Book Review: A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James


Around the World for a Good Book selection for Jamaica

Author: Marlon James
Title: A Brief History of Seven Killings
Narrators: Robertson Dean, Cherise Boothe, Dwight Bacquie, Ryan Anderson, Johnathan McClain, Robert Younis
Publication Info: [Minneapolis, MN] : HighBridge Audio, 2014.
Summary/Review:

This novel is anything but brief, but instead an epic story told from multiple points-of-view sprawling over three decades and spilling out of Kingston to New York City.  There also a lot more than seven killings depicted.  The title of novel is sort-of explained later in the narrative as a kind of story-within-the-story.

The action of the story takes place over five days.  The first two are in December 1976 and detail the attempted assassination on Bob Marley (referred to throughout the novel as “The Singer”).  Later sections of the novel are set on single dates in 1979, 1985, and 1991 and deal with the ongoing personal and political ramifications of the assassination attempt as well as the rising crack epidemic.  The narrators include gang members and dons of Jamaica’s political party-aligned gangs, a CIA agent, an American music writer originally from Rolling Stone, the ghost of a murdered politician, and a young woman desperate to leave Jamaica for the USA who changes her identity several times throughout the novel.

This is a challenging book to read due to its sprawling narrative and dozens of characters.  It’s hard to keep track of the whole story and honestly I think some of the chapters may just as well be self-contained short stories.  The Jamaican patois used by many of the characters can also be difficult although I enjoyed listening to the voice actors on the audiobook. But the hardest part of the book is that is just so brutal, violent, and unceasingly grim.  That doesn’t make it a bad book, of course, and I do like to be challenged.  But it was a hard book to read nonetheless.

Recommended books:

  • Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

Rating: ***

Book Review: Hollow Kingdom by Kira Jane Buxton


Author: Kira Jane Buxton
Title: Hollow Kingdom
Narrator: Robert Petkoff
Publication Info:New York ; Boston : Grand Central Publishing, 2019
Summary/Review:

This novel depicts a zombie apocalypse in the greater Seattle region of Washington as narrated by S.T., a domesticated American crow kept as a pet by a loutish man named Big Jim. When Big Jim and the other humans turn feral, S.T. must flee with his best friend, a dim but loyal hound dog named Dennis.  Thus begins a journey of discovery for S.T., raised since hatching to be human, to get in touch with his crow identity.  S.T. learns that his mission in life is to ally with wild birds to help rescue domestic animals who are at risk from both zombie humans and larger predators (including animals escaped from the zoo).

The crude humor of Hollow Kingdom reminds me a lot of the writing of Christopher Moore.  I felt the metaphor of humanity addicted to the internet and screens was heavy handed, and my interest started to lag in the last part of the book.  Nevertheless though it is a creative work of fiction with a unique perspective.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Normal People by Sally Rooney


Author: Sally Rooney
Title: Normal People
Narrator: Aoife McMahon
Publication Info: [S.l.] : Crown/Archetype, 2019.
Summary/Review:

This novel tells the story of two young Irish people who attend the same secondary school in County Sligo, Ireland.  Connell is a popular, working class student while Marianne comes from a wealthy family but her eccentric demeanor makes her unpopular at school.  They get to know one another because Connell’s mother works as a housecleaner at Marianne’s home.  They start a relationship that they keep secret from their classmates.

Both Connell and Marianne end up studying at Trinity College Dublin where Marianne blossoms and becomes popular while the shyer Connell feels like an outsider. Their paths cross frequently over the years, sometimes rekindling their romance, sometimes fighting.  The story is unsettling because it deals with abuse and the dark side of otherwise likable characters.  The title Normal People is ironic since both of them do not feel normal due to their intelligence and disinterest in what the people their age are typical interested in.  Overall it’s a realistic and compelling narrative.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Light From Uncommon Stars by Ryka Aoki


Author: Ryka Aoki
Title: Light From Uncommon Stars
Narrator: Cindy Kay
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2021
Summary/Review:

Shizuka Satomi is a world-renown violin instructor who has made a deal with a demon to trade the souls of 7 violin prodigies for success.  She has one more soul to collect and has returned home to Southern California to find a likely candidate.

