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Posts Tagged ‘1970s’

Book Review: Burn Down, Rise Up by Vincent Tirado

Image of a digital book cover. A Black teenager with braids holds a bat in front of a train car. Burn Down, Rise Up is written in electric letters over her.

Summary:
For over a year, the Bronx has been plagued by sudden disappearances that no one can explain. Sixteen-year-old Raquel does her best to ignore it. After all, the police only look for the white kids. But when her crush Charlize’s cousin goes missing, Raquel starts to pay attention—especially when her own mom comes down with a mysterious illness that seems linked to the disappearances. Raquel and Charlize team up to investigate, but they soon discover that everything is tied to a viral worldwide game called the Echo Game. If you play it wrong, it can trap you in an echo – a parallel universe based on one of the worst times your particular region has seen.

Review:
I love a horror based around a bunch of people doing something that tempts the supernatural into coming to get them, and then being surprised when it does. (And when I say “love” I mean I will literally throw you out of my house if you say Candyman at a mirror twice). When I saw there was a sapphic version of this trope coming out, you bet I smashed the request button on NetGalley so hard.

The first hurdle any horror like this has to get over is giving us a horrifying scene right off-the-bat that’s scary even though we don’t really know what’s going on. This book does a great job at that. Charlize’s cousin, Cisco, has been missing. He comes back from being missing “wrong” and accidentally gives “something” that’s clearly supernatural to Raquel’s mom, who’s a nurse. This beautifully sets up both Charlize and Raquel to be heavily invested in what exactly is going on in their neighborhood. They used to be close friends but now they’ve drifted to acquaintances, and Raquel has the hots for Charlize. It’s just the right set-up.

The next hurdle the book has to get over is why are the Black kids sneaking out at night to play this viral game tempting the supernatural at 3am? The book takes this head-on with the characters acknowledging doing such a thing doesn’t go with their culture. Charlize and Raquel are motivated to save their family members, but what about Cisco? We learn he befriended a bunch of white theater kids who asked him to come along and do it as part of some theater kids bonding activity. I have to say, as a once upon a time theater kid myself, this sort of thing rang as very true.

So is the horror scary? Yes, largely because it’s starting to reach out into the Bronx even among those who aren’t playing the Echo Game. But I will say, I didn’t think it was terrifyingly scary. If this was a movie, I could sleep after it. Unlike The Ring, which made me terrified of being in the same room with my own television for two weeks. So I’d say it’s moderate on the scary scale. It’s definitely kind of gory, and the peril is real.

The relationships are interesting, realistic, and Raquel has just the right amount of them. She has her best friend, his brother, Charlize, Cisco, her father, and her mother. The fact that she was living with her mother and has to move in with her bachelor pad father while her mother is ill was one of my favorite parts of the book. Her dad clearly loves her and they were absolutely part of each other’s lives before, but there’s a difference between the dad who loyally pays child support who you see a few times a month and the dad you live with. I appreciated how that difference was drawn out, acknowledging the awkwardness without blaming either of them. I also liked how her dad both brought out the Latinx aspect of the story, as well as giving her a direct connection to when the Bronx burned in the 1970s. (This time period, of course, is when the echo draws from).

The Charlize/Raquel situation was cute. I liked how Raquel’s best friend, Aaron, also likes Charlize, and he just wants Raquel to be honest with him about liking her as well. I was a little bit confused about why Raquel has some internalized homophobia making it hard for her to accept that she likes Charlize. It was unclear to me if this was coming from her family (who seemed very accepting) or if it was just worrying how her peers would react or what exactly. I think a richer development of that would have helped make the scenes where Raquel works on accepting herself more powerful.

Overall, this is a fun take on the viral game tempting the supernatural trope. The setting of the Bronx and the main character’s Afro-Latinx culture are both well developed. It’s a medium scary read that will certainly appeal to YA readers.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 352 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Rubyfruit Jungle by Rita Mae Brown

Image of a digital book cover. A plant with green leaves and the red lips of a kiss on it is in the background of the book title.

Summary:
This bawdy book originally published in 1973 tells the story of Molly Bolt, the adoptive daughter of a dirt-poor Southern couple who boldly forges her own path in America. With her startling beauty and crackling wit, Molly finds that women are drawn to her wherever she goes – and she refuses to apologize for loving them back. 

