Review: The Long Song, Andrea Levy

At last I have read something by Andrea Levy! I have been meaning to do so for many moons now, and when my book club decided to go with Angela Carter instead of Andrea Levy for next month, I trotted round to the library and got The Long Song. I wanted Small Island but it turned out I couldn’t be bothered climbing all the way up the stairs to the second floor where they keep the non-new fiction. (I know Long Song came out in 2010. Don’t ask me to explain the new/not new classification system of the New York Public Library.)

The Long Song is the story of a slave girl named July, the daughter of a slave on a Jamaican plantation and the plantation’s overseer. Taken from her mother, she becomes a house slave, serving as lady’s maid to the foolish, self-centered, and easily led Caroline Mortimer. July’s life, lasting through the Baptist War in 1831 and the (nominal) emancipation of the Jamaican slaves, is framed as a story written by the mother of a printer, Thomas Kinsman, with occasional editorial asides from Thomas Kinsman to clarify matters and make pointed remarks about his mother’s reliability.

What was very good indeed: (and I loved this) The complex depiction of racism and prejudice throughout the book. We see all different varieties of racism, from the open hatred and contempt of the overseer, to the weak-willed giving in to racism of many of the other white characters, to the pride July takes in being mulatto, rather than black. I also loved the way Levy portrayed the intense cognitive dissonance that was created for many of the characters by their situations, and the extreme ways in which they resolved it. Caroline Mortimer, for instance, causes something pretty horrible to happen midway through the book, and she deals with it by pretending that something totally different happened; this parallels July’s need to paint a happier, or at least a tidier, picture of the events of her life.

The unreliability of July as a narrator was enjoyable, as it emphasized the back and forth between the casual, slangy, careless way the character July speaks, and the very Victorian speech patterns of the narrator (whom we know to be a much older July). There were times when the narrator would tell the story one way, then pause to say that, okay, that’s not really what happened, my son wants me to tell the truth, so this is what really happened. I loved that, particularly as employed at the very end of the book, but I thought Levy could have made better use of it. I have told y’all before that I like an unreliable narrator, but what I like about an unreliable narrator is reaching the end of the book and not being sure what to believe. When July was being unreliable, it was usually made clear and corrected.

In spite of these excellent aspects, I had a hard time connecting with the characters and thus loving the book. I felt like I was at arm’s length the entire time, and I couldn’t exactly discern why that should be the case. I might have been doing it myself, self-protecting because I find books about slavery so viscerally upsetting. Or it might have been Andrea Levy’s choice of narrator, and the way that July very rarely gives the reader a glimpse of her most deeply-held emotions. As a trend, I like characters to the exact extent that they want something I can sympathize with.

Other reviews are many.

Review: The Oracle of Stamboul, Michael David Lukas

And magical realism rears its ugly — no, I’m kidding. The Oracle of Stamboul has the tiniest ever amount of magical realism, actually the perfect amount. At the start of the story, when our protagonist Eleonora is about to be born, the author mentions a flock of hoopoes (they look like this, if you’re curious) that comes to settle near her house on the night of her birth. After that, I was on red alert, as my displeasure with an excess of magical realism is rapid and permanent. But first-time author Michael David Lukas has a light touch with the magical realism, anchoring his story instead on Eleonora’s personhood.

As Eleonora grows up, raised by her widowed father and stern aunt, her flock of hoopoes is a constant presence in her life. She herself is a prodigy. Her father is proud and her aunt disapproving, but the need of books is fundamental to Eleonora, and she reads everything she can get her hands on. When her father leaves their home in Constanta for Stamboul (where he plans to sell his carpets), she stows away in a trunk and ends up at the home of her father’s friend, Moncef Bey, in the midst of a magnificent city in a crumbling empire. Meanwhile, Sultan Abdulhamid II struggles to keep his empire together in spite of the terrible advice of all his useless advisers.

What can I say about this book? Of course I want to say that it came in an adorable envelope with a hoopoe seal, but that doesn’t tell you anything about the book itself. It’s a quiet book, for a story set in a tumultuous time in history and containing a number of fairly catastrophic events. Eleonora is born on the day that Russians attack her village; in the course of the book she loses her mother, and then her homeland, and Stamboul presents a whole new set of challenges for her (I won’t spoil it for you). But Eleonora is an inward-focused girl, and her reactions are quiet and contained, and hers are the eyes through which we see her life. Noisy things happen (like the Russian attack), but the book is never noisy about them. If that makes sense.

