Glory Over Everything: Beyond The Kitchen House by Kathleen Grissom (Simon & Schuster, 2016)
This work of historical fiction reminds readers of the horrors of American slavery while telling a moderately suspenseful tale. It is the sequel to her novel The Kitchen House which I have not read, but that didn’t matter. I found the writing style stilted and self-conscious, but other readers may not be bothered by this. It was disturbing to learn that being free, and even being white, did not protect anyone from being seized and sold into slavery in the America of two hundred years ago. The value placed on people’s lives seemed to be very low, which might be partly due to how common death was for all ages. At least half the main characters in this book die, so don’t get too attached. Sadly, children in that time apparently behaved just as thoughtlessly as they always have, even though disobeying their parents could lead to much more serious consequences.
The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church (Algonquin Books, 2016)
The cover of this book shows a periodic table of the elements, with birds instead of elements. I wouldn’t call this a great novel, but it was interesting and thought-provoking. Plus you can learn a lot about birds by reading it, since each chapter is prefaced by a set of facts about a particular bird species. The main character is a woman who wants to be an ornithologist, but sadly never achieves this ambition due to the sexist culture of mid-twentieth century America. Meridian does earn a bachelor’s degree and gets accepted to Cornell for graduate school, which has a top ornithology program. But then, she falls in love, gets married, and follows her husband to Los Alamos. She doesn’t even have children, yet she gives up on further education and a career. I thought she was going to publish her many years of bird observation journals, but she doesn’t even do that.
Left in the Wind: the Roanoke Journal of Emme Merrimoth by Ed Gray (Pegasus Books, 2016)
I found this book disappointing. I was promised a plausible (though fictitious) explanation of what happened to the Lost Colony of Roanoke, and I didn’t get one. It was a confusing story, with several opposing groups of colonists and several opposing groups of Native Americans. That’s not unbelievable, but it could have been written and explained more clearly. What struck me about it was the similarity to science fiction books I’ve read about colonists on distant planets who encounter alien civilizations. I never thought of the settlement of the United States in that way before.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows (Dial Press, 2008)
I have read several novels that took place in World War II England, but until I read this one I didn’t know that the English island of Guernsey was occupied by the Germans during the war. In fact I didn’t know Guernsey was an island, I only knew it as a type of cow. This novel actually takes place after the war, when a London writer makes a connection with a literary society (we would call it a book group) on the island. She is looking for material for her next book and becomes fascinated with the book group’s experience during the German occupation – so fascinated that she moves there herself. The whole novel is written in the form of letters to and from the main character, who starts out rather light-hearted but becomes more serious as the story unfolds. I would have preferred a more traditional format but the premise is unusual and makes a good story.
My daughter said I was welcome to read her books while she is away at college, and even pointed out some good ones. Here are reviews of a couple of her YA books that I particularly enjoyed.
Saving Juliet by Suzanne Selfors (2008)
This is a very clever historical fantasy about a 17 year-old actress who (in an attempt to escape from the pressures of generations of family acting talent) magically finds herself in the Italy of Shakespeare’s play Romeo and Juliet, and has an opportunity to save Juliet and change the ending. The story comes complete with a Justin Beiber type teen male heart-throb who gets what’s coming to him but doesn’t turn out to be so bad in the end. I loved how the main character just introduced herself as “Mimi of Manhattan,” a distant cousin of the Capulets, and everyone accepted it.
Etiquette & Espionage by Gail Carriger (2013)
I believe this novel is part of the genre known as “steampunk” – science fiction set in an alternate 19th century world. In this alternative Victorian era werewolves and vampires are real. The main character, a 14 year-old girl who is a little too free spirited for the 19th century, is sent to a boarding school/finishing school that vaguely resembles Hogwarts (Harry’s Potter’s school). It is entirely housed in a huge air balloon that floats randomly across the moor. They don’t teach magic though – just spying, espionage, and assassination. It’s very funny, especially the way the author interprets finishing school skills like curtsies, fashionable dress, fans, handkerchiefs and so on, in light of their usefulness in intelligence work.
Timeline by Michael Crichton (Alfred A. Knopf, 1999)
I learned about this science fiction novel from the late 90s in a book review of another book, and decided to track it down. It was definitely worth it. Crichton became famous several decades ago for Jurassic Park, which was made into a successful (and terrifying) motion picture about dinosaurs come to life. This story about archeologists who travel through time to the 14th century French setting of their dig is equally (if not more) violent and gory, so if there is ever a movie I won’t be watching it. As a book where the images stay safely on the page, however, it was excellent. Every chapter is simply titled with the countdown timer telling how many hours they have left until the battery dies that powers the chip that will take them back. The two men and one woman spend basically the entire book from the moment they land in the 14th century running for their lives and trying not to get killed. Just read the book: it’s very exciting.
The truth according to us by Annie Barrows (Random House, 2015)
This is a fairly long and meaty novel with an interesting plot and complicated characters. It’s the kind of book that will probably be studied by a book club, although it doesn’t have a non-chronological structure like many novels striving to be literature. It takes place over the summer of 1938 in West Virginia, during the Great Depression. The story is told alternately through the voices of a 12 year-old girl, her father, her aunt who is raising her, and a young woman from a privileged background who comes to live with them and write the history of the town for the Federal Writer’s Project. Well worth the time it takes to read.