Tag: Historical Fiction

a novel of the ice age

by Kim Stanley Robinson

I picked this book up before The Jaguar Princess and kept trying a chapter here and there during the next read, too. It’s a hefty book that looked enticing but then wasn’t drawing me in, so I decided best to put aside and maybe come back to it someday in the future. Though I soon realized it’s written by the same author as Years of Rice and Salt, which I attempted before and gave up on as well, who knows how many years ago now. So probably this author is not really for me. Very dense historical fiction. This one set during the ice age. It opens with a young man away from his tribal group on a “wander”- an initiation into manhood where he has to live alone for a month proving he can use his skills to survive. It’s brutal. He almost freezes, almost gets caught by the Others (I’m guessing Neanderthals), has to flee predators. Doesn’t starve, but isn’t exactly eating well either. I thought a survival story of living close to the land and among the wild animals, would be exactly my thing, but while the details are intriguing, something about the way they were told simply wasn’t. I read a little over fifty pages, and found myself more and more disinclined to pick it up again. Pushed through to the point where he returns to the tribe and is interacting with people, thinking that would spark more interest, but nope. Only got a glimpse of the story: protagonist is reluctant apprentice to the group’s elderly shaman, he’s not at all sure he wants to follow in those footsteps. I have to say, his incessant interest in sex got old very quickly, and the magical realism wasn’t really working for me (it usually doesn’t, no matter the writing style). Though I might just not be in the right mindset for it,  I really suspect this book isn’t my type.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: Abandoned
458 pages, 2013

More opinions:
Resolute Reader
Val’s Random Comments
anyone else?

by Clare Bell

~~  warning for SPOILERS below ~~

In the ancient Aztec empire, a young girl is taken captive from her remote jungle tribe (I think the Olmec) and made a slave. She attempts an escape to freedom but fails, is sold to a different owner, and initially has only the lowest of tasks- emptying chamberpots. Unexpectedly someone discovers she has a natural gift for writing (in pictorial glyphs) and suddenly her life changes. She is trained to be a scribe, sent to live in a new place, and eventually attracts the attention of the highest rulers, who not only want her skill in depicted and copying sacred texts, but also strive to control and manipulate another great gift she possesses- to turn into the form of a jaguar. An ability she wasn’t aware of at first, its expression such a frightening and confusing thing. Other people in her life emerge who can teach her to handle the jaguar side of her nature, but for a long time she struggles to accept it, especially since when in the jaguar form, she forgets all notion of the finer arts, cannot appreciate or even comprehend the use of such skills. And as a human, her art has become everything to her. There is also the troubling fear that as a jaguar, she will not recognize those around her, and might harm even her friends . . .

This was one of the author’s first published books, and I have to admit much as I love her work, it’s not one of her best. I thought I was taking so long to get through it just because I was busy with other things and had little reading time this past week, but it also might be due to finding the story a bit slow and tedious. The writing felt kind of rough, not so polished. Simplistic in descriptions, you’d think it’s YA or even juvenile fiction, but there are some brief scenes that while written subtly (at the same time quite straightforward), were obviously sexual in  nature. I really liked the ideas the story explored, but the whole thing felt dry and held at a distance, as it were. I would have preferred far more from the girl’s point of view, but I appreciate how the sections told from the ruler’s perspective gave the reader a fuller understanding of the issues involved. Mainly about power struggles.

It’s interesting to me, having read most of Clare Bell’s other books before finally reading this one, to see some similar themes. Ratha’s Creature is also about a young female coming of age, into her own power that others around her mistrust, and the difficulties of accepting leadership. This one also had much about the constraints leadership roles place upon one. And the conflicts between animal instincts and human nature.  Also curious that both Clan Ground and this story, have a parent turning on their child with physical violence- in the former mentioned book it was (I think) from anger and despair, in this story it was from jealously- and that was a weird and disturbing part of the story, btw. Not going to say more on that here. Of course because it was about the Aztecs, there was a lot on the beliefs and human sacrifices, particularly about how some people in the novel found that distasteful and wished to worship other gods, or turn the religion back to an older iteration, and the efforts to make changes. This reminded me so much of the ancient Egyptian storyline thread in Tomorrow’s Sphinx, too.

