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#TuesdayBookBlog THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett (@britrbennett) (@LittleBrownUK) Great story, memorable characters, and a subject that will make readers think #Bookreview

Hi all:

Today I bring you the review of a book that has been causing a bit of a stir.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half is an utterly mesmerising novel. It seduces with its literary flair, surprises with its breath-taking plot twists, delights with its psychological insights, and challenges us to consider the corrupting consequences of racism on different communities and individual lives. I absolutely loved this book’ Bernardine Evaristo, winner of the Booker Prize 2019

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ story lines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passingLooking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

Praise for Brit Bennett:

‘A writer to watch’ Washington Post

‘Bennett allows her characters to follow their worst impulses, and she handles provocative issues with intelligence, empathy and dark humour’ New York Times

‘A beautifully written, sad and lingering book’ Guardian on The Mothers

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B082KH5D4M/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B082KH5D4M/

https://www.amazon.es/dp/B082KH5D4M/

Author Brit Bennett

About the author:

Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. She is a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree, and her essays are featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.

https://www.amazon.com/Brit-Bennett/e/B00PZ44052/

My review:

I thank Little Brown Book, UK for providing me an ARC copy of this novel in the first place, although later I also purchased my own copy which I review here.

This is the first novel by Brit Bennett I read, although I’m aware that her first novel, The Mothers, was very well-received, and this one has been highly praised and regarded as well. And, in my opinion, it deserves it.

The description of the book provides a fairly accurate summary of the main points of the plot, and I won’t try to be too inclusive when I mention the many topics the author touches on: race is paramount (is race only skin-deep?, different types of racism, the changing attitudes over the years, the burden of internalising other people’s values and what that does to the characters’ sense of self…), identity (while one of the characters lives a lie, a trans man abandons his birth biological gender to truly become himself), domestic violence, family, LGTB, rural versus city life, the importance of education, mothers and daughters, Alzheimer’s disease, love… It is a family saga, a story of two twin sisters and their daughters and how their lives split up at some point, sending them into completely different directions.

I’ve mentioned the issue of race, and that is the main focus of the book. The little place, somewhere in Louisiana, where the sisters are born is peculiar already when it comes to race. Although all the inhabitants are African-American, they are all so light that an outsider would not be able to tell they are not white. They are proud of it and consider anybody who is a shade darker than they are their inferior.  But, of course, the local white people know, and that has terrible consequences for the girls, who lose their father due to a lynching (for an imagined crime the man had not committed). It’s not surprising that they leave the place as soon as they can, but once in New Orleans things are quite difficult, and one of the sisters, Stella, ends up passing for white to get a job. That changes everything, and the sisters’ lives end up going in totally different directions. Although from the reviews I read I realised that many readers might be unfamiliar with the concept of ‘passing’, it has appeared in novels and even movies over the years. I recommend Nella Larssen, a female author from the Harlem Renaissance, whose novels Passing and Quicksand are fascinating and deserve to be better known, but both movie versions of Imitation of Life, although in a far more melodramatic fashion, deal with the topic as well, and in the musical Showboat we have similar concerns (and talk of miscegenation and the ‘one drop of blood’ dictum), and concepts that might appear bizarre now (like quadroon, octoroon, [Alexandre Dumas Jr was an octoroon if we apply that classification, and Alexandre Dumas father a quadroon], or high yellow) but made a big difference in the past, when it came to the treatment somebody received. Some of the readers don’t feel the book goes into these issues deeply enough, but this is a novel, and realistically, it would be impossible to discuss all the aspects of it and create a fictional story readers cared for as well.

The main characters of the novel are the two sisters, Stella and Desiree, and their two daughters, Kennedy and Jude. While the two sisters are identical twins, Kennedy and Jude could not look and be more different —Kennedy is blonde, has blue eyes, has lived a life of privilege, and has always been self-centred. Jude is dark-skinned, suffered prejudice and abuse as a child and grew up without a father, is hard-working and determined, and has always cared for her family and for others— but their lives still converge and collide at times, bringing some momentous changes to their lives. There are many more characters in the story, some more important than others (Early plays an essential role in Desiree’s life, and Reese complements Jude), and there are many people they come across: friends (I particularly liked Barry, who becomes a drag queen on the weekends and is a great agony aunt), neighbours, work colleagues… The first two parts of the novel centre mostly on Desiree and her daughter, while we only get to know more about Stella and Kennedy later in the book. While the central characters are well-drawn, that is not the case for some of the others, and they are not all sympathetic, not even the protagonists, but I felt the author manages to make their actions and their emotions understandable, even if we don’t like them that much. I wasn’t totally sure about the way Reese’s experiences are dealt with in the book. We hear about his difficulties and his process as a trans man, but this at times feels like an afterthought, and some readers have questioned how his story might appear to be linked to the concept of ‘passing’, although I don’t think that was the author’s intention (he sheds his previous identity and is happy to leave it behind, with no regrets, no matter how hard the practicalities are, while Stella struggles and feels she is living a lie).

