Bluebird, Bluebird

40605488Bluebird, Bluebird by Attica Locke

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: JD Jackson

Source: my own Audible collection

Length: 9:25:00

Publisher: Hachette Audio

Year: 2017

Darren Mathews is a black Texas Ranger who is on suspension. While he is called home to Lark, TX, he begins digging around in the deaths of two people – a black lawyer from Chicago and a local white woman, found in the same bayou two days apart. Darren starts investigating, even though he is suspended, in an attempt to head off the racial tensions building in the tiny town.

This is the first book of Locke’s I’ve read. Her prose is rich and evokes a great deal of authenticity regarding race relations in tiny, backwoods Southern towns. I had to keep reminding myself that this novel was set in modern times, not 50 years or more ago. The details of the crimes were complex and believable within the scope of the story. I really found her writing to be relevant for many issues society still, sadly, deals with today. She showed how racism is deeply ingrained in both the white and black communities, which is so sad on every level.

That said, I didn’t actually like this book much. I had a hard time connecting with any of the characters. I didn’t like how Darren would use his badge to manipulate people to get what he wanted from them. I didn’t find most of the people terribly sympathetic, even the victims or the victims’ loved ones. I was mostly bored with the crime plot and it dragged too much for me. I like plenty of detail and don’t mind slow pacing but this was too slow. I can easily see why this book got so many 4 and 5 star reviews, because it really was well written and deals with important issues. It just wasn’t for me.

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The Long Road to Empathy: The Tragedy of Oedipal Love in The Story of Kullervo and The Kalevala

In 1911, J.R.R. Tolkien read The Kalevala, collected by Elias Lonnrot and translated by W.F. Kirby. Tolkien later crafted his own variant, condensing the plot and emphasizing the grimness of the narrative. Throughout both versions of Kullervo’s story, there is a sense of inevitability and doom which is highlighted in several scenes. A pivotal scene is Kullervo’s rape of his sister, which Tolkien made darker by enhancing details leading up to it, highlighting the narrative’s sense of inevitability, and ultimately creating a character who is more empathetic.

Examining the different rape scenes and events leading up to them is a multifaceted task. A striking difference in Tolkien’s version is that Kullvero and his sister were raised together. They were twins and “dear to one another from their first hours…” (Tolkien 7). This bond is absent in The Kalevala. Tolkien also gives the sister a name. In literature, names imbue power, agency, and identity. The fact that Wanona has a name at all, and that it means “weeping,” strongly foreshadows a future tragedy. While naming Wanona allowed her a voice, Tolkien later emphasizes Kullervo’s inevitable encounter with her, thus negating her ability to choose for herself. Tolkien was drawn to the bleakness of the story and may have given her a name to underscore the tale’s relentless sense of doom.

A further element relating to the later rape is the curse of Ilmarinen’s wife. In The Kalevala, Ilmarinen’s wife curses Kullervo with death out of revenge. She begs the god Ukko to use his best crossbow, take a bolt of copper, and “Shoot it quickly through the arm-pits,/ Shoot it that it split the shoulders./ Thus let Kalervo’s son perish,/ Shoot thou dead this wicked creature…” (Runo 33, lines 263-276). Ilmarinen’s wife is angry, afraid, and asks the gods to kill Kullervo for murdering her. There is no sense of prophecy in her words, but her formal tone suggests that her curse catalyzes Kullervo’s fated death. Although vague enough to allow for the possibility of fate or events of chance causing his death, later events support the argument that her curse was successful, rendering foreshadowing irrelevant.

In Kullervo, the curse foreshadows a coming tragedy. Tolkien writes,

Woe thou Sari Kampa’s offspring

Thou has trod the ways of thralldom

And the trackless waste of exile

But thy end shall be more awful

…a fate of woe [and] horror

Worse than anguish in Anuntu.

Men … shall shudder when they hear them

Thy fate and end of terror. (31-32)

Immediately obvious is the phrase “thy end shall be more awful,” which provides the prophesying that The Kalevala lacks. Kullervo has been a slave and an exile but his death will be worse than these things. Moreover, the idea that fate plays a role is highlighted by the repeated use of the term. The wife implies that Kullervo is destined for a bad death, though it is unclear whether her words are the catalyst to this or merely foreshadow it.