I don’t think I’ve read many stories that feature shapeshifters (apart from the whole Animorphs series). And maybe a few with dragons. I’m trying to think of others. I wonder at how painful and brutal the transformation was depicted, in this novel. Is that normally a concept with shifter stories, or was it unique to this one. It pulled a lot on Aztec culture and spiritual beliefs, but from what little reading I did online, seems like a lot of that is supposition- we don’t really know what the Olmec statuettes represented, for example. You’ll find sites about were-jaguars, but there’s others that surmise the figurines depicted children with birth defects, and that what appear to be jaguar transformations symbolized something else?

In all, it was a very compelling story, one I can’t stop thinking about, even though I was a bit frustrated with the telling- which might be in part due to the particular e-book copy I read. Lots of punctuation typos, words out of place, and for some reason it would skip ahead ten or more pages, then not let me go back to my original reading spot. (I hope this was a glitch in just this book, and not that my e-reader is starting to have function issues). Then it got stuck on the very last page, prompting me to leave a review on that platform that’s swallowing the world, and not letting me exit the book document, or go back into the pages! That was really annoying. Nothing to do with the book itself or the author of course though.

I did find the ending a bit of a let-down. It wrapped up quite suddenly, just at the point where it seemed the main character was about to find her people and learn more about her heritage. This book needs a sequel!

Rating: 3/5
398 pages, 1993

the Prequel to Anne of Green Gables

by Budge Wilson

Beginning with her newlywed parents (who soon die of illness), this book follows the life of Anne from her birth up to the point she leaves the orphanage and goes to Prince Edward Island. I thought I would read this and then launch myself into the whole Anne series, but I didn’t make it through. I read the first fifty pages solidly, skimmed the next hundred, and then gave up. Sigh. I’m not sure how closely this author was trying to emulate Montgomery’s writing style, but it didn’t feel quite right. I do know- from reading the acknowledgements- that she had the assistance of many fans who knew where all the details in the series make reference to Anne’s early life, access to reference materials for the time period particular to the locale, and the approval of the  L. M. Montgomery estate . . . so I feel bad to criticize. But for me, this book just didn’t work.

In the first place, Anne’s birth parents sound too perfect. Their small home is so filled with sweet harmony and loving gestures that a neighbor friend can’t stand to visit because it makes her feel bad about her own relationship with her husband. There’s some things characters say and do that don’t feel possible according to the timeframe- things they wouldn’t have known or that society wouldn’t have allowed back then. I only picked up on a few of these, but after reading some others’ reviews (when I was trying to decide if I wanted to continue) many more of them started leaping out at me. I would have been willing to overlook all that and still enjoy the story, even though it was mostly told-not-shown (albeit with plenty of description, so even that was okay) but then we got to Anne being born. I know she was a precocious child, but this depiction of Anne really stretched credibility. Okay, so she walked at eighteen months and started talking not long after- I could buy that. I could even go along with the idea of her speaking complete sentences early on. But the way she phrased things reflected a social understanding I just don’t think any child would have at that young age. Sure, they might be precocious with word choices and fluency, but they wouldn’t have the emotional maturity that Anne expressed so early, in this telling. At least, that was my reaction. And if young Anne couldn’t read yet, and wasn’t around people who were highly educated, where did she pick up those words? This story does drop in some characters that teach her certain phrases and ways of expressing things, but it wasn’t enough for me to go along with easily. I just wasn’t enjoying it because I kept questioning things: yeah, could that really have happened? Sometimes I don’t like myself for being so overly critical and nitpicky on details. But when they throw me out of the narrative so often, it’s no longer a pleasure to read. I’ll just go back to the originals, once I’ve cleared my mental palate of this.

Don’t take my word for it, I seem to be an outlier on this one. Do read some of the other reviews- most of them really liked this book. I borrowed my copy from the public library.

