Friday, April 12, 2024

Contemporary Fiction: Acts of Forgiveness by Maura Cheeks

As is often the case with me and new books, it is the question the story attempts to answer that drew me in. Acts of Forgiveness by Maura Cheeks explores what it would look like for the U.S. government to propose awarding reparations to descendants of slaves, and I had to see such a scenario play out, even if it is a fictional one.

The Situation: Willie Revel believes wholeheartedly that the Forgiveness Act will pass, but she may be the only one in her family with any faith that President Elizabeth Johnson can actually make it happen. After attending school for journalism and enjoying a brief career in New York, Willie returned home to Philadelphia to help her father run the construction business, which is now in trouble. There are plenty of opponents to the Forgiveness Act, a bill that would make it possible for Black families to be awarded up $175,000 in reparations for slavery, including the owner of a company who may be able to help save the Revel family's business by awarding them a lucrative contract. Willie is doing her best to remain optimistic, despite real opposition, even in her own family.

The Problem: Even as a young girl, Willie has always been curious to know more about her family's history. But her mother was adopted, and does not know much about her birth parents. Her father does not trust the government, and her grandfather has never been interested in talking about the past. Questions of family history and legacy are also a problem for Willie's daughter, Paloma, who has never met her father, and Willie is afraid to admit to her own lack of basic knowledge about the man. The Forgiveness Act brings up painful memories from the past; resentment and bitterness in its opponents; and questions of what forgiveness really means, and will it ever be enough.

Genre, Themes, History: This book is mostly set in and around Philadelphia, with a few key scenes taking place in New York, and in both Jackson and Natchez, Mississippi. Cheeks asks the question of what it would look like if Black families were awarded reparations. How would people react? What would be required? Would it be worth the trouble? Would it change anything? Within Willie's own family there are detractors and cynics, while opponents of the bill take to the streets and protest. These protestors are an extension of something Willie has experienced her whole life as a reaction to her family's success. And now Willie is holding out hope for the money to come in and save the family business she never really wanted to run.

My Verdict: The ideas and issues presented in this book are of course thought provoking. Forgiveness in and of itself can be a complicated thing, and when applied to centuries of injustice and oppression, it is not necessarily something that can be assigned a monetary value. The author carefully conveys just how complex this topic is by portraying an interesting, engaging, and often surprising narrative, that attempts to explore all areas of the topic, and what would follow if something like the Forgiveness Act were to be proposed. While not all elements of the story structure worked for me, and one of the more interesting plot points of the book feels as if it was ended abruptly, I appreciated the exploration of the idea of people being upset over someone else's success, as well a look at what happens when people mistakenly replace hope with expectation.

Favorite Moment: Perhaps it is my love of research (some aspects of it) and learning, but I adored the scene in which Willie is attending a local course on genealogy, meant to assist Black people with locating family records.

Favorite Character: Willie's grandfather Marcus may be prickly and more than a little salty, but he has his reasons. He is also able to relent and compromise when he is supposed to, and puts his foot down when he must.  

Recommended Reading: The Violin Conspiracy by Brendan Slocumb is more of a mystery, as a young Black man must search for a missing priceless violin, while also attempting to prove he is the rightful owner.

Friday, April 5, 2024

Historical Fiction: The Storm We Made by Vanessa Chan

The one line description of the debut novel from Vanessa Chan would simply be a story about the Japanese occupation of Malaysia during World War II, as told from the perspective of four family members. That is what readers will encounter in The Storm We Made, which tells the story from just before the Japanese defeated the British, until just after they themselves were defeated when the British returned.

The Situation: It is 1945, and Cecily is convinced that everything is her fault. She believes - or rather knows - that she is the reason the Japanese are here. She is the reason things are worse than they were before. And she is the reason her family is falling apart. In the before, Cecily and her family had enough food to eat. Her husband had a more than decent job in the public works department. Her oldest, Jujube, was serious and studious, while her son, Abel, was growing up to be a strong young man. Life was good, but it was not enough, which is why Cecily took the risk to continue meeting up with the man who went by the alias of 'Bingley Chan.' They were supposed to help bring Malaysia into a brighter future, together, but almost nothing happened the way it was supposed to.

