The Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon

The Colour of MilkThe Colour of Milk by Nell Leyshon
Published by Ecco

From the publisher:

Mary is a sharp-tongued farm girl, and she will do anything to learn to read and write. But as she does so through four seasons of one extraordinary year, she discovers that nothing comes for free. Told by a narrator whose urgent, unforgettable voice will break your heart, The Colour of Milk is an astonishing novel.

I’d never heard of this book until Jill reviewed it, and she spoke so highly of the novel that I couldn’t help but pick it up right away. You guys, The Colour of Milk is a devastating novel. Heartbreaking, sob-inducing, difficult to read, but oh so worth it. It’s also quite beautiful.

Mary’s life circumstances are beyond what most people can comprehend. The story takes place in the 1800′s, so obviously life was different from it is today, but for our fifteen-year-old narrator, things are particularly difficult. Her family lives in dire poverty, and the only reason they have food to eat is because of the farm that Mary and her three sisters are forced to work on, all day every day. Her father is abusive and besides working the girls practically to death, he beats them when they do not perform to his standards. When Mary’s father decides he can’t afford four daughters, he sells her to a Vicar who lives close by so she can care for his sick wife – but her new home brings even more cruelty and trauma than her father’s had.

There’s so much to love about this novel. It’s difficult to understand how tragic Mary’s life really is, but what’s even more difficult to understand is how she manages to keep a mostly positive attitude throughout all of it. She is a character you can’t help but admire, and the way the book is written – as if this poor farm girl with zero formal education is writing it herself – endears the reader even more to our narrator.

Mary becomes “free” in an emotional and mental sense when she learns to read and write, and I love what The Colour of Milk is saying about the power of words to help and to heal a person. I can’t even imagine what it would be like not to have the privilege of the written word in my life, but Mary is a girl who had to seriously struggle in order to learn to read and write. It made me sit back and think how the written word has gotten me through some really tough times, and how it truly has the power to change lives. It was pretty incredible to read about that through Mary’s eyes.

The end of this book shattered me. And that’s all I’ll say about  it.

Read The Colour of Milk! It’s a slim novel with a lot to say. I promise, you will fall in love with Mary just like I did.

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Boxers (Boxers & Saints, #1)Saints (Boxers & Saints, #2)

Boxers and Saints by Gene Luen Yang
Published by First Second

From the publisher (Boxers):

China, 1898. Bands of foreign missionaries and soldiers roam the countryside, bullying and robbing Chinese peasants.

Little Bao has had enough. Harnessing the powers of ancient Chinese gods, he recruits an army of Boxers–commoners trained in kung fu–who fight to free China from “foreign devils.”

Against all odds, this grass-roots rebellion is violently successful. But nothing is simple. Little Bao is fighting for the glory of China, but at what cost? So many are dying, including thousands of “secondary devils”–Chinese citizens who have converted to Christianity

From the publisher (Saints):

China, 1898. An unwanted and unwelcome fourth daughter, Four-Girl isn’t even given a proper name by her family when she’s born. She finds friendship–and a name, Vibiana–in the most unlikely of places: Christianity.

But China is a dangerous place for Christians. The Boxer Rebellion is in full swing, and bands of young men roam the countryside, murdering Westerners and Chinese Christians alike. Torn between her nation and her Christian friends, Vibiana will have to decide where her true loyalties lie…and whether she is willing to die for her faith.

American Born Chinese was one of the first graphic novels I’d ever read, and it opened my eyes to the amazing way storytelling and illustrations can come together in this medium to create an incredible reading experience. Since then, I’ve read many more, but I always think fondly about Gene Luen Yang as he is literally the person who introduced me to the graphic novel – so I always pick up his books when I can. Boxers and Saints are two separate books, but in my opinion they must be read together – otherwise you’re only getting half of the story. I loved that he did these as companion books, as they are two very distinct books with their own characters and events, but they truly come together to complete the picture of this scary time in Chinese history.

I love Yang’s illustrations and these books were no exception to that. He is so detailed, so precise, to the point where the illustrations alone would tell the story if the text wasn’t there. His drawings are gorgeous and I could pore over them for a long time without even needing the words.

