Tuesday, July 31, 2018

July 2018 in Books

A really long list this month, mostly because we were on vacation which means a lot of extra reading time for me.  A couple of duds, but some really great reads too.  Here's the recap:

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena - Anthony Marra - fiction - four stars - An eye opening book about Chechnya in 2004 and the first Chechen war It starts with the abduction of a young girl's father. His friend takes the girl to a hospital to stay with a doctor he has heard of only tangentially. The doctor isn't particularly welcoming, but accepts the girl if he will help in the hospital. The book weaves together the past stories of each of the characters and how they came to be in this place at this time, and the many ways in which they are connected. I also really liked how the author tied in tidbits about the future. He might mention a passing character who in 10 years would be living in Romania as a nurse helping immigrant children - not an actual quote from the book, but just an example. It was neat to see that this person or that person survive and thrive, or don't as the case may be.

River, Cross My Heart - Breena Clarke - historical fiction - three stars - I picked this one up at a Free Little Library. It looked interesting, and it takes place in the DC area which is always fun as I like to hear about places familiar to me in fiction. The books starts with the tragic drowning death of Johnnie Mae's (10) sister Clara (5) while she was supposed to be watching her. This just fell flat for me. I kept waiting for something to happen, but really the drowning death was it. I feel like it was all character development and in the end nothing really happened. It was kind of a random series of occurrences with nothing really to tie it together. The characters were interesting enough, but at the end of the day you still need a story This one I would skip if given the chance for a do-over.

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying - Nina Riggs - memoir - four stars - A series of sketches/musings/writings written by a woman who is dying of cancer. She has two young boys and the pieces deal with both how she is reacting to things/treatment as well as her hopes and fears for them and others important to her. I found it an honest dialogue especially as she definitely knew she was not going to survive and indeed the book was published shortly after her death. I found her conversations with her kids to be the most interesting, not sure that is the right word, part of the memoir - how they reacted to things, the language they used, their perceptions etc. For someone dealing with terminal illness, I think this would be a very helpful book.

Little Bee - Chris Cleave - fiction - four stars - This was a hard one to read all around. It starts with the release of Little Bee, a refugee from Nigeria in London. She travels to the home of some acquaintances she met while in Nigeria. The story flashes back between past and present and eventually you hear about the terrible events that linked Little Bee and this couple. This was a difficult story to read on a number of levels from her life (and the lives of the other girls) in the refugee center as well as the events that led her to flee Nigeria - there is not much good there. I wasn't crazy about the back story of Sarah, the woman she goes to see, and I found the resolution of the story weak and unbelievable. Still the life of Little Bee herself was eye opening and hard, but I thought an important one to read.

Moloka'i (Moloka'i #1) - Alan Brennert - historical fiction - five stars - This one was such a good book, and so sad. It's about a little girl named Rachel who is diagnosed with leprosy at the age of 7 and is sent to the Hawaiian leper colony at Moloka'i to live. Having a seven year old, I just can't imagine the trauma for both her and her family. She has a milder case than many, which in some ways is good as she survives and is strong enough to try numerous experimental treatments, but sad because she literally sees all of her friends die around her. Eventually she marries, and even has a child - but again, so sadly, children born on Moloka'i are immediately taken from their parents and put up for adoption. Eventually the medicinal cure for leprosy is discovered and she is eventually able to leave, but so much has changed, and there is still great stigma attached to carrying leprosy. This was a heartbreaking story to read, so much sadness, but Rachel is so resilient, she and the other children are able to thrive and find joy despite their circumstances. There is actually a sequel to this and I will definitely be picking it up soon!

Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes - Jonathan Auxier - juvenile fiction/fantasy - five stars - One of the books I selected for Ellie for our vacation (each year I get the girls two new books to take on vacation - this year she got this and Fellowship of the ring). It's the story of an orphaned boy who is blind because a crow pecked his eyes out as a baby. Because he is blind, his other senses are heightened which leads him to a life of crime as a very successful thief. He has a good heart though, and is eventually befriended by a couple of strangers who send him on a quest with an unusual creature as his companion. Ellie loved this one, it's a little on the 'easy' side for her, but it was fun to see her make deductions about the book and kind of unpack it. She liked it so much when we got home we immediately borrow the sequel/companion which she tore through as well.