Lan Tran is a starship captain who has escaped a galactic war with her family, and now operate a doughnut shop as their cover.

Katrina Nguyen is a teenage transgender girl who has run away to Los Angeles from her abusive family and supports herself making YouTube videos.  She also plays the violin.

Somehow not only are all these characters in the same novel, but their interactions create a heartfelt human story that transcends genres. Shizuka and Lan meet, share their strange histories, and strike up a romance. And of course, Shizuka takes on Katrina as her student, and yet treats her with such tenderness that it’s hard to believe she plans to sell Katrina’s soul to the Devil.

And that only scratches the surface of the brilliant, warm, funny, and creative novel!

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: The Library of the Unwritten by A. J. Hackwith


Author: A. J. Hackwith
Title: The Library of the Unwritten
Narrator: Lisa Flanagan
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2019
Summary/Review:

I typically don’t include an official publisher’s description in my book reviews, but I can’t find the words to sum up this book any better:

Sounds quirky, doesn’t it? The premise also feels like a crossover of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next series with Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman’s Good Omens.  But the similarities are superficial.  This is a creative and beautifully strange book.  And while the characters are mostly demons, angels, muses, fictional beings and, well, the dead, it is also a very human story.

I’ve learned that this is the first book in a series, and while I won’t be rushing out to read the next book, I will definitely read it at some point.
Recommended books:

Rating: ***

Book Review: Curious Wine by Katherine V. Forrest


Author: Katherine V. Forrest
Title: Curious Wine
Narrator: Jane Merrow
Publication Info:  Allure Audio (2009) [originally published in 1983]
Summary/Review:

Someday I need to start keeping track of where I find out about the books I put on my reading list, because this is definitely not the typical book for me to read.  Which is a good thing, so thank you random person who recommended it to me.

Curious Wine is the story of a women’s retreat at a cabin at a Lake Tahoe ski resort, and through encounter games and various intimate conversations share a lot about themselves.  Two of the women, Diane and Lane, form a bond that leads to a sexual relationship.  The problem is that up to that point they had considered themselves straight and have a lot of things to navigate in order to continue the relationship.

This was one of the first mainstream romance novels about a lesbian relationship by a lesbian author.  The novel goes to great lengths to add “respectability” to the relationship by having two white, professional women who’ve previously had relationships with men as the protagonists who then put a lot of effort into making sure no one can consider their love “just a phase.”  This was certainly necessary in the early 1980s but feels awkward now.  Nevertheless it is a sweet and honest story with well-developed characters.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Pearl Thief by Elizabeth Wein


Author: Elizabeth Wein
Title: The Pearl Thief
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: Los Angeles : Hyperion, 2017.
Summary/Review:

Part of the cycle of loosely-tied together novels about women during World War II, The Pearl Thief acts as a prequel to Code Name Verity.  The novel’s protagonist is Julie Beaufort-Stuart, the Scottish aristocrat who is one of the two main characters of the earlier novel, and is set one year prior to the war when she is just 15.  She returns home her family estate from boarding school to find herself embroiled in a mystery regarding the disappearance of a scholar working with artifacts recovered from their property.

Julie is a great character, impulsive and bold that make her stand out among the staid expectations of her time and class.  Much of the novel explores her new friendship with the siblings Ellen and Euan McEwen, who are members of Highland Travellers’ community that camp nearby.  The trio get into many adventures, and they encounter much prejudice against the Travelers (which Julie attempts to shield with her privilege). The book also explores Julie’s romantic attraction to Ellen and to an older man named Richard revealing her burgeoning sexuality (and hooray for bisexual representation!).

This is the first book by Elizabeth Wein that I don’t love, but it is a great character study even if I found the narrative to be a bit slight.