But the story itself is an important one. And by showing the Boxer Rebellion from both sides, he really illuminated the fact that in all conflicts, there is no right or wrong, necessarily. There are just people, fighting for what they believe in, for what they know in their hearts is true and what they feel desperately needs to be done. Both Little Bao and Vibiana showed me that their stories have value, their beliefs are real for them, and I just thought, how unfortunate and tragic that this conflict even had to happen in the first place.

What I love is when books make me want to do more research upon finishing them, and these books did exactly that. I read more about the Boxer Rebellion – something I knew almost nothing about – after finishing these books and can now say I’m more educated on this particular time in history. After learning more about it, I am even more impressed by the way Yang managed to combine facts with his own fictional spin on things, and actually want to reread the books armed with more background knowledge about the conflict.

Highly recommended! Graphic novels are awesome – do pick one up if you never have before, your eyes will be open to a whole new world of reading.

The Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harmon

The Midwife of Hope RiverThe Midwife of Hope River by Patricia Harmon
Published by William Morrow Paperbacks
Review copy received at SIBA 2012

From the publisher:

As a midwife working in the hardscrabble conditions of Appalachia during the Depression, Patience Murphy’s only solace is her gift: the chance to escort mothers through the challenges of childbirth. Just beginning, she takes on the jobs no one else wants: those most in need-and least likely to pay. Patience is willing to do what it takes to fulfill her mentor’s wishes, but starting a midwife practice means gaining trust, and Patience’s secrets are too fragile to let anyone in.

 

A stirring piece of Americana, The Midwife of Hope River beats with authenticity as Patience faces seemingly insurmountable conditions: disease, poverty, and prejudices threaten at every turn. From the dangerous mines of West Virginia to the terrifying attentions of the Klu Klux Klan, Patience must strive to bring new light, and life, into an otherwise cruel world.

After hearing Patricia Harmon speak at SIBA 2012, I knew I wanted to read this book as soon as I got home. Unfortunately, I took way too many books home with me and then life got in the way and now it’s two years later and I’m finally getting to this one, the LAST of my SIBA books to read, and I’m annoyed that it took me so long to read this one because it’s GREAT. This is the kind of novel that you can sit with for hours, wrapped up in a time and place completely different from your own, following the amazing Patience around as she goes through her days, saving lives and birthing babies. It’s incredibly interesting, engaging reading.

The star of this novel is the midwife herself, Patience Murphy. She’s compassionate, caring, and genuine, yet truly no-nonsense when it comes to dealing with women in labor and saving lives. She does exactly what she has to do in a matter-of-fact way to get the job done, and the work she does is so fast-paced to the point where sometimes there’s no time to show tender loving care. I loved the many sides of Patience – she has such a heart of gold, yet when someone attempts to get close to her she has a tendency to put walls up for fear of getting hurt. There are two people in this novel who eventually break down those walls – a friend who ends up becoming a roommate, and a potential love interest – and watching these relationships unfold was pure joy for me. I loved seeing Patience shed some of the pain from her past and open herself up to a potential future.

Patricia Harmon used her own extensive background and experience as a midwife to craft this story, and her knowledge and understanding of midwifery shines through. I’m sure that some of the situations Patience is faced with in the novel are exact things that happened to Harmon’s laboring mothers when she was a practicing midwife. The whole story just felt so genuine, it was crystal clear that Harmon really knows her stuff. 

The other thing I loved about this novel is how the history of the time and place comes through in surprising ways. Patience has to figure out how to navigate major racial tensions while tending to (and loving) black families, and eventually taking over for the only black midwife in the area. She has to fight against the KKK and deal with dire poverty – both her own and her patients’. There is a scene at the end where Patience is being attacked in her own home, and it is truly terrifying. To think that this was a reality for people not too long ago, and in some cases is still possible today, is eye-opening and very hard to think about. But I loved how Harmon used these issues as a background for the more pivotal story – that of the midwife and her work and life. It wasn’t an “issue” book – the issues were just there, just a part of Patience’s life.

I really enjoyed The Midwife of Hope River and I’m kicking myself for waiting so long to read it. If you’re like me and have been sitting on this title for a while, don’t wait any longer! It is truly an excellent book and I really, really enjoyed it. 

