The Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso

The Woman Next DoorThe Woman Next Door by Yewande Omotoso
Published by Chatto & Windus

This is, on the surface, a simple story about a feud between two neighbors in South Africa and the surrounding details of what the drama between the two women is all about. But this is post-Apartheid South Africa, and since Hortensia is black and Marion is white, their feud comes with all kinds of deep-seated issues of race, class, and background. When one of the women suffers an accident that brings the two of them in close quarters for an extended period of time, they are forced to confront each other as well as their own prejudices as they attempt to forge what can only be described as a tenuous acquaintanceship.

I love reading books set in different cultures and continue to remind myself of the importance of doing so. The Woman Next Door was the perfect example of such a novel, as I have to say that I’m more ignorant about the details of Apartheid than I’d like to be (and plan to remedy that with future books, probably more non-fiction about the topic). The book was a good intro to how the culture has attempted to evolve into a more tolerant and accepting society since the end of Apartheid, but it is clear that the degree to which that has actually happened is minimal at best.

This book is full of little references to the culture in this part of South Africa, the long-lasting effects of Apartheid, and the ways in which living through that shaped how these women think and behave. There are several scenes where Marion begins to have light bulb moments about her part in keeping blacks and whites separate and the fact that she is racist and never realized it until her conversations with Hortensia. There are other moments where Hortensia outright confronts Marion about her racism and doesn’t make it easy for her – she forces her to examine her prejudices head-on and not run or hide from them.

Even with the honesty that Hortensia and Marion face within themselves, I still didn’t think the book went as far as I would have liked to address the racism and prejudices inherent in these women’s lives. Put simply, I liked the concept but wanted more. I wanted even harsher criticisms of Marion’s behavior and I wanted even more intense confrontations between the two women. In addition, I didn’t feel particularly connected to either woman, and I just wanted to feel something more for them. In the end, while I appreciate what Omotoso was doing in this novel, and the writing was great, overall the book didn’t quite live up to my expectations. I liked it but didn’t love it. Again, though, the book exposed me to a culture that I wish I knew more about and looked at some history that I also want to learn more about. So in that sense, it was a total win. I just wish I would have gotten more feeling, more connection, from the characters.

Two Rush-inspired reads

My boyfriend is a huge fan of the band Rush, and as a drummer himself, he particularly loves Neil Peart. He is also not a big reader, so when he suggested that I read a few books that he’s really loved over the years – both Rush-inspired – I definitely wanted to check them out. While I didn’t love either book, I can see how a Rush fan certainly would love them both. Here’s a few thoughts on these two books.

Clockwork Angels (Clockwork Angels, #1)Clockwork Angels by Kevin J. Anderson
Published by ECW Press

This is a sort-of steampunk, sort-of dystopian novel that was inspired by Neil Peart’s lyrics in the Rush album Clockwork Angels. It’s basically about a teenage boy who grew up knowing that the Watchmaker (almost like the Wizard from The Wizard of Oz) has put the world in such a perfect ordered way so that everyone can have peace and happiness. Everything is done in a prescribed way, every day is exactly like the one before it, and as long as everyone follows the rules and their routines, everything will be great. But when he’s on the cusp of becoming an adult in this society, he goes on an adventure that changes everything for him, as he learns that the way he grew up is not the only way of doing things, and he can live in a different society, with a different way of life, if he chooses to leave his father and everything he knows behind.

I liked the concept of Clockwork Angels enough and the way the world is explained by Anderson was interesting and gave me a feel for what’s going on within it. The main character, Owen was extremely ignorant about the world around him, which, although annoying, was of course by design so it made sense. Also, I would have liked to see a bit more character development within Owen, which could possibly have made me want to read future novels in this (I think) series. The story is well-paced and definitely held my interest – at no point did I consider giving up on the book, even though I found the writing and the story itself just okay.