Both narratives feature the Blue Lady of the Forest. In The Kalevala, the Lady does not warn Kullervo away from entering the forest. On the contrary, she steers him directly toward it. “Through the forest must thou journey,/ By the river thou must travel,/ …/ Till you reach a wooded mountain,/ Then march on beneath the mountain,/ …/ By the riverside go further,/ Till three waterfalls rush foaming,/ When thou comest to a headland…  (Runo 34, lines 143-154). Her instructions do not appear prophetic, but since Kullervo meets his sister in the very forest the Lady directs him to, it raises the possibility that she sends him there intentionally. Failing to build anticipation, The Kalevala moves the story forward without detail. Tolkien gives ample attention to the woods and the Lady’s instructions, building tension. She says:

Thou must follow the river’s path and … thou wilt find a wooded mountain. Fare not towards it lest ill find thee. March on under the shadow often bending to the left when thou comest to another river and when thou hast followed its banks soon thou wilt strike a fair spot and a great glade and over a great leap a triple waterfall foaming. … continue pushing up the river toward its source: and the ground will slope against thee and the wood darken … stumble across bleak waste and then soon wilt thou see the blue of woods of Untamo rising afar off: and mayhap these thou hast not yet quite forgotten. (Tolkien 35)

Unlike Kirby, Tolkien creates a deeply shadowed forest, fostering a sense of foreboding. His Lady also warns specifically not to go to the wooded mountain because some unnamed tragedy will occur there. In the most interesting departure from The Kalevala, Tolkien’s Kullervo willfully disobeys the Lady’s instructions and goes into the forest where, of course, he meets his sister. The final comment from the Lady becomes relevant at this point, for in telling Kullervo that maybe he hasn’t quite forgotten the blue woods of Untamo, she is implying that he is back in the woods of his childhood where he and Wanona played. Being in once-familiar surroundings could make him remember Wanona when he sees her. That he remembers neither the woods nor his sister, thus missing a chance to avoid the tragedy, is a masterful way Tolkien emphasizes its bleakness.

The narrative culminates with the rape of Wanona. In Kirby’s translation, Kullervo encounters three maidens, all of whom reject him, and drags the third one into his sledge. She resists, but Kullervo shows her the riches he has in his coffers and she changes her mind: “…To a bride the money changed her,/ … Then he sported with the maiden,/ Wearied out the tin-adorned one…” (Runo 35, lines 169-186). Kirby’s translation overwrites the wife’s initial refusal and replaces consent with materialism. This is a very misogynistic approach, for she appears indifferent that she will be raped as long as he is rich. She is merely a nameless object with no identity, her agency illusory, who has no objections until she realizes that Kullervo is her brother. There is also no mention of the curse of Ilmanen’s wife, and Kullervo met the maidens by chance (Runo 35, line 133), implying that fate is irrelevant and the curse has no bearing.

Tolkien’s Kullervo, while grimmer, brings far more detail and emotional depth to the tale. Rather than having three separate maidens reject Kullervo, the same maiden rejects him thrice. She’s uninterested in his wealth, unlike her Kalevala counterpart. Kullervo loses his temper and takes her not into his sledge but away into “the depths of the woods” (Tolkien 36), the forbidden place. Not only does Kullervo fail to avoid the tragedy here, he fulfills it. Tolkien writes, “Yet was she fair and he loving with her, and the curse of the wife of Ilmarinen upon them both, so that not long did she resist him and they abode together in the wild…” (37). Professor Verlyn Flieger suggests that Tolkien means for this to be a seduction rather than a rape (Flieger). She interprets this passage such that they reach an accord and share a legitimate relationship. However, she does not account for the fact that Wanona is “…adread and sped like a wild thing through the woods…” (36). This is mortal terror, not accord. Women often have to choose survival through acquiescence; however, acquiescence should not be confused for consent. Additionally, Tolkien writes that “the curse of the wife of Ilmarinen [was] upon them both” (37), indicating that the wife’s curse includes Wanona, linking her fate irrevocably to his.

The defining difference between the two texts lies not in the disparity in length, emphasis on darkness, or even the rape itself. It is Kullervo’s reaction and how he acts afterward. Kullervo responds with horror in The Kalevala, saying he had outraged his mother’s child, presumably referring to his sister; however, he could actually be talking about himself considering that he makes self-centered references to the difficulties in his life ten times in that same stanza (Runo 35, lines 271-286). Tolkien’s Kullervo tries and fails to stop Wanona from throwing herself into the river. He hears her “last wail” (38), a haunting image juxtaposed against the beauty of the setting. Kullervo sits beside the waterfall for several hours “as a lump of rock” (39). Tolkien paints a picture of a deeply grieving man who only later understands Wanona’s final words. Tolkien writes, “… foreboding gnawed at his heart for something in the maiden’s last speech …and her bitter ending wakened old knowledge in his heart …he felt he would burst for grief and sorrow and heavy fear. Then red anger came to him…” (39). At this point, Kullervo goes into a rage, far too late to prevent the tragedy the Lady had warned him about. Tolkien’s Kullervo is now a much more believable figure than Kirby’s. His emotions are complex: he is grief-stricken, he loves Wanona as a woman, yet he feels terrible guilt about loving her and her death. In both versions, Kullervo is an unsympathetic figure up to this point. Tolkien’s Kullervo, though, learns to grieve for others and have empathy. It is only then that he can find “the death he sought for” (40).

