Wednesday, August 26, 2020

The title of this North Korean memoir drew me in right away, and is in fact true. She really had seven names, finally giving herself a new name when she reached freedom. The journey Hyeonseo takes is amazing, and a candid look at life in a communist country.

Hyeonseo began her life as Kim Ji-hae, born in North Korea; a place that every countryman knew was the best country in the world. From the very start, her life was full of bad circumstances and the harsh realities of North Korean life. School was a means to educate children in the ways of the Great Leader, Kim Il-sung and his son the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il. But Hyeonseo was also very good at languages and this became an asset to her later in her life. As a young person she loved her mother and aunts and uncles and her brother very much. But times in North Korea became too harsh when famine struck in the 1990's. At the age of 17 she decided to walk across the frozen river to China, just for a few days, to see what it was like there.

That short, but cold walk proved to be the start of a 12 year journey. Once in China, staying with an aunt and uncle, she began to see that all people didn't starve, or work in black markets, or get arrested for minor infractions in political policy. She saw a world of fun and opportunity, and her stay lasted a month. By then, her mother and brother had been threatened and were being watched, and Hyeonseo could not return. The rest of the story is her long, difficult journey to find a better home, one that she could enjoy with her family close-by. 

What struck me the most about Hyeonseo and her story was her utter devotion to her family and her real love of her country, despite its flaws. She often thought of her choice to go to China as a mistake because she missed her family so intensely. Also, the hard work that she had to do, not only to make a living and survive, but also to have enough money to basically buy her family's safety, was amazing to me. The way she educated herself and taught herself new languages was extraordinary.

I recommend The Girl with Seven Names as a truly inspiring story of courage and intelligence that taught me a lot about being thankful for where I live. I will enjoy discussing it with our Valley Book Club in September!


Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

I found myself at home one weekend having finished one book and without another from the library. So, I went to my basement and found this little gem on my shelf of books purchased from our Friends of the Elgin Library. It is heart-wrenching story of family, race, coming-of-age, and parents struggling with it all.

Marilyn and James Lee have a good life in the 1970's despite some blatant racism due to the fact that Marilyn is white and James is Chinese-American. They come to accept this as normal and try to raise their two children the best they can, despite struggles. Marilyn struggles with her choice to leave her path to medical school when she becomes pregnant. When their children, Lydia and Nathan, are very young, Marilyn decides to leave for months, not telling them where she has gone. This leaves a lasting mark on their family upon her return, especially for Lydia who tries to be everything her mother wants, which includes focusing her entire life on being a doctor. James struggles with his job dissatisfaction and the fact that Marilyn is struggling. And it turns out that Nathan is the real scientist in the family, and when he leaves to go to an Ivy League school, Lydia has a hard time handling it. It is this last struggle of Lydia's that will again change the family forever. 

You know how we all think to ourselves, "I never knew anyone else ever felt this way?" There were so many family issues in this novel that hit home to me in that way. But we all have a lot in common. What mother hasn't wanted "more" for her children than she has? What mother hasn't looked at another kind of life and longed for it for a moment? What man hasn't felt helpless in a family of female emotions? What child hasn't felt like they were second best? This wonderful author of Little Fires Everywhere, Celeste Ng, has woven all this into a slim book that will stick with me for a long time.

American Dirt by Jeanine Cummins

Many people say the sign of a truly good book is one that you never really forget. It stays with you for a long time. I am here to tell you that this one will stay with you for life. Here is a quote from the back cover. Ann Patchett couldn't be more right.

In this new, epic novel, a woman named Lydia and her son Luca must flee their home in Acapulco after a drug cartel slaughters the rest of her whole family as the two hide in a bathroom. They take only what they can carry and all the money they have and run. Lydia decides that if they remain in Mexico, they will surely be killed, so she and Luca try to figure out how to get to America, el norte. Lydia, amid her overwhelming grief and fear, decides to take the route of a migrant. This is a dangerous path filled with jumping on and off trains, walking for endless miles, fearing apprehension and jail, taking food and shelter in migrant camps, and finally using a coyote to cross the desert and the line to the U.S. where they hope to lose themselves forever.