The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin

The Aviator's WifeThe Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin
Published by Delacorte Press
Review copy received at SIBA 2012

From the publisher:

For much of her life, Anne Morrow, the shy daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Mexico, has stood in the shadows of those around her, including her millionaire father and vibrant older sister, who often steals the spotlight. Then Anne, a college senior with hidden literary aspirations, travels to Mexico City to spend Christmas with her family. There she meets Colonel Charles Lindbergh, fresh off his celebrated 1927 solo flight across the Atlantic. Enthralled by Charles’s assurance and fame, Anne is certain the celebrated aviator has scarcely noticed her. But she is wrong.

Charles sees in Anne a kindred spirit, a fellow adventurer, and her world will be changed forever. The two marry in a headline-making wedding. Hounded by adoring crowds and hunted by an insatiable press, Charles shields himself and his new bride from prying eyes, leaving Anne to feel her life falling back into the shadows. In the years that follow, despite her own major achievements—she becomes the first licensed female glider pilot in the United States—Anne is viewed merely as the aviator’s wife. The fairy-tale life she once longed for will bring heartbreak and hardships, ultimately pushing her to reconcile her need for love and her desire for independence, and to embrace, at last, life’s infinite possibilities for change and happiness.

There has been a recent trend in books over the past several years of historical fiction featuring the wives of prominent historical figures, and The Aviator’s Wife is one more shining example of how fun that trend can be. Truthfully, I didn’t know much about Charles Lindbergh before picking up this novel (just that he was a famous aviator who broke some records and that his baby was kidnapped), but now I not only know a ton about Lindbergh, but I feel that I intimately understand his life as seen through the (fictionalized version) eyes of his wife, Anne.

I got deeply involved with this book from the first page. I was drawn to Anne immediately – although she’d always been seen as secondary to her beautiful and popular older sister, I liked her intelligence, her ability to see people for their true selves, and her adventurous spirit, which are three qualities that drew Lindbergh to her as well. From their first meeting, Anne and Charles are like two peas in a pod, they can trust no one else and although their lives are scrutinized by the press and they are stalked constantly by the paparazzi, they find solace in each other and are able to escape from the craziness only when it is just the two of them alone in the air together. I loved the way their relationship would change, especially in the early years, when they were flying together – it was this thing that they shared and that no one could take away from them.

Unfortunately, their marriage was rocky and Charles wasn’t necessarily the nicest person to be around. He was moody, dark, and didn’t always share his thoughts and feelings with Anne. And what he did share, oftentimes were simply commands, things that she was expected to do as his wife, no arguments allowed. Benjamin illuminated for the reader both the highs and the lows of their marriage and, despite everything, showed that in the end there was a fierce love shared between the two of them even when Anne finally found the independence she so fought for throughout her marriage and her life.

I really enjoyed this book and have to say that I appreciated the mix between history and fiction that Benjamin brought to it. I loved learning about the Lindberghs and Benjamin told their story in a compelling and entertaining way. Anne Lindbergh’s life was incredibly sad at times, as she dealt with the debilitating loss of a child and a controlling, sometimes cruel husband, but she also deeply loved her husband and children and created a true legacy of her own as a female aviator. I highly recommend The Aviator’s Wife as an excellent piece of historical fiction.

Mini-review binge

Tell the Wolves I'm HomeTell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
Published by Random House

June Elbus is fourteen years old in 1987 when her beloved uncle Finn dies of AIDS. Her family can barely speak of the reason for his death, and they definitely don’t talk about the man they believe killed him by giving him the disease, his long-time partner Toby. When June begins a secret friendship with Toby, she learns of this whole other life that Finn had, a life he kept her completely out of, his life with Toby.

You guys, this book is everything. Heartbreaking, unflinchingly honest, great characters, perfect writing, EVERYTHING. I loved it and I need you to read it. I just wanted to reach through the pages and give this girl some love. So, so sad but so beautiful too. Please read it.

House of BathoryHouse of Bathory by Linda Lafferty
Published by Amazon Publishing

Elizabeth Bathory, a countess in the early 1600′s, ruled a castle in Slovakia, and rumor has it that she tortured and killed hundreds of young women, after which she would bathe in their blood to preserve her youth. Four hundred years later, Betsy Plath, a psychologist, is working with difficult teen Daisy Hart, when the two of them discover ties from the legend of Bathory to their own lives.

