Archive for the ‘Adult Fiction’ Category

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

June 11, 2021

[Tricia]

This is a sweeping, propulsive, in some ways old fashioned, work of historical fiction that, even though I resisted it at times, I ultimately loved. It tells the story of Marian Graves, an Amelia Earhart-like early woman aviator whose dream is to circumnavigate the globe from North to South Pole. It also tells the contemporary story of Hadley Baxter, the disgraced young star of a Twilight-like film franchise who has been hired to play Marian Graves in a biopic. I initially resisted this use of dual timelines which has become common in historical fiction and can sometimes break up the flow of a novel for me. However, I came to appreciate the value of Hadley’s storyline. For one thing, the story of Marian and her twin brother Jamie, from the very start when they are rescued as infants from a sinking ocean liner, is almost relentlessly eventful, both in terms of world events (Prohibition, World War II), and their own lives. I found myself worrying about their well-being so much that the contemporary story of Hadley and her mostly surface level Hollywood problems came as a relief. Also, I appreciated that Hadley seemed to mirror my own feeling of being more interested and invested in Marian’s story than in the world of contemporary Hollywood. And Hadley’s story does serve as a commentary on how in some ways the roles assigned to women can still constrain and stifle as they did in Marian’s time.

But the pulse of the book is Marian’s story, and it is quite a story. The events of her life alone are riveting: growing up mostly unsupervised in Montana, working as a driver for bootleggers during Prohibition to earn money for flying lessons, serving as a pilot in the British Air Transport Auxiliary during World War II, and of course her attempt to fly from North to South Pole. But what interested me most about Marian was her struggle to figure out how and where she fit, mostly due to a lifetime of being forced into roles that didn’t fit. In terms of her dreams, her identity, her sexuality, she just did not fit the conventional mold for women. What she did have, however, and what drove her, was her love of flying, and the freedom and sense of self she found in flight. And that is what set her apart from other characters in the book who also struggled to find their place, particularly Jamie and Eddie. A wonderful aspect of this book is the richness of the surrounding characters. There are so many memorable people in this book I wished I could spend more time with. Although the book is long (over 600 pages), I think it is important that the author takes the time that she does to tell this story. You are with Marian long enough that you come to cherish some of her memories and miss the people that she loses. Highly recommend to historical fiction lovers.

Great Circle is available at the Library, and on Libby/Overdrive.

Great Circle by Maggie Shipstead

A Master of Djinn by P. Djèlí Clark

June 3, 2021

[Tricia]

I’ve been on a bit of a historical fantasy kick lately, which is a genre I love because you get the wonderful time and place perspective of historical fiction, plus magic! Add a touch of police procedural to the mix and you get this extremely enjoyable new novel, which takes us to Cairo, Egypt in 1912. In this alternate history, the world is still reeling from the fact that the gates to the magical realm were suddenly thrown open by the mysterious al-Jahiz about 50 years earlier, and now Djinn and other magical creatures live among humans. Tensions start running high when someone claiming to be al-Jahiz returns to Cairo, causing chaos in the city. When murders begin to occur, Agent Fatma el-Sha’arawi of the Ministry of Alchemy, Enchantments, and Supernatural Entities, is called in to investigate. Fatma is a wonderful character, brilliant, a little battle-weary, and a spiffy dresser in fancy suits and bowler hats. She teams up with her new partner, Agent Hadia, who is fresh out of the academy and eager to impress, and Fatma’s girlfriend Siti, to tackle the mystery. The book weaves themes of colonialism, racism, sexism, class struggle and sexuality into this extremely engaging, enjoyable novel. It’s the first in a series and I will definitely be reading more from this author!

You can find A Master of Djinn at the Library.

The Parisian, or al-Barisi, by Isabella Hammad

May 31, 2021

[Lesley]

Brief review: Stunning book, compelling protagonist, historical fiction in a time and place that is less familiar. Ultimately a deeply human story written in beautiful, masterful prose.
Find the Parisian in our catalog here
Read it on Hoopla here
Read it on Libby/OverDrive here

And… the longer review:

This novel takes place in two places: France and Palestine. However, it really takes place singly in the life and mind of our protagonist, Midhat Kamal. We begin as Midhat leaves Nablus (“a town north of Jerusalem, south of Damascus”) for France to study medicine at The University of Montpellier. There he stays with the Molineau family, comprising Doctor Molineau and his daughter, Jeannette.