Review:
I’ve been trying to read more queer classics and not solely limit myself to modern queer books. I stumbled upon this when looking for other books published around the same time as Tales of the City (review). While I absolutely appreciate how groundbreaking this was at the time, it didn’t work for me. I’ll have to give a couple of spoilers to be able to discuss why, so be forewarned!

Let’s start with what I did like. The prose calls out the racism of the north at a time when Jim Crow was still around in the south. Just because things may be better from a legal perspective doesn’t mean they actually are any less racist. This isn’t done in a preachy way. It comes about smoothly as Molly’s family moves from the hills of Pennsylvania to Florida. I really liked Molly’s dad, and the arc of her relationship with him. I loved how Molly’s first crush in middle school on another little girl named Leota is depicted. I appreciated how key moments in Molly’s life makes it clear she has to conform to succeed, and she refuses to do it. It hauntingly shows how minoritized people are kept down.

This is told in the first person, and Molly isn’t, to me, particularly likeable. I really wanted to like her. But I didn’t. She’s crass, abrasive, quite reactionary. She looks down on other people even while insisting she doesn’t. Ok, so for most of the book she’s a teenager or a young adult working her way through college. No one is perfect, and she has a lot stacked against her. But I would say she just becomes more full of herself as the novel progresses. I didn’t feel like she really learned anything. I suspect I’m supposed to think she did based on her final film school project, but it was hard for me to be moved by a film I didn’t see.

Something about Molly that particularly bothered me was an instance that really reminded me of some movies from the 70s I’ve seen, where a woman will say no to sex, but then the guy gets a little rough, gets her a little drunk, and later she basically says she’s grateful he took “advantage of her” because she really wanted it deep down (aka he raped her but she liked it). Well, Molly takes on the role of the aggressor in just such a situation in this book.I get it that this was a common trope at the time this book was written, and I’m imagining the goal was to show the same scene but with two women. But just because something was commonly shown in media at the time doesn’t make it right. I just can’t view Molly as a heroine when that’s how she engages with other women.

The other thing that’s problematic about Molly is that, since she’s adopted, she likes to say she doesn’t technically know her race. She bases this on having dark hair. At the end of the book she finds out she’s half…wait for it…French. She sees a photo of her father, and he’s French with dark hair. She never confronts herself about why she had this weird obsession with imagining herself as partially another minoritized race.

One more thing I feel I ought to mention is that Molly has a tendency to speak very negatively about butch presenting lesbians. It’s ok to not be into dating butches yourself. It’s even ok if you yourself find the butch/femme dynamic odd (although why you should care is beyond me). What bothers me, though, is how she describes butch women every single time she sees them. It’s downright insulting. You can be kind to other queer people you aren’t attracted to.

Again, I don’t expect characters to be perfect. Indeed, I think first person books with an imperfect main character are important for understanding other people’s perspective. But I do expect some growth and development over time. I felt throughout the book like Molly had no interest in self-improvement or reflection, and she never even has an epiphany that maybe she should.

Overall, why I understand why this book was groundbreaking, and it certainly had some memorable scenes, I felt the main character is unlikeable and doesn’t grow or change over time. I really liked her dad though. He was a morally flawed, complex character who I really felt could have held up his own fascinating book.

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3 out of 5 stars

Length: 221 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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Book Review: House of Zeor by Jacqueline Lichtenberg (Series, #1)

Digital image of a paperback book cover. A man with tentacles coming out of his arms holds a woman from behind.

Summary:
In the distant future, humanity has split into two mutant forms: the life-energy producing Gen, and the vampiric, tentacled Sime. Most Simes treat Gens like animals to be consumed for food. Hugh Valleroy from the Gen Territories must infiltrate the Sime lands in order to locate his beloved Aisha. This means joining House Zeor, a Sime Householding led by Klyd, that believes in the necessary unification of the two peoples, and who have the ability to let the Sime feed without killing the Gen donors.

Review:
I do my best to read widely in scifi, which includes older scifi. I especially try to find older scifi by women authors. This book was first published in 1974, and, in addition to being older scifi by a woman, I heard it involved tentacles. I was intrigued, so I hunted down a copy. There are very few reviews online from modern reads. There are some nostalgic reviews about reading it many years ago. So, even though I didn’t like it, I thought it might be helpful to others to contribute a modern, non-nostalgic take.

