Book Review: The Map of Salt and Stars by Zeyn Joukhadar


Author: Zeyn Joukhadar
Title: The Map of Salt and Stars
Narrator: Lara Sawalha
Publication Info: [New York] : Simon & Schuster Audio, [2018]

Summary/Review:

This novel is the story of 12-year-old Nour, who grows up in Manhattan, but after the death of her father, her mother takes the family back to their native Syria. Nour find herself an outsider, unable to speak Arabic. Unfortunately, their move to Syria coincides with a time of increasing protests that grow into the Arab Spring and then the Syrian Civil War. Nour and her family become refugees crossing the Middle East and North Africa.

Throughout the novel, Nour tells herself her father’s story of Rawiya, a girl from hundreds of years earlier, who disguised herself as a boy and has adventures traveling around the Meditteranean. The two stories interweave through the novel, intersecting in the similarities of the two protagonists.

The novel is a good story and in Nour and Rawiya has two characters that readers can identify. It’s a good introduction for young adult readers (and old adults like me) to the issues of contemporary Syria from the perspective of a child.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Fever Dream by Samanta Schweblin


Author: Samanta Schweblin
Title: Fever Dream
Translator: Megan McDowell
Narrator: Hillary Huber
Publication Info: Penguin Audio (2017)
Summary/Review:

This weird and creepy horror novella set in a resort town in Argentina.  It’s narrated in a conversation between Amanda, the novel’s protagonist who slowly uncovers dark secrets from a boy named David. The book doubles as an environmental fable as the children of the town, starting with David, are poisoned by a toxin that spreads through the community, including Amanda and her daughter Nina.  The sparse novel serves as an attempt to unravel the source of the problem.

Recommended books:

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Beloved by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Beloved
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2006 [originally published 1987]
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Toni Morrison’s fifth novel, Beloved, is probably her most famous and also the first of her works set in the 19th century and dealing with the effects of slavery.  Set in 1873 in Cincinnati, Ohio, it focuses on a freed woman named Sethe who shares a house with her youngest daughter, Denver.  Because the house is believed to be haunted by the ghost of Sethe’s first-born daughter, Sethe’s two sons left home early and Denver’s life is one of social isolation.

Things change with the arrival of Paul D., a man who was enslaved on the same plantation with Sethe.  He begins a (somewhat awkward) sexual relationship with Sethe, encourages Denver to leave the house for social activities, and seemingly drives away the ghost haunting the house.  But things change again with the arrival of young woman named Beloved. Sethe believes she is the embodiment of her dead child because “BELOVED” was all she could afford to carve on her tombstone. Beloved affects all the residents of the household in different, negative ways.

Beloved is a ghost story, whether or not you believe that Beloved is actually a ghost, because it deals with the haunting trauma and pain of slavery.  The novel frequently flashes back to Sethe’s life on the Sweet Home plantation, her relationship with her husband Halle, and the abuse they suffered.  The book is a characters study of sorts as well, as several of the characters – both in the main timeline and in flashback – take turns reflecting on their life, relationships, and suffering.

Beloved has always been a challenging book for me to read.  But I also I believe it is purposefully unsettling to provoke thought on slavery and its painful legacy and generational trauma.

Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Star Wars: Master and Apprentice by Claudia Gray


Author: Claudia Gray
Title: Star Wars: Master and Apprentice
Publication Info: New York : Del Rey, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, 2019.
Summary/Review:

Continuing my daughter’s fascination with the Star Wars universe, we read this novel which is a prequel to the prequels. It tells the story of Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn and his Padawan Obi-Wan Kenobi on an assignment several years before the events of The Phantom Menace. The central part of the story is that neither master nor apprentice feels that they have bonded.  In this story they end up in conflict with one another over following the rules and yet that conflict brings them closer together.

This book is complex for a Star Wars story with the events arranged around palace intrigue as well as issues of corporate influence on government and the enslavement of people.  The book has some interesting twists (I didn’t expect who would be the villain) and introduces the eccentric Jedi Rael Aveross, an old friend of Qui-Gon who is serving as a Lord Regent to a young queen.  I really like the character development in this novel of both Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan as well as the many new characters (members of the royal court, corporate agents, and even an interesting pair of jewel thieves who ally with Qui-Gon).  It makes The Phantom Menace all the more depressing for sacrificing opportunities for great character moments to bland CGI special effects and comic relief.