I expected The Oracle of Stamboul to be significantly more adorable, and less of a grown-up person book, than in fact it is. I liked what Lukas did with it, but I was expecting a lot more time devoted to Eleonora giving precocious, useful, and disingenuous advice relating to empire-governing matters. The ending of the book was not what I anticipated. I loved that Lukas didn’t go a predictable, sequel-baiting rout. But I would like to see a sequel, as long as it didn’t play up the magical realism any more.

The Oracle of Stamboul is on a TLC Blog Tour.Other stops on the blog tour include:

living read girl
Life Is Short, Read Fast
Melody and Words
Rayment’s Reading, Rants, and Ramblings

And coming up:

Book Sake
Jen’s Book Thoughts
Luxury Reading!

Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper.

I will never catch up on reviews

…if I don’t do a bunch of short ones all at once. Thus:

The Golden Mean, Annabel Lyon

I checked this out on Gavin’s recommendation and because I love Alexander the Great. Your claims that he was a psychotic alcoholic have no effect on me because in my mind he is exactly the way Mary Renault writes him in Fire from Heaven and The Persian Boy. The Golden Mean is about Aristotle when he comes to Macedon to tutor young Alexander. Though Lyon was clearly influenced by Mary Renault’s books, she gives a more nuanced picture of Alexander, showing a brilliant but disturbed young man who provides real heads for plays and mutilates the bodies of soldiers he has killed. Lyon uses modern language, with much swearing, and although that could have come across as stilted, it, er, it doesn’t. Hooray. Also, check out Ms. Lyon’s list of ten very good books about the ancient world.

The Magicians and Mrs. Quent, Galen Beckett

Advertised as Jane Austen with magic, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent completely failed to satisfy me. Other reviewers have noted that the book’s three sections are dramatically different in tone, the first being quite Jane Austen and the second quite Turn of the Screwy, and the third more straight fantasy. This bugged me, and I didn’t care for the characters anyway, and the world-building felt lazy. So, not a success. This was for the RIP Challenge.

The Fall of Rome, Martha Southgate

Big yes to this one. I have been wanting to read it for ages, on Eva’s recommendation, and it didn’t disappoint me. Latin teacher Jerome Washington has been the only black faculty member at a Connecticut boarding school for boys throughout most of his career. His ideas about decorum and racial equality are sharply challenged with the arrival of Jana Hensen, a longtime teacher in the Cleveland inner city, and Rashid Bryson, a young black student trying to get away from a family tragedy. Beautiful, complicated racial and family dynamics and lovely writing, multiple narrators, Latin, and a boarding school setting. I wish Martha Southgate had written fifteen more books besides this one, instead of only two. Behold this quotation, which I think is great:

“Racial integration?” He nodded. “What about it?”

“Well, I’m not against it, obviously, or I wouldn’t be here, right? But there’s some problems with it that I just want to talk to people about. How this place isn’t really integrated enough. We – I mean people like me – are just here to round out somebody else’s experience. That’s what it feels like, anyway.”

American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and the American Prison System, Sasha Abramsky

The American prison system is awful. It’s just awful in every way, what with the insanely punitive mandatory minimum sentences, and the poorly-trained guards, and the lack of care for the mentally ill, and the shortage of educational programs, and the–look, just everything. It’s awful. Sasha Abramsky is a careful, clear writer, and I defy you to read this book and not feel furious at the end of it.

Watchmen, Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons

Alan Moore is just not for me. When I read his books, I think of how much in sympathy I am with his views, and how important a writer of graphic novels he is, but I do not think, Wow, this is an enjoyable read. I more think, Wow, this is rather a slog. Wish I could be reading something more awesome. Now and then an image or a plot element will catch my eye and please me greatly, but these never last long enough to make my reading truly enjoyable. I also found the conclusion deeply unsatisfying: just a big info-dump of cackling villainy. I was fascinated, as I always am, with the way the 1980s seem to have been predicated on the assumption that nuclear war with Russia was imminent. And then the Berlin Wall came down! Miraculous! This was for the Graphic Novels Challenge, which I have already been awesome at this year but I cannot stop being awesome at it because graphic novels are worthwhile! Even when they are not my particular cup of tea.

Glimpses, Lynn Flewelling

Glimpses is a collection of Nightrunner short stories, with lots of fan art. It was sent to me as an e-book by Reece Notley of Three Crow Press, for which much thanks. These are stories that fill in the gaps in Seregil’s and Alec’s history: how Seregil came to be Nysander’s student, a small glimpse of Alec’s life with his father, and like that. If you are a fan of the Nightrunner series, and do not mind lots of graphic sex (I admit I can be slightly squeamish this way), you should check this out. To me, the nosy girl who wants to know exactly how everything went down, this short story collection is an excellent addition to the Nightrunner world. Lynn Flewelling has a light, amusing way of writing, and I always enjoy spending time with her characters. But if you are a stranger to the series, do yourself a favor and read Luck in the Shadows and Stalking Darkness first.

