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Book Review: The Foundling by Ann Leary

Image of a digital book cover. A blueish greenish gloom settles over a vista of the tops of connected buildings with one light glowing in one window.

It’s 1927, and eighteen-year-old Mary Engle thinks she’s found her way to independence and success when she starts working as a secretary for a woman doctor at a remote institute for mentally disabled women. But not everything is as it appears to be at Nettleton State.

Summary:
It’s 1927 and eighteen-year-old Mary Engle is hired to work as a secretary at a remote but scenic institution for mentally disabled women called the Nettleton State Village for Feebleminded Women of Childbearing AgeShe’s immediately in awe of her employer—brilliant, genteel Dr. Agnes Vogel.

Dr. Vogel had been the only woman in her class in medical school. As a young psychiatrist she was an outspoken crusader for women’s suffrage. Now, at age forty, Dr. Vogel runs one of the largest and most self-sufficient public asylums for women in the country. Mary deeply admires how dedicated the doctor is to the poor and vulnerable women under her care.

Soon after she’s hired, Mary learns that a girl from her childhood orphanage is one of the inmates. Mary remembers Lillian as a beautiful free spirit with a sometimes-tempestuous side. Could she be mentally disabled? When Lillian begs Mary to help her escape, alleging the asylum is not what it seems, Mary is faced with a terrible choice. Should she trust her troubled friend with whom she shares a dark childhood secret? Mary’s decision triggers a hair-raising sequence of events with life-altering consequences for all.

Review:
I read Ann Leary’s contemporary fiction The Good House last winter (review) and was excited to read her new one and further intrigued to see it was a piece of historic fiction. In spite of being very different from that piece of contemporary fiction, this book lived up to it quite well with richly imagined settings, complex and flawed characters, and an honest depiction of alcohol.

The author discovered this aspect of history – the forced institutionalization of women deemed “feebleminded” in the 1920s for the express eugenics purpose of preventing them from having children – while researching her own family genealogy. (Please be aware that “feebleminded” is a pejorative in modern times. In the 1920s, it was a term used clinically to classify patients.) Her grandmother worked briefly as a secretary at such an institution. The author was made curious by the name of the institution and thus the research that led to this novel was borne. Read more about her perspective on the research process, connection to her family, and the history of this treatment of women.

One of my favorite aspects of Leary’s writing is the characters. She’s not afraid to let them be flawed. In this case, the flaws are partially a reflection of the flaws of the times and partially innate to the characters themselves. No one in this book is perfect, and yet you find yourself rooting for them anyway. It can be difficult from a modern perspective to understand why Mary’s initial reaction to the asylum is positive. Or why she doesn’t trust or believe Lillian right away. But this book does an eloquent job of showing why that is, for personal and societal reasons, and letting Mary grow and change on her own.

Another strength is in making the horrific problems clear without dwelling on them in a gratuitous way. By the end of the book, the reader knows exactly what’s wrong as the asylum, but it remained straight-forward and succinct about it. I dislike it when historical books about difficult issues have scenes that feel like they could have come from a Saw movie. This book avoids that well.

The book also highlights the very serious issues for interracial couples. But there is an interfaith couple for whom the same attention isn’t paid. It felt a bit pie in the sky to not directly address the issues facing a Jewish/Catholic couple in the 1920s. Especially when the Catholic half of the couple is serious enough about her faith that she attends weekly Mass and worries about when she can have Confession. This is a level of seriousness about her faith that made me question how she seemed to not worry at all about the issues facing her in an interfaith relationship. Given the attentive detail given to the interracial couple, it felt even more like a weakness.

I was interested as to how the author would handle alcohol in this 1920s historic piece given The Good House is largely about a woman struggling with alcoholism. Alcohol is not the focus of the book, but it is featured in ways that are realistic to the 1920s. In other words, while Prohibition is still in existence during the book, alcohol is pervasive in society. The downfalls of alcohol are well depicted, again, without being too gratuitous.

Overall, this is a well-researched and crafted piece of historic fiction that covers difficult ground with grace. Recommended to fans of historic fiction. But keep in mind the romance is a subplot in this one.

