Book Review: The Invention of Wings

Sue Monk Kidd The Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings
Sue Monk Kidd
Historical Fiction
369 pages
Published 2014

The Invention of Wings is one of my PopSugar Reading Challenge books, for the prompt “A Book from a Celebrity Book Club.” It was Oprah’s 3rd pick for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0. Oprah interviewed Sue Monk Kidd in the January 2014 issue of O Magazine.

I can definitely see why Oprah was so affected by this book; the two main characters are Sarah Grimké, an early abolitionist and women’s rights activist, and Hetty Handful, the slave gifted to her by her mother when she turned 11. In an afterword, Kidd explains that she did try to stay mostly historically accurate, and Handful was gifted to Sarah when she was 11, though she apparently died not long after. In Kidd’s book, however, Handful survives. Sarah and her younger sister, Angelina, were real people, and really did most of what is ascribed to them in the book, though Kidd passes a couple of their deeds from one sister to the other. The Grimkés were from Charleston, South Carolina, and born into an aristocratic, slave-owning family headed by a prestigious judge. Their abolitionist actions get them exiled from Charleston and from their church. Meanwhile, Hetty, her ownership having returned to Sarah’s mother, dreams of freedom and plots rebellions of her own.

I was a little wary going into this book; I’ve read a couple of Oprah’s picks before, and generally found them dry and uninteresting. This one, though, was very well written. The voices of both women came through clearly, as did some of the brutality of slavery. Kidd also wrote The Secret Life of Bees, which got a lot of attention. If it’s anything like this, I might have to finally read that as well.

(I know the author is white, but I thought, being about slavery and abolition, it would still qualify for Black History Month.)

From the cover of The Invention of Wings:

A triumphant story about the quest for freedom and empowerment, Sue Monk Kidd’s third novel presents the extraordinary journeys of two unforgettable women: Hetty “Handful” Grimké, an urban slave in early-nineteenth century Charleston, and Sarah, the Grimkés’ idealistic daughter. 

Inspired in part by the historic figure of abolitionist and suffragette Sarah Grimké, Kidd’s novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten-year-old Handful. The Invention of Wings follows these two women over the next thirty-five years as both strive for lives of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement, and the uneasy ways of love.

 

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Book Review: The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle

true confessions of charlotte doyle aviThe True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle
Avi
Middle-grade historical fiction
229 pages
Published 1990

This was my husband’s suggestion for “A Book Set At Sea,” one of the categories on the PopSugar Reading Challenge. It was a book he’d read as a child, and one I’d never heard of. It was a quick, easy read, as it was meant for children. Late elementary school, would be my guess. (Husband read it in fifth grade for a class.)

The book is set in the summer of 1832. Charlotte Doyle is setting sail across the Atlantic to return to America and rejoin the rest of her family, after finishing the school year at her boarding school. Things are a bit suspicious from the beginning of the voyage – the other two families that were supposed to be on board the ship didn’t make it, so it’s just Charlotte and the crew. Deckhands at the dock warned her away from the ship and refused to carry her things to it.

As the voyage winds on, Charlotte discovers that the crew intensely dislikes their captain and thinks he’s far too strict – he beat one of their number so badly on the last voyage that the crewman lost his arm. Torn between the “noble” captain, who represents everything she’s used to, and her own sense of right and wrong, she starts to notice how cruel he is to the crew. Ultimately, her life, and the lives of the crew, hinge on her decisions as the captain uses her to spy on the crew and report back to him.

My favorite passage from the book turned out to be my husband’s favorite, as well:

 

“What’s a hurricane?”
“The worst storm of all.”
“Can’t we sail around?”
Barlow again glanced at the helm, the sails and then at the sky above. He frowned. “I heard Mr. Hollybrass and Jaggery arguing about it. To my understanding,” he said, “I don’t think the captain wants to avoid it.”
“Why not?”
“It’s what Grimes has been saying. The captain’s trying to move fast. If he sets us right at the hurricane’s edge, it’ll blow us home like a pound of shot in a two-pound cannon.”
“What if he doesn’t get it right?”
“Two pounds of shot in a one-pound cannon.”

I quite enjoyed this little book, and it’s a great example of a girl bucking tradition and doing what she’s good at, gender roles be damned. There is a fair bit of violence – in one scene a man is severely whipped – but it’s not graphic. No sexual themes at all. Pretty suitable for kids as soon as they’re decent enough readers.

From the cover of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle:

The Seahawk looms against a darkening sky, black and sinister. Manned by an angry, motley crew at the mercy of a ruthless captain, the rat-infested ship reeks of squalor, despair…and mutiny! It is no place for the lone passenger, thirteen-year-old Charlotte Doyle, yet for her there is no turning back. At first a trapped and powerless young girl, Charlotte dares to become the center of a daring and deadly voyage that will challenge her courage, her loyalties, and her very will to survive!