The Problem: Once the Japanese defeated the British and took over the country, it became clear to everyone almost immediately that things were not going be better, and perhaps no one felt this realization more painfully than Cecily. Now her husband is sick; Jujube must work in a tea shop in order to bring in money; Abel is in danger; and young Jasmine must be hidden from those that are taking little girls away from their families. Cecily's own mood and behavior changes drastically over time. Sometimes she cannot speak or be around people as she confronts the guilt over her own part in making this horror happen. But she is determined to save everyone, while also never letting them know the truth.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel that primarily focuses on the time period of 1941-1945, during the Japanese occupation of Malaysia. With four narrators - Cecily, Jujube, Abel, and Jasmin - only Cecily's chapters occasionally take place in the years leading up to the moment when the Japanese defeat the British and take over the area. Each narrator highlights a different aspect of the occupation, but the mention of food rations, brutal treatment, curfews, and news via gossip remain a near constant. With the majority of the action taking place in August of 1945, closer to the end of the occupation, tensions are high, as is the level of despair.

My Verdict: In a brief letter to the reader at the beginning of the book, Chan acknowledges that the book deals with a time in history that her older family members do not like to talk about, but still needs to be remembered. These stories confront the legacy of colonization, toxic relationships, friendships born out of hardship, and the pain in confronting your own participation in creating (or continuing) something awful. While beautifully written, it is incredibly powerful and haunting. Chan does not shy away from the terrible reality of what happened, but the story is still approached with a sensitivity and gentleness that invites the reader to keep turning the page. 

Favorite Moment: Jujube must decide what kind of person she wants to be after all of the tragedy she has suffered through. It is not an easy decision given what has happened, but she makes it.

Favorite Character: Jasmin is only eight years old, and does not completely understand everything that is happening around her. All she wants is to make people happy, and see her family smile again.

Recommended Reading: Another recent publication that deals with the horrors of war is Kristin Hannah's The Women.  

Friday, March 29, 2024

Nonfiction: Madness by Antonia Hylton

The full title of Antonia Hylton's book is Madness: Race and Insanity in a Jim Crow Asylum. In a little more than 300 pages, Hylton explores the history of the Crownsville Hospital in Maryland, which first opened in 1911 with a specific focus on the Negro Insane. Her investigation and findings will cover the hospital's entire lifespan, with crucial insights from former patients and staff.

Genre, Themes, History: This nonfiction book is a thorough look at what was originally known as the Hospital for the Negro Insane of Maryland, but referred throughout the book simply as Crownsville. Beginning in 1911 when 12 Black men were sent to work building the hospital, alongside the first superintendent Dr. Robert Winterode, Hylton carefully moves through history, exploring the hospital's early years through World War I; the struggle for integration of both the staff and the patients; through the tumultuous Civil Rights era of the 1960s and 70s; and ultimately to its slow decline in patient numbers before its seemingly inevitable closing in 2004. It is a complicated history centered on race, politics, and the changing attitudes on mental health, as well as a look at the history of Maryland, specifically the Baltimore area. 

My Verdict: Taking on a book that deals with the topic of the history of mental health care in this country is no small thing, even if the ultimate focus is one specific hospital such as Crownsville. The memories of the terrible conditions, brutal treatment, and overcrowding are not fun to confront. Adding race and discrimination to the narrative only complicates matters, but Hylton tackled all of it, and provided readers with an absorbing presentation of the history of Crownsville. The amount of research that had to be done is nearly unimaginable, and getting people to talk about such a thing is daunting enough to cause many journalists to pick an easier topic. But Hylton does not shy away from any of it, and the information presented is well-organized, informative, and important to remember and know given the current state of affairs regarding both mental health and race.

Favorite Moment: There is one scene where some of the staff are watching an outdated instructional video on how best to restrain a patient, but the example given does not at all match the reality of what it is like to restrain an agitated human being, and is therefore not at all useful. 

Recommended Reading: The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride is a work of fiction that is not necessarily about mental health or institutions, but I was reminded of certain scenes in the latter half of the book while reading Madness. I also recommend When Crack Was King by Donovan X. Ramsey. 

Friday, March 22, 2024

Science Fiction: Beautyland by Marie-Helene Bertino

While it is not the first science fiction book to be covered in 2024, Marie-Helene Bertino's Beautyland is the first book to be covered on DSN that was published in the new year. I was drawn to the idea of a seemingly ordinary person being tasked with reporting their observations to another civilization somewhere far out in space, while living out their life here on Earth. What kind of observations would they make? And would whoever they are reporting to find them interesting, or even care? 