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4 out of 5 stars

Length: 336 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

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Book Review: Take a Hint, Dani Brown by Talia Hibbert (Series, #2)

Cover of the book Take a Hint Dani Brown.

Summary:
Danika Brown, PhD student, might have a workaholic problem with her all hours of the day research, writing, and teaching. But she certainly doesn’t have a romance problem, because she keeps her sexual relationships devoid of romance. Zafir, once pro rugby player, now security guard at the university and founder of a sports charity for kids that’s still getting off the ground, knows he has feelings for Dani. When there’s a fire alarm in the building and Dani doesn’t evacuate, he can’t help going back in for her and carrying her outside. Then the video goes viral as #DrRugbae, and his niece realizes this could be the solution for his charity. Dani is game to pretending to be a couple until the viral attention goes away. But somehow slowly the pretending feels less and less like pretend.

Review:
Listen, if you are looking for a romance novel with a bisexual leading lady who actually uses the word “bisexual” to describe herself AND says it to the hero AND it’s no big deal to him AND there’s no cheating betwixt them AND the happy ever after is monogamous then stop what you are doing and pick up this book. Right now. Because honey, that perfectly describes this book. I also want to note that, Dani isn’t an aromantic convinced into romance – she’s a romantic whose heart was shattered who’s pretending she’s not into romance to keep her heart safe.

Ok, so if you’re not a bisexual reader desperate for that type of representation in a romance novel, why might you be into this book? Well, it’s hilarious. Laugh out loud funny. Dani and Zaf are equally funny and complicated. Their misunderstandings make sense. They both apologize when necessary. The set-up as to why they are fake dating is for a good cause (his charity) not something inane like tricking extended family at a wedding. They’re an inter-racial (Black and Pakistani) and inter-faith (witch and Muslim) couple. But the problems they encounter don’t really have to do with any of that. It has entirely to do with learning how to speak with and open up to one another.

I also really liked the growing opportunities for both Dani and Zaf beyond their relationship. Dani needs to learn better work/life balance. No one judges her for wanting to be successful, but she starts to learn she needs to have some downtime too. Zaf needs to learn not to entirely ditch his past and be more honest about his own grief and mental health issues that led to him starting the charity to begin with.

Sex scenes exist in this romance novel, but they are not constant (ie, don’t expect one every chapter!) The ones that do exist are explicit without turning corny. Consent is always clear but not in a natural way, not an awkward way. The sex scenes are also, dare I say it, entertaining and sweet?

While I note this is a series, you don’t have to read all three Brown sister books or necessarily read them in order. Although I will note that if you read the second book, you’ll see who Chloe ends up with (the sister from the first book). While I think all three books are well-worth the read, I admit to Dani’s story being my favorite.

5 out of 5 stars

Length: 320 pages – average but on the longer side

Source: Library

Buy It (Amazon or Bookshop.org)

If you found this review helpful, please consider tipping me on ko-fi, checking out my digital items available in my ko-fi shop, buying one of my publications, or using one of my referral/coupon codesThank you for your support!

Book Review: Shadrach in the Furnace by Robert Silverberg (Audiobook narrated by Paul Boehmer)

Silhouette of man standing in front of what appears to be an oil rig.Summary:
After a giant volcanic eruption led to chaos and the virus wars, the world came under a one world government led by Genghis Mao based out of Mongolia.  The virus wars also led to everyone being infected with organ rot, a condition that simply spontaneously starts whenever it feels like it.  Only those working close to the government get the antidote.  Shadrach Mordecai, an African-American, went straight from Harvard Med to being the personal doctor for the world dictator.  He has implants that allow him to monitor Genghis Mao’s health through his own body, plus he is overseeing the three projects pursuing a way to keep Mao alive forever.  But when Project Avatar, which would involve implanting Mao’s brain into a new body, loses its prime candidate, Shadrach realizes his position as aid to Mao might not be keeping him as safe as her previously believed.

Review:
One of my all-time favorite books, The World Inside (review), is by Robert Silverberg, so I decided I should start working on reading all of his writings.  So when I saw this Silverberg book on Audible, I immediately knew where my June membership credit would be going.

