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X

Title: X

Authors: Ilyasah Shabazz and Kekla Magoon

Genre: YA fiction/historical fiction

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: A book whose title starts with Q X or Z

Back when I was teaching middle school, I handed my students two excerpts of pieces of writing: “The Ballot or the Bullet” and “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” I didn’t tell the kids the authors of either. After they read them, we had a discussion about which was more powerful, better written, more persuasive, etc. Hands-down, they selected “Ballot or the Bullet” as the piece they gravitated toward. Then, I played an audio recording of both authors. I can’t remember if it was the same pieces of writing or not, but the kids immediately switched sides. As powerful of a writer as Malcolm X was, Dr. King’s speaking ability was second to none. The lesson was a really great way to compare the written word vs. spoken word, not to mention how different Malcolm X’s and Dr. King’s beliefs were.

I bought this book on my kindle ages ago but never got around to reading it….story of my life. And I had completely forgotten what it was even about. But since it fit the prompt and was one I already had, it was an easy decision to select this one. I’m so glad I did. Co-written by Malcolm X’s daughter, this book is a fictionalized (based on facts, of course) account of Malcolm’s childhood and teenage years. He’s arrested and incarcerated toward the end of the book, and his prison time is briefly described. At the end of the book, he abandons his last name and changes to X.

From Goodreads: Malcolm Little’s parents have always told him that he can achieve anything, but from what he can tell, that’s nothing but a pack of lies—after all, his father’s been murdered, his mother’s been taken away, and his dreams of becoming a lawyer have gotten him laughed out of school. There’s no point in trying, he figures, and lured by the nightlife of Boston and New York, he escapes into a world of fancy suits, jazz, girls, and reefer.

follows Malcolm from his childhood to his imprisonment for theft at age twenty, when he found the faith that would lead him to forge a new path and command a voice that still resonates today.

But Malcolm’s efforts to leave the past behind lead him into increasingly dangerous territory when what starts as some small-time hustling quickly spins out of control. Deep down, he knows that the freedom he’s found is only an illusion—and that he can’t run forever.

This book is fantastic. I don’t know much about Malcolm X’s background, let alone details of his childhood. I’ve never read his autobiography (for no particular reason…just never have). As much as I try to educate myself of important Black authors and activists, I am seriously lacking. I’ve never read James Baldwin, Richard Wright, or WEB DuBois. I am making a point to read more current Black authors, learning their stories, listening to their voices, but the formative authors are ones I need to investigate. And this book is an excellent way for young people, as well as for me, to do that.

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The Lost Apothecary

Title: The Lost Apothecary

Author: Sarah Penner

Genre: historical fiction, mystery

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: a book with a heart, diamond, club, or spade on the cover (look at the top of the vial)

This book was a choice for Book of the Month club, but I’m not really a historical fiction fan, so I didn’t select it. But enough people told me that I needed to check it out anyway because it was really good. And I’m glad I did. I really enjoyed this one, even though a couple parts were predictable. Told in both present and past plot lines, the book gives you a good idea of what life was like back in the late 1700s for the apothecary, Nella and her reluctantly-taken-on apprentice, Eliza. I enjoyed the past story more than the present day, oddly enough. Caroline’s story wasn’t as interesting to me, although I thought she was a great character.

From Goodreads:

A female apothecary secretly dispenses poisons to liberate women from the men who have wronged them—setting three lives across centuries on a dangerous collision course.Rule #1: The poison must never be used to harm another woman. Rule #2: The names of the murderer and her victim must be recorded in the apothecary’s register.

One cold February evening in 1791, at the back of a dark London alley in a hidden apothecary shop, Nella awaits her newest customer. Once a respected healer, Nella now uses her knowledge for a darker purpose—selling well-disguised poisons to desperate women who would kill to be free of the men in their lives. But when her new patron turns out to be a precocious twelve-year-old named Eliza Fanning, an unexpected friendship sets in motion a string of events that jeopardizes Nella’s world and threatens to expose the many women whose names are written in her register.

In present-day London, aspiring historian Caroline Parcewell spends her tenth wedding anniversary alone, reeling from the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. When she finds an old apothecary vial near the river Thames, she can’t resist investigating, only to realize she’s found a link to the unsolved “apothecary murders” that haunted London over two centuries ago. As she deepens her search, Caroline’s life collides with Nella’s and Eliza’s in a stunning twist of fate—and not everyone will survive.

