Reviews by Claire M. (Sarasota, FL)

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Scatterlings: A Novel
by Resoketswe Martha Manenzhe
Scatterlings (11/6/2022)
When I opened this book I thought - who was the editor, I wish I were, because this is a talent!!! Stories, the kind that bring us into a culture or country are the way we connect with others, we learn about the wider world.
Resoketswe Manenzhe is a writer who brings us into the life, the time of a horrific period in South African history. The story of a mixed race family facing being torn apart brings a choice from one of them that changes their lives possibly for worse than the racial separation would have. How we see and don't see each other, how we deny humanity in favor of separatism, and how we fight to survive in this world; that's what this author is posing to us.
Daughters of the Flower Fragrant Garden: Two Sisters Separated by China's Civil War
by Zhuqing Li
China Separation (6/1/2022)
To read this book, one must reflect on human endurance, choices, failed government policies, women's search for their place in the world against odds everywhere and the consequences of it all.

Two sisters, separated by the most unimagined of circumstances live through the cultural revolution in China on opposing lands. The ideological differences are made clear and through all the years of separation when the chance to see one another and have the family unite are finally mastered by the sister who was never able to return to mainland China figures the way to do it and takes massive steps to gain the documents to accomplish it. They unite as family, but the years of living through different political systems remain.

What do we do to achieve our goals and make that more important than the greater good? What do we do caught on the other side wanting to see our families but having to make another way to live?
Essentially, we must acknowledge the failures of both ideological systems and how a family separated by accidental forces of governmental policy manages their separate ways to survive.
The Paris Bookseller
by Kerri Maher
The Paris Bookseller (12/1/2021)
I struggle to write about this tale of Sylvia Beach. The beginning chapters were overwritten, used current American phrases, and almost made me wonder if I wanted to continue. I persisted as I was expecting a story about the trials and travails of opening what became a world celebrated English language bookstore in Paris in the 1920's. As I read the book and adjusted my expectations for an historical fiction-helped by reading the author's note at the end to see what was actual, I enjoyed the story and became very involved-to the point of great anger at James Joyce and the importance of the Beach-Monnier relationship to the art, culture, and literature of the day. I suppose my response was that the initial chapters of the development of the romance between Sylvia and Monnier did not have to be the opening-and the worst written. Paris in those days and earlier was a welcoming place for Parisians and expats of liberal gender identity. But the relationship was how they supported one another to create and stimulate the story of the literary scene of the twenties and thirties and the extraordinary work that came out of the people who found themselves a home and intellectual exchange in a period of cultural conservativism in the U.S. Sylvia's determination to publish Ulysses – as the seminal piece of avantgarde literature was a brave and foundational breakthrough in literature and obscenity laws.
The Three Mothers: How the Mothers of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin Shaped a Nation
by Anna Malaika Tubbs
The Three Mothers (12/14/2020)
Three Black men of historical consequence are seen through what the writer makes of the lives of their mothers and the influence she proposes these women had on their sons.
These three women came from different backgrounds, even countries, but all were bright and all wanted to do something in life. They wanted to be educated, they wanted control over their bodies and to be able to raise a family by choice-not forced by a slave owner to produce money by having his children. Family and education, knowledge of the system and pursuit of their own worth and potential; these were what drove the Three Mothers.
All three recognized that education was potentially the way out of being suppressed by the white power structure. These men, Martin Luther King, Malcolm Little and James Baldwin were taught by their mothers to stand tall when faced with white aggression and suppression. Martin made it to college, Malcolm hit bottom after his mother was put in a mental institution but rehabilitated in jail and James dropped out of school to provide for his family. The racism, violence, and refusal to see any Black person as a person had affected all of them.
The mothers were the pillars for their sons, and it is in this era, many years later that the importance of understanding the lives the mothers and the men they married is so historically vital in bringing out the conditions under which Blacks lived and tried to evade. For far too many, times have not changed.
A Girl is A Body of Water
by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi
A Girl Is a Body of Water (8/20/2020)
A fascinating journey into an African culture, specifically Uganda, in which the author uses her gifts of storytelling and language to examine the particulars of a patriarchal and storytelling culture. The ways of speaking which move from Bantu and local dialects to one influenced by the arrival of Europeans delight in the way they represent African language and culture. The impact on Ugandan culture of Christianity challenges and impacts the family and social structures which divides families, portends a future in which culture is changed by the proselyting it can't overcome.
The Mountains Sing
by Nguyen Phan Que Mai
The War that No One Won (2/2/2020)
The American War in Viet Nam was devastating to a country that had been fighting for independence for almost ever. Nguyen Phan Que Mai tells the story of the war through the eyes of one family and in doing so she speaks for what it was like in the middle and the North, which was then falling to communist ideology. The experience in the South was different and much of the fighting was there. The Tran family had seen most of their men moved south to fight while they were being evicted from their home during the Land Reform and other acts under the new communist regime. But the real story here is the toughness and resilience of a people who had been forever colonialized or fighting for independence. Nguyen takes a broad stroke, describing how as Grandma relentlessly pushes north on the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the dead bodies, the gangs of men she encounters, the starvation, the people who are indoctrinated ignore her because she is a capitalist trader, finally gets enough money and goes to reclaim each of her children whom she had to abandon on the journey. The stories of each shed light on what even the youngest endured to survive. Much of Grandma's story is told to her granddaughter Huong in the years near the war's end as some of the surviving children find their way home to mama.

