Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow SunHalf of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)

Summary

The lives of five characters are transformed during Biafra’s struggle for independence from Nigeria during the 1960s.

Review

While it was interesting to read about something I knew little about, I felt like I had to power through this book. I liked the beginning, but it fell flat. I wasn’t engaged and it seemed… shallow. Maybe it would have been a better book if it had been condensed.

You might like this book if you are interested in…

  • Nigeria & The Biafran War
  • Multiple POVs
  • The Igbo people
  • The word “ignoramus”
  • Kwashiorkor

Longbourn

Longbourn by Jo Baker (2013)

Longbourn

Summary

Longbourn is a retelling of Pride and Prejudice from the perspective of the servants.

Review

Although I’ve never fully read Pride and Prejudice, I can quote many of the lines by heart from watching the 1995 miniseries (with Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth) more times than I can count.

Longbourn doesn’t really provide any new insights into P&P, though it does add some backstory. It is more of a standalone novel taking place in the same setting as P&P. At the same time, I wouldn’t really recommend it unless you’re already familiar with P&P.

A Downton Abbey and P&P mashup seemed like a brilliant idea, but Longbourn didn’t accomplish that. It wasn’t bad, but I didn’t love the story.

You might like this book if you are interested in…

  • Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
  • Shoe roses
  • British historical romances
  • Washing soiled petticoats
  • Downton Abbey
  • Retellings of classic stories

Go Set a Watchman

Go Set a WatchmanGo Set a Watchman by Harper Lee (2015)

Summary

Two decades after To Kill a Mockingbird, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch returns home to visit her father, Atticus Finch. It is a bittersweet trip that painfully challenges Scout’s values and her opinions of the people close to her.

Review

Go Set a Watchman was an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird, but it was recently rediscovered and controversially published this year.

The writing felt messy and sluggish, but that isn’t surprising since it’s a rejected and unedited manuscript. The book particularly dragged in the second half, where the conversations were too long and unrefined (not to mention sickeningly racist).

The thing that upset readers most about Watchman was the characterization of Atticus Finch. America’s beloved ethical hero from Mockingbird is a racist in Watchman. Some people think Atticus must have always been racist and search for signs of it in Mockingbird; others think he may have transformed as he got older. I don’t think either is true, because I don’t think it’s the same character. Watchman was written before Mockingbird Atticus existed. Watchman was an early draft and the character evolved into something different before the final version, Mockingbird, was published. Regardless, one of the themes of Watchman is that if you idolize someone, you set yourself up to to be disappointed. There’s something to be learned from that.

I don’t think Watchman should have been published and reading it makes me appreciate Harper Lee’s editors who helped her transform her ideas into Mockingbird.

You might like this book if you are interested in…

  • To Kill a Mockingbird
  • Racism
  • Life-altering realizations
  • The American South
  • Racists defending racist beliefs

To Kill a Mockingbird

To Kill a MockingbirdTo Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (1960)

Summary

Scout Finch is a young girl growing up in the segregated south in the 1930s. Her father, Atticus Finch, is an attorney who takes a case to prove the innocence of a black man accused of rape.

Review

To Kill a Mockingbird is an American classic and I reread it in preparation for Go Set a Watchman‘s release.

You might like this book if you are interested in…

  • Classics
  • Racism
  • Injustice
  • Coming of age stories
  • The American South in the 1930s

The Buried Giant

The Buried GiantThe Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro (2015)

Summary

King Arthur helped put an end to the war between the Britons and the Saxons, but his reign has come to an end and a mysterious mist has swept the land, clouding the memories of its inhabitants.

The Buried Giant tells the story of an elderly couple who journey across the land to find a son they can barely remember. When they find what may be a way to remove the mist, they must decide whether it’s worth it to risk bringing back painful memories and disrupting the peace in order to remember the past.

Review

Kazuo Ishiguro has written other books like Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, but The Buried Giant was the first book I’ve read by him.

As I was reading, I felt pretty ambivalent about The Buried Giant. It was slow-paced and lackluster, but I still kind of wanted to keep reading to see if it would get interesting. And that was how my whole experience reading the book went: not sure where Ishiguro was going with the story, but hoping there would be some fascinating revelation on the next page or chapter. It never came.

I didn’t care about any of the characters and the dialogue was frustrating and excessively repetitive. The story lacked focus and drive. This is one book I’d like to forget about.

You might like this book if you are interested in…

  • Memory loss
  • Saxons vs. Britons
  • Charon from Greek mythology
  • Allegory
  • Widows who taunt boatmen by repeatedly slitting rabbits’ throats
  • Fantasy settings (dragons, ogres, giants, pixies, etc.)
  • Arthurian legend

All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot SeeAll the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

Summary

Marie-Laure is a girl living in Paris with her father, who works for the Museum of Natural History. When she goes blind, her father makes her a model of the city that she learns by touching the miniature buildings and roads. When the Nazis invade Paris, Marie-Laure and her father flee with what may be the museum’s most treasured jewel.

Meanwhile in Germany, a young orphan boy named Werner tinkers with radios for fun and becomes an expert at how they work. He attracts the attention of a German official, who gets him a spot in an elite Hitler Youth academy, which leads him into the German military.

The two stories converge in the small coastal city of Saint-Malo, France.

Review

All the Light We Cannot See goes back and forth in time, following the two characters throughout World War II. The writing is beautiful and the ending is sad, but fitting. Having studied both German and French, I give it bonus points for throwing in occasional words and phrases in the two languages. Overall, I liked it and would recommend it if you like historical fiction.