This book is why I love being in book clubs. I never would have picked this up on my own, it is totally not my thing, but I really, really liked it. The plot was intense and unique and, especially in the second half, like a thrill ride that I didn’t want to put down. My only complaint would be that the writing is far from perfect, but honestly I was so captivated by the craziness and the characters that I didn’t really care about the writing.

Eating AnimalsEating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer
Published by Little, Brown and Company

This book is by far the most compelling and well-written case against eating animals that I’ve ever read. I’ve always gone back and forth between wanting to go vegetarian and loving meat and Eating Animals might just have pushed me over the edge. Although I can’t quite get there all the way (I still eat seafood, eggs, and some dairy products), I haven’t eaten red meat, pork, or turkey since I started reading this book, and I’ve only had chicken a handful of times. I have to say, if you don’t want to question your meat-eating, I wouldn’t pick this one up, because it’s just that good, and it will force you to at least consider cutting down your meat consumption. But if you’re at all concerned about where your food comes from and the truth about how we treat animals at factory farms, Eating Animals is a must-read.

VirtuosityVirtuosity by Jessica Martinez
Published by Simon Pulse
Review copy received at SIBA 2012

Carmen is a teen prodigy, a violinist who is thisclose to winning the prestigious Guarneri competition. She decides one day to scope out her competition, Jeremy, and while she finds him arrogant and obnoxious, she can’t help falling for him a little, too. When the urge to be with Jeremy gets in the way of her competitive drive to win, she has to make an incredibly difficult choice.

I really liked this one and it’s stayed with me even though it’s been a while since I finished reading it. I felt deeply for Carmen, as the pressure her family and peers put on her to be the best became suffocating to the point that she had to take anti-anxiety medicine just to get through a violin lesson, let alone her performances. When she grew close with Jeremy, I rooted for them to figure out a way to be together, despite their circumstances. This really was a sweet YA novel that had some tough subjects wrapped up in that sweetness.

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of WingsThe Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
Published by Viking Adult
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

This novel is absolutely everywhere right now so you probably already know what it’s about. But honestly, any summary I could provide wouldn’t do it justice, so in case you’re unfamiliar with the novel here is the publisher’s summary:

Hetty “Handful” Grimke, an urban slave in early nineteenth century Charleston, yearns for life beyond the suffocating walls that enclose her within the wealthy Grimke household. The Grimke’s daughter, Sarah, has known from an early age she is meant to do something large in the world, but she is hemmed in by the limits imposed on women.

Kidd’s sweeping novel is set in motion on Sarah’s eleventh birthday, when she is given ownership of ten-year old Handful, who is to be her handmaid.We follow their remarkable journeys over the next thirty-five years, as both strive for a life of their own, dramatically shaping each other’s destinies and forming a complex relationship marked by guilt, defiance, estrangement and the uneasy ways of love.
As the stories build to a riveting climax, Handful will endure loss and sorrow, finding courage and a sense of self in the process. Sarah will experience crushed hopes, betrayal, unrequited love, and ostracism before leaving Charleston to find her place alongside her fearless younger sister, Angelina, as one of the early pioneers in the abolition and women’s rights movements.

Inspired by the historical figure of Sarah Grimke, Kidd goes beyond the record to flesh out the rich interior lives of all of her characters, both real and invented, including Handful’s cunning mother, Charlotte, who courts danger in her search for something better.

The Invention of Wings is a sweeping novel that takes place over the course of several decades, at a time in American history we aren’t too proud of as a nation, but also a time when great change was just around the corner. Sue Monk Kidd took this very real historical figure, Sarah Grimke, and fabricated another character (Handful) and created a truly remarkable piece of fiction. There was a lot to love about this book, and before I get into that, let me be honest about what was less than perfect about it for me.

