured past with witchcraft. A young, tenure-track professor in Boston, she’s earned career success by studying the history of magic in colonial America—especially women’s home recipes and medicines—and by exposing society's threats against women fluent in those skills. But beyond her studies, Connie harbors a secret: She is the direct descendant of a woman tried as a witch in Salem, an ancestor whose abilities were far more magical than the historical record shows.

When a hint from her mother and clues from her research lead Connie to the shocking realization that her partner’s life is in danger, she must race to solve the mystery behind a hundreds’-years-long deadly curse.

Flashing back through American history to the lives of certain supernaturally gifted women, The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs affectingly reveals not only the special bond that unites one particular matriarchal line, but also explores the many challenges to women’s survival across the decades—and the risks some women are forced to take to protect what they love most.


I happened upon The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane in a bookstore shortly after it was first published and snatched it up immediately. Salem? Witches? Academia? Right up my alley for sure. As soon as I found out its followup, The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs was coming out, I preordered it, which is something I rarely do. You do not have to have read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane in order to enjoy its followup, but I think you will enjoy it more if you do. In fact, after finishing The Daughters of Temperance Hobbs, I want to go back and read The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane again.

This book offers a bit more of Deliverance’s backstory, but mainly focuses on her descendants Connie, as Physick Book did, and Temperance (also Connie’s ancestor). Readers are also treated to peeks inside the lives of each generation of the family going back to Deliverance’s parents in England. I had to go back and make a family tree for myself, but it’s a bit spoilery, so I’ll put it at the end for those of you who want to read the book first.

Just as I did with Physick Book, I connected personally in many ways with this book. Just like Connie, I called my own grandmother Granna, and I thought I’d invented the name. When I told Katherine Howe this story years ago, she said she thought she had made it up, too! Prudence’s diary reminds me a great deal of my own ancestor Stella Bowling Cunningham’s diary, and Katherine Howe shared she had been inspired by Prudence Ballard’s  A Midwife’s Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812. This book has some other interesting connections. Connie is working on obtaining tenure as a history professor at Northeastern University, where I am currently pursuing a doctorate in education.

This next bit is maybe the tiniest bit of a spoiler, but I don’t think knowing it in advance hurts anyone’s enjoyment, so I’ll spill. There is a sort of interesting parallel for me in that Connie considers applying for a position at Harvard, but realizes it would not work for her. I actually applied to Harvard’s Graduate School of Education doctoral program. I didn’t get in (it’s at least as selective as undergraduate admissions, though I hear getting into their master’s program is pretty easy—but I already have a master’s and didn’t want to work on another one, even at Harvard). I was really bummed out about it, but I had a conversation with a friend of Steve’s, who made me feel better about the rejection and also encouraged me to apply to another program. I applied to the program at Northeastern. I was really attracted to it in the first place when I was making a list of graduate schools to apply to, but I think I was charmed by the idea of attending Harvard, just like Connie is initially charmed by the idea of the assistant professor job at Harvard, even though she knows it will not lead to tenure, and the job at Northeastern will. It’s so weird!  I know now that the program at Northeastern is much more suited to what I want to do, where I am in my professional life right now, and the goals I have for the future. Just like Connie. I know it’s a minor similarity, but I connected to it.

One of the things I like about Katherine Howe’s writing is her eye for the tiny detail—the way someone leans against a countertop or plays with their hair—it brings her characters to life. I feel like I can really see everything she is describing. Her characters are also interesting and likable. I really liked Connie’s protege Zazi Molina. Temperance herself is an awesome character as well. As in Physick Book, the book’s settings themselves, from the old house on Milk Street in Marblehead, to Connie’s apartment on Mass Ave. in Cambridge, to the probate office in Salem, all the settings come alive. This is a fun and engaging read, but you’ll also learn something about history into the bargain.

Here is the family tree if you want it. Mild spoilers.