The Situation: Adina Giorno is born on the same day that Voyager 1 is launched in early September of 1977. Though the birth almost kills her mother, both of them make it through safely, and continue their lives as best they can in Philadelphia. Adina understands that she is different, even without the observations of the people around her telling her so. She is somehow aware of life on a distant planet, but when a fax machine appears, she is able to tell them everything she observes about human beings and how they operate. The communication is not one way, but the responses she does receive are short, and somewhat unhelpful. In this way, Adina will continue to live her life, and report as much as she can, while understanding little of it.

The Problem: Growing up as the only child of a single mother in the heart of Philadelphia would be hard enough without also being an extraterrestrial. Fitting in is difficult, and while Adina knows she is not like her classmates and the people she is growing up around, it does not change her desire to belong. As she moves from childhood to adolescence to adulthood, the human experience continues to confuse and astound her, and soon, simply sharing her findings with the beings back home is not enough. Are there others like her here on Earth? And how would human beings react if they were to know the truth? Would they even believe it?

Genre, Themes, History: This is a science fiction novel set mostly in Philadelphia and New York City, and beginning in 1977 when Adina is born. As the story progresses and Adina grows up, the passing years are marked by important moments in history and what Adina observes as the humans' react to them, as opposed to actual dates. There are no chapters necessarily, but the book is divided up into five sections, with the narrative in those sections broken up and divided in small chunks, most of which are less than a page long. Even though she is not human, Adina experiences the very real human emotions of love, joy, the need to fit in and be accepted, sorrow, disappointment, despair, and grief. The book answers the question of what would a being from another planet think about the way we live here on Earth?

My Verdict: This book fits into the science fiction category simply because Adina is not of this Earth, but has been tasked with reporting on what she observes as she grows up around humans. Other than her communications with the beings on her home planet, her experience is not too different from what most experience living in North America. The character of Adina is making observations about humans that she finds interesting or confusing, but while she is making them as someone of a different species, they entail many things that human beings have wondered about themselves. For me, I related intensely to her observations of how humans communicate with each other, endlessly saying one thing while meaning another. It is an original look at the human experience that both critiques it, and asks honest questions about it.

Favorite Moment: *spoiler alert* Adina loses out on an acting scholarship for college to another student, who them ends up becoming a lawyer, and not an actor...because of course she does. 

Favorite Character: While Adina may not quite understand it herself, I can see why her strangeness and aloof nature would draw some people in. Her inability to understand most human behaviors causes her to meet most interactions with a refreshing honesty and unintentional humor.

Recommended Reading: I recommend Erin Swan's Walk the Vanished Earth, though it is a very different type of science fiction novel that looks at a possible future for Earth as human beings race to find an alternative, while life on the planet becomes more difficult.  

Friday, March 15, 2024

Historical Fiction: The Bullet Swallower by Elizabeth Gonzalez James

Honestly, how could I bypass a book with a title like today's pick? The Bullet Swallower by Elizabeth Gonzalez James was listed in the new releases in January on Goodreads, and I simply had to know more. The fact that it is also set in and around south Texas and Mexico, and deals with future generations being made to pay for crimes of the past, caused me to pick it up and actually read it, in the hopes that at the very least I would find a good adventure.

The Situation: It is 1964 in Mexico, and Jaime Sonoro has enjoyed incredible success and fortune as one of the country's most famous actors and singers. Things seem to take an ominous turn when two things find their way into Jaime's life: one a book, another a person. Despite warnings from his father, Jaime begins reading the mysterious book, which tells the story of Antonio Sonoro, the man known as El Tragabalas, The Bullet Swallower. In 1865, Antonio set out on an ill-fated trip to Houston, Texas to rob a train, promising his dubious wife that he will return with wealth and riches. But when the adventure turns deadly, Antonio's new mission becomes one of revenge.

