Happy End of Summer!
I know what you’re thinking. The solstice isn’t until September 22. Maybe so, but where I live, the schools are open, the coffee shop is selling pumpkin spice and candy corn is one display at the market. Fall is here.
Perhaps it’ll cheer you up to know I’ve got three terrific books to recommend this month. After all, what goes better with pumpkin spice than a super good book?
Sister, Mother, Warrior by Vanessa Riley: Every once in a while, a writer comes along whose book combines a literary voice with commercial fiction pacing. Vanessa Riley is one of those authors. Why oh why is this woman not sitting atop the NY Times list?
In this book, Riley tells the story of two real-life women with drastically different temperaments who share a similar goal: Justice for the black residents of Haiti. Abdaraya (Gran) Toya is an enslaved Dahomey warrior who dreams of battle. She lives for the day when the slaves rise up and fight for their freedom.. Marie-Claire Bonheur is a privileged, free black woman dedicated to helping the oppressed. Both play important roles in the life of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the man who ultimately wins Haiti’s independence. Gran Toya as the woman who raised him and Marie-Claire as the wife who loved him.
History records the exploits of Dessalines and other men, but tells very little about Gran Toya, Bonheur or any of the other women who fought along side of them. History is full of people (many of whom were women) whose pivotal roles have been forgotten. It was wonderful learning about the women of Haiti and their contributions. Riley does a fantastic job of turning names from history into three-dimensional characters. Gran Toya might be one of the fiercest women I’ve ever read.
I won’t lie. The book isn’t an easy read. The Haitian revolution and the years leading up to it were violent, dark times and Riley pulls no punches in depicting the horrible torture slaves endured at the hands of white people, nor does she shy away from the problem of colorism within the black community. It’s also a dense book with a huge cast of characters. In the hands of a lesser writer, such an undertaking would be a disaster, but Riley pulls it off.
If you like good writing, strong women, and unusual historical settings, this is your book. I highly recommend it.
The Family Remains by Lisa Jewell: Three years ago, when I was working at Barnes & Noble, the store heavily promoted Jewell’s book, The Family Upstairs. It was the story of Libby Jones who, on her twenty-fifth birthday, discovers her birth parents died in a what appeared to be a cult murder-suicide. As she digs into her path, two other characters reveal what really happened. Turns out the murder-suicide was only a small part of the story. Our entire staff read the book, and every single one of us gave it five stars.
In The Family Remains, the story opens with the discovery of two bodies. One is a set of bones from a twenty-five year old cold case, and the other is the body of Michael Rimmer, whose body was discovered stuffed in a closet. With that, the Jones family is back and we learn that not everything that happened to them has been resolved.
Jewell is a master in taking what appear to be disparate storylines and slowly weaving them together. The result is a twisty yet taut psychological thriller that keeps you guessing. Another thing Jewell excels at? Dropping that other shoe. Just when you think she’s tied up everything in a neat little bow, she throws in one last twist. In this case, it’s a very last line of the book. In less than six words, she changes everything.
You don’t have to have read The Family Upstairs to enjoy The Family Remains. Jewell does a good job of filling in the blanks so you can read it as a stand alone. However, I recommend you grab both. The Jones family to too addictive to limit yourself to just one.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown: I wrapped up the summer on a high note with this incredibly inspirational nonfiction about the 1936 Men’s Olympic Rowing Team. Now, you might be inclined to think a book about an eight-man crew team would be boring. You would be wrong. The story of the Washington State rowing team is a true underdog story. These were working class college students, sons of lumberjacks and carpenters, battling for supremacy in a sport dominated by the rich.
At the center of the novel is Joe Rantz, whose chance meeting with Brown inspired the novel. Listening to the story of his traumatic childhood and his struggles at Washington State, you can’t help but root for him to succeed. Same with the other seven members of the boat. Brown does a wonderful job of bringing these men to life.
The Boys in the Boat is more than a story about rowers, however. It’s about teamwork, about sacrifice, about discovering inner strength, and about becoming part of something bigger than yourself. What the 1936 Rowing Team accomplished was nothing short of extraordinary. I highly recommend.
By the way, if you can, listen to the audio version of this book which is narrated by Edward Herrmann. His rich voice enhances the experience.
Normally, this is where I would remind you that you can also watch the video version of Barb’s Book Reviews. Unfortunately, a visit to the dermatologist has forced me to postpone the video for a week. Wear your sunscreen people!
I will remind you, however, to join Donna Alward and me on September 20 as we discuss Dear Mrs. Bird, a World War 2 historical by A.J. Pearce. It’s sure to be a fun discussion. Donna is a huge WW2 fiction fan. Also, look for our Step into the Story website coming soon.
Thanks all for reading. Have a wonderful Labor Day weekend.