There are quite a few things that make this piece of scifi stick out.  First, out of the four main characters, three are people of color.  Shadrach is black, Mao is obviously Mongolian, the head of Project Avatar is Native American (Navajo, I believe), and the head of the project seeking to put Mao into a robot body is headed by a white European woman.  It’s an incredibly diverse cast that I really enjoyed.  Plus, Shadrach gets it on with both Nikki Crowfoot and Katya (Native and European, respectively).  There’s also the fascinating fact that Mao, who previously only wanted a Mongolian body, is totally into the idea of putting his brain into the body of strong, young black man.  You could read this one of two ways: either as a scifi slave narrative (Mao owning Shadrach’s body) or as a progressive future where skintone doesn’t matter but the leaders still manage to be totally evil.

The scifi in the book is incredibly strong.  Silverberg obviously did his brain and infectious diseases research.  It was akin to reading abstracts from medical journals when Shadrach was talking about the various medical things going on with Mao’s body and with organ rot in the general population.

Religion is dealt with in an interesting manner.  Most people seem to be more religious.  Even the “secular” government workers follow the new religion, whose name I can’t remember I’m afraid, that involves monks and taking hallucinatory drugs.  It’s obviously an idea of a futuristic religion born out of the 1970s in which it was written, but it works within the imaginary future it exists within.

Central to the novel is Shadrach’s struggle with the Hippocratic Oath.  He is sworn to repeatedly save the life of an evil dictator who is willfully withholding an antidote to organ rot from the general population.  It’s obviously an intense moral dilemma and the scifi setting helps the reader look at it with less emotion than if, say, we were talking about a modern setting wherein Shadrach was working for a neo-Nazi or something.

One thing that does date the book is that Silverberg made the choice of giving an exact year for when all of this is going down, and that year is 2012.  I did find it an odd bit of serendipity that I just so happened to pick up this book in 2012.  In a sense, then, for the modern reader it’s more like reading an alternate history.  What *would* have happened if a huge natural disaster had occurred in the 1990s?  Whereas in a book like 1984, it’s still the same book for modern readers as for the original readers (you just ignore the date), here the date actually has an impact on the reading of the story.  The reading is different now than it probably was for people in the 1970s, but it still works.  Just in a different way.

I did feel the pacing is a bit off in the book.  It’s a bit up and down.  There were a couple of moments earlier in the story that had the intensity level of almost a climax, whereas the climax feels….less climaxy.  It took some of the tension out for me, even though I was pleased with the ultimate ending.  This did make it ideal for an audiobook, though, since it was easier to come and go from it as I had time to listen.  Related to the pacing issue, although most of the book is third person Shadrach’s perspective, there are a few chapters that are first person Mao’s perspective.  Those threw me a bit.  I’m still not sure how I felt about them.  I honestly think it would take a second read in print to get a real vibe for that dynamic.

Speaking of the audiobook, the narrator, Paul Boehmer, does a phenomenal job.  He gets many different accents spot on without ever seeming to be racist.  He also does a great job differentiating between who is speaking and thinking and what have you.  He also did an admirable job narrating the sex scenes.  The tonality of his voice is spot on for the intimacy and excitement.  I would gladly listen to another book he’s narrated.

Overall then this is an interesting piece of scifi that was originally written as futuristic and now reads as alternate history.  It features a diverse, three-dimensional cast and provides a great setting for the moral dilemma of helping those who would harm others.  I recommend it to fans of scifi that addresses moral issues.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: The Book of Night Women by Marlon James (The Real Help Reading Project)

October 8, 2011 6 comments

Painting of a black woman.Summary:
This is the story of Lilith. A mulatto with green eyes born on a plantation in Jamaica to a mama who was raped at 14 by the overseer as punishment to her brother.  Raised by a whore and a crazy man, all Lilith has ever wanted was to improve her status on the plantation. And maybe to understand why her green eyes seem to freak out slave and master alike.  Assigned to be a house slave, Lilith finds herself in direct contact with the most powerful slave on the plantation–Homer, who is in charge of the household.  Homer brings her into a secret meeting of the night women in a cave on the grounds and attempts to bring Lilith into a rebellion plot, insisting upon the darkness innate in Lilith’s soul.  But Lilith isn’t really sure what exactly will get her what she truly wants–to feel safe and be with the man she cares for.