We follow Midhat’s relationships (especially with Jeannette – which is a complicated and mysterious one) and his trajectory at first the University and then the Sorbonne in Paris until he returns to Nablus to step into his father’s business in textiles and clothing.

The remainder, and bulk, of the novel takes place in Nablus, where the history of “Greater Syria” and Palestine is unfolding. While historical fiction often teaches us a lot about a time and/or place that we aren’t very familiar with, this book does it all from the particular point of view, and experience of, Midhat — an outsider no matter where he is. So, this “view” of historical events is both participant and observer.

That is the frame of the story — but the driving force of this sad, beautiful, human story is Midhat’s inner life and interaction with the people and world around him. He is a sympathetic, flawed character who never quite finds a home. Against the backdrop of both Arab and Jewish struggles to establish a territorial home under outside machinations of large powers (France, Britain, Turkey, the Ottoman Empire), we still experience everything from the personal instead of the political.

The writing is exceptionally beautiful and masterly, in some places almost more like being immersed in a painting than a novel. Strikingly, this is the author’s first novel – she is 19! [for those Top Gear fans, her father is Richard Hammond, long time co-host of that program.] Our sympathies (not surprisingly) lie with those Arabs who live in Nablus (what many characters think of as Greater Syria), but given the deeply personal point of view of a man who isn’t blantantly political, the reader (ie: me) doesn’t necessarily feel strongly partisan. More so, there is a loneliness of not quite belonging in the way that others do, that seems far beyond the author’s years.

Find the Parisian in our catalog here
Read it on Hoopla here
Read it on Libby/OverDrive here

Author photo: (c) Kathy Coulter
Winner of The Plimpton Prize, O. Henry Prize, and National Book Award “5 under 35” Honoree.

The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré

May 19, 2021

[Tricia]

This coming-of-age story of a fourteen year old girl in Nigeria is by turns hopeful and completely heart-wrenching. I have to admit that if I were to read that in a review it might keep me from reading it, but I will say that to me the book ultimately leans toward the hopeful. I am particularly glad I listened to the audiobook. The book is told in the voice of Adunni, and her dialect, and the frequent songs she makes up, are beautifully rendered on the audiobook by Adjoa Andoh (Lady Danbury for any Bridgerton fans out there). Adunni lives in a small rural village in Nigeria, and is grieving the loss of her beloved mother who instilled in her the optimism and passion for education that sustain her throughout the book. However, her father arranges for her to marry a much older man for her “bride price” in order to pay for the family’s housing, and Adunni becomes the youngest of three wives to an abusive man. Eventually she runs off to Lagos where she becomes trapped in servitude to a rich business woman and her predatory husband. Fortunately there is a library in the home, and Adunni finds a dictionary and a book of Nigerian facts, through which she learns, among other things, that child marriage is illegal in Nigeria (the book is set in 2014). The combination of poverty and sexism make things very bleak for girls like Adunni, and even in the upper classes the sexism is stark in the book. But there is kindness around her as well – at every stage she finds people who are willing to help her, and those relationships sustain her hope and determination to get out and to help other girls in similar situations. Adunni is a lovely character – funny and smart and kind, and her struggle to find her voice and get the education she deserves is a memorable one.

The Girl with the Louding Voice is available as both an ebook and an audiobook on Libby/Overdrive.

Title details for The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré - Wait list

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

May 13, 2021

[Tricia]

I’m finding a theme in a lot of the books I’m reading lately of people in difficult circumstances choosing kindness and compassion. In this fantasy novel, it is Maia, half-Goblin, half-Elf, who is making this choice. Maia is the exiled and mostly forgotten youngest son of the Emperor of the Elflands, who finds himself thrust into the role of Emperor when his father and his older brothers are killed in an airship crash. Maia is only 18, and has grown up isolated and unloved after the early death of his beloved Goblin mother. Raised by an angry and abusive cousin, he knows nothing of the politics or etiquette of the Court, and is ill at ease among others in general, and particularly among the aristocratic Elf Court. His anxiety and sense of isolation only increase when he learns that the airship accident that killed his father and brothers was sabotage.