Writing two timelines is really tricky. But Penner did a great job uncovering details in the past timeline that became important in the next chapter of the present timeline. I’m always impressed with authors who can do this. Some authors can’t even get one timeline straight, let alone two. The present day story was a bit dull for me. Caroline is dealing with a cheating husband, an unhappy marriage, a desire for children, which is real, but it just isn’t one that appeals to me. Overall, this book was really great. I read it in just a couple days. Nella and Eliza were great characters, and I would love to see more of them.

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The Haunting of Maddy Clare

Title: The Haunting of Maddy Clare

Author: Simone St. James

Genre: ghost story, historical fiction

I love finding new to me authors and going through their back catalogs. Simone St. James is one of them. I first read The Sun Down Motel and really loved it. It was a great mix of thriller and supernatural. Then I read The Broken Girls, another mix of thriller and ghost story. So, I decided to keep going. This one is more of a historical fiction and ghost story, heavy on the ghost, namely Maddy Clare who is haunting a barn where she died.

From Goodreads: Sarah Piper’s lonely, threadbare existence changes when her temporary agency sends her to assist a ghost hunter. Alistair Gellis—rich, handsome, scarred by World War I, and obsessed with ghosts—has been summoned to investigate the spirit of nineteen-year-old maid Maddy Clare, who is haunting the barn where she committed suicide.
Since Maddy hated men in life, it is Sarah’s task to confront her in death. Soon Sarah is caught up in a desperate struggle. For Maddy’s ghost is real, she’s angry, and she has powers that defy all reason. Can Sarah and Alistair’s assistant, the rough, unsettling Matthew Ryder, discover who Maddy was, where she came from, and what is driving her desire for vengeance—before she destroys them all?

I’m not a big historical fiction fan, but this one was much more of a ghost story than anything. I’m not a believer in ghosts, so the story wasn’t truly scary to me, but it was definitely well-written and creepy. You really do start to feel bad for ghost Maddy when you learn more of her background. Sarah, Matthew, and Alistair make a good team and try to figure out why Maddy is still around. What needs to be resolved before she moves on, out of our world? I’m at the point where Simone St. James has yet to let me down, so, even though I don’t normally read ghost stories, I thought this one was great. I’ll definitely keep reading her books.

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Homegoing

Title: Homegoing

Author: Yaa Gyasi

Genre: Black historical fiction

PopSugar Reading Challenge Prompt: book with a family tree

I knew absolutely nothing about this book, other than the rave reviews. And by the time I was finished, I couldn’t believe how Gyasi managed to get me to care about each and every character in just a few pages. What a marvel this book is.

From Goodreads:

A novel of breathtaking sweep and emotional power that traces three hundred years in Ghana and along the way also becomes a truly great American novel. Extraordinary for its exquisite language, its implacable sorrow, its soaring beauty, and for its monumental portrait of the forces that shape families and nations, Homegoing heralds the arrival of a major new voice in contemporary fiction.

Two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, are born into different villages in eighteenth-century Ghana. Effia is married off to an Englishman and lives in comfort in the palatial rooms of Cape Coast Castle. Unbeknownst to Effia, her sister, Esi, is imprisoned beneath her in the castle’s dungeons, sold with thousands of others into the Gold Coast’s booming slave trade, and shipped off to America, where her children and grandchildren will be raised in slavery. One thread of Homegoing follows Effia’s descendants through centuries of warfare in Ghana, as the Fante and Asante nations wrestle with the slave trade and British colonization. The other thread follows Esi and her children into America. From the plantations of the South to the Civil War and the Great Migration, from the coal mines of Pratt City, Alabama, to the jazz clubs and dope houses of twentieth-century Harlem, right up through the present day, Homegoing makes history visceral, and captures, with singular and stunning immediacy, how the memory of captivity came to be inscribed in the soul of a nation.

Generation after generation, Yaa Gyasi’s magisterial first novel sets the fate of the individual against the obliterating movements of time, delivering unforgettable characters whose lives were shaped by historical forces beyond their control. Homegoing is a tremendous reading experience, not to be missed, by an astonishingly gifted young writer.

You only spend a short amount of time with each character, and although some bleed into their child’s story, some don’t. But the entire focus is on the new character. I was drawn in so quickly to each story, which felt like small snapshots into what life was like in America and in Africa around the same time. Of course, I knew that slavery would be an atrocity that characters in America face, but I really had no idea what life in Africa would be like for these characters. I was just blown away by how captivating each individual story was. The hype over this book is much deserved. I can’t wait to see what Gyasi’s next novel, Transcendent Kingdom, has in store for me.

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Hamnet

Title: Hamnet

Author: Maggie O’Farrell

Genre: historical fiction

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: a book that has won the Women’s Prize for Fiction

This book has quite a bit of buzz around it. And as much as I love Shakespeare, I’m not a fan of historical fiction. However, this book didn’t read like a historical book to me. Aside from the actual time period, this book really is just about a family, which could have taken place at any time. The death and subsequent grief of losing a child is universal.

