Another Woman’s Daughter by Fiona Sussman

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As the racial tensions of South Africa during apartheid being to explode, Celia Mphephu realizes she is no longer able to keep her young daughter safe. For years she was a black servant working in the white suburbs and led a somewhat comfortable life, but her employers decide to flee to England and they make Celia a proposal she can not refuse. They want to take young Miriam with them. The choice is heartbreaking, but she knows it will provide her daughter with a life full of opportunity.

Miriam must grow up in a world in which she does not belong. In her new English home she faces racism at every turn. This world is not the fairy tale her mother imagined. Another Woman’s Daughter follows the story of these two women as they struggle to find themselves and hold their ground in a world of turmoil and tension.  Eventually Miriam knows she must return to Africa and find her mother to understand who she is and the secret she holds.

It has been a long time since I read a book in one sitting, but I could not put this book down. The story is beautifully written and fast moving.  It is a testament to the strength of women, and a tribute to mothers and daughters.  My heart ached for both women. Fiona Sussman paints a beautiful landscape and touches you with her writing in the place that connects all humans to each other.

Middlesex by Jeffery Eugenides

Middlesex is the story of Calliope Stephanides, and the three generations of Stephanides before her.  The book follows the family from generation to generation from a tiny village in Greece to Detroit, Michigan. While searching for answers as to why she is different from other girls, Calliope uncovers a dark family secret and a genetic condition that has been hidden for many years.  Understanding that secret is what finally allows Callie to become Cal and to finally feel whole. 
Middlesex is an epic tale of a family’s immigration to the United States and what it means to become an American. It is an interesting look at how the history of our family can shape us into what we will become. Calliope’s story is at times heartbreaking, but written so truthfully it is beautiful.  This book is a little bit of a heavy read, and not for everyone due to some sensitive sexual material, but it is so beautifully written it’s hard to put down.  Jeffrey Eugenides is a master of words.

The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafron

The Shadow of the Wind is set in post-war Barcelona. The story begins with young Daniel being taken  by his father to the cemetary of forgotten books, where he is allowed to select one book to keep but must promise that he will take care of it for the rest of his life. After falling in love with the book, Daniel decides to find others books written by the same author. He soon finds that no books exist, as they have all been destroyed by a mysterious figure that collects the books and burns them. Intrigued by this, Daniel sets out to discover the story of the mysterious author and just what may have happened to him.   The Shadow of the Wind is actually two stories in one. As Daniel learns more about the author, Julian Corax, he finds himself unraveling secrets that have been buried for thirty years.  A long, winding novel, The Shadow of the Wind is beautifully written and spellbinding. The translation from Spanish is superbly done. This book is written as a novel should be. It is an epic story told with words that will paint pictures in the reader’s mind When you are ready to really dig deep into a story pick up this book, but read it slowly and carefully and savor it.  This book was clearly written to be read by those that have a true love of books.

Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

There were no surprises in Gatlin County. We were pretty much the epicenter of the middle of nowhere. At least that’s what I thought. Turns out, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  There was a curse. There was a girl. And in the end, there was a grave.”
 
Ethan Wate plans to escape his small southern town as soon as possible. That is until the girl he has been dreaming of (literally) walks into his school. Lena Duchannes is dark and mysterious and Ethan is inexplicably drawn to her. To make matters worse, she lives in the creepy mansion at the edge of town with her recluse uncle that no one has seen for years.
 
Ethan soon learns that Lena comes from a family of “casters,” more commonly known as witches, and Lena may be the most powerful of them all.  But danger looms just days away. On her 16th birthday  Lena will be claimed light or dark and the choice is not hers to make.
 
I really enjoyed the blend of a dark Gothic supernatural world with a simple southern town. As a lover of southern literature, I really appreciated the nod to the history and magic of the south. Beautiful Creatures is a young adult book that can be enjoyed by all ages. The themes of light and dark, old and new, and the power of both magic and love resonates with readers. I have to admit, in the current trend of turning every book into at least a trilogy, part of me wished this was a stand alone book but the characters are interesting enough to carry it through a few more stories.

A Tiny Adventure: Circling the Sun

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Have you ever found yourself so lost inside a book that when it ended you were stunned to find yourself here instead of there? Isn’t that the most wonderful feeling? I just returned from colonial Africa where I have been spending time with Beryl Markham and her band of glamorous expats. Well actually I was reading Circling the Sun by Paula McClain.  I love when a book is so well written that it engulfs all your senses. With this book, I swear to you had to brush the red African dust off my hands each time I finished reading.

Beryl Markham was a beautiful, willful woman who was raised in the wilds of Kenya. She became the first female licensed race horse trainer in Africa (and possibly the world) and also the first woman to fly across the Atlantic from east to west. Her life is filled with amazing adventures and stories of bravery and grit.  She lived a remarkable life, one that can tend to make other women feel small.

As I was reading her story, I was so moved by the greatness of her life. I imagined what it must have felt like to be a pioneer for women. I wondered at the pride she must have felt to have blazed the trail for all the women behind her. And then I admit I felt a little sad that I will never be that kind of woman. My path in life is not to have great adventures or fight injustice. Chances are I will never find myself in a situation where I need to be bold and daring and make history.

My life is a quiet service.

It’s easy to see others as more interesting. We can lose ourselves in the monotony of daily life. The endless mountains of laundry and dirty dishes, the schoolwork, the meetings, the weeknight dinners, and Saturday birthday parties. But we all serve a purpose. It’s God’s challenge to us to find it. It may not be to pioneer. We may be warriors in our own ways. Between the amazing adventures, Beryl Markham was also a wife, a mother, and a daughter. At some point, she had to make dinner for someone.