What I liked so much about his book, as strange as it may sound, was the lack of action. Maia is a very lonely and anxious character, and in the midst of trying to understand the political intrigue and ways of the Court, he is just trying to figure out who he can trust, who he is, and who, if anyone, he can count as a friend. There is no real love story, no epic battles in this book. Just a thoughtful, cerebral story of a young man trying to figure out how to be a good person, how to be a good leader, and how to find a friend. It is a surprisingly gentle and heartfelt book, and it was nice to see goblins get some love for a change. I listened to this audiobook on Hoopla and very much enjoyed it.

The Henna Artist by Alka Joshi

May 6, 2021

[Tricia]

In some ways reading this book reminded me of watching one of those 1950s Douglas Sirk films – lush, colorful, melodramatic, but with an underlying social commentary. The book takes place in Jaipur India in the 1950s, a few years after India gained independence from British colonial rule. The book centers on Lakshmi, a woman in her thirties who makes a living as a henna artist and an herbalist and healer for wealthy women. Lakshmi has worked very hard to establish her business and her position, after having escaped an abusive marriage as a teenager and come to the city to build a life for herself. Her dream is to build a house of her own, and she is nearly there when her life is disrupted by the arrival of Rahda, Lakshmi’s 13 year old sister, after the death of their parents. Lakshmi was not aware she had a sister, given that when she ran away from her marriage as a teenager, her parents were ostracized by their community and have refused contact with her. Lakshmi had not wanted to have children, and struggles with being responsible for Rahda, who has grown up in difficult circumstances and was considered to be bad luck back home. Rahda is obsessed with British literature and Hollywood movies, and bristles under Lakshmi’s attempts to make her understand and follow the rules and restrictive role demanded by Lakshmi’s work catering to the elite of Jaipur. Rahda’s choices, and in many ways her very existence, ultimately jeopardize Lakshmi’s precarious role in this world.

I appreciated the ways in which the stark realities of poverty, abuse, unwanted pregnancy, and the narrow and restrictive roles of caste and gender, refuse to stay out of sight in this book, no matter how hard the wealthy characters, and to some extent Lakshmi herself, try to ignore them. While Lakshmi’s independence and success are admirable, It is painful at times to watch her struggle to keep her role in this wealthy society in light of the cruelty it often shows to those like her and her sister. But I also appreciated that there is compassion shown to almost all of the characters in the book, with empathy particularly for the difficulties and challenges of even the most privileged women, whose lives on the surface seem easy. This is a highly readable book, and there is a sequel that is coming out in June which I very much look forward to reading.

I listened to the audio version of this book on Hoopla. The book is also available at the Library, and as both an eBook and an audiobook on Libby/Overdrive. The sequel, The Secret Keeper of Jaipur, is on order at the Library.

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Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge

April 12, 2021

[Tricia]

I love it when historical fiction reminds me, as it so often does, of how much I don’t know. This was the case in many ways with Libertie. For one thing, the book introduced me to the life of Dr. Susan McKinney Steward, the first Black woman physician in New York, and only the third Black woman to become a doctor in the country. The book, inspired by Dr. McKinney Steward’s life, is told through the eyes of Libertie, the daughter of a Black woman doctor, growing up in a free Black community in Brooklyn during the Reconstruction era. At the heart of the story is the complicated relationship between Libertie and her mother. Libertie idolizes her mother growing up, but struggles with her mother’s expectation that she too will become a doctor.

One of the things I liked most about this book is the that it provides such a fascinating snapshot of two particular places during this pivotal time – first, the free Black community in Brooklyn where Libertie grows up, and then Haiti, where Libertie moves when she marries a Haitian doctor. The racial, political, religious and class dynamics the author depicts in both places during this time were fascinating. I also realized how little I know about the history of Haiti, which is something I need to dig into.

One of the most striking aspects of this book to me is its focus on the mental health impacts of slavery. As a child Libertie sees her mother treat several people who are brought to her directly after having escaped slavery. Even when their physical wounds are healed, the psychological toll, what we would recognize today as PTSD, is something that her mother struggles to treat. There is also a fascinating dynamic throughout the book between those like Libertie and her mother who were freeborn, and those, including many of her mother’s patients, and two college friends of Libertie, known as The Graces, who had been enslaved.

There was so much to think about from this book, and I think it will stay with me for a while. I’m very glad I read it.

Libertie is available as both an ebook and an audiobook on Hoopla, as well as at the Library.

