Time will tell how the surreal months of April to June 2020 will be chronicled in history. I’ve heard many friends claim they haven’t been able to focus on reading. For me, I’ve relied on reading and writing to escape the news of the day. From the Battle of Britain to the Latin American immigration trail to the final days of ratifying the 19th Amendment to the horrors of a Canadian orphanage to the Japanese-American internment camps during WWII, these struggles are real, even if a few are fictionalized. They make wearing a mask, eating take-out instead of dining-in, and adhering to social distancing guidelines seem trivial in comparison.
From left to right, top to bottom, here are quick reviews of the ten books I read this quarter. Each book is linked to Amazon for additional reviews and convenient purchasing.
***** Sea Wife by Amity Gaige The April release of Sea Wife came as lock-downs were in full swing. I was disappointed the author event with Amity Gaige was cancelled as I was hoping to catch up with her in-person. Amity taught my Coursera Creative Writing class and also invited me to a writers’ retreat two years ago. I didn’t care for Amity’s other book I read ahead of our retreat, but with honest affirmation I’m giving Sea Wife five stars. Sea Wife presents an intimate look at a marriage heading toward drowning in a sea of regrets while the young Partlow family sails around Central America. For a more complete review, visit the post Authors on (Virtual) Tour. At least with the advances in Zoom, I was able to join an online presentation for the book release. To whet you interest, here’s an example of Amity’s poetic prose:
*** Daughter of Moloka’i by Alan Brennert As the sequel to Moloka’i , which I read years ago with my book club, I had high hopes for Daughter of. Perhaps the gut-wrenching story of the leper colony in Hawaii, a situation I had never heard of before made it difficult for the story of Ruth (daughter of) to follow in those impressionable footsteps. Ruth’s story, despite time spent in a Japanese-American internment camp as a young mother, lacks an emotional punch. As a writer, I’m learning how important conflict is to engage and hold a reader’s interest.
*** The Last Bathing Beauty by Amy Sue Nathan I’ve never been much of a soap opera or Hallmark Channel fan. If you’re in need of an easy, lighter read or listen, and want to capture some of the Dirty Dancing feeling from the book’s setting at a Lake Michigan resort, by all means, you’ll enjoy Bathing Beauty. One downside, for me however, was listening on Audible with a main character nicknamed “Boop”. Hearing that name said out loud over and over further drove this one down to three stars from four.
*** The Murmur of Bees by Sophia Segovia Intrigued by the promotion Murmur of Bees covered the 1918 Spanish influenza in Mexico, I picked it up. I ended up being disappointed that the subject covered only a few chapters and brought in a character who faded away (not died) without any further reference. The pace was extremely slow over 470 pages to follow the trials of the wealthy Morales family, an orphaned child with a mysterious aura, and the Mexican revolution. The political maneuverings of the revolution became complex to follow. I struggled through to the end to discover the most captivating part of the book were the final chapters – could have been a fine novella.
**** The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson While I waited for the return of my manuscript from my editor, apparently I found time to read LONG books. The Splendid and the Vile is the newest non-fiction from the master, Erik Larson. The amount of research Larson applies to every book he writes is overwhelming. He didn’t disappoint to bring forward an intimate look at Winston Churchill’s handling of the first year of World War II with Germany’s endless bombardments during the Battle of Britain. For someone who wrote their high school European history term paper on the Battle of Britain, I loved learning even more about the man behind Britain’s Darkest Hour. I also caught Larson on a Zoom presentation after his author event, which I was scheduled to attend was cancelled: Authors on (Virtual) Tour. I may also be partial to Larson since my son enjoys his books, too. It’s great to have a shared interest with your 25-year-old, Only 14 Shopping Days Left
**** The Woman’s Hour by Elaine Weiss Another dense, non-fiction selection. What was I thinking? While the subject was interesting – the final weeks leading to the ratification of the 19th amendment with passage in Tennessee – oh boy, where there a lot of characters / names to track! One reason I’ve never gotten involved in politics – way too many fingers in the pie. The factions within the suffrage movement forced me to write everyone down so I could keep them straight. And, don’t get me started on the Antis – women against ratification. I’m glad to have read it, however, as part of a new alumnae virtual book club with my alma mater. A good selection, and I chose it as one option for my August book club meeting when we’ll be celebrating the 100th Anniversary. Votes for Women! Yeah! Votes for Women
***** The Home for Unwanted Girls by Joanna Goodman Delayed by a month, my book club finally managed an in-person meeting to discuss Home for Unwanted Girls. Our hostess extraordinaire re-fitted her two-car garage for us to sit on folding chairs six feet apart. She even had individual snack bags prepared for us to avoid many hands in the chip bowl. You’re the best, Bonnie! The night only got better with an active discussion of this moving book inspired by the author’s mother. The tragic lives of Maggie and her daughter, Elodie, diverge and reunite against the backdrop of the cruelty of Catholic-run orphanages and the societal biases of French and Anglo citizens of Quebec in the 1950s. The injustices portrayed in the book are reminiscent of Before We Were Yours by Lisa Wingate. I took minor comfort in learning evil lurks for vulnerable children in Canada, too.