I would recommend this book to be read in book clubs to open up discussion of what most Americans don't know about this war. Yes, it claimed 58,500 American soldiers, another 20,000 maimed and added Agent Orange and PTSD to our language; but it cost great division in this country and very little if any information about what the Vietnamese suffered and the extraordinary numbers of them killed and maimed.
Travelers: A Novel
by Helon Habila
Les Miserables 21st Century (5/6/2019)
TRAVELERS is a book of wonder. Through 6 "books" Habilon ties a Nigerian- almost American to tales of people who have survived fleeing their African or Asian homelands to Europe. These are the stories of the migrants we read about every day, fleeing war and the certainty of death for a chance to live. Each person's story is different but ever so much the same: trusting smugglers to get them out or in, horrific death, losing families, near starvation and for some the stress and chaos leaves them beaten, half insane. They exist in refugee camps with conditions unknown to anyone who hasn't experienced one. The question that should be in every reader's mind is – where is human compassion, where is the will to find ways to make life in the countries of Africa, Afghanistan, etc., safer and viable? The culture wars present in most European countries, America and Australia leave no room for empathy but the human tide of travelers will not end.
Helon Habilon is a writer of quiet power. His characters take you into their lives with the simple telling of their quest for a human connection, a place to make a living for them and their families. This would be a good book club choice if it considered the lives that have been lost or the trauma people undergo just trying to live.

Someone will pick this up and either do a reading or a powerful play. It needs to be widely disseminated.
The Guest Book
by Sarah Blake
Secrets and Lies (4/11/2019)
I started The Guest Book with some expectation, and in the end, it is a good book, a good read. As it jumps around in time it might prove helpful for the publisher to include a page with a family tree. People who name their children after themselves make it confusing as the book goes back and forth in time, especially if one does not read this in one sitting.

Perhaps the ability of those who come from and continue privilege in our society who never confront, even within their own family, their secrets, their indifference to the excluded allows them to live in a world of their own with peace.

Ogden and Kitty Milton are the beginning line of this family saga and I find Ogden to be the most interesting character, but his is not developed, perhaps because he appears to be more enlightened. Kitty is ruthless in her maintenance of how life should be lived, and will not tolerate anything that might interfere. And that brings heartbreak to two of her children.