Rating: Abandoned
390 pages, 2008

by Jonathan Grimwood

This book is something else. It’s so quirky, strange and unsettling, but also insightful and intriguing. Set in France, 1700’s. Protagonist is the son of nobles but they’re foundering from debt and his parents in fact starve to death. He’s orphaned and doesn’t even realize what’s happened, sitting outside in the mud eating beetles when a passing aristocrat sees him, makes inquiries, and takes an interest in his fate. He’s sent to a school for the children of destitute nobility, as it were, and then a military school. Makes some fast friends in his boyhood, then again gets singled out for attention by wealthy people, so via marriage and other fortunate events, gets accepted into the artistocracy and his life takes many different turns. He really just wants to live peacefully in his chateau, focused on his family and taking care to improve his lands (although his attempts to remedy things and ease starvation among the peasants sometimes backfires and they hate him all the same). I liked the first part of the story, with the childhood waxing and waning of friendships, his unfolding interest in girls (to be expected) and the excitement and confusion of hunts- both those he just tagged along on, and later ones he participated in actively- far more interesting to me than the later politicking, weaving in and out of social positions, and involvement in France’s battle with Corsica. Even the later chapters where he visited the king’s menagerie, brought home ailing animals to his own care, and gradually built up his own collection of exotic beasts (including a blind pet tiger that was allowed in the house) didn’t quite grip me. I admit I was skimming some in the middle of the book.

But it held my interest for the quality of the writing (probably because the last few books I read were a bit flat and bland) and because I don’t think I’ve ever read a story about the French Revolution from the viewpoint of an aristocrat, before. What really downgraded this book for me: the details of sensuality was just too much. Although I appreciated that the protagonist did his best to be faithful to his wife, he had plenty of dalliances before and after being married. (I could far better stomach his descriptions of the people living in sumptuous luxury, yet lacking basic sanitation, so everyone just went around ignoring the smells of bodily waste and trash). What really intrigued me, the thread that made this story so unique: this character was fascinated by how things taste. From the opening scene where as a five-year-old he was eating beetles and worms out of the dirt, to his experiments cooking anything he could catch as a young man- cats, dogs, snakes, etc- to trying anything strange and exotic when as an adult the world opened up to him. Pickled wolf’s heart. Flamingo tongue. Breast milk. Even strange plants, insects, lice, tree bark, dung (ugh). There’s recipes that sound like something out of Tasting History (a show I watch sometimes with my husband). It was very interesting, though sometimes disgusting too. And the ending scene, I didn’t really see that coming until the last few pages, but wow it was so apt. I actually liked the ending.

I was so taken with the writing style, at the beginning of this book I was already wondering what else the author has written. But after the middle part I realized I probably won’t like his other works, and glancing at more titles yeah, they’re probably not to my taste at all. That’s too bad, because he really has an excellent way with words.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
328 pages, 2013

by Janet Beard

Novel about some people who lived and worked in a secret Tennessee community that supported building the first atomic bomb. Created completely from scratch by the army, Oak Ridge had everything the employees needed- housing, offices, cafeterias, dance halls, movie theaters, roller skating rinks, bowling alleys, and of course the laboratories and other research facilities. Their main goal was making uranium, but the majority of the people who worked there had no idea what they were actually doing. They were forbidden to ask questions or talk about their job- not even among co-workers. Anyone caught breaking the rules was immediately dismissed. As it was a good-paying job in the forties, tons of people flocked to the site for all kinds of positions, from the top scientists, to people manning machines, to those providing meals, doing construction work, cleaning, laundry and so on.

The main characters are two young women from poor families- June is for the most part demure and quiet-spoken, curious about things but trying to do her duty and keep her mouth shut. Her roommate Cici is the opposite- outspoken, flirtatious, intent on re-making her image, lying about her background so she can find a man of higher social status to marry. There are also some chapters from the viewpoints of men- one a scientist, who takes a sudden interest in June, and the other a black man, struggling to deal with the poor housing the army offered its colored workers (freezing in winter, sweltering and swarmed with mosquitoes in summer) and pining for his family, left behind in Alabama. His friends are agitating for better housing, the right to live with their wives, and overall better treatment on the site (they often get ignored and passed up by bus drivers, aren’t allowed into the same recreation halls as white people, and so on).

The storylines of these four different characters eventually intersect at the end of the novel. Mostly it is about how June and Cici experience life at Oak Ridge, June’s curiosity and Cici’s absolute ignorance about what their job is actually doing- June sits all day in front of a bank of dials, instructed to keep them within a certain range, and that’s it. She starts to wonder. When she becomes acquainted with the scientist, and later becomes his girlfriend, she starts to learn more, and to see how the pressure is getting to him. How the excitement of tackling an impossible project turns into horror at its implications, when the euphoria of success subsides. I appreciated that the novel dealt with not only the different aspects of work and living conditions among the varied types of people on the research site, but also their varied responses to what happened when the bomb was finally utilized. There’s a postscript that tells what happened to some of them after. I have to say I didn’t care much for Cici at all, but then I probably wouldn’t have liked her in real life either! The other characters were more interesting to me. The whole story is told in a straightforward, plain writing style that’s not to my usual taste. I certainly learned a lot from this book, though. It intrigued me simply because I knew so little about that era, or the Manhattan project.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
353 pages, 2018

by Alan Paton

I lack the mental finesse right now to write about this without probably giving quite a few SPOILERS– you’ve been forewarned!