This is a tale of grief and hardship but also undying love and devotion, not just between mother and son, but also between the myriad of characters who are also migrants fleeing for their own desperate reasons. In the midst of grief for their own family, Lydia and Luca still manage to find another kind of family to cling to. The writing and characters are so fluid and so real that they will stay with you, making you look at your own life, your country, and the politics that can hinder humanity. Make sure you pick up this book. You will have it forever in your mind and heart. Thank you, Jeanine Cummins.

The Order by Daniel Silva

This new addition to the Gabriel Allon series does not disappoint. As with the others, it is filled with thrills, intrigue, wonderful characters, and of course. . . The Pope!

In this 20th book in the series featuring Allon, an Israeli intelligence officer and art restorer (in his spare time), we begin with a tragedy in Rome. Gabriel's beloved friend, Pope Paul VII, has died a seemingly ordinary death. However his secretary and confidant, Luigi Donati, has suspicions about the pontiff's death because of a few clues, one being a letter that has disappeared from the Pope's bedroom. Donati asks Gabriel's help in solving the mystery just as Gabriel is trying to have some much needed down time with his family. What has happened to the letter and what was in it? No one seems to know! Do we get to attend another conclave to choose another Pope in this one? Yes! Is there a surprise during the conclave? Yes! Is Gabriel actually going to get a vacation? Not really!Does the deceased Pope have a secret? Of course! Is there a rare book involved in the intrigue? Yes, and that's the best!

Don't miss all these beautiful twists and turns in a page-turner series like no other. Read The Order and fall in love with Rome and Gabriel Allon all over again.

Wednesday, July 8, 2020

Whisper Man by Alex North

Found: new psychological thriller author to love! The Whisper Man is a creepy, thrilling story with serial killers and child abductors, but also a tender story about fathers and sons, love and loss, loyalty and new beginnings. Sound weird? It is!

The killer known as the Whisper Man is safely in jail where detective Pete Kennedy put him, even though one of the boys he abducted was never found. This fact still haunts Pete even years later as he works at solving other crimes and winning his war against alcohol, the war that cost him his relationship with his own son. Then another boy is abducted 20 years later, and children are talking about the Whisper Man again. Enter Tom Kennedy and his son Jake who move to Featherbank after the loss of their wife/mother. They are struggling with their new relationship to one another but decide a fresh start would help. So father and son move to Featherbank where Jake continues to talk to his imaginary friend, a girl in a blue dress who always seems to know what to do and who to be afraid of.  Strange things start to happen in their new house with the dark history, and the Whisper Man likes to hang around.

But during all this heart-pounding, creepy, mystery story, there is also a tender one about how families endure loss and come together. Tom's feelings of inadequacy as a parent will resonate deeply with anyone who cares for children, and Jake's innocent, all-encompassing love for his dad may even give parents a unique view inside a child's mind. I will remember Tom's words, "When we argue, we still love each other very much," for a long time. And I am glad that Jake is always able to remember them.

Give this unique and poignant thriller a try! But make sure you have a large block of time to keep turning the pages. And don't turn out the light! :)

Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Midwife stories have always fascinated me, and so, on another recommendation from my sister, I picked up Conjure Women. The title also intrigued me because it speaks to me of mysticism and voodoo - other topics that I love! But this book is so much more than just another midwife tale.

The book is told from three perspectives: Miss May Belle, healer and slave woman who is asked not only to cure all manor of ailments, birth babies, and provide "other duties" to the master, she is also frequently called on to make or lift curses or cast spells for the slave workers. Another point of view comes from her daughter, Rue. Rue grows up as the "pet" of the master's daughter, and as she grows, she learns her mother's healing skills. These are both a blessing and a curse to her in her life, which becomes glaringly evident when she helps the birth of a child they call "black-eyed bean" because of the strange color of his eyes. The village sees Bean as a cursed thing, but Rue has a special love for him that others find difficult to understand. Then we have the master's daughter, Varina, the other point of view, the one of privilege in many ways but of poverty when it comes to love and companionship. Varina and Rue grow close, but as the war ends and the slaves are freed, loyalties and bonds become precarious and unpredictable.

The weaving together of these three stories during this time period is beautiful and involving. The writing is rich and transporting, and I look forward to many other books by Atakora.

Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

It's here! The book Hunger Games fans have been waiting for! If you think that prequels and sequels are never as good as the originals, you may change your mind after reading this one!