Favorite Passages:

“It matters,” Qui-Gon said quietly. “It matters which side we choose. Even if there will never be more light than darkness. Even if there can be no more joy in the galaxy than there is pain. For every action we undertake, for every word we speak, for every life we touch—it matters. I don’t turn toward the light because it means someday I’ll ‘win’ some sort of cosmic game. I turn toward it because it is the light.”

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace by Terry Brooks


Author: Terry Brooks
Title: Star Wars, Episode I: The Phantom Menace
Publication Info: New York, NY : Del Rey Books, 1999
Summary/Review:

My daughter is really getting into Star Wars now, and I told her we should read some of the books together. She decided she wants to read the novelizations of the films in episode order.  I remember liking the novelizations when I was a kid too.  Back in 1999, after being disappointed by the movie, a friend recommended this book to me because it was written by a well-regarded fantasy writer, Terry Brooks.

Then, as now, I enjoy the novel more than the movie.  Maybe it’s because it has time for scenes that provide greater depth to the characters and their relationships than seen on screen.  Maybe because Brooks does a good job of providing the thoughts and points of views of several characters.  Maybe it’s because Jar Jar is so much less annoying in print.  At any rate, reading a Star Wars book is fun.

Rating: ***

Book Review: Tar Baby by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
TitleTar Baby
Narrator: Desiree Coleman
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Publication Info: Penguin Random House Audio Publishing Group, 2007 [originally published in 1981]

Summary/Review:

Tar Baby was the first novel I ever read.  It was part of the reading for a course I took as a college freshman on African American folklore in literature. I was required to take a writing course as a William & Mary freshman, but as they were all filled up I was allowed to chose from a new series of writing-intensive seminars, and this was the one I picked.  It was a good choice as I got to discuss some excellent literature with the professor and eleven other students and I have to say it was a very meaningful point in my education and life.

The irony is that while I would go on to become a devoted reader of Toni Morrison, I didn’t like Tar Baby when I first read it.  This time I liked it a lot better.  The story focuses on a group of characters on a Caribbean island.  Son, a Black sailor who jumps ship and swims to the island, ends up hiding in the estate of Valerian Street. Valerian, a retired candy manufacturer, has made his island home his permanent residence where he enjoys cultivating plants in his greenhouse despite the pleas of his wife Margaret to return home to Philadelphia.  Margaret is a former beauty queen who we learn is mentally unstable and suffers from the restrictions on her life as a woman.

Working at the estate are a married Black couple, Syndey, the butler, and Ondine, the cook.  Despite their servile position they each have a familiar relationship with their employers and are willing the share their opinions. Sydney and Ondine’s niece, Jadine, who they act as surrogate parents for after she was orphaned. Jadine is highly sophisticated and cosmopolitan after education at the Sorbonne, sponsored by Valerian, and working as a fashion model.

The discovery of Son hiding in Margaret’s closet begins a series of events that reveal the deep-seeded tensions among the residents of the estate.  Valerian makes a great show of treating Son as a guest while Margaret, Sydney, and Ondine disapprove. Eventually, Son and Jadine, both attractive, young people in their 20s flee and begin a romantic relationship.  They first go to New York City where Jadine thrives but Son feels stifled. Then they go to Son’s home town of Eloe, Florida where Son feels more at home being close to nature with his people, but Jadine is overwhelmed by the strict, traditional expectations for women.

The book covers many themes related to women and race. All the women in this story find themselves restricted in different ways. The relations of the Streets to Sydney, Ondine, and Jadine appear cordial at first but are revealed to built on white supremacy. Internalized racism is also revealed as first Sydney and Ondine, and later Jadine, judge Son for his natural and “wild” ways.  And there is the intersection of reality with African American folklore, particularly in the story of the wild horsemen of the island, descended from the first enslaved people brought there. This is also the first book of Morrison’s set in a contemporary rather than historical period which makes it stand out among her works.

