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Blackberry and Wild Rose, by Sonia Velton.

November 4, 2018

Blackberry and Wild Rose
Blackberry and Wild Rose, by Sonia Velton.  Blackstone Publishing, May 2019.


5 stars

A delightful historical novel set in eighteenth-century London featuring a silk-maker’s wife who dreams of being artistic and the lady’s maid she “rescues” from prostitution.

Sonia Velton is the daughter of British mother and a Sri Lankan father.  She grew up in the Bahamas and Great Britain and has continued to live globally.  After earning her law degree she specialized in human rights and discrimination law, for a time in Singapore. She married, had three children, and lived in the Middle East for eight years before returning to Kent where she now lives and writes.

As an historian, Blackberry and Wild Rose is the kind of historical fiction that I appreciate most.  Instead of rehashing the lives of famous people, Velton has deeply researched the time and place of her novel and created characters who might actually have lived there.  Then she has used her imagination to expand our knowledge of people who seldom had the luxury of writing down what they thought and felt.  In doing so she gives us characters with whom we can relate.

The story is set in the Spitialfield section of London where Huguenot silk makers wove and sold exquisite textiles.  Tension exists there because the silk masters have cut back what their journeymen earn because the sale of silk has declined with the introduction of cheaper calicos.  Narration of the story is divided between Esther, a pious, childless British wife of a silk master and Sara, a country girl who had been caught up in a brothel. Esther dreams of designing and creating patterned silk, dreams her insensitive husband mocks.  She takes in Sara to save her from a life of prostitution. Velton does a fine job of describing the ever-changing emotions of the two women as they struggle with intimacy, jealousy, anger and genuine affection.

Venton excels as a careful observer and a word-smith making her book a joy to read.  Her work in human rights law is reflected in her sensitivity to the ways we blind ourselves to the pain we cause others in both the public and private spheres.  Interwoven plots move smoothly and hold readers’ attention as we wonder what will happen next.

I gladly recommend this book to all who enjoy historical fiction and the interplay of choices which individuals make.

Under Water, by J.L. Powers.

October 31, 2018

Under Water
Under Water, by J.L. Powers.  Cinco Puntos Press, January 2019.


4 stars

A young adult novel about a teenage woman in rural South Africa, who seeks to balance her calling by “the ancestors” with the survival of herself and her young sister in a violent, contemporary world.

J.L. Powers grew up in the American West along the American border with her geologist father and journalist mother.  She earned Master’s degrees in African History from the University of New York-Albany and from Stanford and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Texas, El Paso.  A Fulbright-Hayes grant allowed her to study Zulu in South Africa. She has published three powerful Young Adult novels, a picture book, and an anthology of stories about coming of age in a war zone.  She has taught college classes in Creative Writing and African History. She also works in publishing and blogs about Social Justice and Children’s Literature.  Her home page is labeled as “Stories from Around the World.”  She lives in northern California with her family and still thinks of El Paso as her home.

Power’s passion for social justice and complexities that children and young adults face today are evident in all her publications including her new book, Under Water.  In this book, she tells the story of Toshi, a seventeen-year-old, Zulu girl living in urban South Africa.  Toshi did not choose the traditional role of healer and communicator with the ancestors. Instead the ancestors chose her and she believes she must obey, even when their demands are not rational.  With the recent death her grandmother, she must find a means of survival for herself and her young sister.  Everything seems to conspire against her as she tries to cope with angry relatives and neighbors and her long-time boyfriend involves her in violent taxi wars. Toshi must juggle her own traditional commitments while remaining open to radical change.  She learns that she must trust the ancestors even when their demands are irrational.  The open ending of the book offers hope for Toshi and all of us.

Written primarily for young adults, Under Water has a straightforward plot, but not a simplistic one.  The book is enjoyable and informative for readers of all ages.  In fact, the idea that Toshi must learn “to understand evil” seems too sophisticated for the overall style of the book.  While not a Zulu herself, Power has immersed herself in Zulu life and thanks those who have helped her write about a culture not her own.

I am glad to recommend this book, especially but not exclusively, for young adult readers.  I applaud Power’s efforts to build global citizenship with books like this and look forward to seeing more of her writing.  I also applaud Cinco Puntos Press for publishing her books and for doing all they can to create a more compassionate and responsible world.