This book takes us back to the time of the 10th Hunger Games, when Coriolanus Snow is a teen. The Snow family that used to be considered among the royalty of the Capital has come on very hard times, and Coriolanus and his family struggle to make ends meet. So, when an opportunity arises for Coriolanus to mentor a tribute in the Games in order to secure a place and scholarship at college, he can't pass it up. But he is given Lucy Gray, the tiny, female tribute from District 12 to mentor. The odds are not ever in his favor. And the Games are quite different from those in the first three books. Things are old school in #10 so that everything looks more like a waiting game with starvation than it does a battle of wits and skill. However, Lucy Gray, with Coriolanus rooting for her, is determined to use her flair and appeal to help her take control. Will Snow land on top?

There isn't much left to say about The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes except - GO READ IT! And make sure you have time to finish it in one reading bite! It's a fascinating and thrilling addition to the series that will not disappoint loyal fans.

Mrs. Everything by Jennifer Weiner

I had never read anything by wildly popular Jennifer Weiner before. Her books fly off the shelves at the library and are brought back with rave reviews. I always thought they were a little too "romancy" for me, but when my own sister recommended Mrs. Everything, I had to try it, since she is always right about books I would like. And she was right again!

Jo and Bethie are sisters in the book, but they could not be more different. Growing up in 1950's, Jo was the girl with the radical ideas who wanted to change the world. Bethie was the pretty princess type who had no trouble being a good girl, modeling after her mother. But when they are all grown up, it is the '60's, and circumstances, like the turbulent times they lived in, changed everything for both of them. Jo is the one who becomes the reliable wife and mother, although she always wishes for something very different. Bethie dives into the '60's scene and has a hard time swimming out of it.

What happens is that you can't stop reading about these two women because you can see yourself in both of them, and you really want to know what happens to them. That's the sign of great characters in a believable book that makes you sad when you are done. Mrs. Everything is. . .well, everything! Enjoy!

One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus

I spent many a pleasant hour at my house watching "Pretty Little Liars" with my daughters, so I have been wanting to read this little gem of a YA for a long time. One of Us is Lying by Karen M. McManus is a fast and furious mix of thriller, love story, and gossip saga all rolled into a mystery.

The set-up for the story is that five Bayview High students get detention and are about to serve it in one classroom. There is a distraction at the window, and then boom. One is dead. How does Simon die? Well, that is one of the many curious things: a nut allergy. How does someone die of a nut allergy in a classroom where the students can only drink water? No one seems to know, but the other four students are all suspects because they are the focus, for various reasons, of Simon's brutal, tell-all blog. As their secrets come out one by one and the story is big news everywhere, we get to know these characters better and better. Yet it seems impossible that any of them is capable of murder. But anything is possible, right?

If you like a fast read full of intrigue and interesting characters, this one's for you. And oh, yeah! There is a sequel! Come check them out at the library!

Thursday, April 30, 2020

Women Talking by Miriam Toews

It has been a long time since I read a book in one day! Women Talking is that book. I cannot really explain fully why it was so fascinating and engrossing to me, but I will try to tell you a little about it.

The book is based on true events that happened and is the fictionalized retelling of the minutes that were taken during a secret meeting of women in a Mennonite colony in Bolivia. The eight women in the meeting, as well as most of their "sisters" in the colony were drugged and raped and assaulted by men in the colony. The men drugged them, assaulted them, and the women woke up with the bruises and damage and cannot remember what happened. The elders of the colony first blame the attacks on demons and sin, leaving the women (and young, young girls) to believe that it is somehow their fault that this has happened, so they stay quiet. But they finally find it out about the group of men and the drug, and the men are taken to jail "for their own protection." But the leader has declared that the men will be released and the women must decide what happens next. They are given three choices to "solve" the problem. The women can choose to: 1. Do nothing. 2. Stay and fight. 3. Leave. None of these choices will be easy and each opens up so many possibilities for more hurt, separation, and indignities. But it is the humor and strength of these women, the doggedness with which they debate the choices, and the intensity of the conflict that kept me reading and reading. The lives and doctrines of the Mennonites has to be discussed at length, but the danger that the women have endured and could experience again fills the discussion with desperation. Yet the women are so intelligent and caring that they truly just want to protect each other and their children without going against God or their way of life.

If you like books about strong women and those who, in their own ways, must overcome, then I think you should give Women Talking a try. For me, it was engrossing and empowering. I hope it will be for you as well.