From Goodreads: Drawing on Maggie O’Farrell’s long-term fascination with the little-known story behind Shakespeare’s most enigmatic play, HAMNET is a luminous portrait of a marriage, at its heart the loss of a beloved child.

Warwickshire in the 1580s. Agnes is a woman as feared as she is sought after for her unusual gifts. She settles with her husband in Henley street, Stratford, and has three children: a daughter, Susanna, and then twins, Hamnet and Judith. The boy, Hamnet, dies in 1596, aged eleven. Four years or so later, the husband writes a play called Hamlet.

Award-winning author Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel breathes full-blooded life into the story of a loss usually consigned to literary footnotes, and provides an unforgettable vindication of Agnes, a woman intriguingly absent from history.

This story is beautifully written. Somehow O’Farrell manages never to write the words William or Shakespeare in the entire book. He’s always the husband, brother, father, uncle, or playwright. Agnes really is the center of this story. Once she is married, her story takes over. The love she has for nature and her children is clear. And although her husband is away a lot doing “things” in London, Agnes is a survivor, dealing with her house, her children, and her pain. The death of Hamnet levels her to the ground. She manages to find her way out, but the climb is excruciating.

As great as this book is, I just didn’t LOVE love it. But I completely understand how others do. It was just my personal preference. Hamnet deserves all the awards it won, and I definitely will be recommending it. I just didn’t connect with it in a way I had been expecting.

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Booth

Title: Booth

Author: Jason Pellegrini

Genre: Time travel fiction, science fiction, historical fiction

PopSugar Reading Challenge prompt: a book about a fresh start or do-over

At some the author Jason Pellegrini entered my twitter feed. He’s a Stephen King junkie like I am, so I’m pretty sure I followed him for that reason. When he offered up a pdf of one of his books in exchange for an honest review, I gladly took him up on it. And since I’m King fan, he felt Booth was the one I’d like the most. And this novel is very reminiscent of 11/22/63. In this King novel, a character goes back in time to prevent the assassination of JFK. In this book, not only does a character go back in time to prevent a death, the story is also one of redemption, like A Christmas Carol.

From Goodreads: At dawn, on the day of his execution, Joseph Bateman finds himself reflecting on his life, one filled with poor decisions and evil people. Even his lifelong best friend played a pivotal role in earning Joseph his seat on death row. A phenomenon occurs as the electricity meant to kill Joseph is sent through him, and his essence is ripped from the body he has known his entire life and thrown into a new one. Only the body he now inhabits isn’t new at all; it is the body of a person who lived over a hundred years before Joseph’s birth. Now living in an unfamiliar era of history and trapped inside a foreign body, Joseph learns he has been sent back for a reason: to earn redemption for his damned soul and to find a sense of peace he has never known. All he needs to do to get there is to prevent one of history’s most infamous murders.

The execution doesn’t even happen until over halfway through the book. The first half is just getting to know Joseph and see how he got to this point in his life. I found the first half much more interesting. There’s a good chance that’s because I enjoy realistic fiction over science fiction. That said, the book was great overall. Once the execution happens, the plot quickly moves forward, and Joseph’s fate is, you assume, on the path to redemption. I found Joseph’s story captivating and definitely recommend this book.

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When the Stars Go Dark

Thank you Netgalley for this book!

I read The Paris Wife by Paula McLain awhile ago but remember liking it quite a bit. The plot is entirely different, historical fiction set in Paris in the early 1900s, about Ernest Hemingway and his wife, Hadley. When I read that she had written a thriller, I was intrigued. Little did I know that this book was also historical fiction based on actual people, this time Polly Klaas. Most Americans will remember her kidnapping. She was taken from her bedroom in front of two friends by a stranger and subsequently murdered. Her story was national headlines for awhile. This story follows fictional girls who go missing around the same time.

From Goodreads: Anna Hart is a seasoned missing persons detective in San Francisco with far too much knowledge of the darkest side of human nature. When overwhelming tragedy strikes her personal life, Anna, desperate and numb, flees to the Northern California village of Mendocino to grieve. She lived there as a child with her beloved foster parents, and now she believes it might be the only place left for her. Yet the day she arrives, she learns a local teenage girl has gone missing. The crime feels frighteningly reminiscent of the most crucial time in Anna’s childhood, when the unsolved murder of a young girl touched Mendocino and changed the community forever. As past and present collide, Anna realizes that she has been led to this moment. The most difficult lessons of her life have given her insight into how victims come into contact with violent predators. As Anna becomes obsessed with the missing girl, she must accept that true courage means getting out of her own way and learning to let others in.