Blake has left us with much to infer as secrets are never directly revealed. Or the results of those secrets may be revealed but never the life between the deed and its result.
Sounds Like Titanic: A Memoir
by Jessica Chiccehitto Hindman
Bright Lights, No Filter (1/5/2019)
Bright Lights; No Filter. Jessica Hindman leaves Appalachia for the big city and in a very short period of time starts to see Culture. That kind, yes, but also the big one: her studies in middle east history and politics as well as small town America and the Capital of the World all create a world view that is currently critical in a country comfortable with false realities.
Hindman enters this new world when she gets a job playing violin in an ensemble which is really not being heard because it is always a sound track the mystery Composer plays for all audiences. The audiences believe the musicians are actually playing and this "what is real, what is not" is the kick-starter for seeing the world anew and calling out the fake for what it is. While playing in the ensemble to pay for her living, she desperately wants to become a journalist to explain the middle east to the outside world, but she is unable to find a job in which she would work for free. Her work and her dreams are both thwarted by the catch-22 of fakery that is reality.
Gone So Long
by Andre Dubus III
Gone So Long (11/2/2018)
Mother love. The thing Susan searches for but never finds, going from man to man with no feeling of finding permanence. The murder of her mother by her father when she was a child haunts the characters in Gone So Long. A lone, vicious act of uncontrollable anger when Danny Ahearn stabs Linda creates a lifetime of fear and self loathing in Danny, his daughter Susan and Linda's mother Lois. Dubus depicts these characters in minute detail, as the story tells us how that act affected each of their lives and what the absence of Linda was to each of them. The story is dark, but some of the pieces are put together to bring some joy to Lois and Susan.
A Place for Us
by Fatima Farheen Mirza
A Place for Us (4/9/2018)
An incredible debut from a very young author; reading A Place for Us is a richly rewarding experience. Family dynamics, secrets told and not, questioning one's religion and deciding whether and how it works for one is an important subtext. A young Indian Muslim man moves to America and through an arranged marriage brings his wife to start their lives in America. Interestingly, Indian Muslims make up only about 14 of the Indian population, although it is the third largest Muslim population in the world. Being marginalized here or there was not addressed. What Fatima Farheen Mirza does address is how the five family members search for their roles in the family, identity and belonging in that organization as well as in the larger culture. This is a tour de force-the structure, characterization, storytelling, cultural questioning and deeply personal self-reflection culminate in a magnificent addition to our literature.
The Milk Lady of Bangalore: An Unexpected Adventure
by Shoba Narayan
The Sacred Cow (12/18/2017)
Upon returning home to India after 20 years in New York, Brahmin Shoba Narayan is greeted in her new building by a neighbor and a cow this woman is bringing in the elevator for the housewarming benediction of her new home. Narayan is nonplussed but then considers, on the advice of the man moving her family in, having the cow bless her apartment as well. And so begins the story of returning to Bangalore and the relationship Narayan forms with Sarala, the milk woman and her cows. Through this friendship and the need to understand the Hindu customs and cow-centric culture to which Narayan was unaware in her former Indian life she unearths lore, science, custom, and loads of facts and myths about the animal. Reverence is everywhere and towards parts of the cow non-Hindus would probably not dwell on like drinking the urine for various health cures, or using the dung to clean with. There is a wealth of information about local cows, the best milk, the color of cows, foreign cows, the grasses and what they deliver to the milk to aid the human who drinks it. It is part of Ayurvedic health regimens, it is the repository of all the gods, it is the sacred cow.

I found this book, though tedious sometimes with all the information, a wonderful cultural addition to a not well-understood custom.
Mothers of Sparta: A Memoir in Pieces
by Dawn Davies
Mothers of Sparta (9/26/2017)
There is some amazing writing here. And as Dawn shifts from one life period to another the tone and substance change, to the point I thought perhaps I was reading different authors. But as one grows, perspective changes and of course, life changes too. One of the funnier pieces talks about Dawn's almost addictive desire to let the family birds, hamsters, etc be free only to be eaten by their dog time and again. A sadder one involves the autism of her son. Dawn writes with eyes wide open, a very clear idea of self that grows with time. She has such a sense of language that I was just left with my mouth open sometimes, wondering how she did it. This is a talented writer and I look forward to whatever she writes.
The Necklace
by Claire McMillan
The Necklace (7/7/2017)
The Necklace is a good bet for a lazy afternoon in a hammock on the porch or a chair at the beach. It lacked character development and really any kind of emotional depth. Having said that, it is a story of family secrets and greed, jealous rivalry between brothers, and perhaps with the development of Nell, and certainly more about her mother it would be quite engaging in how the outcasts of the Quincy family were far more grounded and what actually led to the semi-estrangement. Although the story of May and Ambrose is central, Nell would have been a better focal point.
The Twelve-Mile Straight: A Novel
by Eleanor Henderson
The Twelve Mile Straight (5/28/2017)
There are so many reasons to read this vivid, beautifully written book about life as a sharecropper around the time of the depression. One is that if you think about it while you're reading you'll come away with a greater understanding of life as a black or poor white and how it is embedded in our culture. Another is Henderson's writing and structure. Elma, Nan and Juke are really the central characters and we are introduced to them in the first chapters. Moving on she goes sideways and back to show us how intricately those lives are part of a bigger picture-life in a small town in Georgia where everyone is part of the story.