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Last House on Needless Street by Catriona Ward


Author: Catriona Ward
Title: The Last House on Needless Street
Narrator: Christopher Ragland
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio, 2021
Summary/Review:

The Last House on Needless Street is a strange and unsettling horror/mystery where it’s clear that something is very wrong, but one doesn’t know what it is. The story is told from the point of view of four different characters:

  • Ted Bannerman is a man who lives in a ramshackle house with boarded up windows, is haunted by the memory of his authoritarian mother, and has frequent blackouts.
  • His teenage daughter Lauren visits from time to time, but Ted doesn’t allow her to go out of the house, and its unclear where she goes when she’s not at Ted’s.
  • Ted’s pet cat Olivia (yes, part of this book is narrated by a cat) who is deeply religious and, well, catty.
  • Dee, a woman who moves in next door.  Her little sister was abducted a decade earlier and she’s been looking for her ever since.  The police searched Ted’s house at the time of the crime but have since cleared him.  Nevertheless, Dee suspects Ted to be the kidnapper.

The book slowly unravels the mysteries in a story where no one is who they appear to be.  I have to admit that I got frustrated in the early going and had to look online for plot summaries to get through it (which are hard to find since no one wants to spoil the book).  But I did find that later parts of the book to be satisfying and it has a more positive, upbeat ending than I imagined was possible for a book like this.

Recommended books:
Rating: ***

Book Review: Libertie by Kaitlyn Greenidge


Author: Kaitlyn Greenidge
TitleLibertie
Narrator: Waites Channie
Publication Info: [Prince Frederick] : Recorded Books Inc., 2021.
Previously Read By The Same Author: We Love You, Charlie Freeman
Summary/Review:

Set during and immediately after the American Civil War, Libertie is narrated by a free Black girl named Libertie Sampson.  She’s raised in Brooklyn (often referred to in the historically accurate parlance of Kings County) by her mother Cathy who is one of the first Black women to become licensed as a medical doctor.  In addition to running a practice for the local community, Dr. Sampson helps enslaved people who have escaped from the South.

Libertie is under a lot of pressure from her mother to also go into medicine, although Libertie does not wish to follow that path.  Eventually, after flunking out of college, Libertie accepts the marriage proposal of her mother’s apprentice Emmanuel and moves with him to Haiti.  Despite the promise of a new nation of free Black people, Libertie grows quickly disenchanted with Haiti and it at odds with Emmanuel’s family.

This book deals with a lot of issues. The conflict between mother and daughter is at the heart of the novel, but also more broadly the idea of how Black people should be and act now that they’ve gained their freedom.  The book also deals with colorism, as Libertie herself is dark-skinned, and the discrimination among Black people. Finally, it’s a book of self-discovery as Libertie having decided how she does not want to live her life figures out what she really wants to do.

This was a tough book to read since Libertie seems constantly to be dealing with the disapprobation of others and her own self-criticism.  It made me anxious to read.  Nevertheless, this is an excellent narrative with a lot of interesting period detail.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert


Author: City of Girls
Title: Elizabeth Gilbert
Publication Info: New York : Riverhead Books, 2019.
Summary/Review:

This novel is narrated by Vivian Morris, the black sheep of a wealthy New York State family who flops at Vassar College in 1940.  Her parents ship her off to New York City to live with her eccentric Aunt Peg, who operates a low-rent theater. Vivian offers he skills as a seamstress to costume design and gets sucked into the glamorous life of the New York theater world. Along the way she befriends a showgirl Celia, becomes enchanted with the refugee English actor Edna, and falls in love/lust with the lead actor.  After a few poor choices she finds herself embroiled in a scandal.

The latter parts of the novel explore Vivian’s life during World War II and in the decades beyond.  Vivian matures and takes on more responsibility and eventually starts her own business, finding the right balance for a countercultural life as an independent woman in the years before women’s liberation.  She also forms a relationship with a WWII veteran suffering  PTSD, Frank.  This latter part of the novel is interesting but it feels more like a long epilogue to Vivian’s life in the pre-WWII theater world.

City of Girls is an enjoyable historical novel and I definitely found it to be a page turner.  True to its title, almost all the significant characters are female with men playing supporting parts which is a good change from the typical novel.  It’s a long book and yet packing several decades of Vivian’s life into maybe the last third of the book still feels rushed, but that’s its only really flaw.

Rating: ***1/2