Review: Day of Tears, Julius Lester

Typically I don’t read American historical fiction.  I had to do a lot of American history in school, and so I learned a dozen dozen times about the Revolutionary War and the Civil War and Reconstruction and the dreadful dusty Depression.  I feel like I have already paid my dues where learning about those things are concerned.  Louisiana history too.  That project on the flood of 1927 was both tedious and depressing, so I have decided that Louisiana history and me are quits.  I am a grown-up now, dammit, and that means I get to choose what countries and time periods I like the best (England in wartime, colonial India, modern Iran).

Also, reading about slavery and the Holocaust makes me sick to my stomach.

Also, it can be difficult to read books about particularly horrific episodes of history that don’t sound moralizing.  Only because the people perpetrating the horrors are so indefensible that, you know, it’s hard to make them three-dimensional characters.

However, I do not want to be the person who pretends that bad things never happened.  And I trust Ana, and when I first went to the public library, there weren’t that many books that I wanted, and I thought, You know what, Jenny?  This moment in time, where you have a dearth of good books, this is the perfect time to read some books you do not necessarily think are your thing.  So I checked out The Forest of Hands and Teeth, The Thief, and Day of Tears.  You win some, you lose some.

American historical fiction is still not my thing, but Day of Tears was.  It’s written in dialogue, like a play, though not quite a play, at the largest slave auction in American history.  Over 400 men, women, and children were sold, and their former “owner” (this asshole here) made something like $300,000 from it, to pay off his gambling debts.  In the parts of the book that are set at the auction itself, Lester intersperses the bits of dialogue with excerpts from the real register from the sale, which lists the people sold and the prices they fetched.  The conceit of setting the book in dialogue works really well – you can almost hear the auctioneer’s voice, asking for bids on a little family.  It’s surreal, the whole idea of auctioning off people, to the extent that it’s almost like reading a dream sequence, except it’s what really exactly happened.

Lester does a wonderful job with setting the scene.  The slave auction was called “the weeping day” because it rained steady on for the whole two days that the auction lasted.  Lester makes you feel it, the heavy rain and the humidity and the hundreds of people waiting to hear what would happen to them.  At intervals there are chapters that feature dialogue from the characters several years on from the slave auction – Emma as an old woman, the slaveowners’ two daughters as adults, etc. – and it gives context and continuation to the story of the auction itself.  Some of these are heartbreaking.  One character talks about gaining his freedom after the war, and seeing all these freed slaves frantically trying to track down their family members who were sold away.  It hurt my heart.

Which goes to show that you should not always decline to read books because they do not sound like your type of thing.

Do you have pet places and time periods that you like to read about?  Do you have places and time periods you never ever want to read about?

Other reviews:

things mean a lot

Anyone else?

Review: In the Garden of Iden, Kage Baker

Embarrassing confessions can be good for the soul, so here’s one of mine.  Sometimes when I read a book by a new author, and I really really like it, and then I go to the library and see there’s a whole shelf of books by that author – sometimes, when that happens, I get a little internal sound effect of a deep, serious voice going “So it begins.”

Well, okay, always.  Every time that happens, I get the sound effect.  And it doesn’t always work out.  Sometimes the author breaks my heart.  Sometimes I accidentally read the best book first and must spend the rest of my life being let down by all the others.  Sometimes I read interviews and discover the author is kind of a poop, and then I have a hard time reading the books without thinking of that.

In aid of avoiding another Orson Scott Card situation, I’ve decided not to read anything about Kage Baker in case she turns out to be a poop, because I love the premise of this series.  This premise of this series is like the (shining and glorious) lovechild of Doctor Who and Diana Wynne Jones’s wonderful The Homeward Bounders.

About three hundred years into our future, a company called Dr. Zeus, Inc., has figured out how to do time travel.  You cannot travel into the future, you cannot bring anything forward out of its own time, and you cannot change written history.  What you can do is stack the deck your way.  The library at Alexandria has to burn, but that doesn’t stop you going back in time and having an agent make copies of all the books, and hide them for you to discover in your own present.  Agents of the company find children at different points in history, save them from death, and make them immortal.  These new immortals are promised shiny rewards in the present if they serve throughout history as agents for the company, rescuing books and paintings and endangered species.

I know, right?  How did I never hear of these books before?