Discussion:
This is the third book and second fictional work for The Real Help reading project I’m co-hosting with Amy, and it totally blew me away.  A reading experience like this is what makes reading projects/challenges such a pleasure to participate in.  I never would have picked up this book off the shelf by myself, but having it on the list for the project had me seek it out and determined to read it within a set length of time.  Reading the blurb, there’s no way I would imagine identifying with the protagonist so strongly, but I did, and that’s what made for such a powerful experience for me.  The more I read literature set in a variety of times and places, the more I see what we as people have in common, instead of our differences.

There is so much subtle commentary within this book to ponder that I’m finding it difficult to unpack and lay out for you all.  Part of me wants to just say, “Go read this book. Just trust me on this one,” but then I wouldn’t be doing my job as a book blogger, would I?

Depicted much more clearly here than in any of our reads so far is how detrimental a society based upon racism is for all involved.  There is not a single happy story contained here. Everyone’s lives are ruined from the master all the way down to the smallest slave girl.  It is a circle of misery begetting misery begetting misery.

Homer was the mistress’ personal slave and many of the evil things that happen to her was because the mistress was so miserable that she make it her mission to make everybody round her miserable as well. (page 415)

Nobody is happy.  Everyone lives in misery and fear.  The whites are afraid of a black revolt.  The blacks are afraid of being whipped or hung.  Everyone is afraid of Obeah (an evil witchcraft similar to voodoo).  People start to lash out at each other in an attempt to better themselves.  For instance, the Johnny-jumpers are male slaves who are pseudo-overseers given power over the other slaves to beat them.  It is simply a system exploiting everyone and for what?  From the book it appears to be to maintain Britain’s position of power in the world.  The system is evil, and it does not simply beget misery, but despair as well.  It brings out the worst in everyone.

A strong theme in this book is that of race being a construct rather than an innate true difference in people.  Since Lilith is bi-racial, she has trouble simply aligning herself with one side or the other.  Although at first she hates white people, she comes to deeply care for a white man.  She comes to see people as individuals and not their race, but alas that thought process is far too advanced for the time she is living in, and she senses this.

She not black, she mulatto. Mulatto, mulatto, mulatto. Maybe she be family to both and to hurt white man just as bad as hurting black man…..Maybe if she start to think that she not black or white, then she won’t have to care about neither man’s affairs. Maybe if she don’t care what other people think she be and start think about what she think she be, maybe she can rise over backra and nigger business, since neither ever mean her any good. Since the blood that run through her both black and white, maybe she be her own thing. But what thing she be? (page 277-8)

It’s impossible not to have your heart break for Lilith, a woman whose whole life revolves around race when all she ever wants is to feel happy and safe, an impossible dream represented for her by a picture from a child’s book that her foster slave father let her take from him.  The picture is of a sleeping princess with a prince near her, and Lilith’s obsession with this image follows her throughout her life, until she finally tells herself:

She not no fool, Lilith tell herself. She not a sleeping princess and Robert Quinn is not no king or prince. He just a man with broad shoulders and black hair who call her lovey and she like that more than her own name. She don’t want the man to deliver her, she just want to climb in the bed and feel he wrap himself around her. (page 335)

I found myself wishing I could scoop Lilith and Robert up and place them on an island where they could just be together and raise their mixed race babies and just be happy, but that’s not what happened then, and that’s the dream we must keep fighting for, isn’t it?  A world where people can just love each other and be happy and not be forced into misery for economic gain of a person or a business or a nation.

I know it sounds like wishful thinking, but that’s really what I got out of this book.  If we don’t want to live in a world that dark, we must embrace love in all its forms.  Love begets love, but hate begets hate.  Don’t like corporate greed or nationalism overtake your capacity to see the humanity in everyone–the capability for powerful good or powerful evil present in us all.  Perhaps this is a bit off-topic for The Real Help Reading Project, but that is the old passion from a youthful me in undergraduate classes that this book reignited, and that is what makes me want everyone to read it.

Source: Public Library

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Please head over to Amy’s post to discuss this book!