Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Half of a Yellow SunI know I say this a lot, but I am so thankful for my book club for introducing me to fascinating historical novels that I would never otherwise read. I am getting a bit better, though — I knew well before picking this book up that I was going to have to miss my book club meeting, but I had already checked it out of the library and I figured I might as well read it anyway, since it was there…

And I was mostly not disappointed, though I liked different parts of this novel than I was expecting to when I started it.

Half of a Yellow Sun covers the Nigerian Civil War of the late 1960s, during which a small but significant part of the country broke off and became the country of Biafra. As usual, this is something I never learned in history class, so I was glad to have this book around to educate me on the many forces at play in Nigeria at the time, from fading British rule to Nigerian nationalism to religious and cultural clashes to anti-education sentiment and so on.

The main characters are Ugwu, a young servant boy who leaves a small town to work for a university professor; Olanna, the lover and then wife of said professor, whose family is quite important but who won’t leave her new home and family for safety when the fighting starts; and Richard, a British transplant in love with Olanna’s twin sister who adopts Biafra as his home but who has to straddle the political and cultural lines very carefully.

At first I was really intrigued by the characters, but as the book went on I almost felt like their actions and emotions were getting in the way of the real story of Biafra and the vagaries of war. These are serious vagaries, too, ranging from characters having to beg for food or to move house due to the whims of officials to random attacks on towns and buildings to a woman carrying around a severed head. It is so heartbreaking to read about the bad things that happen in war when there’s so much war going on right now, and so those boring character things like infidelity and depression fall completely off my radar.

I didn’t get 100 percent behind the war parts either, though, as much of Adichie’s plot relies on some very predictable turns and some moderately unbelievable ones as well. But most of it was solid and the history lesson was well appreciated, so overall I think this book is a win. It maybe could have been 100 pages shorter, but Adichie writes lovely enough sentences that even those pages are worth a read.

Recommendation: For history nerds and avoiders alike with lots of hours to spare.

Rating: 7/10

The Tsar of Love and Techno, by Anthony Marra

The Tsar of Love and TechnoI read Marra’s A Constellation of Vital Phenomena for my book club a few months back and it was such a surprisingly awesome novel that I absolutely had to snap up this follow-up. More of Marra’s Chechnya? Extra Russia? That cover? I was sold.

This novel is one of those fancy linked-short-stories books, where the stories could conceivably be read on their own and still make sense, but where the combination of the stories makes everything so much better.

The first story was, for me, the strongest in that stand-alone sense. In it, the main character is a Russian art censor whose job it is to “fix” paintings so that people who shouldn’t be there, people who are non-entities, are no longer in those paintings or that people who should totally obviously be in paintings can take their rightful place. His story opens with a trip to his sister-in-law’s house to get her to scratch her dead husband out of some photographs and to impart some wisdom to his nephew, and then later centers on his poorly thought-out half-censorship of a painting of a prima ballerina. You can’t censor by halves, it turns out, and the story shows us just what exactly happens to people accused, rightly or wrongly, of treason against Russia. It is a fascinating and moving story, and I could have read just that and been happy.

That’s not to say that the rest of the novel wasn’t excellent, but that the rest of the stories in the novel rely heavily on references to the other stories to get their heft and depth across. After the censor’s story, we move on to the story of the prima ballerina’s granddaughter, and to the stories of people in the village where the granddaughter grew up, moving forward and backward in time to pick up the history of that corner of Russia (near Scandinavia) and of Chechnya. It is an incredibly bleak history, but it has its delightful moments, most especially finding out that the Chechen president used to have an apparently amazing Instagram account, with photos of him and various adorable animals. Why did I not know this when I could have followed it??

On the whole I quite enjoyed this novel, if enjoyed is the right word for all that depressing awfulness. The characters are interesting, the story is intriguing, and the writing is absolutely gorgeous. But still the book lacked whatever qualities made me love Constellation so hard and so it suffered by comparison. It’s still definitely worth a read, but maybe lower your expectations first?

