Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

1102116So I read this book and now I shall discuss it in this post. So get ready, y’all. Oh my goodness, I’m in a mood. But this should be fun, I promise. Anyway, I read this for multiple reasons: It’s our chosen book for April (my IRL book club), it was a booktube book club choice in March, and Adichie is such a queen of all writers that it was a thing that just had to be done.

Half of a Yellow Sun follows five different protagonists from different walks of life as they navigate the civil unrest/war that occurred in Nigeria during the 1960s and the turmoil following Colonialism. The pov switches back and forth between these five narrators and between the early 60s/late 60s. So basically, character driven African historical fiction.

And there’s a whole lot to love about this book. Seriously, it won many awards and well-deserved accolades. Adichie’s writing speaks for itself. Despite its 500+ pages, I flew through the story with a fervid pace. I cared about each character and needed to know what happened to them. I loved Adichie’s decision to jump between the now and then. To show us the effect of moments that hadn’t yet been divulged to us, the readers. And then to rewind and spill the beans in reverse. So good. And spectacularly effective.

What was a bit of a miss for me was bogging down the story with so many historical facts and figures and events. Sometimes I felt like the characters had a hard time rising above being mere historical vehicles. Instead of being living, breathing people they had a tendency every now and again to feel like dusty relics from a museum tour. That sounds so, so harsh. And it’s not meant to be, really. Some might even really enjoy this aspect. But I’d have preferred a little more subtlety to my story telling. Just a personal preference.

But overall, I loved the book. I still think Americanah is her stronger novel (although I think I’m in the minority there), but Half of a Yellow Sun is not to be missed. Honestly, Adichie can’t write fast enough to satisfy my cravings for the way she tells such a complete and enthralling tale.

Can’t wait to see what my Litwit ladies have to say when we meet later in the month to discuss. I’m nervous because I’m such a delicate Adichie fangirl and can hardly stand to hear a negative thing said, even if it’s coming out of my own mouth!

Happy Monday y’all!!

Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

17333319The Litwits met on Sunday to discuss Hannah Kent’s debut novel released last year. Putting this book off for almost a year was next to impossible because so many of my online bookish friends loved, loved this story. And for the first time in a long time, I had to force myself to stop at 50 pages a day because I wanted to savor this gem of a book. I never wanted it to end.

Burial Rites is another novel that I don’t feel needs much introduction. It takes place in Iceland in the 1820s. Two women and one man have been charged and convicted of killing a man. Our protagonist, Agnes, has been sentenced to death by beheading. Kent writes of her final months living with a farm family as she awaits her looming death.

That’s not spoiling anything because this is a historical fiction novel based on the true story of the last beheading in Iceland. So…you know how it ends going in, but damn if you don’t hope and pray Agnes will find someway to beat her murder wrap. Whether or not she even committed the crime becomes almost a non issue as you fall in love with this orphaned, lonely, sad woman. I defy you not to want Agnes’s name cleared!

Beyond the central plot, Kent gives you so much else to love. The Icelandic landscape in all its cinematic glory and rolling hills and biting cold surrounds you and places you firmly within the story. Her writing is GORGEOUS. Her descriptions are lyrical and immersive. Some members did think she could be a bit long-winded at times and a little too dirty with her imagery (she doesn’t shy away from the nasty smells and ugliness of  bodily function), but others adored her language for its realism. Personally, I found myself reading the passages out loud – sometimes over and over again – mesmerized by all the pretty words.

Agnes was my favorite character, but many Litwits loved Margret as well. We discussed how Margret desperately didn’t want Agnes in her house, sleeping right next to her own two daughters. But once Agnes arrives in her pitiful state, Margret can’t help but feel for the doomed woman. What makes that so particularly interesting is how un-motherly Margret seems around her own children. Margret’s daughter, Lauga, quickly grows to resent her mother’s affection for Agnes creating such tension as the story unfolds.

We discussed the novel’s ending at length. Several of us felt the ending to be very abrupt, too rushed in its conclusion. Others thought this was done on purpose to emphasize the death that couldn’t be stopped. But it was just so sad.

So Burial Rites was a winner among the Litwits! We got a lot of good conversation in before our inevitable fall into the descent of television, tumblr, and fanfiction. Until next time ladies!!

Code Name Verity by Elizabeth Wein

16250900I’m handing this out for World Book Night 2014 and decided that before doing so I should probably give the thing a read, no? It won a Printz Honor when it was released and the sequel has been earning extra heapings of praise for both books. When choosing my WBN selection, I wanted something that lots of people, particularly young readers, could really sink their teeth into. A book with meat, plot, and purpose. Code Name Verity seemed just the thing.

