The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother by James McBride A novel, or memoir, at its best, will give you a window in to the life of someone you might never meet in real life. This memoir, if you can call it a memoir when half of it is about …
Provenance by Ann Leckie
This book has a much lighter feel than the Ancillary Justice books. It starts out with Ingray, a young foster-daughter of an important politician trying to do something daring and risky in order to win her mother’s favor. Pretty soon there’s mistaken identity, a murder mystery, stolen artifacts, secret romances, sibling rivalry, interplanetary politics and a little bit of coming-of-age drama.
There were things I liked about this book. I liked that the Hwae were so obsessed with vestiges and all the other peoples thought of them as ridiculous. It kind of highlights the whole idea of people being obsessed with “things” and authenticating the provenance of the things and whether it matters or not. I also liked the mechs, the idea that learning to pilot mechs was a crucial skill that may or may not have bearing on a murder mystery. I also liked the interpersonal conflict set up by the demanding mother who plays her children off on one another.
Some of the other relationships felt a little off. Captain Uisine seemed to place a lot more faith in Ingray’s ability to come up with a brilliant plan than I did, which seemed out of character since Uisine was set up as a very clever person. Garal Ket/Palad Budhrakain could have been the most interesting character in the book, but Leckie didn’t focus on him as much as she did on Ingray. The relationship between Zat and the other archaeologist didn’t much make sense to me at all. I get that it was set up as “they’re alien; don’t try to understand them” but they weren’t really alien, they were humans, and I did want to understand.
The murder mystery is eventually explained, and the interplanetary politics were eventually explained, but by the time we got around to it, I didn’t really care that much. Ingray does something drastic and brave at the end, and she goes on about how frightened she was, but by that point I had disconnected. Her actions felt out of character (she sacrificed herself for children, but she hadn’t seemed that altruistic in her other actions) and her “plan” also didn’t seem like a valid plan. I didn’t know why she did things, didn’t know why they worked. Everything seemed orchestrated by Tic, the one truly competent person in the book. He didn’t seem to have much motivation to help them, and his deus ex machina machinations made me disengage further with Ingray’s plot.
So, it’s kind of amusing in that it’s hard science fiction that also has mystery and romance in it, and isn’t a space opera, but I didn’t feel head-deep in alien worlds, learning to see things through alien eyes. I felt more like I was looking at a shallow diorama of “alien world,” being told how strange things were without really feeling them. It was okay as a young adult romance/mystery, but it didn’t hit my “wow, amazing worldbuilding!” buttons. And it also didn’t have characters I really wanted to learn more about. It was “just okay.” I’m not going to advise against reading it, but I’m also not going to recommend it, not when her other books are so much better.
If every novel aims to tell an interesting story about believable, likable characters, this novel succeeds admirably. I’d listened to the first more than a year ago, and this audiobook has the same fantastic narrator.
Louisa Clark can be quite infuriating, as she is her own worst enemy, but she’s also quite believable. Who hasn’t done something even knowing while we do it that it’s not in our own best interest? (ie. yes, I will have another drink.) As the book opens, she’s used Will’s money to travel, and to buy a small apartment in London, but she’s working a demeaning, dead-end-job and doesn’t seem to have any direction in her life. She doesn’t have any friends, she doesn’t have any responsibilities, and she’s just kind of drifting along in a fog of grief, estranged from her family because of the event at the end of the previous book.
As soon as the stage is set, everything changes. Louisa suffers an accident that forces her to live with her parents, and then she meets a teenage girl who claims to be Will’s daughter. She makes a friend through her “moving on” circle and deals with what may be a blossoming romance along with the oft-infuriating self-absorption of Lily, the teenage girl. Lily, alas, was the least-well-rounded character in the book, feeling a bit like a stereotype of a teenage girl. She’s sullen and withdrawn and wheedling and exasperating and charming by turns. I haven’t met this sort of girl in real life, but she exists frequently in media.
No one is perfect in this book, but most of the characters are charming despite their flaws, excepting Lily’s mother, whom we all just feel good about loathing. Lou’s parents are having their own drama, brought about by Louisa’s mother having started to read feminist literature and developing her own autonomy, which causes a rift in their traditional conservative Catholic household. Lily is a hand grenade of drama, with colossally bad judgement that seems almost of the same self-sabotage vein as Louisa’s.