Recommendation: For fans of Marra, Russian history, and books that will give you feels, but not too many.

Rating: 8/10

Black Dove, White Raven, by Elizabeth Wein

Black Dove, White RavenSo continues my love affair with Elizabeth Wein. If she could just write YA fiction about every historical event, ever, I would know SO MUCH world history. I managed to learn new things about World War II in her first two books, but this book absolutely astounded me with all the history I didn’t even know I didn’t know.

See, it turns out that there were not one, but two wars between Ethiopia and Italy, one at the end of the 19th century and one right before the start of World War II. In fact, the second Italo-Ethiopian war may have helped give Hitler the confidence to go invade all the places, because it showed that the League of Nations was really bad at its job. Italy didn’t even bother pretending to play nice, bringing in planes to fight against spear-carriers and dropping mustard gas in spite of a little thing called the Geneva Convention.

Against this backdrop we have the story of Emilia and Teo, the respective children of White Raven and Black Dove, an interracial female barnstorming duo. Emilia’s dad is Italian, Teo’s dad was Ethiopian, and they and their parents lived together in the US until Teo’s mother died in a plane accident. Teo’s mother had wanted everyone to move to Ethiopia, where Teo and Emilia could play together without all the wonderful US racism, so when that option presents itself, Emilia’s mother moves everyone over. Then the war starts, slowly but surely, and things go very wrong.

The novel is written sort of end-first, opening with a letter from Emilia to Haile Selassie begging for a passport for Teo after these very wrong things have happened. Then, through essays and “flight logs” and diary entries we get the full story.

In that story lies all the learning stuff. There’s lots of history, of course, but also quite a bit of sociology. There’s talk about religion and spirituality and their role in each character’s life, and there’s also a look into the prejudices of society. It’s absolutely fascinating to look at racism and sexism and classism in both the US and Ethiopia at this time and see how they intersect. And then of course there’s flying and action and adventure and it’s all so exciting!

I do have to admit that the diary conceit only just barely holds this novel together, as I found myself constantly thinking, “Wait, why is she showing all of this stuff to the emperor? How does she think this particular story is going to get Teo a passport? How is she remembering all this heavy dialogue with such accuracy?” I like the immediacy and intimacy of the diary conceit, and I think Wein does great things with it, but it definitely needed a better frame story.

But, whatever, I loved the heck out of this book and I found myself between breaks thinking, “I hope everyone’s okay! I hope no one dies! Someone’s going to die, but I hope it’s not anyone I’ve grown fond of!” My coworker did not quite understand my concern, but I’m sure some of you do! I cannot wait to see what Wein’s got up her sleeve next.

Recommendation: For fans of Wein’s other work (Code Name Verity I love you!) and also history and planes and excitement.

Rating: 9/10

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

The Paying GuestsIt’s no secret that I love me some Sarah Waters, so when my dear friend Amy picked this book for our book club I was super excited. I looked at the high page count, figured it would take me about two weeks to read it on breaks at work, and started it at the appropriate time.

And then I finished it in one week, on breaks at work, and I was like, oh no, what am I going to do for a WHOLE WEEK while I wait for book club? Thank goodness there are other books in the world!

So yes, it seems like a long book, but it’s a super quick read, at least once it gets going. We start by meeting our protagonist, a Miss Wray, who lives with her mother in England in 1922. The war having taken the rest of their family in one way or another, the Wrays are a bit down on their luck and so have decided to let out most of their upstairs floor to lodgers, or, if we’re being polite, “paying guests.” What a strange way of being polite.

Anyway, said guests, the Barbers are a young married couple who don’t terribly much like each other but what are you gonna do in England in 1922 except stay unhappily married? Well, if you’re a lady in a Sarah Waters book (spoiler? Probably not…) you are going to have a love affair with your lady landlord. A very sexy love affair. Which I read on breaks at work. I rather recommend against that…

Miss Wray and Mrs. Barber spend most of the book sneaking off and having assignations and generally having fun, but then, because again, Sarah Waters, things go terribly horribly wrong and the tone of the book becomes completely different and I kind of actually liked this part of the book better because it had more semblance of plot and excitement but really the whole thing is super great.

