Book Reviews – Jan 15-21 2020

This past weekend, I served as the doula at my 60th birth – a 28-hour birth at that (well, even longer for the mom, but a 28 hour stretch for me). Whew. Consequently, I decided I needed some lighter reading this week. Recovery time was essential. That is one thing I can say about volunteering at these long births!

As always, a long birth like this teaches me so much about patience, staying in the moment, and practicing empathy. In this particular case, it taught me to celebrate even incremental change! But enough with the digression. You clicked to see what I read last week:

Light historical fiction set in 1909 Boston

 Book Reviews – Jan 15-21 2020The Saturday Evening Girls Club by Jane Healey
Published by Lake Union Publishing on April 25, 2017
Pages: 242

I don’t remember how this book ended up on my TBR list, but it was a good pick to follow up A Well-Behaved Woman: A Novel of the Vanderbilts and The House of Mirth. Set in 1909, at the end of the Gilded Age, this novel is set in Boston’s North End and covers the coming of age of a group of working-class women.

I enjoyed the book and got more involved with the characters by the end. As I wanted, this novel is light fiction – don’t expect literary writing as in The House of Mirth. If you have a vacation to Boston, this would be a good book to add to your reading list. Basically, this is a good driving or walking book, if you have the Audible version as I did.

A favorite mystery series, book #6

Book Reviews – Jan 15-21 2020Off the Grid (Monkeewrench, #6) by P.J. Tracy
on January 1, 2012

Perfect timing to head back to Minnesota and check in with the Monkeewrench gang. This is #6 in the series, written by a mother-daughter duo.

I love seeing how the lead characters are fairing. PJ Tracy develops the cast nicely. Additionally, I always welcome a virtual visit to Minneapolis and enjoy the regional descriptions and personalities.

The only thing I had issues with in this book was the final few chapters of the climax. It felt unfinished. I wanted more details. That said, a very complex story was brought together nicely and I am ready to move on to #7.

I do not understand what all the rave is about…

Book Reviews – Jan 15-21 2020Dear Edward by Ann Napolitano
Published by Dial Press on January 6, 2020
Pages: 352

I thought this book would be so much more. After all, the premise of this novel was compelling. A boy is a lone survivor of a devastating plane crash. Unfortunately, this book I thought was going pull me into a deeply emotional journey of grief and healing ended up ok, but not very memorable.

To be fair, there were some wonderful snippets in the writing, but it felt inconsistent. The novel has two parallel stories ongoing. First, there is the crash aftermath making up the core of the story.

But it is interposed with random chapters describing in minute detail certain passengers’ experiences on the doomed flight. For instance, the reader follows Edward and his grief journey, but then must jump back to one of the half dozen characters on the plane. Unfortunately, the latter make for unconnected storylines that never fully come together.

I think my issue was having too many people with which to connect, all detracting from Edward, the main character. Additionally, Edward’s fellow passengers were an odd assortment of characters, but all rather formulaic. There was the a-hole rich guy, the valiant soldier recovering from a devastating injury, an old guy, an relationship-insecure just-pregnant young woman and a lady reincarnate from multiple past lives. The horny flight attendant was the worst.

So 2.5 stars. Disappointing, despite Jodi Picoult’s recommendation that drove me to buy the book.

My top read of the week takes you to Harar, Ethiopia

Book Reviews – Jan 15-21 2020Sweetness in the Belly by Camilla Gibb
Published by Penguin Books on 2007
Genres: Fiction, Literary
Pages: 338

This book pulled me in so fast and firm that I listened to it all in one day. The primary character is a young woman with a complex history that leaves her hanging between multiple cultures. This allows her to, on the one hand, be more like an observer of her surroundings – a living narrator. On the other hand, her pursuit of the universal struggle for identity and belonging is a central them of the novel.

The setting jumps between Harar and London. The Harar storyline precedes and coincides with the Derg, one of history’s most brutal miltary dictatorships. This gives the reader an opportunity to explore a place and culture not often available in Western literature, which I appreciate. The London storyline focusses on the Ethiopian diaspora that results from those fleeing the Derg.

Gibbs does this movement in time and place well (unlike Dear Edward). The London setting has its own set of characters, but Lilly remains the lead throughout. As the story unfolds, Lilly’s issues and growth are intricately linked with her unresolved past.

I have travelled frequently to Ethiopia, including a short visit while the Derg was still in power. While I have never visited the city Harar, I still recognized Ethiopia in Gibbs’ writing. I could feel myself in the homes and streets described. Additionally, the Derg and its consequences are well written. I have family and friends who are refugees from that era, and I found the portrayal of the people and experiences very familiar.

Some reviewers did not like the book and rated it poorly because the portrayal of Islam did not match their view. I am not Muslim and cannot comment on accuracy of the religious details. However, teaching the reader about Islam is not the purpose of this book. In my opinion, Islam is part of the setting because of the protagonist’s unusual upbringing and simply because Harar has largely a Muslim population. Islamic practices are essential to the narrative in this book much as a novel set in Italy includes Catholicism.

If you are looking for a book that transports you to a different time and place, where you can travel and experience the world from your armchair, you will enjoy this book. If you find understanding the refugee and immigrant experience interesting, in all its complexity, you will also find this book a nuanced and thoughtful exploration of the topic.

Book clubs may enjoy discussing this book, too. Further, if you enjoy this book, consider reading Beneath the Lion’s Gaze by Maaza Mengiste. I read this novel at the end of 2019 and it describes the rise of the Derg and fall of Haile Selasse in detail.

Note – there are a few mispronounced Ethiopian words in the audiobook. Not to the point of distraction, but be aware if this bothers you.

Inspiration for the woman adventurer – or wannabe adventurer

Book Reviews – Jan 15-21 2020She Explores: Stories of Life-Changing Adventures on the Road and in the Wild by Gale Straub
Published by Chronicle Books on March 26, 2019
Pages: 240

My son gave me this book when I retired. The perfect gift for this almost 60 year old woman heading out on a new adventure (my Glampervan should be ready to hit the road in May 2020!).

The book has a large number of short personal vignettes and stories from a diverse array of women adventurers. Photographs and artwork make up the rest of the book. Meant to inspire women to think outside their self-proscribed boundaries, the book succeeds. At least it did for me.

Not only is the book beautiful and inspiring in its own right, it connects you to Women on the Road podcasts and an online She-Explores stories to keep you inspired. I have found many compilation books like this often end up very homogeneous, lacking diversity, reflecting Mini-Me’s of the editor. Not so with this book. Almost all women will find themselves somewhere in this book.

…bravery can be messy. It makes us come face-to-face with our most vulnerable selves, it asks us to sit in discomfort, and it asks us to try, fail, get back up, and stretch ourselves.

Julie A. Hotz

If the Earth’s natural places call to you, if you dream about or live adventure, be it hiking, road tripping or mountaineering, you will enjoy and be inspired by this book.

Happy reading – until next week.

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