There is glory in the small things as well.

We can not know what path our life will take or the impact it will have on the world. We aren’t supposed to know. In reality, Beryl Markham’s life was riddled with controversy and her spirit never seemed to truly settle. I won’t have a life that inspires epic novels, but I have a family that loves me and I seem to have found my purpose. And that’s enough for me.

As for my taste for great adventure? Thank God for good books.

What have you read lately that got you thinking? Or maybe just got you lost?

Gods in Alabama by Joshilyn Jackson

Arlene has a dark secret. Ten years ago she made a deal with God that if He would just help her keep it she’d never come back to Alabama again, but promises are hard to keep and the south is calling her home. Arlene and her boyfriend Burr make the long voyage to Alabama as Arlene’s story unravels and her past comes back. What really happened? Is it possible that the truth can come in many different versions? Is there a chance for redemption?

You know I have a soft spot for southern literature, especially books that conjure up the thick heat of a summer day and the slow fluid movement of a small southern town. I picked Gods in Alabama for that reason, but was pleased to find the book had much more to offer. The author uses vivid and honest language to paint the story from Arlene’s point of view. I will warn that Arlene can be blunt and sometimes crass.  The book is full of sexual references and seedy behavior so readers of a more timid nature may find it a little much. 

What I liked most about the book was how Joshilyn Jackson was able to craft such an unreliable narrator. It’s rare in books to find that you simply aren’t sure if you can trust your narrator, or even like her at times. The story is ultimately a who-dunnit wrapped up in good gossip. As you read you won’t be sure who you’re rooting for, but it’s a good ride all the way to the end.

Bossypants by Tina Fey

I tend to stick to fiction when I’m reading. An autobiography would typically be last on my list of books to read, but I kept hearing great things about Tina Fey’s book Bossypants so I decided to give it a shot. The book follows Fey through her childhood in rural Pennsylvania all the way to her life as a mother and producer of the show “30 Rock”. It’s really just a rambling look at a person with a pretty interesting life.

I really enjoyed the book. I got a few good laughs and even a little insight into life.  I was surprised by how much I could relate to her life as a mother trying to balance her family life and work. I really appreciated her honesty about her feelings towards herself, her appearance, and her perception of the world around her. Plus it’s full of helpful little advice nuggets like, “If you are a woman and you bought this book for practical tips on how to make it in a male-dominated workplace, here they are. No pigtails, no tube tops. Cry sparingly.” And if you haven’t read Tina Fey’s “Letter for My Daughter”, Google it. It’s an excerpt from Bossypants and it’s fantastic. Overall it’s a fun, short read. I highly recommend it.

Winter’s Bone by Daniel Woodrell

Sixteen-year-old Ree Dolly lives a life of poverty in the Ozark Mountains. She bares responsibility for her two brothers and her sick mother. On a cold winter day Ree learns that her father has skipped bail on charges for cooking crystal meth. If he doesn’t return her family will lose their home and all they have. Ree’s only choice is to navigate the dark underbelly of her extended family and bring her father home- dead or alive.

Winter’s Bone is ultimately a coming of age story, dark and gritty. It paints a portrait of the harsh realities of a subculture that is so far detached from the rest of the world it is hard to believe that it exists, but it truly does.  Ree’s character is strong and relentless. The story is moving and beautiful, though very bleak. This is definitely not a light read, but one that shouldn’t be missed. Woodrell does such an excellent job of painting the landscape that you will feel the chill of the Ozark air inside and out. I recommend curling up with this one on a cold winter night with a very warm blanket.

Iron House by John Hart

Growing up in the Iron Mountain Home for Boys, brothers Julian and Michael learn life’s hard lessons fast. When a brutal murder occurs, older brother Michael takes the blame to save his brother and flees the home. Living on the city streets, Michael joins a life of organized crime. As a respected and feared member of the community, Michael thrives until he meets Elena and they decide to start a family. Michael quickly learns that leaving “the family” that he already has is not so simple. With a price on his head Michael must return to the terrors of his childhood home and once again save his brother and all that he loves.

Iron House is a non-stop thriller from start to finish, fast moving and well written. At the root of the story there is an old mystery to unravel and Hart weaves the clues into the storyline perfectly. I really enjoyed this book and found it difficult to put down. It’s a story that will haunt the corners of your mind for a long time. A warning: there are some very graphic and brutal scenes in this book. If you are squeamish you might want to skip it, but I didn’t think it took too much away from the story.

Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald

In Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, Therese Anne Fowler introduces the world to the little known counterpart of F. Scott Fitzgerald, his wife.  The book is a fictional story that is rooted in detailed research.  The story centers around the ill-fated couple, but it also documents life during prohibition and the Jazz Age- a time when New York and France were brimming with contemporary artists such as Ernest Hemingway and Gertrude Stein.  Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald were the “golden couple” of their time, but behind closed doors (and often publicly as well) there was a different story to tell.

With the release of the new Gatsby movie looming, I thought it was the perfect time to read this book. Zelda Fitzgerald was a woman born before her time. She was artistic and bold, and married to a man that both loved and hated her for it. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald’s story is a tragic one. There has long been question as to which of them was responsible for the ruin of their lives. Fowler did a very nice job of staying in the middle and letting the readers decide for themselves. I tend to find myself on Team Zelda, but then I realize that a saw a bit of myself in her. Though she was certainly an unusual and outstanding woman, Zelda was simply trying to do what all women want to do- to find yourself, to leave something for the world to remember you by, to be a good wife and mother, to mean something.  This book is a fabulously written piece of historical fiction.