I find it a shame that this book isn’t better known. I found it much more engaging than Cry, the Beloved Country– it even had me laughing at parts. And it’s not a happy or amusing story! It’s a tragic love story, but presented and unraveled in a way I did not at all expect. Set deep in South Africa’s time of apartheid, when interracial relationships were considered a crime- and that doesn’t just mean marriage or having children together. It meant no white person could ever be seen touching a black woman, or deep suspicion would be cast upon him (there’s one vivid scene where a white man runs to help at a car crash. The driver falls out of the door into his arms- and because she’s a native, he recoils so automatically he drops her on the ground!) There were other prejudices rampant through this society- most of the Afrikaners were deeply religious, such that they only had a Bible to read in their house, and they all went to church on Sunday (the road leading to that building was the only one in town that got paved, to keep down the dust on worship days. Every other street was dirt). The few white people who didn’t go to church, were socially shunned.

But this story is about one family in particular: about a fine young man, admired in the community and working for the government no less. And how his family was always a bit troubled by his “softer” side- his father found his interest in stamp-collecting rather contemptible, for example. His mother worried over his sensitivity- though he could be just as stern as any when a situation required it (having served honorably in the military earlier on). The problem arises when this young man becomes involved in the life of a black girl who struggles to get by. She can never seem to hold down a job so resorts to making and selling illegal liquor, and gets thrown into prison for it repeatedly, until the situation is so messed up that her child is taken away. I could never ascertain if the child was his child- this kid was “kept” at some far location the girl would just visit from time to time, which made it seem to me she didn’t care so much about it (we’re never told if it’s a boy or girl) even though she passionately resisted anyone’s suggestion it would benefit from living in someone else’s more stable household. I really thought she kept the child hidden away because it was mixed race and anyone who saw it would instantly know what she’d done. I thought she was going to pull this as a trump card against our protagonist. But that never happened. She did kind of hold her relationship with the main character as a threat over his head the whole time, to get help when she was in financial trouble. However the final key that made everything fall down, that ruined his entire family’s reputation, was something much more subtle and unexpected, that she pulled out at the last minute proving that yes, indeed, they’d had an illicit tryst.

It is told so artfully, everything that’s of real importance to our character seems to happen hidden in the background, only slowly coming to light- probably because of course that’s how he had to keep things. It makes the reader wonder too for a while. I have to say, I found something a bit frustrating and annoying- it was difficult for me to keep straight who was who, and if they were friends or relatives, and what exactly that relationship. It’s all told obliquely, from the viewpoint of the aunt reminiscing about what happened (also using some letters and a kind of confession journal, to give the protagonist’s actual thoughts for certain moments). Who and how-related all the people are isn’t really pointed out to the reader- the narrative will just say something along the lines of so-and-so showed up and we did this and I’m puzzling over: is that her neighbor, her cousin or what? I admit it could just be my still-muddled head (I’ve been unwell, with gradual improvement now) that I missed some introductions or cues, but it also starkly reminded me of a place I used to work at in college.

Diversion! this woman who hired me had a home office from which she conducted business for numerous local organizations- I think quite a few were volunteer or non-profit, can’t really recall. My job was simple at first: sort the mail, file papers, take phone messages, etc. But her previous employee for this job had been a young man who grew up alongside the family- he was either the son of a long-standing friend of hers, or a nephew (also can’t quite recall that). So that guy had known who all these people were that my employer interacted with, in all her various organizations. I had no clue. I didn’t know who did what, or who knew who, or how they were related to her if at all. And she never explained them to me but would get exasperated when I made mistakes because I didn’t know these identities and relationships. And it really bugged me that she took it for granted all those years that the other guy automatically knew this stuff, so never bothered to inform me, just thought I’d pick it up automatically? Well, I never managed to, really. So that job didn’t last more than a few months (she would have kept me on, but I got tired of dealing with it)  — memory rant over —  !