Weaving together actual cases of missing persons, trauma theory, and a hint of the metaphysical, this propulsive and deeply affecting novel tells a story of fate, necessary redemption, and what it takes, when the worst happens, to reclaim our lives–and our faith in one another. 

Anna is flawed, struggling with both her past and her present, which makes her a great main character. She’s captivating and troubled. The layers of her trauma are pulled back slowly, some not revealed until much later in the book, which keeps the reader guessing. I’m not a big historical fiction fan, but McLain has knocked it out of the park twice for me. I’ll definitely be reading more of her work.

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The Residence

Thank you Netgalley for this book!

This book is described as “gripping and terrifying” so I gave it a chance via Netgalley. I saw it was about a haunting at the White House, but really didn’t skim past that. It wasn’t until I started reading that I realized it was historical fiction, about the real death of Franklin and Jane Pierce’s son, Bennie. Now, how much else of the book is real is up to you. Some events, like Jane writing letters to her dead son, are documented, but I’m guessing that most of the story is fiction.

Sadly, I was neither gripped not terrified while reading. Even though the characters were real people, I felt like they weren’t developed enough. As a mother, I can only imagine the loss Jane felt, and her sadness was noted at length, but Franklin seemed cold to the event.

As a child, Jane saw an entity in her home she named “Sir.” He would visit and guide her from time to time. After Bennie’s death, Sir visited Jane again, and through a series of events, Bennie was resurrected, of sorts. His ghost was corporeal, solid, with a scent, and the ability to move things. As creepy as this sounds, I was never really scared. The events just moved too quickly. I think the scare factor could have been ramped up a lot with some character and plot development. It felt like every event just happened so fast that there wasn’t enough suspense to be truly horrifying. If people like low burn horror, I guess this is a good one, but it just didn’t work for me.

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Sarah’s Key

A few friends recommended this book to me last year. And for my 2016 book challenge, I needed a book set in Europe. I’m not a big historical fiction fan, but books about WWII and the Holocaust are too important to avoid, so I took the plunge and read this book, even though I was told that it would rip my heart out.

And let me tell you. It didn’t. At a couple points in the book, I thought, “Oh, that’s sad,” but that’s about it, honestly. Partly because the big reveal that usually happens toward the end of the book happens in the middle. I wasn’t invested enough in the story to be truly emotionally hooked. That said, I’m not like post people. I don’t cry about books, really. But if you are looking for an emotional upheaval, this book probably fits most people.

A good chunk of the book is told in alternating chapters, past and present. I enjoyed the present day ones more, but I really don’t have a reason why. The main character is writing a story about a particular event in Paris history,  (The Vel’ d’Hiv Roundup ),  but people aren’t talking. So she has to do some investigative work. The story from the past is Sarah’s, who was one of the children picked up in the roundup. Why she has a key is a particular tragedy, and one that is eventually resolved in the book.

Overall, this was a good book. Not as good as others, but still worth reading. I’m happy to report that I do not need therapy (as was suggested) after reading it.

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Save Queen of Sheba

In my online book club, we have been having some great book discussions. One was about books from our childhood that we remember, had an impact, reread, etc. Mine were Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume books, RL Stine, Christopher Pike, Sweet Valley High, and VC Andrews. There were a few standout books like Autumn Street (still in my top 10 of all time), Dead Birds Singing, and Save Queen of Sheba. I didn’t really hit more mature reading until college.

I had completely forgotten about this book until our discussion and another member brought it up. So, I went to my local library and somehow they had a copy, complete with an old style checkout card and everything. I took my time and read slowly, given it’s 116 pages, I could have read it in an hour. But even looking at the cover, I was completely taken back to middle school. I must have read this book half a dozen times. And all I remembered with scalping.

It’s not a very politically correct book, but I read it in the 80s in Oklahoma, so I think it wasn’t meant to be for the time period. Indians AKA Native Americans are the bad guys in this book, killing at will, scalping everyone, and the poor innocent white people suffer. The Native American involuntary relocation isn’t really an issue. This book is definitely on the fiction side of historical fiction. But, I enjoyed it nonetheless. King David is a great character, suffering tremendously, doing all he can to stay alive. Queen of Sheba, being a 6 year old, is completely insufferable, but her behavior makes you appreciate KD even more for putting up with her.

This might not be the most spectacular book ever written, but it kept my attention as a kid enough that I wanted to read it multiple times. I’m not even sure if it is still in print, or how hard it is to find, but it would be great for young readers to learn how the world worked long ago.