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Nick, by Michael Farris Smith

April 5, 2021

[Lesley]

It has been an incredibly long time since I read The Great Gatsby and I thought about re-reading that before picking this up. I’m glad I didn’t. The writing is stunning; stark and slick like Fitzgerald when depicting Daisy’s life and Jay Gatsby’s parties and odd behavior but meditative and melancholy in Nick’s voice. We get the original novel’s story from this unusual inside observer. Nick’s military history and his own struggles cut through the empty superficiality that both Daisy and Jay are suffering through. And, seeing them through Nick’s eyes, we start to see the real humanity behind the superficial.

I did re-read Gatsby after I finished this. It is still a seminal work, no doubt. But in some ways I liked Nick better — or more that I like Gatsby more having read Nick.

The Great Gatsby in our library catalog (book, audiobook, movie, graphic novel, about the book), libby/overdrive, hoopla

Nick in our library catalog

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

February 25, 2021

[Tricia]

I have to admit that I was a bit reluctant to read this book, because it seemed as though it would be unbearably sad. I was thankfully convinced to read it by a member of the Library Book Group (thanks Liz!). What I found is a book that is almost unbearably beautiful. The story is based on the fact that Shakespeare’s son, Hamnet (or Hamlet, as the names were used interchangably back then) died at age 11, and that four years later he wrote the play Hamlet. From this fact, and the few other known facts surrounding Shakespeare’s life, O’Farrell has woven a lyrical, mesmerizing, story of this family, and their life in Stratford. One thing I really appreciated in the book is that it is the story of a family in a particular place and time, and the fact that we still know about one member of that family today is not really the point. Shakespeare himself is the only main character never named in the book, he is only known in terms of his relationship with other people – he is alternately referred to as the husband, the father, the Latin tutor, the brother. He has a much smaller role in the novel than I had expected, as he spends most of his time in London building a separate life in the theatre. The focus is on more on his family, and the impact that his career and his art had on them, although there is a powerful exploration towards the end of the impact that the death of his son might have had on his art. Agnes, his wife, is more of the central character, and she is fascinating – magical, a healer, an unusual person struggling to make a life for herself and her children in the claustrophobic household of her in-laws, and trying to understand her husband’s need to pursue his dreams in London. I was particularly taken with details such as the way the author makes you feel the day to day impact of the lack of education on women– how frustrating it can be to not be able to read, especially when letters are such a valuable mode of communication. You also witness how these people manage to live their day to day lives while navigating the painful mortality rate of children, the fear of dying in childbirth, and the ever present threat of the plague. You come to know Hamnet as a sweet, regular kid who shares a deep and beautiful bond with his twin sister Judith. And you see how the different members of the family deal with the loss of Hamnet. This is a haunting, beautiful book. Yes it is sad, and it is beautiful and well deserving of all the accolades it received. Hamnet is available at the Library and on Libby/Overdrive.

Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell

The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty

February 16, 2021

[Tricia]

Are you looking for a rich, exciting fantasy book to take you out of the dreary February weather? For me, The City of Brass by S.A. Chakraborty was just that book. The City of Brass is the first book in the Daevabad trilogy, a fantasy series immersed in Middle Eastern folklore. The protagonist, Nahri, is a smart and savvy con-woman who grew up alone in the streets of 18th Century Cairo, making money by using her unusual ability to spot illness in others to con the rich into buying unnecessary treatments. During one of her cons, Nahri uses a language that she knows in her head but has never heard anyone else speak, and accidentally conjures Dara, a Djinn. Realizing her life is in danger, and recognizing her abilities, Dara takes her to Daevabad, a magical city invisible to humans. Nahri is thrust into the position of becoming the City’s Nahid, or Healer, taken in by the Royal Family. It is hard to know who to trust in this world, unlike in Cairo, where Nahri had the lay of the land and was able to read people easily. Dara is her friend, yet she comes to learn he has a very dark and frightening past. Ali, the second son of the Royal Family, becomes a friend, but has his own secret motivations for doing so. Ali is conflicted about his role, and is himself trying to figure out who to trust, and where he stands. There is a lot going on in this book, and the politics and dynamics of Daevabad got a little confusing for me at times, but I really found myself swept away in this magical world, and I loved the Middle Eastern setting and folklore. I have not yet read the other two books in the trilogy, but I am very much looking forward to it. Fans of Black Sun by Rebecca Roanhorse, the Orisha series by Tomi Adeyemi and Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik might enjoy this series.

The entire Daevabad trilogy is available at the Library and on Libby/Overdrive.

Title details for The City of Brass by S. A. Chakraborty - Wait list