Reviews: secrets, journeys, history

Dearest Josephine by Caroline George. 1/5
Not my cup of tea. The characters’ immaturity, oblivious consumption of material goods, and overall privilege turned me off immediately. The language of their emails was laughable and entirely unrealistic, and the author’s epistolary format feels forced and awkward. The story lines move slowly, and there are a lot of problems with historical accuracy. I think the target market is teens, but if I were a teen, I’d be embarrassed to read something that makes people my age seem so shallow and silly.

On Fragile Waves by E. Lily Yu. 5/5
This is a devastating account of a family trying to make it from Indonesia to Australia, by boat, by plane, by truck–all on false passports and carrying the heavy weight of fear. Once the family–parents, a daughter, and a son–are confined to a camp for immigrants, where the full horrors of such places is exposed though the eyes and voices of children, who must watch their parents lose hope and voluntarily sedate themselves. Each victory seems to be dashed afterwards, leaving everyone uncertain and frightened. Poetic and compelling, Yu’s novel is an important read for just about everyone living in our modern world, with its deportations and detainments and the separation of families.

Girl One by Sara Flannery Murphy. 5/5
This is a super book, a thoughtful meditation on technology and the media and identity and the power of women’s friendships and support for one another. Josephine and her sisters and an unlikely ally set out on an emotionally difficult and physically dangerous quest to locate Josephine’s mother; this turns into a mystery involving deception and the twisting of the truth and some very long car rides and a lovely romance. Given the issues of reproduction, sexuality, and gender roles and power that are the heart of the book, I think this will be a great choice for book clubs and literature classes.

Wild Women and the Blues by Denny S. Bryce. 3/5
I enjoyed this quick-paced historical novel set in 1920s Chicago among nightclubs and dancers and musicians, as well as organized crime figures and thugs. I’d like the framework to have been more robust and realistic: we don’t get a lot of information on Micheaux or exactly what the grad student protagonist is doing with is dissertation/documentary, and having that background and info would have helped make the story much more solid. There were some other glaring gaps in the making sense department, mostly in terms of character behavior, that suggest to me that the book could use one more careful edit before going to press. Overall, though, it will appeal to a wide range of readers.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps Her House by Cherie Jones.5/5
This is a brutal indictment of how poverty begets violence, and violence begets poverty, and how the culture of violent, controlling masculinity damages not just those who experience the brunt of it but also the society at large that surrounds and feeds it. Jones’s novel delves deeply into the history of Barbados–its status as a colonized location and culture–and the history and functions of race and class and gender on the island. Nearly all of the characters have experienced trauma that informs their lives, and much of the plot relies on how each has coped–or not coped–with these traumas. Jones’s voice is clear and original and she is an excellent storyteller, and I think this will become essential reading in Caribbean literature.

Sunflower Sisters by Martha Hall Kelly. 5/5
I really enjoyed this tightly plotted novel set during the Civil War that entwines the lives of abolitionist sisters in the North, a family of enslaved people on a Southern plantation, the spying plantation owner, and a large cast of supporting characters. Drawing on historical documents including the letters of the sisters, Kelly creates a rich and fascinating tapestry of how different women were involved in the War and how the War affected them. Kelly writes with sensitivity and realism about nursing, and the medical treatment of Civil War combatants; plantation work and its processes; how escaped enslaved people made their escapes and and were assisted along the way to freedom and how that freedom could be reified or snatched away; how social mores and attitudes changed over the course of the War; and how spycraft worked during the period. My only quibble is with the title, which cites a relatively small detail in the novel and makes it seem much lighter than it is.

The Burning Girls by C. J. Tudor. 5/5
This is a great little thriller with excellent twists. The characters are solid and feel very real, and the tensions supernatural belief and modern religion, parent-child love and romantic love, and secret-keeping and the duty to reveal truths are all compelling and create a welcome complexity to the story. If you like folklore, history, mystery, and/or coming of age stories, this is the book for you.

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