The main thing I can say about Clockwork Angels is that I can totally see how a Rush fan would absolutely love it. There are tons of Rush lyrics sprinkled throughout the book – it would almost be like a scavenger hunt for a Rush super-fan to attempt to find them all. And now that I know some of the songs from the Clockwork Angels album, I can see how a fan of the band would love that the concepts of the album were expanded into a novel. Ultimately, this is a conceptual book more than anything else, and while it works on that level, either you’d like it if you’re a Rush fan and probably just not get it if you are not.

Ghost Rider: Travels on the Healing RoadGhost Rider: Travels on the Healing Road by Neil Peart
Published by ECW Press

When Neil Peart was in his mid-forties, his nineteen-year-old daughter was in a fatal car accident. A year later, after being unable to cope with her grief, his wife Jackie succumbed to terminal cancer and also died. Ghost Rider is Peart’s memoir chronicling the year he spent by himself, driving around Canada, the US, and Mexico on his motorcycle, attempting to grieve and heal from the pain of losing the two most important people in his life.

Can you imagine losing a child, and then watching your spouse die just a year later? I certainly cannot, and I think these two things are the two things in the world most people fear the most. This was an interesting memoir because the way Peart chose to deal with his grief is definitely unique, but he knew himself well enough to know that this was the only way he could possibly heal and maybe move on to some other life he couldn’t dream of at the time that he started his journey. I liked reading Ghost Rider as a memoir on grief and found it interesting how Peart was able to heal himself throughout this journey.

While I liked the book, I can see how Rush fans must absolutely love it. Peart is a relatively private person and doesn’t like giving interviews or meeting fans, so for a Rush fan to get this much of an intimate look inside his thoughts, to get to know him this well, must be a pretty great thing. I would recommend Ghost Rider to any Rush fan or anyone who is looking for a memoir around the grieving process.

The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom

The Kitchen HouseThe Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom
Published by Touchstone

Lavinia is a seven-year-old Irish immigrant who, after being orphaned on the ship over to the US, is taken in by a plantation owner and raised among the slaves as if she were a member of their family. The novel starts out by introducing the reader to Lavinia, the family of slaves who she grows up feeling as though they’re her parents, brothers, sisters, etc., and the white family who own the plantation. Quickly, though, the book ratchets up its pace and a LOT happens. There is abuse, affairs, MASSIVE power dynamics, questions about race, humans owning other humans, all of the typical stuff you see in novels set during slave times, but at its core, this is a book about two families – one white, one black – and one girl who must navigate between these two totally separate worlds.

I really enjoyed The Kitchen House and I find it remarkable what Grissom managed to do with these characters throughout this novel. The book spans about twenty years, and so much happens to the characters, but she really gives the reader a complete understanding of who they are, what their motivations are, who and what they love and will fight for, and why they make the decisions they make throughout the book. I found it interesting that while the book focuses on Lavinia as its center, she was the character I found myself caring about least. Instead, I was much more drawn to her family, the slaves, and the various struggles and issues they had to deal with. Grissom did such an amazing job bringing these characters to life on the page – especially Belle, Laviania’s older “sister” who is actually the illegitimate daughter of the plantation owner. I loved Belle and was disappointed that, while she narrates a few of the chapters, her sections were not long enough for my tastes.

While some of the events in the book would fall into the stereotypical for a slavery novel category, I would venture to say that these things (whippings, children being sold away from their parents, slaves being forced to marry whoever the overseer wanted them to marry, physical abuse, rape, I could go on and on…) are stereotypical because they happened all the time. So in my uneducated brain, Grissom stayed very true to history, and there’s even a note in the back about all of the research that she did and the factual story that the novel was based on. So while the book was tough to read at times, historical fiction can and should be tough to read, and I thought Grissom did an amazing job weaving the elements of life as a slave in with the humanity of the people who actually did experience that awful existence.

This was a book club pick and universally everyone liked the book, although to varying degrees. We had a good discussion about some of the questions the book brought up in our thoughts, a good conversation about power dynamics and how lack of power contributed to many of the characters’ choices, and overall it was a great book club pick.