The basic concept was interesting. There are predators who absolutely need something from the prey to function. It is made abundantly clear that eventually without consuming some Gen life force the Sime die. But the prey are sentient. What to do? Something else that was interesting was that the mutation doesn’t occur until puberty and, bizarrely, children in both Sime and Gen territory mutate into both forms. This means Gen parents turn on their Sime child (for fear of being eaten) and Sime parents….eat their Gen children. What a world! I wish this had been explored more deeply than it was.

A lot of the world building is touched on briefly but then not really explained or not explored deeply enough. Hugh has a “starred cross” he wears that his mother, who escaped Gen territory, gave him, telling him belief in it would protect him. But does it? It’s unclear. What is he believing in exactly? It’s never explored. Similarly, the “selyn” is mentioned a lot but never really defined. The Gens all speak English but the Simes speak “Simelan.” Is this true of the whole world? Just this area? What is Simelan anyway?

Let’s talk about the three things that made me bump this down from three stars to two. First, one of the heroes of the book, Klyd, displays clear homophobia. He and Hugh are an auction of Gens looking for Aisha. It’s established that most Simes view Klyd as a “pervert” because he doesn’t kill Gens but rather has a symbiotic companion relationship with them. Another Sime goes to bid and Klyd says that Sime is the true pervert because he sleeps with men as if they are women. He and all the other Simes show disgust at it, and our other hero doesn’t argue back against it. The existence of queer people is never touched upon again in the book, so this viewpoint remains unchallenged. I found this particularly upsetting as the companionship relationship has some really clear homoerotic undertones. In order to do a selyn exchange, the two people must hold each other’s forearms and then touch at a fifth touching point, the preferred one is lip to lip contact aka to kiss. It’s also common for companions to share a bed. But somehow this relationship isn’t a perversion but being queer is?

The second thing is how race and ethnicity are handled. At a couple of points, it’s established that at some point the races all mixed up together and we have many blended people now. That’s fine. But the main characters are all white coded. I mean, really white coded. In a way that wouldn’t make any sense if this was truly a future of completely mixed races. And when talking about it, Hugh, who is born in this “mixed race” world uses current terms to talk about what races he thinks various people are mixed with. Um, ok. If it’s all of them, why even wonder this? I also want to mention for my Asian diaspora readers that at one point a slur is used to describe someone of Asian descent.

The third thing is how the women in the book are handled. This frustrates me as this was written by a woman. You’ve already noticed the two main characters are men out to save a woman. There are really only three other female characters in the book. One is raped (off-screen). (Slight spoiler coming here). One dies in childbirth. I’d say Hugh’s mother is the only woman character who is well-rounded and interesting.

Overall, the initial world imagined is interesting, but how it is handled is not. Additionally, those looking for a thoughtful handling of the existence of queer people, race, and women won’t be getting it in this book.

2 out of 5 stars

Length: 224 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Book Review: Tales of the City by Armistead Maupin (Series, #1)

March 8, 2022 2 comments
Image of a digital book cover with a cartoon drawing of a street in San Francisco.

Summary:
San Francisco, 1976. A naïve young secretary, fresh out of Cleveland, tumbles headlong into a brave new world of laundromat Lotharios, pot-growing landladies, cut throat debutantes, and Jockey Shorts dance contests. The saga that ensues is manic, romantic, tawdry, touching, and outrageous

Review:
This was first published as a novel in 1978, although it was published prior to that as a serialized story in a San Francisco newspaper. It is considered a classic of LGBTQIA+ literature. The first tv show miniseries based upon it that premiered in 1994 had a same-sex kiss made history and was also protested (source). The Netflix reboot/update in 2019 brought fresh attention to it, and I thought it was high-time I read the classic.

It’s clear that some restraints were placed upon Maupin, either by the newspaper or simply the culture of the time. Our window into the queer world in San Francisco is given to us by Mary Ann Singleton – a single cis straight woman who comes from Cleveland for a visit and decides to stay. She’s invited into Barbary Lane and declared one of us, although why exactly she’s considered part of the found family is not resolved in the first book.

The book is definitely a product of the 1970s. 1970s fashion and freewheeling culture are everywhere. Lack of acceptance of queer people is a real threat and concern, and the AIDS crisis had not yet hit. It’s an interesting snapshot of a very particular point in time.