I had a really difficult time connecting to most of the characters, if I’m being completely honest. While I admired Sarah, especially throughout the second half of the book, there was something missing for me in terms of how I was able to emotionally connect with her. With Handful my connection was more immediate and much easier, but as her life was so unimaginably awful and difficult, it was almost painful for me to feel that deep connection – like I wanted to shy away from it, her painful life was just too raw and real for me. And every member of the Grimke family besides Sarah was awful – it was difficult for me to read a book with SO many horrible people. I completely understand why these books are important and we need to read them to confront the truth of what our history as a nation is, but it was hard for me to love the book given my difficulty with the characters.

That said, The Invention of Wings is really a wonderful novel. There is SO much history here, and there is an author’s note at the end where she explains what is real and what is her imagination, and so much of what is in the book is based on real events! Many of the scenes in the book that were so painful to read were inspired by historical events that the author learned about while doing research for the novel. Obviously, it’s difficult to read about the specific ways slaves were abused, which I understand is the point – we must confront this stuff and accept that we as a people did this to other human beings. But it’s not easy to read, I’m telling you.

I loved how much time the book covered, as you really get to see the changes in society over the course of the novel. Things don’t end with perfection, but it’s clear that we’re getting somewhere as a country by the time Sarah is an older woman. She worked tirelessly in her adult years for equality of both slaves and women, and I loved seeing how that work affected the country in positive ways through her lifetime.

Ultimately this is a story about two very different women, growing up in the same household but who couldn’t possibly have more opposite experiences, and the strength and power both women found within themselves over the course of their lifetimes. Sarah and Handful couldn’t be more different, but in the end they spend most of their lives searching for the same thing – freedom and the power that comes from that freedom. Whether or not they find it, and how they attempt to do so, is sort of the point of the book.

Sue Monk Kidd’s writing is gorgeous, she truly brings this time period and the story alive with her words. I really enjoyed the book in many ways and I can see why it’s getting such praise. Even though I didn’t fall in love with the characters, this is an extremely powerful story and one that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Comeback Love by Peter Golden

Comeback LoveComeback Love by Peter Golden
Published by Washington Square Press
Review copy received at SIBA 2012

Gordon Meyers is en route to his sister’s home to deal with a family catastrophe when he decides to detour to see an old flame, Glenna Rising, and surprises her at her Manhattan pediatrics practice. Thirty-five years earlier, in the 1960′s, the two lived the greatest love story of each of their lives, until its shattering conclusion and emotionally charged breakup. As the two meet for a drink, Glenna tries to learn the real reason Gordon came to visit her, and old secrets and hurts are brought to the surface as the two of them rediscover their feelings all over again.

Why did I wait so long to read this book? I’ve had it since September 2012 and it was so good I’m kicking myself for not picking it up sooner. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it definitely wasn’t this beautiful love story, one fraught with challenges and issues and sticky, hard situations but with two people at its center who had the kind of all-consuming love that is undeniable and inescapable.

One thing I loved so much about Comeback Love is that Golden managed to weave so much history into what is, on the surface, a romance novel. Told mostly in the past, the book spends the majority of its time in the 1960′s, and Glenna is active in the movement to legalize abortion, so there is a lot about that in the book. I loved how Golden explores how personal choices can be so far from one’s beliefs, and even when we want them to match up perfectly, we can’t always reconcile what we believe with what we actually do when faced with decisions of our own. The same can be said about the Vietnam War – Gordon struggles with whether to go to war or to keep himself out of the draft with his student deferments, and then when his own son is of age the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are in full swing and he wants to protect his son from the very same choices he made as a young adult. There’s something so wonderful about getting these bits of history inside such a well-written, character-driven novel.

Even though Gordon and Glenna’s relationship is fraught with complications, and they both make bad choices and all of that, I still really liked them each individually and the two of them together as a couple. It’s hard to really know Glenna, because the book is told from Gordon’s point of view, and the reader therefore only sees her as he does – not as she sees herself – but even still, I liked her and wanted the best for her. Gordon is, of course, a character to root for, but his disastrous choices made me want to shake him at times. There was this crazy magnetic pull between the two of them that really drew me into the novel and kept me turning pages, even when their relationship wasn’t going in a direction that I necessarily wanted for them.

I liked this novel so, so much and I’m annoyed with myself for having waited so long to read it. It is beautifully written, with characters and settings that jump off the pages and right into the reader’s heart. Highly recommended.