The worst part of the book for me was when Louisa makes a self-sabotaging decision that had me shouting at the audiobook. All her loved ones agree that it’s the worst decision ever, but it was in keeping with Louisa’s personality so I forgave the author, even if I didn’t forgive Louisa. She also sabotages her own romantic relationship, first through a misunderstanding, and then through her own lack of emotional stability, but that just caused some great tension and didn’t make me really angry. When characters do stupid things, and you know they’re stupid things but also know exactly why the character is doing them, it’s forgivable.
The best part of this novel was the resolution. Even though it’s sort of the second in a series, I feel like you could pick this up not having read the first one and be totally fine with following along. I also feel like I don’t have to read the third book to have a satisfactory ending. The loose plot threads were wound up, some of the bad guys were punished and some of the good guys were rewarded, all the main characters found a satisfactory resolution to their conflicts.
I’ll probably seek out the next book, just so I can spend more time with the characters. They all feel like real people, people I’ve known for a very long while, and I enjoyed spending time with them. Even some of the throwaway characters felt like real people. I especially enjoyed Louisa’s mother in this book.
The best thing I can say about this book is that it made me cry. I suppose that’s not too hard, because I cry easily, especially when the subject matter (people getting cancer and dying) is something that I’ve lived with. I just thought I would like it a lot better. It sounds like a great book: a cross-cultural memoir dealing with a bi-racial friendship and gardening set in the American South. It’s like it was a made-to-order Oprah book. I had to keep checking the cover to see if it really was a memoir, really was written by the narrator. Surely these weren’t real people, surely they were just caricatures concocted by a marketing panel picking out keywords from research findings?
I know what’s wrong with this book, but I don’t know how the author could have fixed it. The problem is that it’s all too airbrushed. The story felt like it was at arm’s length, the relationships all felt small-talk cordial, any unappealing parts of anyone’s personality were cleaned up and put away to keep from putting people off. I know from the name on the cover and the photos in the back that these were all real people, but they didn’t feel like real people.
Let’s start with Mister Owita, whom the narrator calls by his first name. He calls her Mrs. Wall and she calls him Giles, and even when she insists she call her Carol, he doesn’t. But she didn’t start calling him Mister Owita, she kept calling him by his first name. Yes, it’s cultural differences in formality, but it heightened the power differential between the two of them. She remains the white lady with money and status, and he remains the man who works as a bagger at the food mart. When she learns that Mr. Owita is actually Dr. Owita, owing to his PhD in horticulture, she’s freaked out. The power structure is subverted. Educated people are owed respect and she’s been treating him like an uneducated person. The fact that she’s upset by her own behavior (not treating him the respect he’s due as an educated person) just emphasizes that she didn’t respect him before. If you respect someone as a human being to begin with, the fact that they have a doctorate shouldn’t change your opinion of them. That she never does keep calling him Dr. Owita kind of emphasizes that she’s really only comfortable with him as an employee/inferior.
So the book is about race relations in that there’s a friendship between a white woman and a black man, but it’s not really about race relations. It’s the kind of feel-good stuff that you read if you want to feel like you’re a good person and not racist but you don’t actually want to change your behavior or have to suffer much in the way of uncomfortable feelings. Yes, there is a scene where she defends him from a manager who calls him by an infantile nickname, but mostly she felt like a very conservative lady who had zero interest in doing anything to subvert the status quo. She wants everyone to be happy and content with their station in life, not for anyone to change their station or look too closely at the fairness of it. Which is fine, I guess, if it fails at that level, because it’s also touted as a memoir about gardening.
Carol Wall doesn’t seem to like gardening that much. She hates azaleas, doesn’t like flowers, and even after all her gardening experience, manages to almost kill a snake plant. Even I haven’t killed a snake plant, and I’ve killed just about everything. She feels revulsion at putting her hands into gardening gloves, does not want to touch the soil, and did I mention she doesn’t like flowers? What kind of person doesn’t like flowers? Someone who doesn’t much care for plants, that’s who. She only wants a garden in the first place so she can keep up with the neighbors. She manages to tolerate the azaleas, and even accepts a few flowers (nothing too garish!) but even by the end of the book I didn’t feel like she really cared much for gardening. The way she described things didn’t sound like someone who loved plants. I’m picturing the pitch session with her agent “So, ramp up the gardening part. Gardening appeals well to our target demographic.” Gardening only seemed valuable to her in that it was her connection to Giles Owita, whom she does like.