Although all events lead to Kullervo’s suicide, Tolkien’s emphasis on the rape and the relentless pain in the story build a character who is far more realistic than the one in The Kalevala. Kirby’s translation describes a historically rich narrative but it is lacking in emotional depth. Tolkien’s Kullervo, though frequently repugnant, is ultimately more believable because of the various emphases Tolkien makes. Focusing more on the inevitability of Kullervo’s tragedy, as well as crafting a situation which he could have avoided at multiple points, allows Tolkien to refine the character, explore the concept of fate, and deeply examine how details of a story can influence narrative.

 

References

Flieger, Verlyn. “Tolkien’s Kullervo.” Tolkien and Tradition class lecture archives, Signum University, http://signum.coursearchives.s3.amazonaws.com/LITC5301_Tolkien-and-Tradition/LITC5301_Session08.mp4

The Kalevala, the Land of Heroes. Compiled by Elias Lonnrot, translated by W.F. Kirby, Project Gutenberg, 2010.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Story of Kullervo. Edited by Verlyn Flieger, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2016.

Little Fires Everywhere

34273236Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng

I read it as a: hardback

Source: my own collection

Length: 338 pp

Publisher: Penguin Press

Year: 2017

Shaker Heights is a planned community near Cleveland, OH. All the houses are perfectly maintained, the yards perfectly manicured, the house colors all within code. The people who live there all follow the rules and look after each other and never have to worry about locking their doors. Everything and everyone has a plan and no one really deviates from it. Elena Richardson is a product of Shaker, born and bred, and she takes the place of rules, law, and order in her life very seriously. Mia Warren, Elena’s new tenant, flies in the face of everything Shaker, and Elena herself, stands for, living an itinerant and carefree life with her teenage daughter, Pearl. When family friends of the Richardsons find themselves in the middle of a contentious, racially charged adoption, secrets come out on all sides and have shattering consequences for everyone.

I loved this book so much. It was quiet and subversive and just about perfect. There are a lot of people worthy of sympathy: Mia is a free spirit and keeps moving to stoke her creative spirit. Pearl has never been able to make friends because they move every few months, so her refuge is in books and her own intelligence. Izzy, the youngest of the Richardson brood, is overlooked or criticized at every turn and struggles to find her voice through a series of increasingly irrational acts. These three were my favorite characters. I loathed Elena Richardson, even though she was a sympathetic figure in her own way as well. She was really the one who set in motion the whole devastating series of events, even though at first it appears to be Mia who did so.

There was just so much to unpack in this novel. It was subtle in its subversion, which is often the best kind. You are reading along and come across a scene and a few pages later you go, “Wait, what?” and have to go back to something. It hits you later and makes you think. Those are the best books. For me, this made me think about the various ways motherhood played a role in this narrative. I couldn’t stand Elena Richardson, but I wonder if she was a better mother than Mia Warren. Mia clearly loved Pearl with all her heart and would never make her feel inadequate or picked on and wouldn’t criticize everything she does the way Elena does Izzy. Elena treats Izzy differently than her other three children, constantly picking on her, being annoyed by her, criticizing her for every little thing. NOT OK. However, once we learn why she does that, it doesn’t make it ok but it does make it understandable. It makes me wonder how it might have changed Elena’s relationship with Izzy if she had told her why. Mia, on the other hand, has moved Pearl every few months. Pearl has no friends until they move to Shaker Heights, where they initially plan to stay forever. Mia might seem to love Pearl more fiercely and in a manner that I, at least, can relate to more easily, but she also may not have done the best thing for Pearl by moving her so much because she isn’t very good at making friends, doesn’t really know how to be a normal teenager. Mia kept a lot of important things from Pearl but, unlike Elena, she does tell her eventually. I wonder how it will affect their relationship, too.