*****American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins On purpose I avoided reading the details of the controversy circulating around the publication of American Dirt. I wanted to read it without a predetermined bias. I’m glad I took that approach. I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t matter who writes a novel, as long as their research to provide authenticity, and talent for storytelling and character development brings a saga to life. One of my favorite books is Memoirs of a Geisha. Arthur Golden is not Japanese, he’s not a woman, nor did he ever work as a geisha. That doesn’t mean the book isn’t masterful, worthy of a nomination for the PBS Great American Reads as a favorite novel. I don’t recall any outcry when it released twenty-one years ago.
Jeanine Cummins is not Mexican nor Central American, but she is and identifies as Latina (Puerto Rican and Irish). She’s a writer and an advocate for social justice. She didn’t choose to publish a book about Mexican migrants and the horrific trials of their journey over a Mexican author. The publisher made the choice to select and back her manuscript over others which may have been submitted by Mexican authors. The true power of American Dirt comes from the empathy developed for the main character, Lydia, as she flees her home in Acapulco with her eight-year-son. She starts her journey to “el norte” to escape a shattered life at the hands of a cartel. From riding the top of freight cars, La Bestia, with other migrants to sleeping in the desert, to hiding in Underground Railroad type shelters, you are with Lydia and the others in her group every step north. I was fortunate to join a Zoom call with Jeanine sponsored by my local independent bookstore. She stands by her conviction that American Dirt is a novel of social justice which drives conversations. I’m impressed with her conviction and give her five stars – a must read in this time of awakening and ownership of self-identity.
***Yellow Crocus by Laila Ibrahim A title I had seen floating around the several book groups I belong to on Facebook. A quick, easy read about the relationship between a plantation owner’s daughter, Elizabeth (Lisbeth) and her wet nurse slave, Mattie, in 1850s Virginia. Similar to my historical fiction in the works, Lisbeth rails against her parents’ and society’s expectations to follow her heart. We get a few glimpses of Mattie’s slave life, including her escape through the Underground Railroad. A happily-ever-after for both women wraps up the story. There are two additional books, Mustard Seed and forthcoming, Golden Poppies, following the subsequent years, post-Civil War, for the women.
****Valentine by Elizabeth Wetmore I didn’t select my recent books with the intention of learning more about Mexico and Mexican immigrants, but somehow ended up with three in three months. In addition to Murmur of Bees and American Dirt, one of the main characters in Valentine, Gloria (Glory), is the daughter of an illegal immigrant. Her mother is deported back to Mexico leaving 15-year-old Gloria alone with an uncle to navigate the aftermath of her vicious rape by a oil worker drifter. Set in 1970s Odessa Texas, the story alternates POV between Glory, Mary Rose, Debra Ann, and Cora, along with a few other women – who didn’t deserve their own POV IMHO – whose lives intersect after Gloria’s rape. The ending is a bit muddied, but overall I enjoyed this deeply moving story of women’s relationships and the support networks they weave.
In addition to the ten books above, I have two other recommendations.
*****Answer Creek by Ashley Sweeney I posted a review of Answer Creek in my Q1 2020 post since I read an ARC prior to its May 19th publication. Ashley is my writing mentor to whom I am so grateful for her guidance and advice as I push along with developing Eliza’s story and her character. Answer Creek follows the trek of fictional Ada Weeks along the Oregon Trail with the Donner Party. Ashley’s incredible descriptions of a setting from over 150 years ago are magnificent. Ada’s character development is on point as we watch her grow in strength and spirit. Answer Creek goes on BookBub and other e-book retailers special at $.99 on July 4th.
Errant by Montrez I have not read Errant yet, with the confession YA Fantasy doesn’t interest me, nor do I know many teens these days who may be interested. However, since it’s a debut novel from one of my writing group friends, I definitely wanted to help her promote the title. If you’re interested in Fantasy, or know some teens that might enjoy it – please check it out. I mean look at the cover – it’s gorgeous! Story Descriptor: 16-year-old Savannah Scarlett struggles to reclaim her life after the devastating loss of her father, but finding a place to belong isn’t easy for someone who’s used to living life on the sidelines. Just when she thinks things can’t get any worse, Savannah witnesses an impossible phenomenon that triggers the emergence of a wild and powerful gift. Fans of Divergent and the Darkest Mind are sure to enjoy. Only $.99 on Kindle.
Update on “Eliza’s Story” – Title still TBD
And, what about Eliza??? June has been a slow month for editing. Between work demands and prepping two houses for the summer season, I have plowed through 15 chapters. I also had to write a new chapter for an early insert to build out a relationship more and scrap several scenes and re-shape them. I’ve also purchased a valuable tool, Pro Writing Aid, which helps me identify over-used words and readability levels. There are a lot of blurred eyes I need to attend to!
I’m hoping some vacation days in July will be dedicated to polishing the story and preparing for my next round of beta readers.
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