Here’s where a synopsis should go, but I don’t want to reveal too much. How about…two friends are involved in some espionage during WWII that gets one of them captured in occupied France after their plane crashes. Oh, and the two friends (the pilot and the spy) are teenage/college-aged girls. Did that synopsis work at all? Just go read the thing.

SO GOOD. I could not put this down. I’d lowered my expectations going in because so many had warned me the book bored them and was bogged down under dull aviation details that wouldn’t interest anyone who wasn’t a pilot. Wein, herself, is a pilot. But I didn’t find this to be the case at all. The details that were included just made the story feel more authentic and gave the tone of the novel a gripping sense of realism.

The writing is wonderful and smart and emotionally riveting. The girls are well written and believable. The plot is nonstop – full of twisty, turny moments that genuinely shocked me more than once. It is so rare for a plot twist to find me unawares these days, but Code Name Verity pulled it off not once, but twice. The ending was gut-wrenching, and I can understand why so many previous readers were moved to tears. The story manages to be centered around a beautiful female friendship and themes of feminism in the best and most brilliant of ways. This is a book that shows you a thing instead of telling you a thing. And I loved it.

After having read and loved and read and hated a vast plethora of WWII fiction and nonfiction, I really didn’t think it possible for a book set during this time period to feel fresh and to teach me something I didn’t know. But Code Name Verity does this – excels at this – and deserves all its praise and accolades. I can’t wait to hand this book over to people of all ages in April and to get my greedy little hands on the sequel!!

Three Souls by Janie Chang

Three-SoulsWhat made me pick up Three Souls? I think subconsciously I’ve been seeking out historical fiction all year, but more than that even, I wanted something Chinese and feminist with a deftly paced plot. I got that and much, much more in Janie Chang’s novel set against the backdrop of the beginnings of World War II and the Chinese civil war between the Nationalists and the Communists.

Leiyin is a young mother who awakens to find herself at her own funeral. She remembers nothing of her life. Her three souls surround her as she realizes something is barring her entrance into the Afterlife and eventual reincarnation. As her lost memories play out before her, Leiyin must watch and process all the missteps and egregious mistakes she’s made in her short 24 years in order to understand how to make amends for her discretions.

I think Three Souls is a novel best read cold. No need to know any real plot points about who Leiyin is or was. No need to start guessing her transgressions before even opening the book. Can you imagine being stuck in some sort of limbo having to watch your life literally pass before your eyes? All the embarrassments and bad decisions? The moments where you realize how awful of a person you’ve been at times? To feel buried under the weight of a debt or a horrific fuck up that you might never be able to mend?

That, for me, was the most compelling aspect of Three Souls. Janie Chang has created such a masterfully drawn, full-bodied female character filled with darkness and joy and despair and folly and good intentions. Leiyin won me over almost immediately as a person who transcends the page – who walks and talks and breathes. Watching her watch herself stumble and fall and learn and grow and falter and wobble was heartbreaking and inspiring and infuriating. She stayed with me even when I wasn’t reading the novel and will, no doubt, be with me long after. She’s the perfect example of an often unlikeable character who grabs hold of a reader and won’t let go despite her flaws.

I just kept reading and reading and telling myself, “Good God, this book is so good.” Which, I guess, surprised me in the best of ways. It’s at once page-turning and cerebral. The ending came as a complete surprise, and I wouldn’t have changed a single thing. Janie Chang is now firmly situated on my authors to watch list and I hope you’ll give her a chance, too!

***********************************************

Thanks so much to the publisher and TLC Book Tours for a copy of the book in exchange for my honest review. Check out the other tour stops here!

About the Author:

Janie-ChangBorn in Taiwan, Janie Chang spent part of her childhood in the Philippines, Iran, and Thailand. She holds a degree in computer science and is a graduate of the Writer’s Studio Program at Simon Fraser University. Three Souls is her first novel.

The Perfume Collector by Kathleen Tessaro

The-Perfume-Collector-PBThe Perfume Collector is a book that often falls under the nebulous and debated genre known argumentatively as women’s fiction. To be honest, books with this dubious label I often avoid just because there’s a sameness to them that irks me. But several readers I really respect have read this and loved it, so when it was offered for review I decided to give it a shot.

The narrative follows two main characters. Grace Monroe is a married British woman in her late twenties who discovers her husband has been cheating while also learning a mysterious woman has died and left her an enormous inheritance. She takes off to Paris to uncover the woman’s identity and keys to her own past. Interwoven throughout, we follow Eva d’Orsey, an orphaned French teenager working in a high class hotel in New York City in the 1920s. Along the way we meet scoundrels, perfumists, and visit the hallowed halls of 1930s Monte Carlo.