While characters are quite loose about who they will sleep with, there’s also a lack of diversity in the cast of main characters that’s jarring. Especially for a story set in a city that’s so diverse. Particularly noticeable to me was how the Asian-American characters are all peripheral, even with this being San Francisco. I don’t think this lack of diversity is a product of its time – there were other very forward-thinking works of fiction at the same time as this. This lack of diversity is something to keep in mind when approaching the book.

There are also two plot twists that revolve around race, and I don’t think either is handled with particular grace. The race of someone’s lover is identified by pointing to a yellow flower. This is obviously offensive. While it seems to me that the character who does this is someone we’re supposed to think badly of, on the other hand, it seemed to me that this was supposed to be a funny moment. And it definitely was not. In the other case, a character reveals that they believe that the only way to become a successful model is to be Black. It is unclear what the other character they are speaking to thinks of that. I think this instance may be intentionally leaving it up to the reader to decide what they think, but it’s also a strange plot point in a book that’s mostly about hookups and very little about careers.

This reminded me very much of other books and tv shows that have dramatic, gasp-inducing storylines with large casts of characters whose lives intertwine and overlap in mysterious ways. Think Jane the Virgin or Desperate Housewives just with fewer identical twins and less murder (so far…..) and more queer characters. If you like that type of storytelling, then you’ll likely find this hilarious and engaging. If you don’t, then you probably won’t.

I personally found it to be a rapid read with an engaging storyline and funny chapter titles. I wished it had been more forward-thinking and intersectional, but I also respect that the mere depiction of queer people in a soap opera like story was quite groundbreaking. I appreciate it for what it is, and it was a fun, quick read.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 386 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe by D.G. Compton

September 28, 2021 2 comments
Image of a digital book cover. A phot of a videocamera goes from grayed out to properly saturated to fully blacked out from the top left corner to the bottom right corner. the title fo the book and the author are in a reddish box in the center with pink and yellow font.

Summary:
Katherine Mortenhoe’s world looks very similar to our own, except that in this near future medical science has found the cure for death—or eliminated nearly every cause for it other than old age. So when Katherine is diagnosed with a terminal brain disease caused by an inability to process an ever-increasing volume of sensory input, she immediately becomes a celebrity to the “pain-starved public.” But Katherine will not agree to be the star of the reality TV show Human Destiny, her last days will not be recorded by any cameras. She doesn’t realize that from the moment of her diagnosis, she’s been watched, not only by television producers but by a new kind of reporter, one with no visible camera, who is always recording behind his never-blinking eye. 

Review:
This book was first published in 1973 under the title The Unsleeping Eye. It was then published in the UK in 1974 under this title. It was made as a film in 1980 under the title Death Watch with the books published after that under that title. Then in 2016 it was republished as The Continuous Katherine Mortenhoe along with a new introduction by Jeff Vandermeer. All of which is to say, although you may see it listed as published in 2016, this is actually a 1970s vision of the future. This makes its take on reality tv all the more impressive to me.

The story is told in two perspectives from Katherine’s and from the reporter’s. They both live in the near future UK. Katherine is in her 40s on her second husband, childfree (there is no discussion of fertility issues or a desire for children), and works for Computabook’s romance department. Computabook appears to be essentially an AI largely writing Harlequin style romance novels. The consensus seems to be that she could write a great novel and is wasting her time at Computabook. She goes to the doctor quite a bit, which is presented as odd for a time when most illnesses are cured. The gentle opinion seems to be that she has a mental problem skewing toward perhaps hypochondria. But then she gets a terminal diagnosis. The reality tv show Human Destiny is so sure that they will get her to sign on to live out her last days filmed that they secretly film her receiving the diagnosis news, figuring they will get her permission via contract later.

The reporter has just consented to have tv cameras implanted in his eyes, allowing them to film without the presence of any cameras, only him. He cannot be in full darkness for a period of time after the surgery and takes pills to stay awake. He has an ex-wife and son. The ex-wife very much dislikes his work for the producer who does Human Destiny. She does not like this producer.

There are a lot of ex-spouses in this society because they do 5 year handfastings, essentially, and at that point they decide whether or not to recommit for another 5 years. It’s supposed to not be a big deal if folks don’t recommit, but it’s clear from both the reporter’s relationships and Katherine’s that it actually is to the folks involved. While not a focus of the book, I found this interesting.