Book Review: The Last Neanderthal

neanderthalThe Last Neanderthal
Claire Cameron
Historical/Literary Fiction
272 pages
Published 2017

Maybe I need to stop trying to read the more literary types of fiction. I’m always left with this vague mixture of “what the hell did I just read?” and “why did I just read that?” Like – I don’t know what I’m supposed to have gotten out of this book. It’s another Canadian author, it’s apparently an International Bestseller and one of the most highly anticipated Canadian books of 2017 – but it just wasn’t that good.

The book covers two parallel storylines – the last neanderthal girl struggling to survive, and the archaeologist, 40,000 years later, uncovering her bones in a cave with those of a modern human. The first storyline, of the neanderthal girl, requires a complete suspension of disbelief. We just don’t know enough about neanderthals or how they lived to make a story of it. It’s complete fabrication, presented as a plausible reconstruction. And the second set of bones is never remotely explained. I agree with several other reviewers – the book feels like it’s missing its second half!

I’m really disappointed in this book. All the lists made it seem like this book was spectacular, from a proven author, and that it would explore the “ultimate question of what it means to be truly ‘human.'” But I’m just left wondering what point was supposed to be made. The book did NOT live up to its description. The Neanderthals had more character depth than the modern day people did, and I find the assumption that this was the last Neanderthal to be weird. Almost nothing of the Neanderthal’s story is verified by the modern-day dig. Maybe if they’d mentioned some weirdness like “these bones were dated later than any other bones we’ve found” or SOMETHING.

Don’t bother with this book. I kind of wish I’d spent my time on something better.

From the cover of The Last Neanderthal:

Forty thousand years in the past, the last family of Neanderthals roams the earth. After a crushingly hard season, their numbers are low, but Girl, the oldest daughter, is just coming of age and her family is determined to travel to the annual meeting place and find her a mate. Before long, though, the unforgiving landscape takes its toll and Girl is left alone to care for Runt, a foundling, even as she sets out to discover what remains of her kind. With the dangers of winter quickly approaching, Girl realizes she has one chance to save her people, even if it means sacrificing part of herself. 

In the modern day, archaeologist Rosamund Gale works well into her pregnancy, racing to excavate newly found Neanderthal artifacts before her baby comes. Linked across the ages by the shared experience of birth and early motherhood, both stories examine the often taboo corners of women’s lives.

Drawing on the latest science to explore a misunderstood people, acclaimed author Claire Cameron has penned a haunting, suspenseful, and profoundly moving novel that asks us to consider what it means to be human.

 

This is Book #5 for my Read Canadian Challenge.

#1 – An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth
#2 – The Red Winter Trilogy
#3 – Station Eleven
#4 – The Courier

Book Review: A Hundred Veils

hundredveilsA Hundred Veils
Rea Keech
Historical Fiction/Memoir-ish
307 pages
Published 2017

I picked this book up as part of my effort to read more diverse books. It centers on a young American English teacher who falls in love with an Iranian girl at the University of Tehran in the 70s. It wasn’t until I’d finished reading it, and finally read the About the Author, that I discovered the author is actually local to me. And I mean VERY local. As in my county library system had an event starring him THREE DAYS PRIOR to my reading the book! So I’m a little annoyed that I missed that, as I’d love to know just how much of the storyline was based on his experience in Iran. (He did actually spend some time in Iran with the Peace Corps, and the book is based off that.)

The book is also the winner of the 2017 Maryland Writers’ Association Novel Contest for their Literary/Mainstream category. (And now that I know that’s a thing, I might have to read the winners of the other five categories!)

On to the actual review! So the book is set at the very beginning of the Iranian Revolution – Marco is an American English teacher who’s come to Iran for a year. While there, he falls in love with his roommate’s cousin. The book is really their love story, while surrounded by political and religious unrest.

The writing is excellent. I’m sure I would get more out of the book if I could read Farsi, as each chapter is begun by a few lines of poetry in Farsi, written in both Arabic script and English letters. But the pacing is perfect, the descriptions apt – I really enjoyed this book except for one thing.

He sleeps with the girl he loves, without having made a decision as to if they’ll actually be together. He’s not sure he wants to stay in Iran. She doesn’t want to leave. And he sleeps with her anyway. My immediate thought was “You might love her, but you don’t care about her very much.” At the time, it seems like it was more of a dishonor, rather than an outright death sentence for the girl, but it still would basically condemn her to a life of prostitution at best, if he declined to marry her.

Perhaps I’m more aware of how dire those consequences are than most people who might read the book – though the shame she could face is mentioned in the book. My husband was an Arabic linguist in the military, and spent years learning about their culture. He’d come home and talk about things he’d learned, so I absorbed a lot of it as well. So the fact that the main character slept with her with no plan for their future kind of pissed me off. It wouldn’t be HIM that faced consequences for it, after all.

