Every blue moon a book comes along that makes you incredibly sad when it’s over. This is one of them. Beautifully written, the book begins with two sisters born into 18th century Ghana. One becomes the consort of a white soldier and lives in relative comfort; the other is sold as a slave and makes the harrowing journey from Africa to America. Each succeeding generation must deal with historical forces such as tribal warfare, slavery, British colonization, inhumane imprisonment, drug addiction and racism. A man called H, for example, is freed from slavery only to find himself jailed for a crime he didn’t commit and sentenced to hard labor in the coal mines of Alabama. Don’t let the subject matter scare you away. There are stories of horror, but also ones of hope and redemption. No matter which, the author writes in lyrical fashion impossible to put down. You know a book is great when you can’t wait to get back to it, and you’re still thinking about it well after it’s done.
This book isn’t perfect but excellent writing and fascinating insights make it well worth the read. Three narrators spin tales which eventually converge. Yongiu is a privileged élite in North Korea until the Dear Leader executes his father. Danny, an American Korean, runs away while visiting his mother in China. Jangmi, a poor North Korean, smuggles herself across the border to marry, but gets kicked out when her husband finds her already pregnant. It begins strongly at a party in Pyongyang where government officials toast with Chivas while watching girls in hot pants dance to forbidden pop. They’re protected from famine and deprivation, yet live in terror of their mercurial, all-powerful dictator. Of the three, Jangmi’s story is most compelling, adeptly exposing Chinese discrimination against North Korean exiles. With Yongiu, we never see a struggle between privilege and life on the edge. Danny’s story is unbelievable. Would an American adapt so easily to homelessness and hunger and not seek help? There are scenes in this book not for the faint of heart, yet insights into North Korean life and culture make it an important piece of work.
Trains carrying orphans ran routinely from the East Coast to the Midwest between 1854 and 1929 carrying abandoned children needing homes. Fate determined whether these kids got good families or were taken for more pragmatic, brutal reasons such as hard labor. In this marvelously written book of fiction, Irish immigrant Vivian is one such child. In chapters which move from the past to the present, we learn what happened to her; the good, the bad and the ugly. At the end of her life, Vivian is living peacefully and well in Maine when 17-year-old Molly shows up with community-service hours to fill. As Molly helps Vivian clean out her attic, she discovers she and the wealthy widow have much more in common than it seems. Molly has spent her childhood in and out of foster homes, and is currently living with another set of indifferent strangers. This well-crafted, emotional journey through loss and upheaval, still manages an ultimate message of resilience, hope and finding friendship when and where we least expect it.
If you enjoy character studies, this book by Italian writer Elena Ferrante is for you. Two girls from working class families, Lenu and Lila, are growing up in Post WW11 Italy. Everyone knows everyone’s business and poverty ensures violence is always a possibility. Lenu becomes obsessed with Lila early on because of her intelligence and fearlessness. Soon they’re best friends, although intense competition makes for a tumultuous relationship. Lila is more intelligent, but when her parents won’t allow her to go on to middle school, it’s hard-working Lenu who shines academically much to Lila’s dismay. Lenu is prettier, but as they mature, it’s obvious Lila is a rare beauty. In fact, Lila marries at 16, a seemingly glittering match which quickly turns sour. Lenu continues to study even though it may never pay off in a society where women have few options. Ferrante manages to capture the details of day-to-day life in Naples perfectly. This is the first book in a series which follows Lenu and Lila throughout their lives.
Comedy Central Daily Show Host, Trevor Noah, 33, details his childhood in South Africa, first under the despotism of apartheid and then after. The son of a white father and a black mother, Noah was born a crime since race mixing was, at the time, illegal. Light-skinned, he never fit comfortably into any racial mold. This book is more a paean to his mother than anything else. Fiercely religious and a strict disciplinarian, she refused to accept the status quo and made sure he had books and an education. Though admirable, his mother had problems which culminated in her being shot by an angry ex-husband. She survived, but the ex-husband walked with three years probation since police in South Africa routinely make light of domestic abuse. Equally chilling are the racial incidents Noah describes like being stopped by cops who took him and his friends to jail for no reason other than to extort a bribe. Noah does not delve deeply into his adult success, but his mother did something right because he’s a good writer with the comedian’s ability to see irony and humor in even the most horrific situations.
The premise of this well researched, Young Adult historical novel sounds bizarre, but the unique elements of magical realism provide for a very interesting read. Evelyn, a young woman disfigured by factory work, manages to avoid life on the streets when hired to care for England’s infamous Elephant Man in London Hospital. Like Joseph Merrick, Evelyn wants to hide from the world and seeks sanctuary from the dangers lurking outside. Merrick is a gentle soul who does not recoil from her, or she from him. But danger, it seems, exists within the walls of the hospital, too. It’s 1888 and Jack the Ripper is terrorizing the city. When the ghosts of the women the Ripper has killed begin to haunt Merrick and Evelyn, she must go beyond the gates to save the Elephant Man’s life, and to bring closure to the Ripper’s victims. Outside, Evelyn is once again confronted with the hatred directed at anyone different, which hampers her struggle for self acceptance. A timely read which fosters compassion and understanding in the current political climate.
Bea and her best buds, Spencer and Gabe, are at the bottom of the high school food chain, but Bea plans to change all that. An academic whiz kid, she uses her math skills to concoct a popularity formula so the guys will stop being bullied. Soon, Gabe is best friends with the “It” girls, and Spencer’s flair for art is getting him noticed. When Bea’s boyfriend dumps for her a quirky new girl, she decides to use the formula on herself-morphing into a manic pixie dream girl in the best tradition of Audrey Hepburn, Reese Witherspoon and Alicia Silverstone. But being popular brings with it new problems, especially for her friends. Can Bea fix things and reclaim her true identity, or will she succumb to the lure of the popular crowd? Based on a novel idea, this well-written YA book held my interest from beginning to end. Kudos to the author for originality and for making Bea good at math! #weneedmoregirlsinstem
Alizee is a painter working for Roosevelt’s WPA when she vanishes in 1940. Tormented by her inability to get visas for her Jewish family living in German-occupied France, Alizee’s behavior becomes increasingly erratic. Worried friends, fellow artists Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Lee Krasner, don’t know what to do. Seventy years later, Alizee’s niece, Danielle, uncovers paintings hidden behind the works of these famous Abstract Expressionists which may hold the answer to Alizee’s mysterious disappearance. Switching back and forth between pre-WWII and today, the author captures the inner workings of New York’s art scene and the first truly American school of painting. Through her poignant description of Alizee’s descent into madness, she also manages to highlight the forgotten plight of European refugees who were not granted asylum in the United States. What happened to Alizee and was she the impetus that spurred her fellow painters to greatness? An interesting work of fiction for adults that stays with you long after you’ve finished the book.
Maddie is allergic to everything in this complex Young Adult Novel – a bubble girl so sick she can’t leave the sterile environment her mother has created at home. The only other person allowed inside is Carla, the nurse. At seventeen, Maggie has accepted her fate, until a moving van pulls into the driveway next door. From her window, she sees a guy her age dressed all in black. Maddie knows she’s going to find a way to meet him, just as she knows it isn’t going to end well. Soon enough, she’s furtively messaging Olly. Then she convinces Carla to let him in the house. When her mom finds out, she brings the hammer down firing Carla and putting Maddie on restriction. Maddie has to decide if living is worthwhile given her condition, or if she’d rather throw her life away for a brief taste of normal with Olly on the outside. This is an excellent, well-written book, good enough to get a major push from Random House Teens.