Living on the Borderlines: Stories, by Melissa Michal

October 24, 2018

Living on the BorderlinesLiving on the Borderlines: Stories, by Melissa Michal. Feminist Press.

Forthcoming February 12, 2019.

3 stars

A collection of short stories about Indigenous individuals living at the edges of their own culture..

Melissa Michal is a Seneca woman who teaches creative writing and composition at Arizona State University where she recently earned her Ph.D. in Literature.  She is particularly interested in the representation of Indigenous people in literature and history.  Her writing has appeared in literature reviews.  She has finished a novel, written non-fictional essays and  engaged in photography.

 The short stories in Michal’s debut collection deal with what it means to be Native, today facing a wide range of challenges to traditional culture.  Many, but not all, of her stories center on Seneca people living in upstate New York along the Canadian border. Her characters often deal with non-Native characters, but some of her most moving narratives involve inter-family challenges.  Individuals grapple with questions of how they can, or if they can, pass on their skills and traditions to the next generation.  The stories tend to be sad, elegiac, with a hint of hope in their conclusions.

Michal explains her goals in her writing.  She explains her “loyalty to her characters, the closeness to their voices, and the orality of bringing realties to these stories.”  In doing so she intentionally breaks the rules of Western languages.  I honor her intention but sadly I found her language to be awkward. I am not sure why, or even if the problem is hers or mine.  I am saddened not to be able to catch her cadence and rhythm.  I would like to believe that as writers and readers we can, temporarily at least, visit each others’ spaces.

This is a well intentioned book.  I hope it resonates with others more than it did with me.

The Far Field, by Madhuri Vijay.

October 19, 2018

The Far FieldThe Far Field, by  Madhuri Vijay.  Grove Press.

FORTHCOMING: January 15, 2019.

5 stars

A big, powerful novel about a well-intentioned woman growing up in a confusing family in Bangalore, India, and, as an adult, wandering naively into Kashmir where she does not understand what is going on around her or the affects of what she says and does.

Madhuri Vijay was born in Bangalore and later came to the United States.  She has lived in Kashmir and studied in the Iowa Writers Workshop.  The Far Field is her first novel.

Shalini, the narrator of Vijay’s novel, writes a searching account of who she is and what she has done. She knows that “the story or confession or whatever it turns out to be” will “too late.” Yet hers is a story she needs to tell.  Part of that story is about her parents, especially her mother, a strong erratic woman whom Shalini feared and protected.  Interwoven with the mother-daughter narrative is Shalini’s description of the journey she made in her twenties after her mother’s death.  Feeling restless and disconnected, she goes to violence-torn Kashmir looking for a man who had occasionally visited her mother. A Hindu, Shalini is graciously received in Muslim families whom she comes to love so much that she considers staying and teaching in the local school.  Slowly she becomes aware of local secrets and tension just under the surface.  Old wounds have not healed.  The problems are not simply Muslim versus Hindu but involved complicated feelings of guilt for actions taken.

The Far Field is a finely written book with powerful descriptions of places and people. By telling the story of a particular locale, Vijay pushes us to face the larger question of whether or not personal actions matter, or are they erased by larger cultural forces beyond our control.  She provides readers with philosophical depth while never slowing down the ongoing pressure of events.

This is a book for all of us who have ever tried to help those whose lives we fail to understand.  I recommend it enthusiastically.  Read this book.

The Hollow of Fear, by Sherry Thomas.

October 17, 2018

The Hollow of Spheres The Hollow of Fear, by Sherry Thomas.  Penguin,  October 2, 2018

2 stars

The third historical novel in a series about a woman solving mysteries in the name of Sherlock Holmes.

Sherry M. Thomas was born in China in 1975, and Chinese is her first language. She lives in America where she has published about 20 books.  On her web page, she claims that she set out to write every kind of book that she enjoys.  So far she has written popular books of romance, fantasy and historical fiction. Young Adult books seem to be a specialty of hers.