And yes, it was the 70s, before a lot of the religious extremism took hold – there was, in fact, a lot of enforced secularism. Women at the University were banned from wearing chadors in class, and shared classes with men. It’s actually really disturbing, seeing how secular a lot of the Middle East was in the 70s, and then to see how far they regressed socially in the following decades.

Besides the thoughtlessness of Marco in this matter, I really enjoyed the book. It reminded me a lot of the things my husband told me about Afghanistan. I’d really like to get a chance to ask the author some questions, so I’ll have to keep an eye out for any other events he might do.

From the cover of A Hundred Veils:

A young American teacher at the University of Tehran falls in love with a beautiful Iranian girl and gets caught up in the social, political, and religious turmoil of the times.

What ecstasy to fly through the sky
Tearing a hundred veils with every breath.
–Rumi

Book Review: The Odyssey

odysseySo with John Green starting his second run of Crash Course Literature, I realized there are a few classics I’d never read. The Odyssey by Homer being one of them. I snagged Robert Fitzgerald’s translation from the library and became enthralled. I wasn’t expecting it to be so easy to read! For being a 462 page poem, it flowed incredibly well and kept my attention the entire way through.

The Odyssey is the story of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, who went away to fight in the wars in Troy caused by the abduction of Helen. This story takes place after the war is over, when everyone – or almost everyone – has gone home. Odysseus, through a series of mistakes and misfortunes, has been marooned on an isle for many years, and his family has begun to think he’s dead. Sons of most of the nobles in Ithaca have taken residence in Odysseus’ palace, courting his queen while eating his food and drinking his wine. His queen still waits for him, and puts off her suitors in a variety of ways. (The most famous of which being her claim that she must finish a weaving before taking a suitor, and while she weaves every day, she unweaves her work at night, but the suitors figure that one out and make her finish it.)

One thing kept bugging me through the entire story, though – while much is made of Odysseus being gone, and his trials, and the people waiting for him at home – the fact that his ENTIRE CREW OF SHIPMATES, heroes all, dies on the journey is somewhat glossed over. Maybe it’s my history as a military spouse, but what about THEIR families? There are surely women and children waiting in Ithaca for them as well, but nary a mention is made of them. Only the King’s story is important enough to talk about. In a 400 page book, is a paragraph about the other families too much to ask? I suppose, given how long ago the book was written, the fact that Homer writes sympathetically (albeit briefly) about a woman’s suffering for her husband might have been revolutionary on its own, and asking for some concern for anyone lower than a Prince would be unheard of.

That aside, it’s an amazing story. Here’s John Green’s take on it:

Book Review: Medea

medeaMedea
by Kerry Greenwood
428 pages
Published 2011 (First US publishing in 2013)
Historical Fiction

Medea is the first of three “Delphic Women” novels to be published in the US by Australian author Kerry Greenwood. It tells the story of Medea from the legend of Jason and the Argonauts. The version that everyone knows involves Medea, as a witch, helping Jason to steal the Golden Fleece in return for marrying her. The story goes that some years later, when he attempts to put her aside, she not only kills his potential bride, but also the children that she’d borne him.

Medea tells a different story. She is a priestess of Hekate, the Black Mother goddess. The story details her fall from that religion, her marriage to Jason, the death of their children, and her life after her marriage. It is an utterly enthralling book, and I am eager to see Greenwood’s other Delphic Women novels, which appear to be about Cassandra and Electra. Greenwood has a talent for keeping the feel of ancient Greek mythology while also making the characters accessible for the modern reader. She includes a chapter after the end of the story, in which she explains why and how she came to the conclusion that Medea was NOT responsible for the death of her children, despite every other popular story saying she killed them.

While Medea has often been painted as the villain of the story, Greenwood had me cheering for her the entire book, from the first time she was brought to the dark caves of Hekate as a toddler to when she mourned over the deaths of her children and slowly learned to love again. I enjoyed seeing one of the ancient legends from a woman’s point of view; none of them are ever told that way! I also found it really interesting how the book portrayed Herakles; he turned out to be one of my favorite characters!

I’d definitely recommend this book if you like retellings of mythology or ancient legends.

Edit: 2 years after publishing this review, I’m updating links and discover Kerry Greenwood is also the author of the Phryne Fisher murder mystery series, which Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries is based on! I just finished marathoning that entire series on Netflix, it’s fantastic! What a crazy coincidence.

From Medea:

My mother gave birth to me in the darkness under the earth and died in doing so. I loved the velvety blanket of night before my dazzled eyes ever encountered light. And when I did, they say I wept, and the people said, “Here is a true daughter of Hekate!”

I am standing in the dark again, in the central room of my own place – no, of Hekate’s temple, which was once mine, before I went with Jason. Jason the thief, the pirate, the betrayer. Jason the stranger. I have left my own gods, my own tongue, my own beliefs, for too long….

The knife blade gleams, and I try the blade. I feel the sting as it slides along my thumb. It is very sharp. I can hear the children laughing as they play.

How did I come to this?