The Wizards of Once (The Wizards of Once #1) - Cressida Cowell - juvenile fiction/fantasy - four stars - This is one of the books I got for Carina for vacation (her other book was Mr. Popper's Penguins).  It's also one of the books for the fall Battle of the Books at our school.  Carina can't participate yet since it's for 4th and 5th graders and she is entering 3rd, but I thought she would enjoy reading some of the books anyway.  In this land there are were once Warriors, Wizards, and Witches.  The Warriors have wiped out the Witches and continue to do battle with the Wizards.  The main characters are Wish (daughter of the Warrior Queen) and Xar (youngest son of the head wizard).  Neither is quite living up to their parent's expectations.  They are both out doing what they're not supposed to, when they happen upon one another.  They end up being drawn into an adventure in which they discover that the Witches are still about, and dangerous, and they must work together to defeat one.  Carina and I both enjoyed this one and are looking forward to release of the second book this fall.

The Ship of Brides - Jojo Moyes - historical fiction - five stars - Can you believe this is the first of Moyes' books I've read?  There are definitely others on my list, but I love historical fiction and was really interested in this one when I read the description.  During WWII, there were many British troops stationed in Australia, many of these men ended up marrying Australian women.  After the war brides were authorized free trasnportation to be reunited with their husbands.  According to my internet sources (lol) 1944 and 1949, 110 ships made 177 journeys...that's a lot of brides, in fact though this occurred in other countries as well, for example, the US government relaxed immigration rules following the war to allow immigration of war brides.  Anyway, this story follows four women assigned as roommates aboard the ship as well as the ship captain, their paths each follow different trajectories and over the course of the journey you learn their back stories.  In addition to just being a great book from the perspective of the individual stories, I learned a lot about the ships, how they ran, and this period in history.  Thoroughly enjoyable.

Dumplin' (Dumplin', #1) - Julie Murphy - young adult - So several people I follow raved about this book, and I'll say that I read a few chapters and almost didn't finish it.  Maybe I'm a bit of a prude, or it's because my daughter is just entering middle school and fast approaching her teen years, but I was really not interested in sophomores/juniors contemplating and talking about having sex.  I stuck it out, and it did get better, but overall I just didn't enjoy it that much and if I had to go back, I probably wouldn't have borrowed it.  I didn't find the main character, a self-declared fat girl who decides to enter a beauty pageant to prove a point (although I'm frankly not sure what that point was) that likable.  Granted she is dealing with a lot of self-image issues, and the death of her beloved aunt, but I just didn't really appreciate her attitude, how she dealt with things, etc.  Frankly the supporting characters were far more likable. 

A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North Korea - Masaji Ishikawa - biograpy - five stars - Masaji is a half Japanese, half Korean who was born in Japan.  His father was conscripted by the Japanese during WWII as they needed more labor.  Koreans weren't treated particularly well in Japan and they lived a hand to mouth existence exacerbated by the fact that his father was abusive and drank away much of their money.  Following the end of WWII, they, like many Koreans, were lured back to Korea with tales of good jobs, wealth, prosperity, etc.  In reality, once they returned they were treated more poorly than ever and even considered the lowest class because they had questionable background being born in Japan.  Masaji's family suffered greatly, with many family members dying young from ill health and starvation.  He was able to escape Korea through China with the help (unofficial) of Japanese officials.  This is a short book, but I learned a lot.  I had no knowledge of the Korean conscription or mass repatriations, and his descriptions of life in North Korea, how you traveled, sought work, etc. were fascinating.  Highly recommend.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane - Lisa See - historical fiction - five stars - I've read pretty much all of Lisa See's books (the historical fiction ones - I need to try the mystery series).  One of my blog friends last month alerted me to the fact that she published a new book last year and I had to go get it.  This is the story of a girl from one of the Chinese 'ethnic minorities' called the Akha.  I'd never heard of the Akha and so I learned a lot about them in this book, they live in the Yunnan province (very close to SE Asia, and this ethnic group in fact has extends into many SE Asian countries). They are quite insular and have many different superstitions/rituals/beliefs that are explored, some of which are heartbreaking.  The main character is a girl name Li-Yan whose family produces tea.  She stands out in her tribe and this eventually causes her to leave, become educated, and thrive in modern China.  Still, she is tied to the Akha culture, and becomes a link between the Akha and the outside world.  It's a wonderful story about loss, sacrifice, the tension between old and new, family and self.  I loved it.

Next up on my list are The Coincidence Makers, The Astonishing Color of After, The Forever Girl, Stalin's Meteorologist, and What You Did Not Tell - a mix of non-fiction and fiction, and I just got a few notices from the library that some holds are in, so I have to get cracking!

How about you guys, please share what you loved (or hated) this month.

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