I love the way Waters plays with her characters, making them seem sort of one-note at first but then delving slowly into the backstories that have brought them to this place in the novel. I also love how well she sets her scenes; I felt throughout the novel like I knew exactly how the house was set up and where everyone was at a given time so I knew just how worried to be about the things that were happening in one room or another. And, of course, I enjoyed the sneaky history lessons I got here with respect to post-war sentiment, being a lesbian at that time, the English legal system, and especially class structures and conflicts.

There is a lot going on in this book, is what I’m saying, and it’s lovely and wonderful and you should probably go read this immediately. But not at work. It’s weird at work.

Recommendation: For fans of Sarah Waters, lesbian love affairs, and gorgeous writing.

Rating: 9/10

A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson

A God in RuinsI loved Life After Life with a fiery burning passion, and when I heard there was a second novel in that universe coming out, I may have done a happy dance. I couldn’t wait to spend more time in Ursula’s strange time-altering world.

So when I realized early on that this book, which is about Ursula’s brother Teddy, that the whole reincarnation-ish aspect of Life After Life was going to be pretty much ignored, I was hugely disappointed. I had thought it would be fascinating to see how Ursula’s lives affected Teddy, but instead there’s just a brief mention near the beginning about how sometimes Teddy felt like he could see his whole life ahead of him and then a straightforward novel. Well, I mean, straightforward compared to Life After Life.

What Atkinson does here instead is jump all around in Teddy’s one life, writing briefly of his childhood and then his war years and then his married years and then his widower years and then back to the war years and then forward to the grandpa years and then some chapters from the point of view of his kid and grandkids and wife thrown in for good measure.

Many of the vignettes of the novel are told more than once from different perspectives (present, past, other characters), and it is fascinating to see how the same event can look completely different. Atkinson does this great thing, too, where she relates the story as if for the very first time, so that the variations in the story don’t get any sort of prominence and you almost have to work to remember that that one character thought something completely different had happened. I almost want to go back and read the book again, to experience the first half or so the right way (I waited a long time for the weird to happen) and to catch all the little bits I know I must have missed.

Setting aside the narrative style, the narrative itself is also a pretty good one. Where Life After Life covered World War II and the London Blitz and the horror of the war in England, this book is more about Teddy as a survivor of that war. There is plenty about his role in the war itself, bombing the heck out of Germany and presuming every flight in his plane would be the last, but there’s even more about how that part of his life is almost completely erased after it’s over. He’s expected to move on, and so he does, sort of, but the war is always in the back of his mind and on the pages of this book. And then there’s this whole other storyline about family and parenthood and what it means to love someone who doesn’t (can’t? won’t?) love you back and what love even is, really, and the whole thing is heartbreaking in a million different ways.

It’s so good, guys. I wanted it to be a different book, but it stubbornly refused to listen to me, and I’m so glad it didn’t. I may never get around to Atkinson’s mysteries (which I do very much want to read), but I will read the heck out of whatever giant historical novel she writes next, and y’all know that’s saying something.

Recommendation: For lovers of Life After Life, but especially for those who wanted to love Life After Life but couldn’t get past the reincarnation. This is your book!

Rating: 9/10

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, by Anthony Marra

A Constellation of Vital PhenomenaThis is kind of a difficult book to talk about, as I and my fellow book clubbers quickly found out when we sat down to talk about it. But it’s the good kind of tough to talk about, where all the stuff you want to talk about is, like, “Look what the author did here! Isn’t that cool?”