The book then ultimately explores the ethics of why Katherine might or might not sign on for the show, whether or not the reality tv show is in and of itself ethical, and what the limits of cameras in a person’s eyes are to truly telling the truth. I would also say it explores the impact of your job on your life and your sense of fulfillment. Another theme is how different people’s lives look depending on how much they have “bought in” to the way of life depicted to them as the main choice by the government. There’s also a question of what’s a good death and who gets to choose what that means.

I most enjoyed the exploration of the alternative societies outside of the mainstream. I also found the depiction of near future reality tv very well-imagined. I am happy to report that there is no rape or sexual violence in this 1970s scifi book. There is an instance where it seems a possibility, but it does not ultimately happen. There is medical trauma and some minor violence seen in robberies.

This book ultimately left me pondering if it was trying to say something larger about the male gaze or if that was coincidental. Regardless, it left me thinking about women and our lives and how others view them. A valuable issue to ponder. Plus it was fun to explore this imagined future society.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 264 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Purchased

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Book Review: Corregidora by Gayl Jones

Cover of the book Corregidora

Summary:
First published in 1975, this explores the adult life of Ursa Corregidora, a Black woman blues singer haunted by trauma – both intergenerational and the violent loss of her fertility. Her great-grandmother and grandmother both were enslaved by Corregidora – a Portuguese enslaver in Brazil. He raped both of them, meaning he was the father to all the Corregidora women until Ursa herself. Her female ancestors constantly told her the importance of keeping the truth of their suffering alive through telling the story down through the family. So what will happen to the story now that Ursa, an only child, can no longer have children of her own?

Review:
This made it to my to be read pile before the current surge in interest in the history of the blues, partially coming from the newly released movie The US vs. Billie Holiday. This book demonstrates how clearly the blues and the trauma inflicted on Black folks in the US are intertwined, with the blues granting an outlet for speaking on at least some of the suffering but also a source of Black joy.

I have seen some reviews talk about how this book is about Ursa’s anger. I strongly disagree. This book is about Ursa’s intergenerational and current trauma, but she is absolutely not, as the GoodReads summary states, “consumed by her hatred of the nineteenth-century slavemaster [Corregidora].” Ursa suffers from trauma and struggles to deal with this trauma, but she is not consumed by hatred. I dislike how this summary seems to place the blame for her suffering upon Ursa. Ursa is doing the best she can with a whole pile of trauma. She’s not perfect, but, in my opinion, this isn’t some cautionary tale about being consumed by hatred. It’s an eloquent depiction of the intergenerational trauma of slavery and racism.

It is so immediately understandable why Ursa’s whole world is rocked when she loses her fertility due to abuse at the hands of her husband. (This happens very early in the book and is not a spoiler). Not only does she have a drive to have children that many women have, but she also has the lifelong expectation that she will fight injustice and white supremacy by passing the true story of what happened to the women in her family down along to the next generation. How can she manage her life when it becomes impossible for her to fulfill that expectation?

This book is not just about fertility/infertility and intergenerational trauma but also about the blues. Why Ursa is so drawn to the blues and what she is willing to give up and fight for in order to continue to sing them. The balance of moving among these themes is handled very well.

There are also some difficult moments where we see that Ursa is homophobic. She has a female friend who engages in relationships with other women and Ursa is, at the very least, uncomfortable with this. However, I do not think the book is necessarily in agreement with Ursa. Time is spent discussing why two Black women might be empowered by loving each other. However, time is also dedicated to discussing how white women have also raped enslaved (and servant) Black women, and that memory is part of what makes Ursa so uncomfortable. It is not an easy topic, and there is also the additional layer that Ursa finds this out right after she’s lost her fertility and others are questioning whether she counts as a woman anymore due to this. I think this section is handled honestly but readers who are more sensitive to negative reactions to queerness should be aware of its presence in this book.

This book is an engaging, powerful, and in many ways, unexpected, read. While I think everyone could get something out of this, I specifically want to mention that if you’ve read the white women’s feminist classics of the 1960s and 1970s, you definitely need to pick this one up and diversify your perspective.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 192 pages – average but on the shorter side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Burn Baby Burn by Meg Medina

February 16, 2021 Leave a comment

Summary:
Set in New York City during the tumultuous year of 1977, this focuses on Nora, a Cuban-American 17-year-old in her final months of high school and the summer immediately after. Son of Sam is terrorizing the city, shooting young people at what seems to be random, there’s a heat wave, and a black-out. Nora needs to figure out what she’s going to do with her life after high school, but her younger brother, Hector, is becoming more uncontrollable, and she needs to help her mother with the rent. All she wants to do is go to the disco with the cute guy from work, but is that even safe with Son of Sam around?