Recently several women have created mysteries that feature Victorian women stepping into the role of Sherlock Holmes.  This is not the best of them for a number of reasons. Too much of the book is taken up with explaining weak links to Holmes himself or what has already happened in the past two books in the series.  The main plot gets lost in all the people and minor plot lines. The characters are essentially flat with no development.  Both of the leading characters come across as simply weird.  The inclusion of the romantic plots seems irrelevant in a book evoking Sherlock Holmes.  The complaints about the rigid role of aristocratic women in Victorian England are witty, but the challenges to those roles are not realistic.

Don’t bother to read this book.

The Next Republic: The Rise of a New Radical Majority, by D. D. Guttenplan.

October 12, 2018

The Next RepublicThe Next Republic: The Rise of a New Radical Majority, by D. D. Guttenplan. Seven Stories Press, October 2018.

4 stars

Political essays about those in the past and present who have worked to return to government of, by, and for the people.

D.D. Guttenplan is a political journalist who has written books, articles, and documentaries.  He has degrees in Philosophy from Columbia University and in English Literature from Cambridge.  His doctorate is in History from the University of London. His articles appear in The Nation, The Guardian, International Herald Tribune, and The New York Times. He has written books about I.F. Stone and about Holocaust denial and conducted an acclaimed documentary with Edward Said.  He covered the 2016 presidential campaign for The Nation.

In addition to clear factual reporting, Guttenplan reaches beyond most political pundits to envision radical changes in how we do politics.  His essays introduce current individuals who are somehow collectively moving out of the stalemate of two parties both of which he sees as devoted to maintaining the unequal status quo.  While Bernie Sanders appears frequently in these essays, the focus is on more local leaders working with labor, fighting the Canadian pipeline, or struggling in Chicago.  What they have in common is that they are truly committed to listening to and empowering local people.  They reject top-down movements who send leaders into areas to gain followers.  Their method is to immerse themselves in local conversations and to let themselves be guided by local knowledge.

This not a new idea.  Guttenplan reveals how local groups in the past have worked this way. Even when they failed to achieve all their goals, they are part of what it means to be an American.  In writing about such individuals and groups, Guttenplan shows deep knowledge of our past, and he also moves beyond what most of us believe to be true.  He does not claim that our traditional accounts, usually featuring two polarized alternatives, are false. Instead, he adds to existing knowledge by giving us more details about what else is going on. For example, when he writes about the Civil War and Reconstruction, he emphasizes the importance of slavery.  Instead of stopping there, he goes on to examine how southern whites insured themselves of power because they had nonvoting slaves as their underclass. He also shows how northerners opposed slavery often primarily to lessen the power of aristocratic slave owners. As I have learned living in east Tennessee, even Civil War did not divide people into two neatly drawn sides.

What we are seeing in primary elections this fall are more and more examples of the pattern that Guttenplan identifies.  Women and other outsiders are getting elected on local issues which often reach across party lines.  If you look at Guttenplan’s recent articles, you see he is following this development.  In this book, he identifies past and present patterns so that we can gain inspiration and wisdom from others. In doing so, he offers hope beyond the two party system that has failed us as a nation.  Perhaps we need to stop assuming that the two party system is inevitable and good.

Everyone out there needs to read and think about this book—and to vote in November.

She Called Me Woman, by Azeenarh Mohammed, Chitra Nagarajan, Rafeeat Aliyu.

October 7, 2018

She Called Me Woman
She Called Me Woman,  by Azeenarh Mohammed, Chitra Nagarajan, Rafeeat Aliyu. Cassava Republic Press, 2018.

Forthcoming September 2018

4 stars

An anthology of touching stories by queer women in Nigeria about their personal struggles and their joy.

Azeenarh Mohammed, Chitra Nagarajan, and Rafeeat Aliyu are all Nigerian women involved in different ways in research and activism involving women’s rights, sexuality, and the lives of queer women.  They have collected and edited twenty-five stories by and about queer women in Nigeria, a place where such women are largely invisible.

The narratives vary widely, but all are told from within an environment of fear, from a place where the lives they have chosen are not socially acceptable or legally accepted.  They tell of the joys and pains of their lives and how they have negotiated ways to be the women they believe they are meant to be.  They not only write about their sexuality, they also describe those women who have lovingly supported and enabled their choices.

The stories in She Called Me Woman are moving and a welcome perspective on what it means to be queer, not only in Nigeria, but anywhere.  I am glad to recommend this book to many readers.