Cool thing number one: The core part of the narrative takes place over a five-day span in 2004, telling the story of a young Chechen girl whose dad is disappeared by Russian soldiers and whose neighbor takes it upon himself to find her a safe place to stay before the soldiers come back for her. Havaa, the girl, and Akhmed, the neighbor, make their way to the place Akhmed thinks is most safe — a hospital run by a doctor whose name Akhmed once came across. That doesn’t sound terribly safe to me, but we soon find out that this situation is the least of everyone’s worries.

Cool thing number two: In between pieces of the main narrative, the author jumps back to various points between 1994 and 2004 to talk about the history of the characters, of Chechnya in general, and of the conflict between Chechnya and Russia. He puts in just enough information that you understand why things like the Landfill exist and are so awful, but not so much that it feels like a history lesson. There were a couple of times I found myself reaching to Google to, say, remember where Chechnya is in the first place, but that was more because I was curious and had Google at hand than because of any confusion.

Cool thing number three: The author leaves the narrative at points to remark on things that the characters don’t yet or can’t possibly know, like what their parents felt about certain things or what will happen to them in the future. Sometimes these bits help put events in perspective, and sometimes they help to show how this limited narrative fits into the larger world. Either way, they prevent a terrible horrible epilogue and I am indebted to the author for that.

Other cool things: The characters are all “real” in that none of them are entirely good or entirely bad, even the ones who are really really super bad. Almost all of the characters interact at some point during the novel, but none of these interactions ever seem forced. There is, in my copy at least, a little Q&A with the author that is one of the few actually interesting Q&A’s I’ve seen.

I said when I got to book club that I thought the novel was really good, really well written, but that I wasn’t sure if I could say that I liked it, exactly, what with all the bleakness and desolation. That may still be the case; I’m not ready to go out and buy a copy to foist on anyone. But I do think it’s fantastically written, and I will be talking it up to other book nerds.

Recommendation: For book nerds of the sort who like a well plotted, tightly woven novel. Also people who want some sneak attack history.

Rating: 9/10

Razorhurst, by Justine Larbalestier

RazorhurstI read my first Justine Larbalestier book, Liar, a million years ago and meant to read more of them, but then she didn’t write anything that seemed nearly as exciting for a while. Then I heard Larbalestier was writing a historical fiction novel, and I was like, uggggh, come on, but THEN I heard she was writing a historical fiction novel set in Sydney and involving ghosts and I was like, oh, yeah, count me in.

And that is this book! Our hero, Kelpie, is an orphan of indeterminate age who lives in a super shady Sydney suburb that is part of a larger neighborhood called Razorhurst. Razorhurst is, as the nickname might suggest, full of razor-wielding gangs and, necessarily, a lot of ghosts. Kelpie can see those ghosts. Most of them are pretty awful, but some of them have helped her survive on the streets without getting picked up by child services, so when one of the more in-the-middle ghosts points her in the direction of food, she crosses her fingers and goes to find it. Instead she finds Dymphna Campbell, “best girl” to the head of one of two competing gangs; Jimmy Palmer, the super annoying ghost of Dymphna’s dead boyfriend; and a whoooole world of trouble.

I mean, if that doesn’t intrigue you, I cannot help you become more interested in this book. There’s running and jumping and also talking in measured tones and avoiding the gaze of ghosts. There’s a little bit of romance, but not much, and there is a lot of overthinking next moves and then just going for it and hoping for the best.

I really liked the way Larbalestier handled the ghost business. On an individual ghost level, there’s Kelpie having to juggle listening to Jimmy’s advice and then figuring out how to give it without looking highly suspicious, or, alternately, how to ignore the advice completely without sending Jimmy into a tantrum. But even more interesting is how the ghosts aren’t all of one mold — some haunt people, some haunt places, some just kind of exist, some are quiet, some are loud, some are obnoxious — and how Larbalestier puts some thought into where a bunch of ghosts might hang out in 1930s Sydney. So there are ghosts, sure, but they don’t seem terribly out of place in an otherwise historically accurate (I presume) novel.