Giles Owita did not feel like a real person. There’s a photo of him in the back of the book, and I wonder who he was, because the person in the book was pretty flat. He was written like a Buddhist saint, or like a black man written with all the scary parts removed so that even sheltered white ladies could feel like they could be friends with him. He’s from Africa, so he’s exotic. He teaches Wall some words in Luo so that she can trot them out and feel multi-cultural. And best yet, being African means he doesn’t have that awkward taint of “my ancestors were owned your ancestors so I feel very uncomfortable about dealing with you.” He’s very Christian, as is Wall. (They spend a lot of time praying for one another.) But they never feel much like friends. They feel like acquaintances who sometimes do things for one another out of a Christian duty. They never seem to quite feel comfortable with one another, despite sharing so many values. He’s a family man who wants his daughter to be able to come to America. (I’m picturing the hypothetical agent saying, “oh yeah, our target demographic loves anything about hardworking immigrants who want to live the American dream.”) Also, he shares Wall’s suffering in that they both have major health issues.
This book is mostly about cancer and other major illnesses. That’s really the part that made me cry, because Wall had suffered cancer before, had a sister who died young, had parents who were deeply affected by that death. She is herself deeply affected when Mister Owita has a stroke, as her parents are in a nursing home early on, and she has to deal with their declining health so there’s that parallel. That is the aspect of the book that made me cry. You pile that much suffering on and even cardboard characters bring on pathos. I don’t particularly enjoy crying over books, but I know some people love it. If you love a book that makes you weep and frequently recommend tear-stained paperbacks by saying “it was amazing, I ran through an entire box of tissues!” this is probably your book. In a sad-to-happy ratio, this book rivals a Haruki Murakami novel. But again, it felt ham-handed. I should have been warned by the cover. Books that are touted as “enduring” “heartfelt” “touching” and “uplifting” usually have more misery than a famine in an orphanage. I was misled. I thought it was a memoir about friendship and gardening.
So, to sum up, this book isn’t really about gardening because it doesn’t seem like the main character really likes gardening. It also doesn’t really feel like it’s about friendship because the two main characters are never on a first-name basis. It’s a book about cancer and suffering, but I felt at a remove from it because Wall didn’t seem like she was willing to let the reader know anything that would make us have a negative opinion of her, as if she cared more about protecting her image than in sharing her story. She does a few things that are maybe not nice (accusing her husband of infidelity when she finds another woman’s dress in her closet) but it’s all papered over and smoothed up like a laugh track and a sappy end-music cue to let us know that the half hour episode is over and we all learned a moral. It feels like a memoir written by a woman who fears the judgement of others more than she fears dying by cancer. It might be an amazing story, if we got to see all the parts that were airbrushed out, but this version isn’t one that I was really engaged with.
This book had a few rough patches and a few bursts of brilliance that evened each other out. I liked this book overall, especially for the surprising feminist undertones, but it had a rough start.
It starts out in India, on the day of Gemma’s 16th birthday, with Gemma walking sullenly through the market with her mother. Both are English, and of course both have red hair because that’s how you know someone is magical. Wait, was that flippant? Sorry, it’s just such a trope. Then her mother dies under mysterious circumstance and Gemma is sent to England to live in a dreary boarding house where everyone is cold and the girls are mean to her. But Gemma has magic powers (she sees visions) so she’s able to get one over on the girls. All of this felt like a story I’d read a hundred times before and I wasn’t particularly impressed by it.
But then things shift. Because Gemma ends up making friends with the girls, first an uneasy alliance and then later a true, deep friendship. They stop being “the pretty one” and “the bossy one” and “the plain one” and start to have more depth to them. The girls find an old diary of a girl who died in a fire in the building, and through the rather clumsy exposition of one of the teachers, stumble into the secrets of a society called “The Order.” Meanwhile, Gemma is being warned away from using her power by a cute boy who followed her from India, though why he didn’t talk to her on the ship, which was after all a very long voyage, is beyond me.
So, the feminist part. On one hand, the cute boy’s society is horrified by the idea of this magic power being in the hands of a bunch of teenage girls. On the other hand, would they really be that much worse to have it than the old men? The girls sometimes abuse the power, yes, but sometimes they just use it to win for themselves what their society does not allow them to have: autonomy, the ability to choose their own mate, being seen, being heard, being strong and capable, and being recognized as a human being. Gemma starts out taking the cute boy’s warnings seriously, but after a while, just sees him as one more man trying to put girls back in their boxes because nothing terrifies them more than a woman with power.