Tessaro’s novel is easily read and quickly finished. The armchair travel might be worth the read whether or not you enjoy these kinds of novels. I loved visiting the fancy hotels of New York, Paris, and Monte Carlo along with the characters. I preferred Eva’s story to Grace’s, but both narratives held my attention and kept me turning the pages. I’d suggest this as a great summer read while lounging poolside. Tessaro really knows how to put her readers in a certain time and place.

On the flipside, I can’t say the novel will stay with me or be something that I remember this time next year. The plot, while enjoyable enough, was also burdened with a predictability that plagues similar stories. I wish something in the book’s conclusion had surprised me. I also wish the book had had a better editor. It’s been a long time since I read a book with so many typos and grammatical mistakes. Boo.

Have you read The Perfume Collector? What do you think about novels with the same predictable plot twists? Do they annoy you or do other aspects of the novel, like the armchair travel, make up for these limitations?

*****************************************************

Thanks so much to TLC Book Tours and the publisher for a copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review. Check out the other tour stops here!!

About the Author:

Kathleen-TessaroKathleen Tessaro is the author of EleganceInnocenceThe Flirt, and The Debutante. She lives in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, with her husband and son.

tlc logo

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

11887641The Song of Achilles was a book everyone seemed to rave about during 2012 and 2013. And my copy has a Donna Tartt blurb right across the top. Talk about hype. I was thrilled when my book club ladies selected it as our November read. And then I got all end-of-year slumpish, only read half in time for the discussion, and finished the rest a couple of weeks ago.

Madeline Miller’s novel is a retelling of The Iliad. To be straight with y’all, I’m not sure I’ve ever read The Iliad all the way through. I’m fairly certain I’ve read both The Odyssey and The Aeneid. But basically, the story follows Achilles through the eyes of his male companion, Patroclus, from their childhood together to adulthood and beyond.

Miller’s writing has a swift pace. For a story about a 10-year war, you never get bored which was an absolute blessing. I liked that she used Patroclus as the narrator instead of Achilles. Patroclus allows her to take more risks with historical fact since not much is known about the man beyond the parts he played in Achilles’s life and one pivotal moment in the Trojan War. One of our book club members is something of a Greek scholar and purist. She thought Miller did a superb job making the story interesting, modern, and still grounded in known fact.

I think everyone at least liked the book. Everyone seemed to have finished before the discussion occurred (except me, ha!). Personally, it’s a book that I really, really liked, but didn’t love. Mostly because I thought the love between Patroclus and Achilles was a bit too saccharine and sentimental which is a personal pet peeve. On the other hand, I think it’s nice to see a warrior and his male lover portrayed in such a sweet, endearing way. We don’t get that much, if ever. And Miller does an excellent job of tackling masculine and feminine stereotypes.

So, have you read The Iliad? Is it worth the time and effort to go back and re-familiarize myself with the ancient texts? Decisions, decisions.

Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

unnamedGene Luen Yang is probably my favorite graphic novelist. I’m not sure anyone else even comes close. I read American Born Chinese last year and fell in deep, deep love. Recently, he released his follow-up, a companion novel set called Boxers & Saints. I bought the box set for myself for Christmas and read them in one sitting.

Yang’s two book collection tells the story of the Boxer Rebellion in China during the late 19th Century through the characters of Little Bao (Boxers) and Four-Girl (Saints). Little Bao fights on the side of the Chinese rebels while Four-Girl grows up and converts to Christianity, fighting on the side of the foreigners. Their stories interweave to create a surprisingly complete and complex look at this particularly volatile time in Chinese history.

LOVED IT. I didn’t think it could live up to American Born Chinese, but it did – in spades. I seriously think this one beat the pants off of ABC. So, so good. I don’t even have words. Words are failing me. Yang’s ability to break my heart and make me laugh simultaneously is unparalleled in any recent book I’ve read.

Beyond Yang’s amazing storytelling, Boxers & Saints are both beautifully illustrated and colored. The palette is gorgeous and muted – changing over time with the stories. The hues of these two books really reminded me of the coloration in the movie Her that was just released and which I also loved. There are panels in both books that I could stare at happily for hours. Panels I love to print out and put on my wall to look at every day. And that’s what a good graphic novel should do. Its words and its pictures should be able to evoke a strong emotional response. Kudos, Mr. Yang.

unnamed (2)

I beseech you to go and pick these two gems up immediately. Go ahead and grab Yang’s entire backlist while you’re at it. You won’t be sorry.

Freud’s Mistress by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman

16158597A few months ago, I entered the Litwits in TLC Book Tour’s monthly book club giveaway contest and we won 10 free copies of Freud’s Mistress! The ladies and I were so excited. Winning stuff always makes you feel like a winner, ya know? What I didn’t expect was how many members would join us in our reading despite not having received a free copy!! On Sunday, we finally met to discuss what we thought of this historical fiction story – the first historical fiction novel for me in quite some time.