Recommended books:
Rating: ****

Book Review: Highfire by Eoin Colfer


Author: Eoin Colfer
Title: Highfire
Publication Info: New York : HarperPerennial, [2020]
Previously Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

I received an advanced reading copy of this novel through the Library Thing Early Reviewers program.

Eoin Colfer writes fantasy fiction primarily for the young adult audience, but this book is most decidedly not for children.  Nevertheless, the book is about an ancient dragon Wyvern, Lord Highfire (“Vern” for short) who has retired to the Louisiana bayou where he reclines in his La-Z-Boy wearing a Flashdance t-shirt and drinking vodka while watching Netflix. A series of incidents bring him together with a teenager named Everett “Squib” Moreau, who has a penchant for trouble but is trying to do his best. Squib eventually becomes Vern’s assistant or “familiar” despite the latter’s mistrust of humans.

Squib has the misfortune that the corrupt and sociopathic constable Regence Hooke is insistent on dating Squib’s single mother.  Squib gets into deeper trouble when he witnesses Hooke murdering a rival.  Hooke learns of Vern from following Squib and comes up with a plan to use the dragon to take out a New Orleans crime lord and take control of drug and arms trafficking.

Parts of this book are a delightful blend of fantasy and gritty, everyday life on the Louisiana bayou.  I especially enjoy the growing relationship between Squib and Vern.  Unfortunately, Colfer seems to revel in detailing Hooke’s cruel and psychotic mind.  It gets to the point where Hooke feels like he’s the main protagonist of the story and he’s not someone I want to spend a lot of time with.

Recommended books:

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
Title: Song of Solomon
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Random House Audio, 2009 [Originally published in 1977]
Other Books Read by Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Song of Solomon is a novel I read a couple of times in college and is my favorite of Toni Morrison’s many masterpieces.  I feel unqualified to write about it, since Morrison’s used of words, world building, characterization, and storytelling are so terrific they are to describe.

The novel tells the life story of Macon Dead III, known by the nickname “Milkman,” and his journey of self-discovery.  Milkman comes from a prosperous African American family in an unnamed Michigan city.  His father, Macon, owns lots of real estate, and his mother, Ruth, is the daughter of the city’s only African American doctor.

Milkman’s aunt Pilate lives on the other side of the tracks and is a bootlegger and something of a mysterious figure who was born without a navel. Despite Macon’s alienation from his sister, Milkman begins visiting Pilate and establishing more of a link with his family past.  He also begins a long-term sexual relationship with his cousin Hagar.  Milkman is also contrasted with his older, more world friend Guitar who is part of a secret organization of men who kill white people in retaliation for racial murders of blacks.

Milkman begins a southward journey, opposite of the Great Migration occurring at the same time the novel is set, ostensibly to follow the trail of some gold his father and Pilate once found. In reality, Milkman is finding connections to his past and his people. First, he visits the real town of Danville, Pennsylvania where his grandfather was murdered by white people and his father and Pilate had to flee for his safety. Then he continues to the fictional town of Shalimar, where Milkman pieces together his family history to enslaved Africans and Native Americans.

The ending of this book is both tragic and triumphant.  I was surprised that there were scenes in this book that stuck in my memory perfectly over 25 years.  Although there was also a lot of the book I’d forgotten. The novel remains one of my all time favorite books.

Favorite Passages:

“I wish I’d a knowed more people. I would of loved ‘em all. If I’d a knowed more, I would a loved more.”

Rating: *****

Book Review: Sula by Toni Morrison


Author: Toni Morrison
TitleSula
Narrator: Toni Morrison
Publication Info: Books on Tape, 2002 (originally published in 1973)
Other Books Read by the Same Author:

Summary/Review:

Morrison’s second novel is another one that I read on my own outside of college classes, and the one I remember the least.  The novel is set in the fictional town of Medallion, Ohio in the Black neighborhood jokingly known as The Bottom despite being on the hilltops adjacent to the white part of town in the valley.