Elma Jessup gives birth to what are called the Gemini twins – one light skinned the other dark. A black hired hand is accused of raping her and he is hung, which ultimately forces the townspeople to confront who they really are. She lives with her father Juke and Nan, the black daughter of her dead household help. Elma and Nan are like sisters - Nan can't speak because her mother cut out her tongue when she was a child. Elma is bringing up the twins as she can, but eventually all the lies and secrets of intertwined families begin to surface and the good and the evil in Florence, Cotton County, Georgia explain how we come to be where we are.
Rise: How a House Built a Family
by Cara Brookins
Rise-A family made house (10/31/2016)
An inspirational story of a woman who finally has the courage to break away from her schizophrenic, abusive husband, Cara Brookins and her four young children grow individually as well as a family through building a house. Cara sits down one night and talks about building a house. Her son Drew pipes up with rooms and where they belong. Cara obtains a lot and the building begins. Talk became life and a game changer. You want to read this story: it's real life in the making.
The Tea Planter's Wife
by Dinah Jefferies
The Tea Planter's Wife (7/25/2016)
A captivating read about a well to do Englishman, the wife he marries in England, brings to his tea plantation in Ceylon in the early years of the 20th century before the fall of the Raj. Gwen meets Laurence and falls deeply in love with him, a widower who has a few secrets that impact their life and Gwen ends up having one of her own. It is an interesting combination of romance, mystery and life in a colonial household. We get glimpses of the future when the civil war will tear apart the Tamil and Sinhalese and a sense of the racism and the resentments of locals toward the plantation owners and in some cases, the reverse.
I found it a good read that indulged my long time desire to travel to India to take in the variety of peoples, the sites and senses.
Miss Jane
by Brad Watson
Miss Jane (4/8/2016)
I love this book! Really love it. Each of us has a story, but the ability to tell it is what keeps most of us from doing so. Brad Watson gives voice to Miss Jane's story in some of the most beautiful writing I've read in a long time. Set in the South, in pre-depression Mississippi up through recent times it is about a rural family coping with their lives in ways often alien to one another. Miss Jane is born with some type of genital defect and since this is relatively unknown in these times her life is compromised in several ways and she attends school for a short period. But her life is fulfilling in so many ways as she teaches herself from keen observation and the natural environment. Jane's life is rich and full though she spends so much of it alone. She is a strong character who intrigues those who come to know her. The friendship she has with Dr. Thompson throughout their lives is special to both-and became so to me. It was also a portrait of the south that appealed to me through its gentle approach to the people and their land. Watson is a storyteller of great power and finesse.
The Language of Secrets
by Ausma Zehanat Khan
The Language of Secrets (11/10/2015)
A post 9/11 Canadian terrorist plot brings out the political tensions within subsets of the RCMP and Muslims in the department and those connected with a local terrorist cell in a mosque in Toronto. Inspector Esa Khattak and his partner Rachel Getty become enmeshed in an investigation of murder of an informant who was also a close friend of the Inspector and whose murder highlights the political, ideological and personal motives of all involved. There are stories within stories and Khan's writing explores the poetic side of Islam as well as the jihadist and the idealists drawn in by the charisma of the mosque leader, all of which gives a more complete picture to see the enemy within.
Girl Waits with Gun
by Amy Stewart
Girl Waits with Gun (8/11/2015)
This delightful adventure reminds me of Nancy Drew and Cherry Ames; adventure series for girls back in the 50's. This is an adult version but one of historical fiction. Our chief heroine, Constance Kopp is taller, braver, and quite formidable for a woman in 1914. She and her sisters are traveling to town in their horse drawn buggy when they are hit by the car of an industrial mogul which begins a tale of kidnapping, guns, and 3 sisters who confront the issues of the day in definitely feminist ways.
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