The story is narrated in the third person, mostly from the point of view of the four female protagonists, although we are also given a brief insight into some of the other characters that come into the sisters’ lives, and we hear a bit more about Early and Reese’s thoughts and experiences. The way the story is told might be problematic for many readers, as the point of view often changes within a chapter, and although the changes are not excessively difficult to follow, keeping the story straight does require a degree of attention, especially because the chronology is not linear either. We go forwards and backwards in time, from the 1950s to the 1990s, although the story moves forward overall.

The writing is lyrical and precious at times, harsh at others, and the rhythm flows and ebbs, being quite contemplative in parts (as it befits a book about memory and identity). This is not a page-turner, but I felt the pace suited the novel perfectly. I had to share a few highlights with you, although I recommend that people interested in the book check a sample to make first, to ensure it works for them.

In New Orleans, Stella split in two. She didn’t notice it at first because she’d been two people her whole life: she was herself and she was Desiree. The twins, beautiful and rare, were never called the girls, only the twins, as if it were a formal title. She’d always thought of herself as part of this pair, but in New Orleans, she splintered into a new woman altogether after she got fired from Dixie Laundry.

The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.

Sometimes you could understand why Stella passed over. Who didn’t dream of leaving herself behind and starting over as someone new? But how could she kill the people who’d loved her? How could she leave the people who still longed for her, years later, and never even look back?

The ending is perhaps a bit rushed, considering the length and depth of the novel, but it suits it and I enjoyed it. If you want to know if it’s a happy ending… Well, this is not that kind of book, but I’ll say it isn’t unhappy.

I recommend this book to people who enjoy literary fiction and novels that deal with complex and diverse topics, with a focus on female protagonists and their lives, who don’t mind a somewhat demanding and challenging writing style, and who are eager to discover talented female writers. Great story, memorable characters, and a subject that will make readers think. What else could anybody want?

Thanks to the publisher and the author for the book, thanks to all of you for reading, and if you’ve enjoyed it, remember to like, share, comment, click, and keep reading, and reviewing. And, always, keep smiling and stay safe!

 

 

 

 

 

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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD by C Pam Zhang (@hayleycamis) (@ViragoBooks) How the West was won, but not as we know it

Hi all.

I bring you a pretty amazing book today. I hope you’re all keeping safe.

How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang

How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang

‘The boldest debut of the year’ Observer

‘It is refreshing to discover a new author of such grand scale, singular focus and blistering vision’ Guardian

America. In the twilight of the Gold Rush, two siblings cross a landscape with a gun in their hands and the body of their father on their backs . . .

Ba dies in the night, Ma is already gone. Lucy and Sam, twelve and eleven, are suddenly alone and on the run. With their father’s body on their backs, they roam an unforgiving landscape dotted with giant buffalo bones and tiger paw prints, searching for a place to give him a proper burial.

How Much of These Hills is Gold is a sweeping adventure tale, an unforgettable sibling story and a remarkable novel about a family bound and divided by its memories.

‘A truly gifted writer’ Sebastian Barry, two-time Costa Book of the Year winner

‘Pure gold’ Emma Donoghue, Booker-shortlisted author of Room

‘Remarkable. It will haunt readers’ Chigozie Obioma, Booker-shortlisted author of An Orchestra of Minorities

‘Dazzling’ Daisy Johnson, Booker-shortlisted author of Everything Under

‘This book is a wonder’ Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You

‘Ferocious, dark and gleaming’ New York Times bestselling author of Fates and Furies

‘I envy you your first read of this book’ R. O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries

‘A hypnotic, virtuosic novel’ Tahmima Anam, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize

https://www.amazon.com/How-Much-These-Hills-Gold-ebook/dp/B07SZL7V8B/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Much-These-Hills-Gold-ebook/dp/B07SZL7V8B/

https://www.amazon.es/How-Much-These-Hills-Gold-ebook/dp/B07SZL7V8B/

Author C Pam Zhang

About the author:

Born in Beijing but mostly an artifact of the United States, C Pam Zhang has lived in thirteen cities across four countries and is still looking for home. She’s been awarded support from Tin House, Bread Loaf, Aspen Words and elsewhere, and currently lives in San Francisco.

https://www.amazon.com/C-Pam-Zhang/e/B01LZ3PS2E?