Deliverance Hasseltine Dane (parents are Robert and Anne Hasseltine)
+Mercy Dane Lamson
++Prudence Lamson Bartlett
+++Patience Bartlett Jacobs
++++Temperance Jacobs Hobbs
+++++Faith Hobbs Bishop
++++++Verity Bishop Lawrence
+++++++Chastity Lawrence
++++++++Charity Lawrence Crowninshield
+++++++++Sophia Crowninshield Goodwin
++++++++++Grace Goodwin
+++++++++++Constance “Connie” Goodwin

five-stars

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: Sky in the Deep, Adrienne Young

Review: Sky in the Deep, Adrienne YoungSky in the Deep by Adrienne Young
Published by Wednesday Books ISBN: 1250168457
on April 24, 2018
Genres: Fantasy/Science Fiction, Young Adult
Pages: 352
Format: Hardcover
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
three-half-stars

OND ELDR. BREATHE FIRE.

Raised to be a warrior, seventeen-year-old Eelyn fights alongside her Aska clansmen in an ancient rivalry against the Riki clan. Her life is brutal but simple: fight and survive. Until the day she sees the impossible on the battlefield—her brother, fighting with the enemy—the brother she watched die five years ago.

Faced with her brother's betrayal, she must survive the winter in the mountains with the Riki, in a village where every neighbor is an enemy, every battle scar possibly one she delivered. But when the Riki village is raided by a ruthless clan thought to be a legend, Eelyn is even more desperate to get back to her beloved family.

She is given no choice but to trust Fiske, her brother’s friend, who sees her as a threat. They must do the impossible: unite the clans to fight together, or risk being slaughtered one by one. Driven by a love for her clan and her growing love for Fiske, Eelyn must confront her own definition of loyalty and family while daring to put her faith in the people she’s spent her life hating.


I received a signed first edition of this book in my Owl Crate box subscription. The cover and premise of the book intrigued me. Sky in the Deep is unusual in that its Viking-inspired setting and warrior heroine aren’t often found in YA fantasy. The book’s trailer does a good job capturing the setting, the real star of the novel:

The egalitarian society Adrienne Young describes in the book is one of its more interesting aspects. Women and men both can be warriors, healers, spiritual leaders. Eelyn, the novel’s heroine, is a warrior, and based on descriptions of her prowess, a pretty good one. Despite a lot of wishful thinking, I believe the jury is still out on the extent to which shieldmaidens were a real thing in the Viking era, though a quick glance at Norse myth supports the idea at least in part. I liked the Riki characters Eelyn winds up living with, but one can’t help cry foul over the Stockholm syndrome. I’m not sure how healthy it is for YA books to continue with the trope of the woman who falls in love with someone who captures and in this case, abuses the protagonist—he has his blacksmith fit her with a slave’s collar. Fiske never emerges as very interesting to me anyway; though he’s written in that swoony way you see in a lot of YA fiction, it’s not overdone (to the author’s credit). I loved that the author didn’t try to make the reader fall in love with Fiske.

In any case, the book is a quick, fun read. Be warned: it’s pretty violent. Young doesn’t flinch from describing this warrior culture in full detail. Many of the names—both people and places—come from Old Norse and are still in use today. In searching out some of the names in the book, I stumbled on the author’s Pinterest board for inspiration. Of course, now I’m looking for it to link it, I can’t find it again. I halfway wonder if she’s made it private in the days since I found it. I am not sure why, but discovering that Pinterest board of inspirational images utterly charmed me.

This book is different from typical YA in many ways, and it’s easy to keep turning the pages, and though the plot unwinds in a fairly predictable fashion, the ride isn’t any less fun. I probably would have loved it had I read it as a teen, and given that is who the audience is, it’s worth giving it a try if you’re in that demographic. If you’re not, you still might enjoy it.

Though it might be more accurate to describe this book as Viking-inspired fantasy, I’m still going to count it as historical fiction also because I think it fits that genre, even if the story is not strictly based on true historical events. For the Literary Voyage Challenge, I’m settling on Norway as a setting.

