A Tangled Mercy: a novel by Joy Jordan-Lake (Lake Union Publishing, 2017)
This is a fairly long novel but that’s because it’s really two books in one. One is the story of a 1822 slave revolt in Charleston, and the other the story of a Harvard grad student in history trying to get a handle on her own family’s history in Charleston and how it connects to the events of 1822. It’s a fascinating book with many surprises that makes the reader feel like they’re wandering the city (in both times) too. Racism is a major theme of the plot, including the terrible church shooting of 2015. It conveniently comes with reading group questions; I imagine both because of the topic and the author’s previous successful books. But even if you don’t belong to a book group, it’s an excellent book which you should read.
The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy (Harper Collins 2017)
This novel is very reminiscent of the many excellent works of Maeve Binchy, the Irish novelist who passed away a couple of years ago. Felicity Hayes-McCoy is apparently a famous actress in the UK but her writing skills are also quite good. I picked up the book on the New Books shelf because it is about a library and a librarian; the “edge of the world” refers to a fictional coastline community in Ireland. Although the main character is a bit prickly, she does eventually mellow and helps her community save their local library. Figuring out what the Irish vocabulary words mean is an ongoing challenge, but certainly provides local flavor. If you liked Maeve Binchy you will like this book.
Troublemaker by Leah Remini (Ballantine Books, 2015)
The sub-title of the book tells exactly what kind of troublemaker Leah Remini is – “How I Survived Hollywood and Scientology.” This memoir of a celebrity television actress is not hilarious like the one by the star of Parks and Recreation; it’s disturbing, but fascinating. Lots of celebrities write about Hollywood, but no one writes about Scientology, and Leah explains why. Those who still belong to the “church” of Scientology (which has no deity) are strictly forbidden to do so, and if you have friends or family still in it (and most do) when you escape, they will be punished for your speaking out, as well as never being allowed to contact you again.
Leah Remini spent over 30 years in Scientology before she finally realized what it was doing to her. She doesn’t get any points for brilliance there, but she has a good heart. The mandatory constant psychological training is promoted as making you and the world better, which can be a trap for people with good intentions but little education – Leah dropped out of school in the 8th grade because not surprisingly, the “church” discourages formal education. They demand that members constantly purchase courses of study to get various levels of certification, putting most of them in terrible debt, as Leah points out. But the worst part is the punishments that are doled out for any kind of deviation from policy, major or minor, and the way Scientology controls its members. Leah should be applauded for escaping from this cult and telling the world what this surprising large and powerful organization is really like. I encourage everyone to read this book.
The Far Away Brothers by Lauren Markham (Penguin Random House LLC, 2017)
I thought this was going to be a novel but in fact it is not, though it reads like one. It is the true story of two young immigrants who came to the U.S. from El Salvador. The author is a teacher at a California high school for immigrants and also a journalist who writes about the immigration system. The young men, who are twins, agreed to let their story be told. It is not sugar-coated to bring out sympathy in the reader, but it does so anyway. While I feel that the United States has a very violent culture, it’s safe compared to El Salvador, where the teenage gangs have literally taken over the country and murder people with impunity to hold their power.
The book answers a lot of questions I had about immigrants and helps me understand their situation better. The only unanswered question is why people always migrate to the U.S. instead of heading south to South American countries that share their language and culture. Maybe someone will write that book next. The author did mention that since 2014, some immigrants are settling in Mexico rather than trying to get all the way to the United States.
The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert (Picador USA, 2014).
After hearing Elizabeth Kolbert give a guest lecture at my university and learning that this book won the Pulitzer Prize, I had to buy and read it. Kolbert is a staff writer at The New Yorker magazine. She previously wrote “Field Notes from a Catastrophe” which I read, and in this book she continues her approach of visiting scientists in the field and then writing about their work. The previous five mass extinctions of plant and animal life on Earth are well documented by scientists and include the famous asteroid that killed the dinosaurs. In recent decades, so many species are going extinct at such a rapid rate that it is generally agreed we are experiencing the sixth mass extinction. The difference is that this time, it’s being caused by humans. Kolbert tells the fascinating story of a few of these species that are going or have gone extinct, and the heartbreaking details of how scientists are making last ditch efforts to save them.
Burning Paradise by Robert Charles Wilson (Tom Doherty Associates, 2013)
The great thing about science fiction is that even when it is four years old, it usually doesn’t seem any less (or more) timely. Hugo Award winning author R. C. Wilson, whose work I haven’t encountered before, imagines in this novel an alternate 2014 that is just subtly different than the one we remember happening three years ago. The difference is the hive colony of aliens who reside in our upper atmosphere. This network of microscopic organisms acts as a parasite that steer the world towards peace rather than war, by influencing our telecommunications (radio, tv, etc.) This is so implausible that even in the story, only a small group of people know about it. Nevertheless, our heroes (a couple of college-age kids) eventually save the world. You would think we’d rather continue to have peace than war, but it’s complicated. I would have to give it an R rating for graphic violence and sex; it reads like a movie, though not one I’d particularly want to see.
The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve (Alfred A. Knopf, 2017)
I have no idea where Anita Shreve came up with the title, other than the fact that a huge wildfire is a major part of the plot. The main character saves her two young children from the fire that decimates her Maine town in the mid-1940s, but it leaves her with a bitter and disabled husband and some decisions to make. I associate wildfires with the West, but I suppose Maine was, and is, a heavily wooded rural state. This novel was an interesting “period piece” about post-war America, with plenty of descriptions of typical clothes and furnishings of the period. Apparently you could get a 3-course lunch for 25 cents, for instance. It was a mildly interesting story but not really anything special.