While it is very different from both, this book reminded me a lot of Joyce Cary’s Mister Johnson, because of the writing style, the setting and the culture, the one native character that can’t seem to fathom what he is repeatedly doing to make ends meet is criminally wrong by the standards of the white people who have colonial rule. In a completely different way, it also made me think of One-Eyed Cat, because of how exquisitely it detailed the inner turmoil of someone who has a very troublesome or even dangerous secret, and is full of dread and suspicion about who might know, and misinterprets the comments and actions of those around him based on his guess of if they know or not- but he can never ask because if they don’t already know, it exposes everything!

Lastly I want to say (this is getting too long for sure) how much I enjoyed the scenes about stamp-collecting, because my husband has a huge stamp collection he inherited from his grandfather, which I’ve seen parts of, and heard much about- so there was familiarity in the details: I knew what ‘triangulars’ were, and how the absurdities of errors in printing drove up a stamp’s value, and about the ones treasured because they were printed for countries that no longer exist, or have changed names, or something like that. Quite a few of these scenes made me laugh out loud just in recognition, and I read some to my husband, he found them just as delightful. It was also nice that I continually went to him asking what does this name mean? because there were so many ridiculously long place names that obviously meant something in Afrikaans and he was happy to explain them to me, and frequently the place name actually had a symbolic or ironic meaning within the story, which I thoroughly enjoyed. There is a short glossary in the back of the book that defines a lot of the foreign words used in the narrative, but not all are there, so I wrote a bunch down and made my own pencil notes in the margins.

And the phalarope? it’s a shorebird, that is sometimes but not often seen in a certain locale- the character and his father do a bit of bird-watching at one point, and often remark on it. There’s this whole thing about a huge gorgeously printed bird book this is however full of errors because it was made by an Englishman who apparently didn’t know the local birdlife too well at all. It’s the father’s thing, birdwatching, and it had a whole other symbolic layer in the narrative as well. Which I’m not quite sure I pick up on all of that, but this novel is definitely staying on my shelf for future re-reads.

Rating: 4/5
276 pages, 1953

by Bobbie Pyron

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, hundreds of abandoned children lived on the streets in Moscow. The boy in this story was one of them- only five when his mother disappeared. He fell in with other street children at first, begging alongside them but reluctant to steal. The other kids fought, older and stronger ones took advantage of the weak, many drank vodka or sniffed glue. This boy didn’t like the fighting and abuse, and found himself often watching dogs that he saw scavenging around the city. He was delighted when one day another boy took him to grab some puppies from an empty building- as they were much more likely to get handouts if accompanied by a dog. The other children just saw the puppies as items to be used in their constant desperation for resources, but our boy felt drawn to the dogs instead. He wanted to return the puppies to their mother. He started following a stray dog around, and then lived with the pack of strays in a den under a building. He felt more secure and loved by the dogs than he ever had among people- the dogs shared their food and protected him. The story follows this boy through two difficult years as he huddled in ruined buildings, dug through trash cans, rode trains at night to stay warm in winter, dodged the violence of other homeless- both children and adults- and especially avoided the charity people who wanted to put him in an orphanage. He heard horror stories of the orphanage from other kids. Usually managed to find just enough to eat, warm clothes were more of a problem, his best times were in summer when he roamed a patch of forest with the dogs. But then a kindhearted old woman took an interest in him and tried to arrange for him to be taken off the streets and cared for. He fought off every attempt- now snarling and barking like the dogs- but eventually was coerced into the hospital. He didn’t want to be there, only to return to the family of dogs, but eventually the people won his trust and he began a slow recovery.

Based on the same incident that inspired Dog Boy. I’m not sure which one I like better- they’re both very good, in different ways. Dog Boy is darker, grittier for sure. Dogs of Winter is much more relatable, I think a better read for kids even though it is so very sad, the hardships and cruelties are not glossed over at all. It almost puts you in tears, reading about what the children suffered, so many simply starved or froze to death in the winter, the children felt they had to resort to anything for survival, that no one cared about them. This one boy found the dogs cared more for him than other people, so that’s what got him through the worst times.

Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
312 pages, 2012

by Susan Fromberg Schaeffer

With most used books I acquire on a whim, my attention to them at the time is so fleeting I barely remember picking them up, or even where I got them. This one I remember it distinctly. I was at the nicer thrift store in town and took this one off the shelf in curiosity. The title had caught my eye, the back cover copy made it sound interesting. I stood so long thumbing through pages reading a passage here and there, an employee approached me and made some comment about if I wanted to read it I should buy, this isn’t a library. My reply: “I need to see if this is a book I’ll actually want to read.” But really I was a tad embarrassed to be seen holding a book with a naked woman on the cover, and didn’t want to take it home and feel more awkward at my kids seeing me with it. The employee’s response was another remark that made it obvious he thought if you’re a reader, any book off the shelf will do. That comment rankled but I had no ready response although now I can think of quite a few. If you are a foodie, will any cuisine do? are you just as happy to eat fast food hamburgers and fries sitting on plastic chairs, as four artfully plated courses in an upscale restaurant off a linen tablecloth? If you like sports, does it matter what’s at play on the field? surely you have more interest in soccer or golf or marathon races- they’re so different. Books are so very personable, just because I like to read doesn’t mean I’ll like any book you put in my hands.

Rant over.

But I almost didn’t read it, for all that. Proof again that sometimes the moment and mindset has to be right, to appreciate a work. I tried this one once and didn’t get far. My eyes just slid over the words without much sinking in, I found it dull and couldn’t find any connection to the characters and even went online to read a bunch of one and two-star reviews to see if others felt the same. I almost ditched it but held on for another attempt later. (Now I find those one-star reviews hilarious. One reader said this book nearly gave her a “pseudo-intellectual concussion” ha ha)

This time I sank into the story without much effort. It’s set in fuedal Japan. It’s a meandering, contemplative yet sparsely-told story about a beautiful woman loved by two men, a noble lord and his closest trusted samurai. Half of the story is about the lives of women in the palace- secluded, pampered, and constantly vying with each other, petty cruelties that sometimes turn deadly. Further on the novel suddenly switches narrators, relating rumors and fables that you’re not sure at first have anything to do with this story, then turning to the samurai’s viewpoint. So there are councils of war, strategy planning, battles, villages of poor peasants burned to the ground with no remorse. Men wondering if anyone will recall their exploits when they are long gone, knowing their deeds become legends barely resembling the truth after just a few re-tellings. In the end, this beautiful woman has taken herself to live in seclusion up in the mountains, embittered by what she’s done in the past. The samurai finally encounters her again after what seems like a lifetime of campaigning (and a very long period spent just wandering around in the vast untamed forests with his horse and a fox he tames, when he gets tired of being a soldier). What happens next is idyllic and peaceful- for a while. But it doesn’t end happily.

I just don’t know how to tell about this book. It’s so strange and dreamy and upsetting at the same time. The people speak to each other obliquely and frequently quote poetry. They are enthralled by the beauties of nature- having special rooms just to view the moon at certain phases, going on excursions to see the first snowfall over a lake at night, or to look at fallen autumn leaves on a river (not to mention the spring glory of fruit tree blossoms). And on the other hand, they cause terribly brutal things to happen all the time. There’s the ravages of disease and other misfortunes- one long segment of the book is about a plague that strikes in summer, with dead bodies being thrown over the walls and corpses stacked up. Unsettling. The characters for all their high education and artistic poise, are full of superstition and totally inept at dealing with illness or complications of childbirth. It doesn’t take much to bring them down. On page 258, the wandering samurai wonders at a snowfall and thinks of how everyone back in the palace would scramble about figuring out what omen it meant and then he is struck with a realization:

: the world had nothing to do with humans or even with animals. The world and the weather turned on their own wheels and what happened, happened. Nature was as irrational and precipitous and impossible to predict as any one man. 

The feel of this story is very like Pearl S. Buck’s The Good Earth to me- in the sweeping breadth of its narrative and precise understatement. It also reminds me strongly of The Worm Ouroboros, one which I probably did not appreciate enough at the time. It feels very foreign in many ways, so I didn’t at all mind the mundane details about how people lived. At the same time it is deeply familiar, with all the concerns and dreams of humanity. One I’ll definitely have to revisit again, there’s a lot I didn’t quite follow and it feels like the kind of book that deserves a re-read.