 

 

three-half-stars

Review: The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen

Review: The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh NguyenThe Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Published by Grove Press ISBN: 0802124941
on April 12th 2016
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 384
Format: Paperback
Buy on Amazon
Goodreads
four-stars

Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, The Sympathizer is a Vietnam War novel unlike any other. The narrator, one of the most arresting of recent fiction, is a man of two minds and divided loyalties, a half-French half-Vietnamese communist sleeper agent living in America after the end of the war.

It is April 1975, and Saigon is in chaos. At his villa, a general of the South Vietnamese army is drinking whiskey and, with the help of his trusted captain, drawing up a list of those who will be given passage aboard the last flights out of the country. But, unbeknownst to the general, this captain is an undercover operative for the communists, who instruct him to add his own name to the list and accompany the general to America. As the general and his compatriots start a new life in Los Angeles, the captain continues to observe the group, sending coded letters to an old friend who is now a higher-up within the communist administration. Under suspicion, the captain is forced to contemplate terrible acts in order to remain undetected. And when he falls in love, he finds that his lofty ideals clash violently with his loyalties to the people close to him, a contradiction that may prove unresolvable.

A gripping spy novel, a moving story of love and friendship, and a layered portrayal of a young man drawn into extreme politics, The Sympathizer examines the legacy of the Vietnam War in literature, film, and the wars we fight today.


I’ve been working on finishing this book for a long time, and I am trying to figure out why it was so hard to pick back up again on the occasions when I put it aside because I did like the book. I don’t have to sympathize with the main character in order to like a book (I love Wuthering Heights and find all the characters difficult to sympathize with). So, even though the narrator can be difficult to “like,” I don’t think that is the problem. I can appreciate a finely tuned sentence. I think ultimately, however, the plot really needs to move along, and in some places, the plot of The Sympathizer plods. Two notable exceptions are a chunk of the middle of the book when the unnamed protagonist is consulting on a Vietnam War movie, The Hamlet, that is clearly modeled after Apocalypse Now and Platoon and again towards the end after the protagonist is captured upon returning to Vietnam. I recognize Nguyen’s argument that the Vietnam War is exceptional in that the war’s defeated have controlled the narrative about that war, starting with movies like Apocalypse Now and Platoon and continuing with novels like Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. I love that novel, but it erases the Vietnamese people entirely from its narrative. In my favorite passage in the book, the protagonist reflects on his failure to reclaim the narrative through working with the director of The Hamlet:

I had failed and the Auteur would make The Hamlet as he intended, with my countrymen serving merely as raw material for an epic about white men saving good yellow people from bad yellow people. I pitied the French for their naïveté in believing they had to visit a country in order to exploit it. Hollywood was much more efficient, imagining the countries it wanted to exploit I was maddened by my helplessness before the Auteur’s imagination and machinations. His arrogance marked something new in the world, for this was the first war where the losers would write history instead of the victors, courtesy of the most efficient propaganda machine ever created (with all due respect to Joseph Goebbels and the Nazis, who never achieved global domination). Hollywood’s high priests understood innately the observation of Milton’s Satan, that it was better to rule in Hell than serve in Heaven, better to be a villain, loser, or antihero than virtuous extra, so long as one commanded the bright lights of center stage. In this forthcoming Hollywood trompe l’oeil, all the Vietnamese of any side would come out poorly, herded into the roles of the poor, the innocent, the evil, or the corrupt. Our fate was not to be merely mute; we were to be struck dumb.

The Sympathizer is brilliant. I think it suffers a bit from some of its own good press. For example, Ron Charles (who writes brilliant reviews for The Washington Post), described this book as “a cerebral thriller around a desperate expat story that confronts the existential dilemmas of our age.” So, I was expecting a thriller. It’s not, really. As to the rest of Charles’s description, it’s accurate, and his review will give you an excellent idea about what makes the book great. Ultimately, it dragged in some places for me, but I can appreciate what Nguyen has done with this novel.

 

four-stars