Motherhood intersects with race when it comes to Bebe, the McCulloughs, and May Ling/Mirabelle. This was such a heartbreaking part of the story. On the one hand, I generally tend to believe that most people deserve second chances. Bebe had tried to do the right thing by her baby, May Ling, and when she couldn’t, she took her to a place she felt would be safe and where she could get her back when she was able to get on her feet again. The fact that she didn’t know at all about any resources available to help her wasn’t her fault. She didn’t speak English well at the time and she didn’t know what to ask or who to go to. When the McCulloughs tried to adopt the baby, renaming her Mirabelle, they highlighted the institutional racism they were inundated with. They had no idea about Asian culture or how to teach their adopted daughter about it. They made casual, cringe-worthy remarks about how she already likes rice and panda bears. Ugh. They didn’t even consider keeping her birth name and didn’t think it was wrong to change it until Izzy challenged them about it. They felt they were more suited to raise May Ling than Bebe because they’re rich and the wife will be a stay at home mother; the unsaid message is that it’s also because they’re white. The excuse they used in court is that Bebe left the baby at a fire department, terminating her parental rights, whereas they have been trying for years to have children to no avail, so clearly they want kids. At some point, May Ling becomes an object rather than a person, even if she is still a baby, and it seems like the McCulloughs just want a baby, any one will do. To me, that point is proven later when they end up trying to adopt another baby even after May Ling is gone. If I was so attached to a child (and I am, I am a mother myself), I don’t think I could bear to try to have another one if anything took that child away from me. It would feel like replacing the child with a new one.

Throughout the story, we wonder who should be a mother? What makes a mother? Can we choose our mothers? Can we have more than one mother? What makes a good mother or an unfit mother? Ng never answers the questions she raises about mothers and motherhood, and I like that ambiguity. She lets her readers think about them and come to their own conclusions about them. I’ve changed my own mind a bunch of times just since the beginning of this review…

The Splendor before the Dark

51ademwwk4l-_sx327_bo1204203200_The Splendor Before the Dark by Margaret George

I read it as an: advanced reading copy

Source: Edelweiss

Length: 592 pp

Publisher: Berkley

Year: 2018

This book picked up right where the previous book in Margaret George’s Nero series (duology would be a better term) left off. Jumping right into the thick of things, Nero has just learned about the fire sweeping through Rome. He rushes back, determined to do anything he can to stop it. He was in the middle of the efforts to stop the Great Fire, though later he would fall victim to rumors that he started the fire himself to make room for his Golden House, or, infamously, that he was fiddling about the fall of Troy as Rome burned.

Nero’s troubles didn’t end with the last smoke of the fire. He had to deal with fossilized senators from old families who were scandalized that he wanted to do things in new ways. Hey, kind of like the fossilized old farts in the senate today! How much things remain the same… Nero wanted to introduce arts and theatre and culture to Rome, and Rome, especially the patrician Romans, wanted nothing to do with it.

He also had to deal with numerous revolts, uprisings, and betrayals during his reign. Nero changed from an idealistic young boy to a somewhat paranoid man because of the betrayals he had suffered in his short life. He thought that betrayal, when it inevitably came, would come from within his family or possibly the senate, but he never saw it coming from the provinces or his Praetorian Guard. And certainly not from some of those he trusted most.

I really loved this book, at least as much as the first Nero book Ms George wrote. Here, we truly get to see Nero as he most likely really was – a sensitive, thoughtful man who wanted to make sweeping changes to a centuries-old system and instead got destroyed in the politics of it. He was first and foremost an artist and musician, loving nothing more than to write and perform poetry and music. I took years and years of Latin from high school through grad school; I’ve read Tacitus and his comments about Nero. I never thought they seemed very realistic. The outstanding research that went into this book and its predecessor really highlights how misunderstood Nero has become to history. He wasn’t insane, cruel, or in love with persecuting Christians. He was flawed, yes, maybe a bit childish and naive for the ruler of the known world. Likely he was a bit narcissistic, or at least he came across that way somewhat, but not in a malignant way *coughtrumpcough* nor in an entirely self-centered way, if that makes sense. His narcissism, such as it was, seemed to be derived purely from being a child of luxury and privilege and not knowing anything else. Sometimes while reading this, I felt a little embarrassed for him, as I think I was meant to, because, like others in the room with Nero, I wanted to tell him to stop, or ask him, “Don’t you know you can’t do that/say that here to these people?” He was so idealistic that he was really clueless about a lot of things, and it made him a target in a variety of ways.

As with all her other books, Margaret George has some absolutely lovely prose in this one as well. When speaking of the gods and religion, Nero has many things to say that were intriguing and well crafted. When one senator accused him of being an atheist, Nero replied that, in practical terms, he is because

“since we cannot know [the gods’] thoughts, it is best to admit that and proceed in the dark, unlike ignorant people who think they know and make stupid interpretations.”