Mendoza is saved from the Spanish Inquisition and made immortal.  Disliking what she knows of human beings, she decides to be a botanist, intending to minimize her contact with mortals.  However, her first assignment for the company is to collect rare plants from a garden in Tudor England.  Along with two other immortals, she will pose as a Spaniard come to England in the retinue of Prince Philip, with all the attendant fears and stresses of changing religions and an angry monarch.  Intending to keep out of the way of the mortals as much as possible, she finds herself falling in love with one of them.

A few things that are difficult to pull off, that Kage Baker pulls off:

  • Characters talking in Elizabethan English.
  • Explaining necessary historical background, especially historical background that I already know, in a way that is funny and interesting, though it’s possible she gives Elizabeth I too much of a pass.
  • Implying that there is More at Work Here than this book lets us in on, without the book’s ending being an obvious set-up for a sequel.  Do you know what I mean?  You get the sense that clues are being dropped, but the story of this book is self-contained.
  • Being wry without trying to be hilarious, or coming off as disaffected and unfriendly.
  • (Spoiler alert.  Stop reading and skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know what happens in the end, although why you wouldn’t want to know I can’t imagine.) Killing off the love interest.

My one single eensy little complaint was that Mendoza, right, she falls in love with this sixteenth-century guy, and he’s completely okay with a lot of the crazy stuff that comes out of her mouth.  Okay, yeah, he’s held heretical religious views in the past, but even with that, and even accounting for his being in love with her, I think he’s just the tiniest smidge unrealistically tolerant and open-minded about religion for his time period.

Apart from that one thing, it was a good book that made me feel very excited to read the sequels.  I feel like intrigue and deception are forthcoming.  Thank you, trapunto!  This was a read for the Time Travel Challenge (haHA!  Thought I’d forgotten that one, didn’t you?  I HAVE NOT.)

Other reviews:

bookshelves of doom
Regular Rumination
Mervi’s Book Reviews

Did I miss yours?  Let me know and I’ll add a link!

Review: Remembrance, Theresa Breslin

Once again I am extremely behind on reviews.  I can tell that I am because when I finish a book before going to sleep at night, I chuck it over the side of my bed (carefully, so it lands flat), and right now there are four books piled up next to my bed, and it would be five if I hadn’t returned Remembrance to the library yesterday.  Eek.  But can I just say before I say anything about Remembrance that y’all are awesome and have given me many lovely ideas for fantasy books to read.  And now onward.

This book never got promoted past the loo, I’m afraid, but it nearly did.  I nearly took it up to bed with me one evening, and then I remembered I had The Writer’s Tale up there, and with Doctor Who about to start up again, and The Writer’s Tale talking about Steven Moffat, that proved more tempting than Remembrance.  You can see how that would happen.

Remembrance is about two families of teenage kids in Scotland during World War I.  Wealthy young Charlotte Armstrong-Barnes and John Malcolm Dundas, whose parents are shopkeepers, have fallen in love, but soon John Malcolm must enlist to fight in the war, while Charlotte works at a hospital to feel that she is helping soldiers like John.  John’s sister Maggie grows to resent gender inequality more and more, while little Alex yearns to be old enough to enlist.  Charlotte’s brother Francis believes that the war is unjust, and earns the scorn of many villagers for his failure to participate in it.

When I started Remembrance, I found the writing style clunky, with every character’s motivation spelled out and the emotional beats predictable.  I wanted to stab Charlotte in the eyes, even though poor thing, she wasn’t doing anything wrong, just being a bit insipid.  The book really picked up for me when the point of view shifted more and more away from Charlotte, as that was when it began to explore in more depth the cultural changes that World War I created.  Francis, for instance, opposes the war, and the reader can see why easily, deplore the loss of life, etc.; but when John Malcolm writes of seeing soldiers just coming from the front, and they are saying “It’s only a few inches of dirt, but it’s our dirt”, it’s still moving.  People finding meaning in the meaningless.

My favorite thing was the contrast between Francis’s life and Maggie’s.  As much as she hates the war, and as much as she loses to it, it also opens up Maggie’s life.  The opportunities she has for relationships and meaningful work would not have existed without the war, and Maggie rebels against the idea of having to give it all back when the war ends.  By contrast, the war gives Francis far fewer options for what to do with his life.  As a wealthy young man, he would have been able to do anything had the war not happened.  As it is, he’s shunned for his opposition to the war, and the only socially acceptable choice for him is to participate in it, which he eventually does.  And I think that is interesting.

Other reviews:

things mean a lot
A Comfy Chair and a Good Book

Anyone else?  Did I miss yours?