The main plot of the novel focuses on the friendship of two girls, Nel and Sula, growing up in the 1920s.  Nel is from a stable family with rigid rules while Sula’s mother and grandmother are considered unconventional and loose.  Their close friendship turns on the accidental death of a child they were playing with, something they chose to keep secret.

As they grow up, they go in different directions with Nel settling into a conventional marriage while Sula goes away to college and is rumored to have many sexual affairs.  When Sula returns after a ten year absence, she is decried as the personification of evil, and unites against her, especially when Sula sleeps with Nel’s husband.  Nel and Sula do reconcile by the end of the novel.  A framing device set in the present day notes that The Bottom has ceased to exist and the hills have been gentrified for white peoples’ home.

In Sula, Morrison tells a story of a friendship between two Black women, something unusual in fiction up to that point. She creates two fully-developed, nuanced characters in Nel and Sula.  One chooses a conventional life and the other follows her own initiative but neither is judged as being the “good” or “bad” one, at least by the author.  The novel also shows the deleterious effects on a community living in segregation, and the internecine squabbles among Black people between “respectability” and embracing one’s own identity

Rating: ****

Book Review: 11/22/63 by Stephen King


Author: Stephen King
Cover of the book 11/22/63.Title: 11/22/63
Narrator: Craig Wasson
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster Audio (2011)
Summary/Review:

Stephen King’s time travel adventure focuses on Jake Epping, a recently divorced high school English teacher in Maine, who is drawn into a plan to prevent the assassination of John F. Kennedy. His friend Al, owner and cook at a greasy spoon diner, discovered a “rabbit hole” to 1958 and has been using it to try to prevent Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, but he comes down with a fatal cancer and is unable to complete the mission.  So he returns to 2011 and recruits Jake to take over.  Al’s hope is that if Kennedy lives that it will have the knock-on effect of preventing the escalation of the War in Vietnam.

Jake decides that to test the effects of changing history, he will rescue the family of high school janitor and his G.E.D. student, Harry Dunning. On Halloween 1958, Harry’s alcoholic father murdered his mother and siblings and left him with permanent brain damage and a limp. A good portion of the early part of the book takes place in Maine in 1958 as Jake adjusts to living in the past and trying to prevent the Dunning murders.

Later, Jake moves on to Texas and settles in the fictional Dallas suburb of Jodie. With years to go before the Kennedy assassination (or even Lee Harvey Oswald’s return to the United States from the Soviet Union), Jake becomes a substitute high school teacher and director of the school’s theater productions.  He meets and falls in love with the school’s new librarian, Sadie Dunhill and becomes a beloved member of the town community.

I really enjoy the parts in Maine and Jodie as it focuses on the small details of everyday life in the past and Jake’s efforts to fit in.  King does not glamorize the past but demonstrates its strengths and weaknesses.  On Jake’s visit, for instance, he observes that the past smells terrible (because of the mills in Maine) but tastes great (real root beer at a diner).  The mundanity of everyday life becomes a fascinating world to explore for the person from the future. King also builds tension with examples of the “obdurate past” throwing up obstacles to Jake’s efforts to change it and the many coincidences which Jake refers to as “the past harmonizes.”

Unfortunately, when Jake finally focuses on the Kennedy assassination, the narrative becomes less interesting to me.  Especially dreadful are the seemingly endless passages of Jake listening to Oswald’s everyday conversations through an audio surveillance.  King runs up against the challenge that faces all writers of time travel fiction: you can change major events in history in fiction, but they remain the same in real life. And so they have to find some way to justify leaving the past unchanged.

Back to the Future seems to be the only time travel story to ever consider that changing the past would make the future better.  King rather obviously makes the future where Kennedy survives a (ridiculously) worse place.  This is an unsatisfying payoff after a lengthy book.  It’s still worth reading though, as again, at least the first two thirds of the book are very engagingly written.  And the characters of Jake, Sadies, Harry, and others are sympathetic enough that my interest in seeing how they turn out carried me through the final act.  I also highly recommend Craig Wasson’s audiobook narration because he is able to perform believable accents for both Mainers and Texans.

Recommended books:

Rating: ***1/2