Review:
I really enjoyed this one. The setting was great – all the fun of the 1970s with none of the exploitation or sexual violence often seen in the movies and books that came out of that era. That is not to say that there is no violence (domestic violence, drug abuse, drug paraphernalia, arson, homes threatened by fires, brief and not very descriptive animal abuse) are all present. But still, compared to the movies from that time period, the violence is minimal.

I also enjoyed that, while the events of 1977 definitely are present, there is no unrealistic connections between the main character and them. You know how sometimes a main character in a historic piece is written in as having done something pivotal or having some connection to a historic person. None of that here.

While I appreciated the presence of Stiller (a Black woman progressive downstairs neighbor), I would have liked any indication of the queer culture that was present in NYC, especially with some particularly interesting moments also occurring in the 1970s (like the start of Gaysweek or the NY ruling on trans* rights). Given how many characters are heavily involved in the women’s movement, it seems like it would have been fairly simple to have a bit of crossover or touchstone between these.

Another thing that I think could have taken this book up a notch for those less familiar with disco would be a song suggestion for each chapter or a Spotify playlist to go along with it. Whenever music features heavily in a historic book, I think this is a good idea.

If you’re looking to dive into a quick-paced YA featuring disco and the reassurance that bananas years do pass, I recommend picking this one up.

4 out of 5 stars

Length: 310 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer (Series, #3) (Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge)

A girl in old-fashioned clothes looks at hersself in a mirror.Summary:
When Charlotte goes away to boarding school for the first time, she’s very excited to get the bed with the particularly pretty wheels right next to the window.  When she wakes up, though, the view from the window looks different, and people are calling her Clare!  She discovers she’s traveled back in time to the same bed in the same boarding school, but during World War I.  The next morning, though, she wakes up in the present again as Charlotte.  This pattern continues, meaning both she and Clare are Charlotte….sometimes.

Review:
I picked this book up because I have an affinity for both boarding school books and time-travel books.  This looked like the best of both worlds to me.  A fun middle grade book that introduces to the reader to two different past time periods–the late 1960s of Charlotte’s present and the nineteen-teens of Clare’s present.

This book is the third in a series, but it is completely possible to read it as a standalone.  No mention is made of the events in the first book, and the second book is actually about what Charlotte’s little sister does while she’s away at boarding school.

The concept is intriguing, because instead of time-travel happening once and landing the person stuck in the past (or future), Charlotte keeps switching, spending every other day in the 60s and every other day in the teens.  In addition to the usual issues time-travel books bring up, such as what stays the same and what is actually different throughout time, it also brings up the key question of identity.  What makes Charlotte Charlotte?  Is she still Charlotte when she’s being called Clare?  Why does hardly anyone notice that Clare has changed? Or Charlotte for that matter?  The book thus addresses identity issues that middle grade readers might be going through, but in a subtle way through the time-travel trope.

Were you some particular person only because people recognized you as that? (page 66)

The time-travel itself is left as a fantastical mystery, rather than being given a scientific explanation.  There’s something magical about the bed that only makes Charlotte and Clare switch places, but no one else.  This works without an explanation because the young girls being subjected to the time-travel just accept it without explanation.  This is their reality, and it doesn’t matter why it’s happening, they just have to deal with it.  Some readers, though, might struggle with the fact that the time-travel itself is never explained.

The one thing that disappointed me about the book, and that I think would have made it a classic and a five star read, is that the book only explores what happens to Charlotte when the girls switch places.  Clare, her experiences, and her perspective are only heard about through third parties.  The book, while in third person, is entirely Charlotte’s perspective.  Clare, a reserved, proper girl from the nineteen-teens must have been shocked by both the technology and the mores of the 1960s she suddenly found herself in.  So much more could have been explored by telling both Charlotte’s and Clare’s story.  The book misses an opportunity by only focusing on the modern day girl going back in time.  The girl being thrust into the future, a future where she finds out Britain wins the war, and there is suddenly no food rationing or flu epidemic, that is such a cool story in and of itself, and Farmer just never ventures out to tell it.