My review:

Thanks to Virago and to NetGalley for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.

My father was a fan of Westerns, and although as a child I was tired of always having to watch old Westerns (as a young man, my father used to read the Spanish equivalent of the Western dime novels as well), I must confess that that world, its mythology, and its true history, captivate me as well. And never more so than when the stories chronicle the people who hardly ever make it into the history books (although there has been a move towards redressing that in recent years). So this novel had all the elements to intrigue me, and it is a debut novel as well. And one I won’t forget in a hurry.

This new author has been compared to Cormac McCarthy (but I’ve only read one of his novels, so I don’t feel I can comment), and her choice of characters reminded me of recent books I’ve read and reviewed by Sebastian Barry. I know it is common place to write that you’re surprised a novel has been written by a debut writer, or it is their first novel, but it is the case here, and it’s clear that the author has a talent for writing (and I don’t doubt she has worked very hard at it as well).

The novel, set around the time of the Gold Rush, is divided into four parts, covering a period of around a decade in the life of Lucy (and her sister/brother Sam). The first three parts tell the story of how they got to the situation we find them in at the beginning of the novel, in reverse chronological order (sort of). The fourth part moves forward and we see what happened to Lucy afterwards, and we meet Sam again, albeit briefly. We meet the two sisters when they lose their father (they had lost their mother a few years earlier), see them struggle to try to bury him in the appropriate way (their mother had come from China and had taught them plenty of stories and traditions that they try to follow and live by), and eventually split up. The second part chronicles the events that had happened before, providing a background story of the family and also explaining how they lost their mother. Part three is hauntingly beautiful, and rather than the third person narration from Lucy’s point of view (that grows more insightful and elaborate as the novel advances) we get a narration from Ba, her father’s point of view. It’s not clear if this is his ghost telling the story or some memory that lives on, but it is addressed to Lucy, and it explains things that she does not know, some tragic and terrific, and some beautiful and lyrical. In part four we catch up with the siblings, years later, and learn what happened next. This is historical fiction gold, a revisionist story/history of the West, and a look at some of the forgotten figures and peoples in history.

Many themes are touched upon on this novel. I’ve mentioned history, but this is history from the point of view of outsiders, who although born in the country will never be accepted, and people will always look at them as if they were an exotic plant or animal (the tiger is a symbol hovering over much of the novel), either heaping abuse at them, exploiting them for entertainment or enjoyment, or trying to turn them into object of curio and study. Race and gender are at the forefront of the novel but remain somewhat ungraspable and ambiguous (is Sam a boy in a girl’s body, or a girl whose father’s wish for a son she internalised to the point where she no longer has a will of her own, or something entirely different?). Ultimately, there are myths, lies, pretences, stories we tell others and ourselves, gold prospecting, mining, the building of the railroads, migration, different models of womanhood, of culture, of family… It’s a novel about identity and how we build ours, and how others also cast upon us their own labels and prejudices. It’s a novel about survival and about much more.

Lucy, Sam, and their parents are unforgettable characters. If Lucy is the girly-girl, studious, and prim and proper, and Sam is the tomboy/boy, always following his father, they all play specific roles in their family, and when the family breaks, it’s difficult to keep going. The young sibling is far less naïve and weak than Lucy thinks, and they are both the children of their parents in more ways than they realise. It’s impossible not to feel for these orphans and their terrible circumstances, and the author does a great job of making us share in and understand why they are how they are. The story is at times breathtakingly beautiful and at others horrifyingly ugly, true to life. Although perhaps the style of the writing and the narration might not suit all tastes, I think most readers will connect at an emotional level with the characters, empathise and suffer with them.

The writing style changes throughout the novel, growing with the main character, and becoming more articulate and less impressionistic. The beginning of the novel reminded me of Sebastian Barry’s recent book A Thousand Moons, which also has a young girl as the protagonist, and there is a strong focus on description, not only of the physical world, but also of the emotions and the feelings the character experiences as she is confronted with her personal tragedy. For all her fascination with books and the intelligence that’s supposed to be her strong point, she can be naïve at times, and places too much trust in appearances. Later in the novel she is more insightful and the writing also reflects her progressive enlightenment and what it truly means. I’ve talked about the third part of the book, which is the jewel of the crown for me, but I truly enjoyed it all, although, as usual, I’d recommend prospective readers to check a sample first.

A couple of examples from the book (although I must remind you that I read an ARC copy, so there might be changes in the final version of the book):

And Lucy is reminded that what makes Ma most beautiful is the contradiction of her. Rough voice over smooth skin. Smile stretched over sadness —this queer ache that makes Ma’s eyes look miles and miles away. Brimming with an ocean’s worth of wet.’