Freud’s Mistress is a novel co-authored by Karen Mack and Jennifer Kaufman chronicling the supposed affair between Sigmund Freud and Minna Bernays – sister to his wife, Martha Bernays Freud. The story follows Minna’s life at the close of the 19th Century as she approached the spinster age of 30 without having married, instead choosing to offer herself as a ladies maid to well-to-do women or darling Aunt and caregiver to her many nephews and nieces. Along with the juiciness of the affair, the reader also receives a first hand glance into Freud’s mind as he discusses his research and developing psychological theories with Minna.

Overall, the ladies of my book club were ‘meh’ on Freud’s Mistress. Most everyone finished the book and noted how easy it was to keep the pages turning, but we weren’t left satisfied. We hoped for a different ending for Minna – something away from Freud and her sister. Minna could have been this amazing woman, but ultimately, couldn’t escape her ideal of Freud or the restrictions placed on women by the time period. I think we’d all hoped the book would have something greater to say than that Minna had had an affair with a creepy douchebag. But it didn’t.

Some ladies really enjoyed Mack and Kaufman’s sense of place. The setting in Austria and Germany during the turn of the century was well done. These authors can definitely write a beautiful passage and their ideas flowed seamlessly together – I never felt like I was reading two competing voices. The Litwits were disappointed at the lack of plotting and weird pacing. The middle dragged. Once the affair had begun, it felt like the story had nowhere to go.

Under scrutiny, Freud’s Mistress might not hold up all that well, but if you just want a good, gossipy novel about Minna Bernays and Sigmund Freud – this is your book, for sure! You could probably read this one in a day or two, and I think most historical fiction readers can find something to enjoy within its pages. Plus, our group found plenty to talk about and discuss so this could be an excellent book club read if you’re looking for one!

The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood

13707579The Obituary Writer seemed like a good summertime read. I hadn’t really seen a bad review for it so I added it to my library holds list in eager anticipation.

Ann Hood follows a somewhat overused narrative format – a dual narrative following a woman in the past and a woman in present day. Vivien is our heroine of yesteryear. She’s an obituary writer and still struggling with the loss of her lover during the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. She’s convinced he’s still alive. Claire is our modern mother – a suburbanite feeling stifled by the conformity expected of her during the turbulent 1960s.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this book and a very pleasant read. I preferred Vivien’s timeline simply because she was the more interesting character, in my opinion. But Claire is worthy of her own story. I flew through this novel in a couple of days over a recent weekend and really had no complaints. However, I don’t have too much to say in its favor either. Before starting this review, I had to go jog my memory of the plot and character names. So this isn’t something meant to blow your mind, just to give you a brief moment of literary entertainment. I would say it’s a step above what most people term ‘chick-lit’.

Goodness. That whole last paragraph sounded a bit negative, huh? I really didn’t mean it that way as I did enjoy my time with The Obituary Writer. At the end of the day, though, I’m glad I borrowed from my library as I’ll likely never revisit this one again. If you need something suitable for vacation or just looking for a lighter reading moment, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend this one! Plus, the cover is pretty.

Do you like dual narratives or do you think they are way overdone at the moment?

The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin

13547234The 2013 Man Booker Prize longlist was recently announced and bookish people (myself included) tend to love book lists. I mentally make a note to read all of them every year and never succeed. Don’t even really come close actually, but my intentions are pure. When I stumbled upon The Testament of Mary on my local library’s new fiction shelf, I grabbed and conquered this novella rather quickly.

Colm Toibin is becoming quite the prolific author. He’s already become comfortable with being a Man Booker regular. My bookclub and I read Brooklyn a couple of years ago to a fairly mixed reception. I wasn’t the biggest of fans plot-wise, but loved Toibin’s writing. The Testament of Mary is 81 pages focusing on an elderly Mary after Jesus has been crucified. It’s just a short little character study of one of the most famous women of all time. And a Saint, no less.

What worked for me was Mary’s characterization. I liked that Toibin made her a real, elderly woman filled with bittersweet memories, anger, and many mixed emotions about her son and herself. Unfortunately, 81 pages is just not enough time to flesh out such an important biblical figure. With twice as many pages, Toibin could have written a deeply moving masterpiece. Instead, Mary’s contrary characterization comes off as a quick talking point to attract readers rather than a fleshed out analysis of the kind of woman Mary might have been – particularly in light of her life’s tragedies and joys.

I’m beginning to think Mr. Toibin and I just aren’t likely to have a long lasting relationship. I’ve given him two fair tries and nothing has really impressed me. Maybe his genius is just something I can’t see. Or maybe these award lists are full of shit. What do you think? Either way, I’m glad I read it – only took a couple of hours – but I’m even more thankful that I didn’t spend any of my own dollars.