Overall, this is a book that sets up a fantastical world of time-travel within a boarding school.  It utilizes the switching of two girls with each other in time to explore questions of identity in a way that surely will appeal to many middle grade readers.  The book does not fully explore the story the way it possibly should have, but the young reader will probably enjoy filling in those gaps themselves.  Recommended to all fans of boarding school, time-travel, or historic fiction set during World War I’s homefront.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Better World Books

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Previous Books In Series:
The Summer Birds
Emma in Winter

Edit note: Thanks to Vicky for pointing out it was published in 1969. 

Book Review: A Thousand Lives: The Untold Story of Hope, Deception, and Survival at Jonestown by Julia Scheeres (Audiobook narrated by Robin Miles)

April 16, 2014 3 comments

A sunset near tropical trees and a mountain rangeSummary:
On November 18, 1978, 918 people, mostly Americans, died on a commune named Jonestown and on a nearby airstrip in Guyana.  The world came to know this event as that time that crazy cult committed mass suicide by drinking poisoned Kool-Aid.  However, that belief is full of inaccuracies.  Scheeres traces the origins of Jonestown, starting with its leader, Jim Jones, and his Christian church in Indiana, tracing its development into the People’s Temple in California, and then into Jonestown in Guyana.  Multiple members’ life stories are traced as well, including information from their family members who, perplexed, watched their families give everything over to Jones.

Review:
I have a fascination with cults and groupthink.  In spite of not being born until the 1980s, I definitely was always vaguely aware of this cult that committed suicide in the 70s, always commentated on with great disdain.  I had previously read Julia Scheeres’ memoir, Jesus Land, which I found to be beautifully and thoughtfully written (review).  When I saw that she had written an investigative work of nonfiction, making the truth about Jonestown more accessible, I knew I had to read it.

Scheeres possesses a great talent at presenting people and events as they are with understanding for common humanity but also disdain for atrocious acts.  Scheeres excels at never turning a person into a monster, but rather exposing monstrous acts and asking how things became so messed up that something like that could happen.  Scheeres clearly did painstaking research for this book, reading through the FBI’s extensive archives on the People’s Temple and Jim Jones, interviewing survivors, and interviewing family members of the deceased, not to mention reading members’ journals.  The facts are presented in an engaging, storytelling, slightly non-linear way, which works excellently at drawing the reader in.  The book starts on the boat to Guyana, then flashes back to the origins of Jim Jones.  The members of People’s Temple are carefully presented as the well-rounded people they truly were with hopes and dreams and who made some mistakes.  They are not ever presented as just a bunch of crazies.  Even Jones is allowed a time as a preacher passionate for social justice before he turned into the control freak, whose paranoid delusions were exacerbated by drug addiction.  Scheeres takes an event that it is far too easy to put the stamp of crazy on, and humanizes it, drawing out the gray areas.  And this is all done while telling an engaging, well-written, factual story.

There are an incredible number of facts in this book, and the reader learns them while hardly even realizing it, since this work of nonfiction is so readable.  Among the things I never knew, I found out that the People’s Temple originally was a Christian church that was heavily socialist and then slowly turned into its own religion as Jones pulled away from the Bible, eventually declaring himself god.  When Jones was in California, he was heavily involved in politics, sponsoring people such as Harvey Milk for office, and breaking voting laws by sending his church en masse to vote in districts they didn’t live in.  Jones enacted weekly corporate punishment of individual members in front of all the other members.  He was bisexual, having sex with both male and female members of  the People’s Temple.  He became obsessed with the idea of suicide to make a statement and routinely badgered the higher members of the People’s Temple into accepting suicide if he ordered it.  He even tricked them multiple times into thinking that he had given them poisoned drinks, just to see who would obey and drink it.  The members came to Jonestown in Guyana expecting a utopia, since Jones had lied to them, and instead got a struggling farm on the brink of disaster, being run by a man increasingly paranoid and delusional and ever more addicted to drugs.  Once members were in Jonestown, they were not allowed to leave.  And many wanted to.  Last, but most important, the mass suicide was not a mass suicide. It was a murder-suicide.  Some of the members committed suicide willingly, but others, including over 300 children, were force-fed or injected with the poison.  Those who drank it drank it mixed with Flavor-Aid, a generic knock-off brand of Kool-Aid.  It astounds me how much the facts of these events from as recent as 1978 are now misremembered in the collective consciousness, especially considering the fact that documentation such as the Jonestown death tape are available for free in the public archive.