A land stripped of its gold, its rivers, its buffalo, its Indians, its tigers, its jackals, its birds and its green and its living. To move through this land and believe Ba’s tales is to see each hill as a burial mound with its own crown of bones. Who could believe that and survive? Who could believe that and keep from looking, as Ba and Sam do, always toward the past? Letting it drag behind them. Letting it make them into fools.’

The ending might not satisfy readers who prefer everything to be tied up and a clear conclusion, but for me, I couldn’t think of a more fitting ending. I won’t go into details and leave readers to decide.

In sum, this is a book that has a distinct style of writing, tells a fascinating story, full of myths, tales, imagination, and also some truly awful realities of a historical period that has often been written about and represented in films and popular culture, but the official depiction glosses over many of the events and ignores a lot of the people that were there as well, just because their race, gender, lifestyle choices, or a combination of those, does not fit into the traditional history books. Its characters are unforgettable, and I recommend it to readers who enjoy a different perspective on historical events and who don’t mind taking up a narrative whose style might be challenging at times but it’s ultimately rewarding. A great novel.

Thanks to the publisher and the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to keep safe, keep reading, reviewing, and always, keep smiling.

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Book review Book reviews

#Bookreview BAUDELAIRE’S REVENGE by Bob Van Laerhoven (@bobvanlaerhoven) A dark, haunting and beautiful book #TuesdayBookBlog

Hi all:

As promised, I bring you some reviews. The author of this book contacted me and kindly offered to send me a paperback copy of his book (I must admit I don’t read many books in paper these days, but this one sounded so special I had to) and although it took me a while to get to it, it was well-worth it.

Baudelaire's Revenge by Bob Van Laerhoven. Cover
Baudelaire’s Revenge by Bob Van Laerhoven

Baudelaire’s Revenge: A Novel by Bob Van Laerhoven

Winner of the Hercule Poirot Prize for Best Crime Novel – Winner of the USA Best Book Award 2014 in the category Fiction: mystery/suspense

“A decadent tale. Commissioner Lefevre’s philosophical discussions with artists and poets and a creepy Belgian dwarf are fascinating.”–Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review

Description:

It is 1870, and Paris is in turmoil.

As the social and political turbulence of the Franco-Prussian War roils the city, workers starve to death while aristocrats seek refuge in orgies and séances. The Parisians are trapped like rats in their beautiful city but a series of gruesome murders captures their fascination and distracts them from the realities of war. The killer leaves lines from the recently deceased Charles Baudelaire’s controversial anthology Les Fleurs du Mal on each corpse, written in the poet’s exact handwriting. Commissioner Lefevre, a lover of poetry and a veteran of the Algerian war, is on the case, and his investigation is a thrilling, intoxicating journey into the sinister side of human nature, bringing to mind the brooding and tense atmosphere of Patrick Susskind’s Perfume. Did Baudelaire rise from the grave? Did he truly die in the first place? The plot dramatically appears to extend as far as the court of the Emperor Napoleon III.

A vivid, intelligent, and intense historical crime novel that offers up some shocking revelations about sexual mores in 19th century France, this superb mystery illuminates the shadow life of one of the greatest names in poetry.

My review:

I was given a paperback copy of this book as a gift and I voluntarily chose to review it.

I’ve always admired the skill of writers who compose historical fiction, as together with the difficulty of creating a sound story that engages readers, they also have to accomplish the task of ensuring the setting is accurately rendered, the characters actions, dress, vocabulary and manners fit in the era chosen, without producing a dry work of scholarship marred by endless descriptions and explanations as to historical background.

I read plenty of thrillers and mystery novels (perhaps the genre fiction I read the most), but not so many within the historical fiction subgenre. This novel intrigued me for several reasons: the murders had a literary component (there were fragments of poems by Baudelaire left at the scene of the crimes, and there was a suggestion that the people murdered might have been Baudelaire’s enemies), they were set in the Paris of the 1870s, at a time of social and historical turmoil (with the Prussian invasion at its doors), and the protagonists sounded interesting in their own right. Both, Commissioner Lefèvre and Inspector Bouveroux are men haunted by their pasts and by their losses.

The author manages to create an oppressive and gothic atmosphere that reeks of lust, drugs, poverty, decadence, corruption, misery and illness. The wealthy and the aristocrats of the time stop at nothing to obtain pleasure, although some eventually come to pay the price for it, and there’s no safe refuge for virtue or right. There are no heroes coming to the rescue and even the characters we feel we should root for are deeply flawed. On the other hand, despite the subject matter that reflects Baudelaire’s choice of themes for his poems, and as happens with the poet’s own writings, the language is lyrical and beautiful in the extreme, and not only in the fragments of poems shared. I haven’t read the original novel in Dutch, but the translation by Brian Doyle is wonderfully written.