I honestly have nothing negative to say about this one. The Kitchen House was fantastic.

The Golden Son by Shilpi Somaya Gowda

The Golden SonThe Golden Son by Shilpi Somaya Gowda
Published by William Morrow

Anil Patel is the pride and joy of his parents, as he’s the first in his family to attend college and later travels from his village in India to Dallas, Texas to begin his medical residency. When his father dies, Anil has to assume the role of head of household, and from thousands of miles away, his father’s duty as the arbiter of disputes among the people in their village. While Anil attempts to assimilate into American culture, at the same time he is being pulled back into his traditions and values from his Indian culture back home on an almost daily basis, and he must figure out a way to balance the two demands equally, for his family and his future. Meanwhile, Anil’s best friend from childhood, Leena, has an arranged marriage in their village in India and struggles desperately to deal with the demands of her new family. Her new in-laws are nothing like how they advertised themselves to be, and for fear of shaming her parents, she can’t tell them how unbearable her new life is. She eventually finds herself in a desperate situation involving money, abuse, and family honor, and what she ends up being forced to do has a resounding effect on her family and Anil’s.

That summary doesn’t even come close to doing this gorgeous novel justice. These characters, these families, they wound their way around my heart and stayed there for weeks after I finished reading about them. I felt deeply for Anil and Leena, but also for the secondary characters in the novel. Leena’s parents are desperate to secure their daughter’s future, but in their desperation, they will stop at nothing to get what they believe is guaranteed happiness for Leena – even when it literally costs them everything they own. And how things turn out for Leena, despite the lengths her parents go to for her, is absolutely heartbreaking and the exact opposite of what her parents wanted for her. Anil’s family is another cast of characters that just jumps off the page – between his younger brothers, his sister (who is also good friends with Leena), and especially his mother, they each grow and change throughout the book and become different, mostly better versions of themselves. The fact that the author managed to show that growth to the reader, while setting a good chunk of the book in another part of the world (not where these characters are located), is pretty awesome.

There were so many devastating moments throughout this book, but Gowda does an incredible job at never letting the reader fully lose hope. Yes, it’s a heartbreaking and sad novel, but it has so many shining moments of love and happiness throughout that it makes the reader continue to root for the characters and believe, against all odds, that something will eventually work out for them. In addition to that, Gowda’s writing is absolutely gorgeous and I soaked up every single word that was on the page.

The Golden Son is the kind of book I really treasure – it’s layered, complex, has fantastic characters that come to life on the page, a story that captivates, and beautiful writing. I can’t say enough great things about this novel. It will be one of my favorites this year for sure.

The Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon

The Sun Is Also a StarThe Sun is Also a Star by Nicola Yoon
Published by Delacorte Press

There is so much to love about this book. It is adorably funny, heartwarming and heartbreaking, full of witty dialogue and moments of true connection between the characters. Oh and also the characters – these are two incredibly interesting, complex, compelling teen protagonists who are almost impossible not to fall in love with and root for throughout the entire novel. It’s just such a fantastic read in just about every way.

I’ve seen some criticisms about the book being an instalove situation between the two main characters, Natasha and Daniel, but I truly didn’t see it that way. I saw a bond that developed very quickly but one that looked and felt genuine as I read their story. Pragmatic, intellectual Natasha doesn’t want to believe in the romantic dreamer that she sees in Daniel, but he is just so kind to her, seeing something in her that she can’t see in herself, that she does fall for him super quickly. But it didn’t feel fake to me – it felt like a thing that could (and I’m sure does) actually happen to real people.