The Problem: Unbeknownst to Antonio, he was born with a debt to pay, as generations of Sonoros had been ruthless and greedy, often taking what is not theirs, and making those around them pay when they demanded more. When a strange man called Remedio enters Jaime's life in 1964, it soon becomes clear that he may not simply be a kind older man with a gift for healing. The more Jaime reads of Antonio's life, the more he feels that things are not as they should be, and that something has gone wrong. Even so, Antonio's story full of murder, theft, and intense revenge against the three men that turned him into The Bullet Swallower draws Jaime in. And it is soon clear that the book found its way to Jaime for a reason, linking the fate of the two Sonoros men.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a historical fiction novel set mostly in 1865 in both south Texas and Mexico, but also in 1964 in Mexico. In 1865, Antonio Sonoro leaves to rob a train, but instead nearly dies twice, ends up roaming the land looking for revenge against three Texas Rangers, and earns a reputation as a dangerous bandit. In 1964, Jaime learns of the history of Antonio Sonoro, The Bullet Swallower, for the first time, and begins to see a link between the two of them. Antonio's story is a picture of life and politics along the Texas/Mexico border in the mid-1800s, while Jaime and his father must wrestle with the idea of generational trauma, and how one generation could be held responsible for the sins of the past.

My Verdict: Well, I wanted an adventure, and I certainly got one. Antonio roams all over south Texas in an effort to find the three men he wants desperately to kill, and it is not a quiet or generally peaceful journey as he attempts to hunt them down. There is trouble at every small town; almost every encounter with every group of people, no matter how big or small, ends badly; and despite how very wrong the trip had gone from the start, Antonio is undeterred. The link between Jamie and Antonio is revealed slowly and carefully, as is the fate of each. It is not easy to get readers to extend grace towards selfish and unlikable characters, even if they are the protagonist, so some may struggle to follow Antonio's journey and understand his choices, while also enjoying the story.

Favorite Moment: This book is full of stubborn characters. These are people who see the obvious danger in their choices, but forge ahead anyways, only to often be surprised when things go wrong. Given how awful some of these people are, I thoroughly enjoyed when things did inevitably go wrong. 

Favorite Character: Hugo, Antonio's brother, does his best to get Antonio to abandon the train robbing mission and return to his loving wife and family, and it only earns him insults and derision.

Recommended Reading: The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah is a very different type of historical fiction novel, set in the 1930s when people were leaving the Texas/Oklahoma region for what they believed to be a better future in California.

Friday, March 8, 2024

Young Adult Fiction: Arya Khanna's Bollywood Moment by Arushi Avachat

We are in the second week of the third month of 2024, and I have finally managed to get a new (published this year) young adult novel onto the blog. I was excited to pick up Arya Khanna's Bollywood Moment by Arushi Avachat and dive right in. From the fun cover to the interesting premise, I knew I would at least be thoroughly entertained by whatever was to be found on the pages.

The Situation: It is Arya Khanna's senior year of high school, and the fall semester will prove to be both busy and exhausting. It is one thing to worry about college applications and early admission decisions, and quite another to do so while serving as vice president of the student council. Add to it that Arya's sister, Alina, has returned home to get married, and maid-of-honor duties can now also be added to the ambitious senior's list of responsibilities. While the wedding planning is generally fun and something to look forward to, what Arya would love to avoid are the tense feelings between Alina and their mother, a side-effect from when Alina left three years ago. Sure, Arya has her own feelings of resentment towards her older sister, but she would love to push those aside as well.

The Problem: Attempting to mediate between her sister and her mother quickly grows tiring, and her own feelings of being neglected due to her sister's actions become harder to ignore. It also does not help that Arya's relationship with her best friend seems to be fracturing, leaving her with one less person to talk to about the wedding, college essays, and the boy she lost the student council presidency to, Dean Merriweather. Losing by only six votes certainly stings, but losing to someone who is known to tease her, and now likes to refer to her as his 'assistant' as opposed to the more appropriate 'second-in-command' only makes Arya's mood worse. It may take a few hard realizations and tough conversations before Arya is able to mend relationships, and get the happy Bollywood ending she has always seen on the screen.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a young adult fiction novel set in and around Boston, and, according to the book jacket, is structured much like a Bollywood film, complete with an entertaining intermission. High school senior Arya has a lot going on. There is school, extra-curriculars, college applications, as well as drama at home as her sister returns for her wedding. Arya must navigate the interactions between her mother and sister, while also dealing with her own resentment over the situation. Readers should be prepared to learn all about shaadi (wedding) preparations, as well as various Indian foods. I admit to getting both hungry and thirsty while reading this book, as Arya makes many visits to local coffee shops and bakeries, while also eating the cooking at home and the catering at various events. 