Later, regarding the Christians who he ordered executed for their alleged role in the fire, Nero said,

“In some ways they are to be envied…. Having something so precious that it overrides all else in your life, even your life itself.”

As an atheist myself, I don’t feel this way about religion, but I do understand the sentiment. I hold many things in higher regard than my own life. Nero felt this way about his art, and came to realize he felt that way about Rome itself.

Combining thoughts on religion with philosophy, another of Nero’s favorite pastimes, is a terrific scene that comes just after he competes in his first chariot race. Nero’s wife Poppaea berates him for racing, an act that a charioteer (i.e., a slave) would do, not a patrician, and she was afraid for him for many reasons. She told him he was acting like a child:

“You are no longer a child. Or are you? You behave like one.”

“If I behave like one, it is because deep inside the child is still there.” …

“Childhood is a phase of life, to be put aside as one grows up.”

“No, it should be cherished, because it is the truest part of ourselves, the part that came into being first. …It is when we are our childhood selves that we are closest to the gods.”

This one reminded me to cherish my daughter’s childhood and to get more in touch with my own inner child. When Nero is on stage or talking about the arts, his true love, is when his real personality comes through. Nero and an actor are discussing the destruction of many of the theatres in the fire and how to rebuild so that plays can be put on again. Nero says,

“Yes, people need that. Especially after such sorrow. It helps them to know that life goes on.”

“Oddly enough, tragedies are a remedy for that. They put our own sorrows in context, the context of being human. Suffering is woven into all existence.”

“Oh my,” [says Nero,] “perhaps you are in the wrong profession, and belong with the philosophers.”

“Actors bring philosophy to people in a form they can understand,” [the actor] said.

I love this exchange so hard because it encompasses so much of what the humanities as a whole stand for. If you’ve known me for any length of time at all, you will have been subject to one of my epic soapbox rants about the vital role the humanities play in modern society and how it is stupid and short-sighted to cut such programs from schools. The humanities teach us literally the human experience, how people experience the world around them. We may have all kinds of cool technology now, but someone had to think it up in the first place, and think about how it impacts human life and experience. Just…don’t get me started. But I loved this scene for a lot of reasons.

Overall, I think this was just about a perfect novel. I just loved the deep research that clearly went into it, and the discovery of a man who is so different than how he is often portrayed in history. I think Margaret George has uncovered a more realistic version of Nero than anyone else and I adore the way she handles him and the multitude of myths and scandals that surround him.

 

A Murder by Any Name

51orh40ubylA Murder by Any Name by Suzanne M. Wolfe

I read it as an: ARC

Source: Publisher/HNS

Length: 336 pp

Publisher: Crooked Lane Books

Year: 2018

In this series debut, Nicholas Holt, the younger son of a fictional nobleman, is a soldier as well as a spy for William Cecil. He is home in London to report on his mission from the Continent when he is instead assigned to investigate the brutal murder of Queen Elizabeth’s youngest, most innocent lady in waiting, right in the heart of the court. The murder is disturbing, not only because it strikes at a young and innocent girl, but because the body was posed in the chapel in a gruesome imitation of prayer. When a second lady in waiting is murdered shortly after the first, the stakes get even higher for Nick, whose loyalty as a member of a recusant family might be in question if he cannot discover the identity of the  murderer. The political overtones imply that someone is striking now at Elizabeth herself, implying that her reign is illegitimate and that Catholics should be ruling England. Nick relies on the help of his friends – Spanish Jewish doctors Eli and his beautiful twin sister Rivkah, his childhood friend John, and his faithful and well trained wolfhound Hector – to hone in on a cold-blooded killer who won’t stop until forced to by the Queen’s executioner.

A Murder by Any Name was a fast-paced and entertaining read. It held my attention throughout, even though I totally figured out who the killer was quite early on. I’ve read too many mysteries to be surprised by very much, and this plot was really pretty standard. However, the historical details and character development were really well done and more than made up for any lack of surprise for me. Wolfe’s attention to detail was such that I could practically smell the stench of the Thames – or Elizabeth’s breath from her black and rotting teeth! Gnarly. The atmosphere she created was rich and full of emotion, enhanced by the physical details surrounding the characters. The brittle cold, icy water, foggy riverbanks, echoing chambers or chapels, all contributed encompassing the feelings of fear and paranoia that pervaded society at the time. So often, the Jewish communities were the scapegoats for anything that went wrong, as Eli and Rivkah had painful reason to know. Skillfully, Wolfe crafted a protagonist who was sympathetic as well as empathetic while retaining historical accuracy, a tremendous balancing act in itself. Nick Holt was a product of his time, but he was not hardened or indifferent to the suffering of those beneath him on the social scale. I thought Wolfe did a fantastic job of weaving feminism into her story while still being accurate to the social mores of the time. I thought that was excellent. Nick was a wonderful, sensitive, believable character, and I wish there were more period pieces with men like him in them as opposed to sexist men who are written like barbarians simply because the author seems to think that is how it was back in the day, or maybe because an author is himself a sexist. Instead, A Murder by Any Name is the best of what happens when you get a woman to write a well-researched historical fiction. I am looking forward to reading more books in this series, and I can happily recommend this one.