Overall, this book takes a misremembered event in recent history and exposes the facts in an incredibly readable work of nonfiction.  Scheeres presents the people who died in Jonestown with empathy and understanding, seeking to tell their whole life story, rather than one moment.  A fascinating look at a horrible event, and a moving reminder to never give too much power or faith to one person, and how very easy it is for groupthink to take over.  Highly recommended.

5 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Leaving Atlanta by Tayari Jones (Audiobook narrated by ensemble)

November 6, 2012 1 comment

Fuzzy image of little girl jumping rope on a city sidewalk.Summary:
It’s 1979 in Atlanta, Georgia, and someone is kidnapping–and killing–black children.  How this terror haunts one fifth-grade classroom is told through three different perspectives. Tasha, whose parents are “living apart” for a while.  A painfully intelligent boy named Rodney who does not actually consider himself lucky to still have his father at home. And Octavia, better known as Sweet-Pea by her family and Watusi by her classmates.  She’s the darkest-skinned child in the classroom, and is ridiculed by them all, but she has a spirit that outshines everyone.

Review:
The Atlanta child murders of 1979 to 1980 were a real thing that overshadowed the author’s own childhood.  Jones clearly remembers what it was to be in fifth grade and relates those emotions with raw detail, but she also brings along an educated adult’s understanding of race and race relations in the American south.  This all combines to create a powerful story that sweeps the reader away to another place and time while simultaneously leaving them with greater understanding.

The book is divided into three sections. Each child’s tale is told through a different narrative method.  Tasha’s uses third person.  Rodney’s second person, where the reader is told “you are” in an attempt to put the reader closer into Rodney’s shoes.  Finally, Octavia’s is told in first person.  Tasha’s story covers the first part of the school year, Rodney’s the second, and Octavia’s goes through January.  It’s an interesting narrative choice that ultimately works.  The reader sees three different reactions to the child murders and race relations at three different points in the crisis, in addition to the children’s observations of other people’s reactions.  It provides a multi-layered perspective that clearly demonstrates the complexity of all points the story touches upon: crime, race relations, broken families, class issues, and even just the process of growing up.

I appreciate the narrative complexity that Jones chose, but I do feel the story told suffers a bit.  I identified so much more strongly with Octavia than either of the other two children because her voice and personality were able to shine through so much more clearly.  Of course, it’s possible that this is the whole point. In fact, it does feel a bit like the whole book is just building up to Octavia’s story.  But although I had a similar level of attachment to Tasha, I simply didn’t feel that way for Rodney.  Part of that could have been the narrator chosen for Rodney. His voice was rather flat and dull without the nuance of the other two narrators.  But I don’t think that the second person narrative tense helped much.  Thankfully, Rodney’s portion of the book was quick, and the other two sections more than made up for it.

Speaking of the other two narrators, I feel bad that I was unable to find any of the ensemble’s names.  The women who narrated Tasha and Octavia did a phenomenal job. They captured both the age and the dialect of the children without once slipping into a tone that could be perceived of as false or mocking.  They truly embodied the little girls, and I felt I got something extra from listening to the audiobook, which is precisely how it should feel.  It’s unfortunate that the narrator for Rodney failed to do the same thing, providing a rather lackluster, mediocre performance.

The social justice commentary enmeshed in the book is brilliant.  One cannot possibly read this book and not see how racism and entrenched classism negatively impacts children and families.  Even at ten, these children get it that the media and police care less about them getting kidnapped that they would if they were white.  Even at ten the children have already learned racism so well that they ostracize the darkest child in their class.  (This book made me very interested in reading more about racism within the black community).  Most powerful to me, though, particularly after reading the books in The Real Help Reading Project, is how subtly Jones demonstrates the difficult choices parents and other adults must make to provide what is best for their children and how that is exacerbated by inequality.  I’d be more clear, but that would give away the ending of the book.  Suffice to say it’s a powerful message presented in a subtle manner through a little girl with whom it is impossible not to establish a connection.

Overall this is an engaging, thought-provoking piece of historical fiction.  It brings the reader directly into a classroom of fifth graders to see how not just a kidnapping and killing spree but also enmeshed racism and sexism impact the present and future of children.  Recommended to fans of historical and literary fiction.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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