My Verdict: Hopefully, without being too dramatic about it, I would describe this book as absolute joy on the page. This is not to say that there are no hard truths to be confronted here. There is resentment, anger, guilt, even fear that a parent may be dealing with mental health issues, and not knowing what to do about that. Arya also has the painful prospect of facing what effects her own actions and decisions had on her relationships. And then there is the general stress that is senior year of high school. But Avachat manages to inject moments of pure fun and light, and not all of them center around the planning for the shaadi. Small moments at a coffee shop, or bakery, or while looking at jewelry, or even at Arya's part-time job at a bookstore, all round out this delightful and gratifying book.

Favorite Moment: I love coffee shops, and I love book stores. This book has the protagonist spending an inordinate amount of time in both of these places and it made me so happy.

Favorite Character: There are a few good options here, but Arya's fellow student council member, Emilia, is a wonderful addition to Arya's small circle of friends, right when she needs one most.

Recommended Reading: I recommend both Radha & Jai's Recipe for Romance by Nisha Sharma, and Instructions for Dancing by Nicola Yoon.

Friday, March 1, 2024

Contemporary Fiction: Family Family by Laurie Frankel

At the start of each month, I look through the list of new releases that are scheduled to come out for the month and start placing the books I am interested in on the blog calendar. The only real issue with this system is that it would be impossible for me to not only read every book I am curious about, but also impossible for me to make space for a post on each of them. Laurie Frankel's Family Family is one of those that decided I would make space for, even removing another book from the schedule in favor of it. I could tell from the book jacket that this would be a complicated story, maybe even a little messy, but one full of humor and imagination.

The Situation: India Allwood is a TV star who recently made her film debut. She always knew she wanted to be an actor, but was always drawn more to stage acting, even musicals, though she cannot sing. Even so, when she was offered the lead on a new superhero TV show, she took it, knowing that the stability of the steady work would make it possible for her to fulfill another dream of adopting a child. Two actually: twins Jack and Fig. India navigates her career and single motherhood while dodging the paparazzi, and everything seems to be going well until she decides to be honest about her new movie. And then they get worse when one of her kids decides to try to be helpful.

The Problem: Naturally, people are upset when India says the movie is bad. Certainly her agent is upset, as are the people who made the movie. But for India, the movie tells the same old story about how adoption is surrounded by tragedy and loss, when she knows that is not always the case. India's ten year-old daughter, Fig, is not allowed on social media, and she has to share a cell phone with her brother Jack. Despite these restrictions, she manages to find and locate key people from her mother's past, hoping that they can help get her mother's message across. Instead, things spiral out of control, and various groups and protesters from all sides of the issue are camped out on her front lawn along with the paparazzi. And when Fig's reinforcements arrive, the real truth about India's family comes out.

Genre, Themes, History: This is a fiction novel that tells the story of India Allwood, a woman who has always wanted to be an actor, loves her kids, cannot sing, and carries around torn up index cards in her pocket in case there is ever an occasion to throw them in the air as confetti for a celebration. When the book begins, India lives in Los Angeles with her two adoptive kids and just starred in a movie about adoption. When she admits that it is a bad movie, she is suddenly at the center of a media firestorm, with the topic of adoption and her history with it at the center. In between chapters with India's current life as the focus are chapters that move through her past. And while her career has always been her focus, so has family, and just how complicated having one can be.

My Verdict: I feel like this is going to be one of those books I will wish more people read and talked about. Sure, it looks at the subject of adoption from nearly every angle, and makes the important point that it is not all tragedy and loss and sacrifice, but there is also a lot of joy involved, which is often missed in media. But while making this point, the book also tells a great story, and a funny one. Things spiral out of control for India in the best way, and I admit to laughing out loud at several points in the story, either because of something someone said, or because of the situation. I think this book will surprise a lot of people, should they decide to read it. 

Favorite Moment: After arriving at college, India is dismayed to learn that the next stage production will be by a playwright she has never even heard of, and as someone who likes to over prepare before an audition, she is upset to realize that everything she had learned so far would not help her here. But this is until her mother makes her realize that what she has learned so far can absolutely help her here, so India sets to work doing her best and most thorough research, in the only way that she can. It made my college administrator heart so happy to see a student working so hard for something they want to do.

Favorite Character: There are plenty to choose from here, but I pick India's mother. As an immigration lawyer, and a single mother, Sarah Allwood does not have time to sugarcoat much for her daughter. So she carefully and intelligently dismantles all of her daughter's arguments, but with care and grace, and also, a little bit of brutality. 

Recommended Reading: The Wishing Game by Meg Shaffer was nominated for the 2023 Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Fiction, and for good reason.