Rating: 4/5
438 pages, 2004

by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Middle-grade historical fiction. Main character is Esperanza- a girl who grew up on a wealthy ranch in Mexico, where she had the best of everything and lived in luxury. Then her father dies, her family is forced into an impossible situation by conniving relatives, and they have to flee the country in secret. They go north, to Southern California, where the family that were once their servants on the ranch, now help them obtain work harvesting crops in the fields. After the uncomfortable and frightening journey, Esperanza finds herself living in impoverished conditions, expected to work and learn skills she never had before (she doesn’t know how to hold a broom, wash clothes, cook meals, etc). Other kids in the workers’ camp make fun of her at first, but she does gain some friends as time goes on, and looses the edge of her pride. In their new place, the struggles are far from over- her mother falls sick, a boy she had befriended leaves for a different opportunity, and their jobs seem far from secure- strikers wanting better conditions threaten what little stability they have. Esperanza is surprised and humbled to learn that, as difficult as she thinks her new life is, there are other people even worse off.

I can readily see why this novel has won so many awards- it’s a story of growth amid hardship, a family sticking together to make a new beginning when they lost everything. There’s struggles for worker’s rights, outrage at racial injustice, and some beautiful, uplifting sayings. But it just- didn’t reach me. Maybe becaue I’m far beyond the target age group. Maybe because Esperanza’s character felt a bit flat to me. I saw what she did and said, but I never really got a sense of her as a person. Or maybe I just didn’t connect to her character, so failed to feel very deeply about what happened. The story did make me think of other immigrant stories I’ve read, and it also brought to mind The Grapes of Wrath.

Borrowed from my daughter.

Rating: 3/5
262 pages, 2000

More opinions: Book Haven
anyone else?

by Greer Macallister

Note: spoilers below!

Set in the late 1800’s, this story is about two sisters who live in San Franciso. Charlotte has always felt protective of her younger sister Phoebe, who appears to have bipolar disorder (and myabe schizophrenia). Her behavior becomes unmanageable (mostly because it publicly embarasses the family) so the parents send Phoebe to an insane asylum. Charlotte is heartbroken and angered by this, and determines to get her sister back. She fakes a suicide attempt, is quickly bundled off to the nearest mental institution- conveniently the same one her sister’s in. Then begins a long, dangerous search to find her sister and bring her home. Dangerous because of course, once inside the asylum Charlotte is at the mercy of the staff. She discloses nothing at first, attempting to fit in and act like she really belongs there. Treatments ranged from ludicrous to downright horrific- although some probably had merit- such as forced walks out in the open air for exercise. Food was poor quality, drugs were administered freely to those deemed difficult to control, and physical punishment or confinement – being beaten, tied up or shut in dark padded cells- a regular thing. Charlotte gets to know some of the other inmates, finds a secret map, sneaks around and eventually locates her sister. She thinks now the hard part is over: just tell the doctor they’re both sane, and they’ll get out. But nobody believes her.

This book is labeled a mystery on the cover, which I didn’t realize when I picked it up. I didn’t think I liked mysteries! but here I wanted to find the answer to questions: would Charlotte find her sister in the asylum? would they avoid the worst of the treatments and escape? I’m glad this story looked at some of the tougher issues. So many of the women in there were not actually suffering from mental illness. They had defied convention, refused to follow social norms, displeased their husbands, or were simply found inconvenient. Charlotte is outraged when she discovers this, and determines to do something about it- but then she’s surprised to find not all of her new friends want to leave the asylum. Some find the freedom to act and speak out in that environment liberating. Others actually need to be “looked after”- suffering from depression, epilepsy, or any number of disorders.

I liked that this story tied up all the loose ends (thought some felt a bit too tidy). When Charlotte and her sister finally get free and return home, they’re not exactly welcomed with open arms. They learn that powerful people in the community run the asylum (for profit from items the inmates made with forced labor) and aren’t going to make readily change things. Charlotte is promised to a certain man to marry, but she wants the brother instead (this was told a lot in flashbacks). One of her friends who escapes the asylum with them, reveals that she was there because her husband had attempted to murder her, and now he has to be confronted. Charlotte’s sister Phoebe doesn’t feel comfortable in their family home after having lived at the asylum so many years. It’s all quite a mess, but gets straightened out well enough.

This one was audiobook format- 13 hours of listening time. Voice of Nina Alvamar. Borrowed from the public library.

Rating: 3/5
368 pages, 2019

More opinions: Small World Reads
That’s What She Read
anyone else?

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All books reviewed on this site are owned by me, or borrowed from the public library. Exceptions are a very occasional review copy sent to me by a publisher or author, as noted. Receiving a book does not influence my opinion or evaluation of it

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