The story is told, for the most part, in the third person, alternating the points of view of the two main characters, Lefèvre and Bouveroux. Lefèvre is the more passionate of the two, a man tortured not only by the war in the North of Africa, that they both experienced together and has marked them but also by the loss of his sister, that we only get to fully understand very late in the story. Bouveroux is the rational one, a widower who still mourns his wife, but for whom books and research are a haven and, perhaps, the only way forward. He understands his superior better than others might and tries and cover up for him. Unfortunately, he´s not always a party to all of his adventures. He’s more of John Watson to Lefèvre’s Sherlock Holmes; his morals are less dubious and he appears to be less complex. Apart from those two characters’ points of view, there are also parts written in italics, in the first person, that seem to belong to the diary of a rather strange character who was brought up under difficult circumstances. I must confess to changing my mind about this character (and I’m trying to avoid spoilers) quite a few times throughout the novel, although, at least for me, that was one of the beauties of the book. And, being a psychiatrist and enjoying complex characters, this particular individual is one of the most disturbing and disturbed fictional creations I’ve read about.

I’ve seen comments that mention Poe’s writing, and there is a similar sense of oppression, atmosphere and claustrophobia, with the gothic setting of the background, although here Eros and Thanatos have a pretty similar weight in driving the narrative, perhaps more evidently so that in Poe’s stories.

Despite the beauty of the writing, the bizarre and atmospheric mystery, and the literary background, this is not a book for everybody. There is much that could offend sensibilities (child abuse, incest, prostitution, sexually transmitted diseases, drug abuse, exploitation, violence…) and there is a grey area when it comes to who the good and the bad characters are (nothing is black or white and it’s more a matter of degree than of deeply held moral beliefs). Despite how well it captures the historical era, it is neither a biography of Baudelaire nor a treatise on the socio-political situation in France at the time, and some of the historical characters might be used as inspiration rather than accurately portrayed. The story is also demanding and challenging with regards to plot, so it’s not recommended for someone looking for a light and fun read. This is definitely not a cosy mystery. But if you’re looking for a complex and challenging historical novel and don’t shrink from dark subjects, this is a pretty unique book.

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Baudelaires-Revenge-Bob-Van-Laerhoven/dp/160598700X/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Baudelaires-Revenge-Bob-Van-Laerhoven/dp/160598700X/

A bit of information about the author:

Author Bob Van Laerhoven
Author Bob Van Laerhoven

Author Bob Van Laerhoven

Belgian (Flemish) professional author. Published more than 30 books in The Netherlands and Belgium. Winner of the Hercule Poirot Prize for best crime novel of the year in 2007 with “De wraak van Baudelaire” (Baudelaire’s Revenge). French translation “La Vengeance de Baudelaire” published in 2013 in France and in Canada. American edition “Baudelaire’s Revenge” published in April 2014 by Pegasus Books. Baudelaire’s Revenge won the USA Best Book Award 2014 in the category: Mystery/suspense. Russian and Italian translations in the making. Second novel in French translation: “Alejandro’s leugen” (Le Mensonge d’Alejandro) out in May 2014 in France and in Canada. Very recently published in Holland and Belgium my new novel “De schaduw van de Mol” (The Shadow of the Mole). The English translation is in the making and should be finished end 2015. The novel is set in 1916 in the Argonne-region of France during WW1. Short story “Paint it, Black” out in September 2015 in the anthology “Brussels Noir” in the famous Noir-collection of Akashic Books. In April 2015 The Anaphora Literary Press published “Dangerous Obsessions”, a collection of 5 short stories set in different countries and time-slots, with war-conditions as a general background, in paperback and in e-book, in the US, Canada, Australia and the UK. I consider “Dangerous Obsessions” to be an excellent introduction to my theme(s) and style(s). Recently, after “much ado about nothing”, I started a blog in which I talk with one of my beloved horses, the very intelligent Arabian purebred Archimeda, about life, love, death, violence and how horses can teach us a thing or two….If you would like to see what Archimeda and I are talking about, visit: http://goo.gl/tk7XLM

The author kindly sent me a copy of a detailed interview in PDF format. I’m not sure if you’ll be able to access it, but just in case, here it is.

Doctors.net.uk Webmail __ SOCIETY NINETEEN Bob van Laerhoven Interview.pdf

Thanks to the author for sending me such a fascinating book, in a fabulous translation, thanks to all of you for reading, and if you feel like it, please, like, share, comment, CLICK and keep reading!

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