 

A Missed Murder

51htbmniokl-_sx315_bo1204203200_A Missed Murder by Michael Jecks

I read it as a: galley

Length: 224 pp

Publisher: Severn House

Year: 2018

Jack Blackjack, which is either a really cool name or a really lame one, is an assassin in the employ of the historic figure John Blount. Blount somehow managed to convince Jack to be an assassin for him, even though Jack is squeamish around blood and is an indifferent assassin at best. He really takes the job only because he would get paid a lot of money and he’s jonesing for better food, nicer clothes, and a big house (not that I blame him for that), and because he is rightfully concerned that Blount will kill him for turning him down. Jack is also a complete fuck-up. He was ordered to kill a guy, then that order was countermanded, but Jack manages to kill him anyway, completely by accident. All that happened even though he had really hired the father of his lover to do the actual killing for him. See above re: squeamish about blood. Now Jack is trying to get out of his self-inflicted mess alive. The plot thickens as he scrambles to do a job, avoid a job, and not become his own next victim.

It sounds pretty fun, right? You would be wrong. This was the first book by Michael Jecks I have read and I have to say, I think it will be the last. It’s disappointing, too, because the blurb honestly sounded like it would be so good. I thought Jack was not merely an unlikable character but a revolting one. I am so incredibly sick of male narrators who are braggarts and arrogant and view women as objects. Within just the first few pages, there were a shit ton of comments made by the narrator about women and their vacant eyes and how that was a turn-on. Seriously, what the fuck? Additionally, there were tons of incredibly juvenile euphemisms for sex – hide the sausage, pounding the mattress, mattress galloping,  that might appeal to immature audiences, but not, I think, to most adults. There were men in the 16th century would have appreciated a woman with some wits about her, who wasn’t just some vapid cow. So this attitude – by the narrator? By the author? – didn’t really capture the sense of the social mores. Women at the time were, indeed, not equal to men, and were sometimes viewed as objects. Hey, kinda like today! But there are plenty of examples, both from the contemporary literature and real life, of men who valued a strong, intelligent woman. Also, it’s kind of hard to overlook the fact that there was a woman on the throne at the time this book was set, even if she wasn’t the most popular, and was followed by another woman who was one of THE most popular and longest-reigning monarchs in British history. So even allowing for 16th century social mores, the rampant sexism is hard to stomach. It’s used often enough that I don’t know if it is supposed to reflect the protagonist’s mindset or if it is the viewpoint of the author himself. The ubiquitous sexism also detracts from an already tepid plot that is lacking any meaningful historical detail. I know Jecks has a ton of books in another series, so it seems he’s pretty popular. Maybe this is an aberration and his other books are better, but I was thoroughly put off by this one and now have no interest in reading his other ones. A Missed Murder should have been titled A Missed Opportunity

I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter

29010395I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika Sanchez

I read it as an: hardback

Source: library

Length: 340 pp

Publisher: Knopf

Year: 2017

Julia is a fairly typical 15 year old – she wants to hang out with her friends, have fun, and get good enough grades to get out of her neighborhood and go away to college when she is old enough. She struggles with depression, though she initially doesn’t realize it, because her parents are oppressive and don’t want her to achieve anything more than to get through high school without getting pregnant, then get married and get a job as a secretary, which is the best job they can think of. To be fair, her dad works in a factory and her mom cleans houses, so working as a secretary would be a big step up to them. However, Julia is highly intelligent and a talented writer; she wants to go to college and be a writer when she grows up, a job neither of her parents understands or supports. The death of her older sister, Olga, which happens before the start of the book, naturally throws her into a deeper depression than she already had been in.

Olga had been the perfect Mexican daughter, according to Julia’s mother. Olga was happy to stay at home forever, never dated, was happy to help her mother clean and cook traditional food. Julia wanted nothing to do with any of these things. After Olga died, Julia discovered that Olga may have had a secret life and makes it her mission to learn what it was. The weight of the secrets she learns becomes too much to bear and it has a terrible impact on Julia’s mental health.