This isn’t just a YA romance, there are serious issues at play in the novel. Natasha’s family is going to be deported the same night that the book takes place, as her parents brought them here on legal visas ten years ago from Jamaica and simply never left. So while Natasha is falling in love with Daniel over the course of this one single day, she’s also making her way to several attorneys’ offices and government agencies to attempt to find someone who will take pity on her family’s situation and allow them to stay long enough to become legal residents of the US. For Natasha, everything is at stake, and as Daniel begins to fall for her, he feels her sense of urgency as much as if it were his own family being deported to another country. The fact that Yoon took this very real issue of immigration that so many people in our country face on a regular basis and turned it into a YA romance novel is fantastic and I absolutely loved seeing the issue from this unique perspective.

I’m not going to spoil anything but I will say that the ending was just perfection and I couldn’t have loved it any more. Having loved Everything, Everything and now this novel, I am certain that Nicola Yoon can do no wrong and I will continue to read and love her novels. Highly recommended.

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Madame BovaryMadame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Published by Oxford University Press

I haven’t read a lot of the “classics” and as a result of not being well-read in this category of novels, I typically find myself intimidated by them and have a preconceived notion that I won’t enjoy the ones I do pick up. Inevitably, though, when I read them I surprise myself with how much I enjoy the experience of reading these classic books – they are considered the “classics” for a reason, after all! Such was the case with Madame Bovary – I found the book so refreshingly current and saw so many parallels to issues that people (well, women mostly) face on a regular basis in today’s society.

Here we have this woman who is confined by her time period and status in life (female) to a life of essentially being owned by a man. For most of her life, that man is her father, and then she marries Mr. Bovary, and he begins taking ownership of her. Although technically she is an independent human and citizen, the world doesn’t see women that way during this time in history, and she certainly doesn’t feel that she has any independence or ability to make her own choices whatsoever. So what does she do? She rebels, of course. She falls in love with several men who are not her husband, bucks social norms and her own wedding vows, and carries on several affairs without her husband’s knowledge. She comes dangerously close to getting caught several times, neglects her child to continue relationships with these guys, and comes to look at her husband with a mixture of disgust, anger, and of course regret.

Ultimately her story is one where you can see that having zero power in life can cause someone to do terrible things, whether it be because she was depressed, simply fell in love with the wrong people, or, was frankly bored out of her mind. But I saw so many parallels to the way women have been treated throughout history, and how the lack of access to power, information, money, etc. in even today’s world leads people down dangerous paths and causes people to make choices that are not in their best interest.

I missed the book club meeting for this one, but I’m sure the ladies in my book club had a lot to talk about because there’s so much here to think about and discuss. I’m really glad I read Madame Bovary and it’s one more time I need to remind myself that classics are deemed classic literature for a reason. I definitely need to experience more of them.

The Firm by John Grisham

The FirmThe Firm by John Grisham
Published by Dell

It’s possible that I’m one of the few voracious readers who had never read anything by John Grisham up until this point. I always expected not to like his books as the idea of a legal thriller just doesn’t sound, I guess, thrilling to me in the least. However, when a coworker recommended that I try his books, and further suggested starting with The Firm, I decided to listen. I didn’t hate the book but I didn’t enjoy it too much, either. It was just okay for me. The writing is super detailed and over dramatized to the point where it became annoying after a couple hundred pages. The entire thing is dripping with the grossest sexism and is just not nice in its treatment of women in any way. I get that the sexism is characteristic of the firm itself and it was there for a reason, but I don’t think it had to be SO in your face and, honestly, just obnoxious. While I don’t see myself reading another Grisham novel anytime soon, I would be interested to see if all of his books are written with so little attention paid to how the women are represented in them, or if it is unique to this book because of the premise.

Despite my issues with the book, it wasn’t the worst ever and I did find myself entertained by the story itself. I wouldn’t exactly call it a thriller but the plot moved quickly enough to hold my attention and keep me turning pages. I kind of hated most of the characters, but I think that was what Grisham was going for, and the fact that he got me to care enough to hate them is a good thing. I am glad that, having read the book, I now understand what Grisham is all about and I know I won’t be reading more of his novels in the future.