The humans, on the other hand… I just didn’t click with them that well. I didn’t quite understand how they were all interacting with each other or what emotions they were supposed to be feeling about things or what emotions I might be supposed to be feeling about things that happened to the humans. There were a few times where I could tell that I was supposed to be surprised or upset or something but it just wasn’t going to happen.

But, on the plus side, I am kind of obsessed with Australia, and was actually in Sydney for a few days last year, and so it was neat and also kind of super creepy to realize that I was not very far at all from some very ghost-filled places. I’m kind of disappointed now that we spent most of our time on the opposite side of Sydney from Surry Hills/Darlinghurst. If only this book had come out a few months sooner, I could have had some very interesting vacation photos!

Recommendation: For people who saw gangs and ghosts and 1930s Sydney and were like, tell me more.

Rating: 8/10

Rose Under Fire, by Elizabeth Wein

Rose Under Fireomg, Rose Under Fire. omg, omg.

So I read this amazing book last year called Code Name Verity that could probably have literally knocked my socks off had I been wearing socks while reading it. It was fascinating and horrifying and tricksy and I loved it to pieces and right after I read it this quasi-sequel came out and I was like, oh, I’m totally going to read that. And finally, I did.

Part 1 of the book is pretty decent, with more awesome lady pilots being awesome and piloting, and our diary-writing hero this time is an American ferry pilot in the RAF called Rose Justice, which, fine, whatever, it lends itself to some good wordplay, I guess. Anyway, the war is reaching its peak in 1944 and there’s lots of flying to do, and Rose gets some good flights due to nepotism and finds herself in Paris, which she thinks is pretty sweet. She writes some seemingly innocuous words while there — “I hope I don’t forget [this journal] tomorrow morning” — and then my lunch break ends and I go back to work, looking forward to more flying adventures.

And then I get back to the book later and Rose has gone MIA! Nooooo! There are letters between her friend and her family and clearly things have gone horribly wrong! And then the diary picks up again, six months later, and Rose is writing about her ghastly stay in Ravensbrück.

And, okay, truth time, I almost stopped reading this book right there, because I’ve read a lot of World War II/Holocaust literature and I know from concentration camps, right? I loved Verity in part because there were no horrible death camps and I got to learn something new. So I was like, really, Elizabeth Wein, you can’t do better than that?

But of course she proved me wrong, again, perpetually. I certainly learned something new here, something that I fervently wish weren’t true: that there was a whole transport of Polish women who had bones removed and infections purposefully injected into them so that the Nazi doctors could simulate war injuries and figure out how to fix them. Spoiler: there wasn’t much fixing going on.

These so-called Rabbits and their plight are a big part of the story, but of course the real story is about Rose and her friendships with the other women in the camp, whether they were Rabbits or Russians or even Germans. Wein does a great job of making everyone fairly sympathetic; everyone just wants to survive, and the lengths they go to to do so are more of those new things I learned that I wish I couldn’t have.

In addition to writing her diary, it turns out that Rose is a pretty decent poet, so there are little poems sprinkled throughout the diary text. I’m not much for poetry, so I wasn’t thrilled about them at the beginning, but the ones written as part of the concentration camp section of the book are surprisingly gut-wrenching. One in particular, called “Lisette Waits”, had me tearing up even before things got really bad for everyone.

It’s a depressing book, for sure, but nearly as amazingly so as Code Name Verity. If you have plans to read Verity, definitely do that before reading Rose or you will be super spoiled. If you don’t have plans to read Verity, I do not know what is wrong with you.

Recommendation: Read Code Name Verity. Read this when you need another dose of Elizabeth Wein goodness.

Rating: 9/10

The Good Lord Bird, by James McBride

The Good Lord BirdI don’t know what it says about me that every time my book club picks a historical novel, I finish the book and am like, wow, I learned things and am interested in learning more, but then my book club picks another historical novel and I am like, ugh, not this history crap again. I need to have more faith in my friends, is probably what it says.