I read this in one sitting and it made me ugly cry. It was so fucking good! There are so many issues wrapped up in this novel. Julia’s parents are undocumented immigrants and, over the course of the story, we learn about their harrowing trip across the border from their home town on Los Ojos in Mexico, the horrible things that happened to them. They were unable to return to Mexico when their parents died because they wouldn’t have been able to return to their home in Chicago or to their children. They work the worst jobs with the worst shifts because their employers know they have them over a barrel. Julia’s dad and his factory coworkers live in constant fear of raids by immigration; it’s pure dumb luck the raids have never happened during any of his shifts. Julia’s mother cleans houses in the rich areas of Chicago and deals with all kinds of abuse from the homeowners, from bored rich housewives hovering and criticizing everything she does to gross old men leering at her.

Julia suffers from depression and anxiety, but she doesn’t know it. She just thinks that she is weird and that nothing she does is good enough to please her mother. She’s a victim of her culture, to a large extent, and of her mother. Depression is not something that her mother understands and she thinks Julia just needs to be happy with her family and go to church more. Oppressing Julia’s need for a creative outlet and showing no interest in things she loves – literature, writing, travel – makes her feel as though she is unseen and unwanted, and understandably so.

Another issue in the book is how homosexuality is dealt with in the Hispanic community. I am not Hispanic, but I know that, traditionally, being gay is not very well tolerated. Readers see that in one of Julia’s friends, a gay boy who is frequently beaten by hi father for being gay.

Being from AZ, I know maybe a tad more about Mexican culture than some, but really I don’t know tons. Reading this book helped me learn more than I expected and for that, I am grateful. I want to learn more.

Overall, this book was sad and enlightening and shines a light on a huge number of issues. I loved it so hard.

The Hollow of Fear

36342330The Hollow of Fear by Sherry Thomas

I read it as an: ARC

Source: publicist

Length: 336 pp

Publisher: Berkley

Year: 2018

The Hollow of Fear is the third in Thomas’s Lady Sherlock series and honestly, they just keep getting better and better. In this installment, Charlotte Holmes helps her dear friend Lord Ingram when his wife’s body is discovered in the ice house on the grounds of his country estate, Stern Hollow. Charlotte provides assistance and moral support to Ingram, who is the prime suspect in Lady Ingram’s murder. In order to be able to assist and move freely among the police investigators, Charlotte dresses up as Sherlock’s fictional brother Sherrington, which is hilarious since Sherlock himself is fictional as well. Livia, meanwhile, though concerned about Ingram, is also pining for the mysterious man she met in the second novel, while trying not to be obvious about it. Readers will be rooting  for her to get some kind of happiness, which has been so long withheld due to circumstance and her parents’ unkind personalities. Throughout the twists and turns, Charlotte has to keep her sisters safe, keep her identity as Sherlock secret, and keep Ingram out of the hangman’s noose.

There is so much to unpack in this novel. The plot is wonderfully complex and it kept me guessing until the surprising end. We learn that, as so often in real life, people are not always as they first appear. Some turn out to be nicer than we think, and in this case, learning that was a delightful surprise. Others are harboring dark secrets and it hurts to find out who it is. It was also a treat to learn more about Ingram’s other two brothers: Wycliffe, the eldest and the duke, and Remington, the youngest and free-spirited of the group. Although they really didn’t make an actual appearance on the page to speak of, it still gave a more well-rounded background for Ingram and Bancroft that was appreciated. Readers of the series are already intimately familiar with Ingram, of course, and Bancroft, a quasi-Mycroft figure.

But it is beyond the plot where the novel’s true strengths lie. Charlotte still desires Ingram, and propositions him on occasion, to his consternation, since he operates within the scope of society. However, she only wants him on her terms and is willing to wait if necessary. Unlike the original Sherlock, Charlotte isn’t asexual, but she refuses to allow society to dictate how she lives her life, and she isn’t driven purely by mindless desire, which would be terribly boring. The fact that she is almost certainly on the spectrum also makes for some interesting interactions because she reacts to emotions very differently. Also unlike the original, Charlotte uses food and eating as her addiction rather than cocaine, which sparks great discussion about body positivity and body image. I love her commentary about “maximum tolerable chins.”