Here’s a part I enjoyed, where a Frenchman talks about coal in a radio broadcast for children:

Consider a single piece [of coal] glowing in your family’s stove… That chunk of coal was once a green plant, a fern or reed that lived one million years ago, or maybe two million, or maybe one hundred million… Every summer for the whole life of that plant, its leaves caught what light they could and transformed the sun’s energy into itself. Into barks, twigs, stems. But then the plant died and fell, probably into water, and decayed into peat, and the peat was folded inside the earth for years upon years… And eventually the peat dried and became like stone, and someone dug it up, and the coal man brought it to your house, and maybe you yourself carried it into the stove, and now that sunlight — sunlight one hundred million years old — is heating your home tonight.

You might like this book if you are interested in…

  • World War II
  • Beautiful prose and metaphors
  • Childhood interrupted by war
  • Blindness
  • Electronics (especially radios)
  • Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
  • Snippets of German and/or French languages

Kindred

Kindred - CoverKindred by Octavia Butler (1979)

Summary

Dana, a young black woman from the 1970’s, gets spontaneously thrust back in time to the slave society of the early 1800’s. She meets her ancestors (both white and black), endures life as a slave, and even time travels a couple times with her white husband (whom they have to pretend is her owner).

Review

I thought this novel about Dana’s dual life as a modern woman and as a slave was brilliant. She struggles with trying to change attitudes toward slavery while also ensuring that her lineage stays intact, fearing she might cease to exist.

The time travel mechanic is never explained, but that’s because it’s not what the book is really about. Kindred brings slavery to life through the eyes of a modern protagonist, making it feel present instead of something that happened a long time ago. It deals with issues of both race and gender as well as survival, relationships, and freedom.

Everyone should read this book.

You might like this book if you like…

  • The antebellum South
  • Racial & gender issues
  • Time travel
  • The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

The Signature of All Things

I just finished The Signature of All Things, the latest book by Elizabeth Gilbert (author of bestseller Eat, Pray, Love). I went into it not knowing much about the book other than the author.

Summary

The Signature of All ThingsThe Signature of All Things tells the life of Alma Wittaker, who was born in Philadelphia in 1800. Alma’s father is Henry Wittaker, a self-made man who traveled with Captain Cook in his youth and made his fortune from pharmaceutical and exotic plants. Alma’s mother, Beatrix, is a strict, disciplined Dutch woman, who is also an expert botanist.

Alma grows up at White Acre, her family’s vast Philadelphia estate, where she spends her time studying science, math, and languages and exploring the wilderness and gardens. She develops a sharp, scientific mind and a love for taxonomy. While wandering the estate one day, she discovers a moss-covered rock and becomes fascinated by the overlooked world of moss, launching her into a lifetime of bryology (the study of moss).

Review

I have to say it was an ambitious move by Elizabeth Gilbert to write a 500-page novel about a moss-loving spinster from the 1800s. My mom finished the book before me and jokingly asked, “How do I recommend a book about moss to people?”

The Signature of All Things is about more than just moss, though. While it’s interesting to see the perspective of a female botanist from the 19th century (women were not welcome in scientific communities back then), the book also explores the tension between science and spirituality, altruism, evolution, and relationships. It also describes Alma’s lifelong sexual frustration, but I thought all those references to Alma’s “quim” and “binding closet” were excessive and perhaps unnecessary.

Elizabeth Gilbert is a charming and skilled writer, but while I really enjoyed the beginning of the book, I felt like it fell flat somewhere in the middle.

Overall verdict? It’s decent. I liked it. I didn’t love it.

The Book Thief

The Book ThiefThe Book Thief by Markus Zusak is historical fiction about a young German girl living with foster parents during World War II. It is narrated by Death (a pretty interesting perspective), who begins the story with a small fact: you are going to die.

In spite of the macabre narrator and ultra depressing setting, The Book Thief is heart-warming and Liesel (the little German girl) provides hope and joy during such a dark time.

If you’re looking for a quick, light-hearted book with a happy ending, this is definitely not the right book for you, but I would otherwise recommend it to anyone. I loved the characters and this book really knew how to tug at your heartstrings.

Perhaps my favorite part is when Liesel finds herself in a library, which I quoted below. Book lovers will surely appreciate it.

“Jesus, Mary …”

She said it out loud, the words distributed into a room that was full of cold air and books. Books everywhere! Each wall was armed with overcrowded yet immaculate shelving. It was barely possible to see the paintwork. There were all different styles and sizes of lettering on the spines of the black, the red, the gray, the every-colored books. It was one of the most beautiful things Liesel Meminger had ever seen.

With wonder, she smiled.

That such a room existed!

Even when she tried to wipe the smile away with her forearm, she realized instantly that it was a pointless exercise. She could feel the eyes of the woman traveling her body, and when she looked at her, they had rested on her face.

There was more silence than she ever thought possible. It extended like an elastic, dying to break. The girl broke it.

“Can I?”

The two words stood among acres and acres of vacant, wood-floored land. The books were miles away.

The woman nodded.

Yes, you can.

By the way, the movie adaptation will be released on November 15 (the trailer is below). It looks like it will be a beautiful movie and, from what I can tell, stay pretty true to the book. Although it’s missing from the trailer, the movie will apparently be narrated by Death. I’m really looking forward to seeing it!