I was so against reading this book that I was kind of happy to miss my first meeting due to honeymoonaversary, but then everyone else had to push back the time so much that I found myself reading it instead of all the funner things I had loaded on my Kindle. And for the first lots and lots of pages I was mentally rehearsing my litany of complaints to start off book club — why is the whole darn book written in dialect, what the heck is wrong with basically everyone in this novel, is there supposed to be a plot, I feel like I would like this book a heck of a lot better if I had paid attention in history class.

And, I mean, for the most part those are still valid complaints. Dialect sucks, there’s not a strong plot (but there’s not supposed to be), and after looking up Harper’s Ferry I know that I missed a lot of interesting pieces. But, once I really got into the story, I was interested to see where it would go and what all these crazy people would do.

The frame of the story is that it’s the written account of an oral account of a dude what pretended to be a girl when John Brown “rescued” him from slavery, called him Onion, and made Onion part of his sort of entourage. Onion (I can’t for the life of me remember his real name) gives the reader a sort of behind-the-scenes look at John Brown and his scheming and planning up through the infamous Harpers Ferry

That fine and all, but it gets way better when you realize that McBride’s John Brown is prooooobably not actually anything like the real and actual John Brown. McBride’s Brown is this crazy-pants religious zealot who literally spends so much time praying before every meal that the meal gets cold and his entourage goes off and finds other things to do in the time before the amen. He makes plan after plan after plan but then throws them out the window when God or almost anyone else gives him a sign to make a new plan or go without. And then the end of the book is practically a comedy of errors, with misunderstandings and mistakes that seem like they should be the ruin of the Harpers Ferry plan but then actually things kind of go okay until they don’t.

I was pretty down on this book right after reading it because I just didn’t get it at all, but once I talked about it with everyone and we decided we weren’t really supposed to get it I started to remember it more fondly.

But still, the best part of this book club meeting was the discovery of a John Brown biographer’s website and all the wonderful things going on in that sidebar. You’re welcome.

Recommendation: For people amused by pseudo-history and satire.

Rating: 7/10

Weekend Shorts: Boxers and Saints, by Gene Luen Yang

It feels a little strange writing a “shorts” post about two entire books, but, I mean, I read them both over the course of about two hours. Graphic novels are weird like that. These two books are sold as a boxed set and are companions to each other rather than a series; one tells of the Boxer Rebellion from the Boxer side and one from the Christian side, with the main character in each also showing up in the other book. I definitely recommend reading them one after the other, and probably in the boxed set order.

Boxers
BoxersThis book tells the story of Little Bao, a regular kid with bossy older brothers who gets caught up in the rebellion when the Christians/foreigners/Chinese leaders (it turns out the Boxer Rebellion is super complicated) come to destroy his town. The other fighting-age boys train with a travelling martial arts master, but said master sends Little Bao off to meet an even stronger master who helps Little Bao harness the power of the Chinese gods to fight the invaders. Eventually he and his band of warriors take to the countryside and, um, kill everyone who does not stand with them, which is super not cool.

Saints
SaintsMeanwhile, a girl who is given the after-after-afterthought name of “Four-Girl” and who is unsurprisingly ignored by most of her family discovers Christianity in a way that I will not spoil and devotes herself to the religion and the people who practice it. Where Little Bao has his Chinese gods, the renamed Vibiana gets to hang out with Joan of Arc, which is way cooler, and she turns to Joan for guidance throughout the story. She works to protect her fellow Christians from the roaming terrorists but of course that doesn’t work out as planned for either side. Saints contains a bit of a coda to Boxers that probably won’t have the same impact if the books are read in the opposite order, but you can let me know if I’m wrong!

Both books provide a fantastic overview of this whole Boxer Rebellion thing that I know so little about, what with my established antipathy toward all things history. My knowledge is a lot better now that I’ve read these books and done some cursory Internet searches, so three thumbs up for learning things! I love that Yang shows “both” sides of the story, Boxer and Christian, but also shows that each side has its own good and bad guys and that history and life are super complicated.