My favorite element of this particular story is that it has lots to say about gender identity. Thomas takes Sherlock and gender-flips him into Lady Sherlock, which is fun enough on its own. But here, Lady Sherlock goes and dresses as a man so she can help Ingram. While she was dressed as Sherrington Holmes, the handful of people who know Charlotte is actually Sherlock – Ingram, Livia, and Inspector Treadles – maintained her cover, addressing her as a man and treating her as such. They said things to her and allowed her to do things as Sherrington that never would have been allowed had she presented as Charlotte, even it was just Ingram, who is indulgent of her and lets her do pretty much what she wants. I found the interplay of gender identity and gender fluidity to be fascinating.

Oh, and that last line! I simply can’t wait for the next book!

An American Marriage

38389692An American Marriage by Tayari Jones

I read it as an: audiobook

Narrator: Sean Crisden and Eisa Davis

Source: my own collection

Length: 08:59:00

Publisher: HighBridge

Year: 2018

Roy Hamilton and Celestial Davenport are a young, married, black couple living in Atlanta. They’re up and coming, just starting out – he’s a hotshot executive, having graduated from a prestigious college with a full scholarship, and she’s making a name for herself as an artist. Their plans for the future come to a grinding halt when they visit Roy’s parents in Louisiana one weekend, and Roy is arrested, and later convicted, for a rape he did not commit. He is sentenced to 12 years in prison, and is released after 5 when his conviction is overturned. He returns to Atlanta, ready to start his marriage back up again, but 5 years apart is a long time, and Roy isn’t the only one changed by his time in prison.

Sometimes, you read a book that highlights a social issue and it enrages you and makes you want to set the world on fire, like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Other books, like An American Marriage, bring those social issues home, give them a human face, and put them into the context that shows the impact they have on whole families, not just one person. This book is a deep character study, using first person perspectives from Roy, Celestial, and their mutual friend Andre. During the years of Roy’s incarceration, it shifts to an epistolary narrative, which works really well and shows the ways in which his and Celestial’s marriage is beginning to crumble. It is a discussion on what marriage is, what is worth fighting for, how much of yourself are you willing to give up, and to what extent duty and obligation stretch. How does one person save another, and is it her job to do so? There were so many parts of this book that made me just…sad. Nothing made me ugly cry, though I can see how it might have if I had been in a different mood. But the whole thing just filled me with a deep sadness. Our system is so terribly broken. Although Roy is fictional, his story is not. There are so many young men whose lives are destroyed because they were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, and they were victims of a system that is deeply flawed and stacked against them. Roy was the one to spend time in prison, but it was not just him to suffer. His family suffered and changed in irrevocable ways and no one came through the experience unscathed. To think only the person in prison is the one affected is very wrong. It shouldn’t need to be said at all, but in case it does, this book helps to bring that point home and show the human side of the broader social issues.

I think this story could have gone very differently. I am glad it ended as well as it did, though it was still heartbreaking. It could easily have gone a whole lot worse and I’m glad it didn’t. I was really worried it would go sideways and be bad, especially at the start of the epilogue. The resolution was imperfect and the best they could do and was, ultimately, very human and real.

A Conspiracy in Belgravia

33835806A Conspiracy in Belgravia by Sherry Thomas

I read it as a: paperback

Source: library

Length: 317 pp

Publisher: Berkley

Year: 2017

 

In the second installment of the Lady Sherlock series, Charlotte Holmes has established her reputation as a consulting detective, albeit under the alias of Sherlock, her bedridden fictional brother. Here, she finds herself investigating the case of Lady Ingram’s first love, the man she would have preferred to marry rather than Charlotte’s friend Lord Ingram. The two former lovers have an agreement to meet but this year he misses the appointment, causing Lady Ingram to seek out help in finding him. At the same time, Charlotte’s sister Livia meets a handsome stranger and is being wooed by him, though he may not be who he seems. Through it all, Charlotte learns that her illegitimate half brother may be involved, and she also has to decide what to do with an intriguing marriage proposal to boot.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first book in this series, and I liked this one even better. Charlotte is growing as a person and it is interesting to see how it affects her logic. She kind of reminds me a lot of Cristina Yang in some ways – all cold logic and lack of emotions but hiding a caring person once she gets to know you. The way Thomas is handling original characters is really good. I still love Mrs Watson, and how shadowy Moriarty is in his (or her!) off-page debut in this novel. I really love the conclusion to this novel’s case, which is, I would like to believe, how Thomas will handle The Woman/Irene Adler. Maybe? I can see this particular character taking on that role, at any rate. I’ll be so interested to see how that plays out in later books. And that last line – loved it! I hadn’t actually seen that one coming. I love when that happens.

I really can’t talk in detail about the plot without giving spoilers, but this entire series so far is a genuine delight and I can’t wait to read the 3rd one!