While I liked the feminist part, and while the girls did start to have more depth, they weren’t as well-developed as they could have been. I had a hard time remembering which one was which some of the time. Pippa was the pretty one, and Felicity was the blonde bossy one, but which one was Cecily, again? I didn’t much like the art teacher character, not because of how she was written, but because her friendship with the girls did not seem like it flowed naturally. Her ideas felt too modern, and her friendship felt forced. I also didn’t get the sense that the boarding house was a real place. We didn’t read about more than a handful of teachers and students, so my mind’s eye pictured a movie that didn’t have enough money to hire extras. Also, the boarding house is described as this gloomy castle, and her room is described as being cramped and dark, but after the initial scenes the setting isn’t really a part of the story.
There would have been plenty of room in the book to do more character building and setting had the author deleted the vision scenes. I did not like the vision scenes. I’m not a fan of using visions or dreams to push the plot along. It’s a crutch, like adding salt and butter to a dish to make it taste better because the cook used ingredients that weren’t very good quality. Even the scene where her mother died didn’t need to be shown to her in a vision. The visions confused me. She’d be having a vision, and then she’d be back. Did she actually leave? What did the people in the room see? Did they see that she vanished? Did they see her body there just staring? Sometimes it seemed as if she went to another place physically, (like when she got herself out of the church she’d been locked in) and sometimes it seemed as if she just imagined stuff (like when they saw the spiritualist). I like magic in novels, but I want it to make sense.
I also didn’t like that the book was written like the first of a series. I like trilogies, but unless I know in advance (and know I want to commit to reading three books) I want to have the novel end in a satisfying way at the end of the first book. This wasn’t the worst example I’d seen of this, but it was still kind of disheartening to realize that the threads would not be wrapped up because the author planned to resolve them in later books. I mean, we learn when she first comes to the boarding house that the wing is closed because there was a terrible fire in which some people died. That kind of implies that we’ll learn what happened, right? Nope. We do learn a few things, but the best kind of trilogies are ones in which the first story has ended but we love the character so much we want more adventures, not ones in which the character is kind of thin but the mysteries weren’t answered so we want to find out what happens.
My best description of this book is that it’s a dark YA supernatural/fantasy novel set in nineteenth century England with teenage girls as the main characters. If that description sets your heart fluttering, you’ll probably be thrilled with it despite the unspectacular characters and you’ll probably be willing to read as many books as it takes to find out what happens.
Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
Who would have thought that a story about gossip and kindergarten mothers could be so dark and suspenseful? What really cinches this book as a standout example of its genre are the solidly constructed characters and the successful interview-style framing. The sideline interviews with different characters not only heighten the suspense, but they also provide unreliable narrators so that you don’t know what’s really happening. Or, you do, but you can also see why gossip is causing a rift. There are two main mysteries: who dies at trivia night, and who is really bullying Amabella?
I loved the main characters. Jane, Madeline and Celeste are all people I would like to know in real life. The perfect name choices tickled me. Jane is plain, buttoned up and lives a simple life. Madeline is over-the-top in her attitudes and very feminine in her tastes. Celeste is heavenly beautiful but also kind of spacey. Bonnie is “good.” Most of the men are kind of secondary characters, less involved and less pivotal to the home lives, but they’re still people.
The book uses the teacher and the across-the-street neighbor’s point of view to directly mock modern parents who are a bit too wrapped up in their children’s lives. It indirectly mocks them through the overwhelming obsession these people seem to have with their children’s school lives. There’s a working-mother vs. stay-at-home mother tension, but it’s handled fairly well.
After I finished this book, I found myself going back over certain scenes to re-read them, just to enjoy them a second time. The twists kept me guessing until the very end, and I felt very satisfied with the resolution. I highly recommend this book as a very entertaining novel.
Tongues of Serpents by Naomi Novik I’m still very much enjoying this series, though this book wasn’t as excellent as the last one. It’s still good though, a rollicking adventure with high stakes in an exotic land. Novik presents early nineteenth century Australia as a rough land of rough men, and the countryside as a …
Victory of Eagles by Naomi Novik When I finished this book, I immediately bought the next one in the series. I’m really enjoying the characters and the world and how different each novel is from the one that preceded it. This novel is set once again in England, but the decisions and the events in …
Empire of Ivory by Naomi Novik I really enjoyed this book, but I do think that in some ways it’s a bit weaker. It feels more like the middle episode of a long series than a complete story the way the first two books were. Still, it’s a ripping yarn. It starts out with our …
Black Powder War by Naomi Novik I enjoyed the first two books in this series so much that I got this one and its sequel to read, and ended up reading this in just a couple of days. It’s a delightful romp with good pacing and several intriguing plot twists. High points included feral dragons …