Thursday, February 22, 2024

Fiction Review: Homegoing

I feel like I may be the last person to finally read Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. I just read it for Black History Month, after receiving it for Christmas, and I can see why this book created so much buzz! This historical epic, covering eight generations of a family, from 1700's Ghana to slave plantations in the U.S. to the present day, was a stunning novel that kept me rapt.

In eighteenth-century Ghana, two half-sisters are born in different villages, each completely unaware of the other. Effia was born in the Fante realm on a night when fire raged through her village. Her mother, Baaba, never seemed to like Effia and often mistreated and beat her, though her father tried in vain to protect her. In the 1770's, a white British man named James Collins, the newly appointed governor, married Effia, and she went to live with him in Cape Coast Castle. She was well-treated by James and the other British men, lived in a beautiful home, and was soon pregnant and gave birth to a son, Quey. As time went on, she began to better understand what went on in the castle, that many of her own countrymen and women (and children) were kept in the basement dungeons and sent overseas on ships as slaves.

During the same time period, Esi was born into a small Asante village, the daughter of a Big Man (prominent in the village) and his third wife. She had a wonderful childhood, as her village grew, and she enjoyed long walks with her father, who adored her. House servants, slaves stolen from warring villages, were a simple fact of life in Esi's world, until she discovered that her own mother was a captive servant at one time in a Fante village, and she begins to truly understand what that means. As a teen, Esi is stolen by a warring tribe, and made to walk for many miles, tied to other captives, all the way to Cape Coast Castle, where she and the others are sold to the British. There, she is kept in the women's dungeon in horrific conditions. Just before being walked to a waiting ship to travel to America as a slave, Esi is raped by a British soldier.

In this way, each of the different lines of this split family, unknown to each other, begins. The novel alternates between Effia's family and Esi's family, with a long chapter focused on one person in each generation, all the way to modern times (with a helpful family tree at the beginning). Gyasi's wonderful writing weaves an intricate, complex picture of each family and each generation. When I realized the framework of the novel, I worried that it would be too disjointed, but it works. While I was always sorry to leave one person's story, the next one was just as engrossing, and there is usually information about how the previous character's story continued. Each of these characters is fully-formed, with great emotional depth, each dealing with their own unique challenges through the centuries.

The history here is fascinating, and I read the novel with my iPad by my side so that I could look up more information on the history, photos of the places described, and other facts; this book made me want to learn more. For instance, Cape Coast Castle is a real place that is still there today, and I just read a travel essay on a plane by actor Anthony Anderson, about his emotional first time touring the castle. Before reading this book, I was completely unaware that Africans were complicit in the slave trade (though, of course, it was the large sums of money Europeans were willing to pay that helped it grow). There is plenty of tragedy in this story, for both bloodlines, in Africa and in the U.S., but there are moments of joy and triumph, too, and the ending was very satisfying. This is a powerful, moving novel that will stay with me for a long time.

300 pages, Vintage Books

Random House Audio

This book fits in the following 2024 Reading Challenges:

 

Mount TBR Challenge

Alphabet Soup Challenge - H

Diversity Challenge

Travel the World in Books Challenge - Ghana

Literary Escapes Challenge - Alabama

 

Visit my YouTube Channel for more bookish fun!

 

Listen to a sample of the audiobook here and/or download it from Audible. I like the sound of the narrator, Dominic Hoffman.

 

Or get this audiobook from Libro.fm and support local bookstores (the same audio sample here, too).

 

Print and e-book from Amazon.

 

You can buy the book through Bookshop.org, where your purchase will support the indie bookstore of your choice (or all indie bookstores)--the convenience of shopping online while still buying local!



Tuesday, February 20, 2024

TV Tuesday: The Irrational

While most cable shows had a delayed "fall" season that is only just starting now (due to the strikes), a few new shows did start on time in the fall. Our favorite is The Irrational, a crime show with a behavioral scientist at its center.

Jesse L. Martin plays Alec Mercer, a behavioral scientist at a university in D.C. Alec teaches and has two grad students working with him: Pheobe, played by Molly Kunz, and Rizwan, played by Arash DeMaxi. His ex-wife, Marisa (played by Maahra Hill), works for the FBI, and Alec's sister, Kylie (played by Travina Springer), is a brilliant computer expert who lives with him. Marisa often asks Alec to consult on a case--and sometimes Kylie and/or the grad students get involved, too--so there is usually a new case to solve in each episode. But there is also an ongoing story thread about the terrible burn scars on Alec's face. He got those scars (and spent months in the hospital, with serious burns over much of his body) many years ago, when a bomb was set off in a church. One man was convicted of the crime, but Alec and Marisa suspect there was someone else behind it who was never caught. The bombing left Alec with emotional scars as well as physical, and Marisa and her FBI partner are still looking into the cold case.

Like any crime show, each episode involves a new case, so there is always something new and different  going on. Alec's unique talents in behavioral science provide fascinating insights into victims, witnesses, and criminals that are helpful to the FBI. In each show, though, the viewer also learns more about Alec and the bombing that so traumatized him. The secondary characters are also further explored and fleshed out. Martin is outstanding in the lead role, and his co-stars are all excellent. The writing is fresh, with a sense of humor, and the cases are interesting. There is suspense and a mystery in each new episode, plus the ongoing mystery of the bombing. My husband and I have really been enjoying this show. We'll watch the final episode of its first season tonight, and we were excited to hear that it's been renewed for a second season.

The Irrational is an NBC show, so it's available On Demand if you have cable or on NBC.com (all episodes still available free for all right now) or on Peacock. It's also available on Amazon.


Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Celebrate Mardi Gras at Home!


It's Mardi Gras Day! We used to live in New Orleans, so this is a major holiday at our house, as you may have heard in my video, Celebrate Everything, Big and Small. We usually celebrate on Saturday and again on Tuesday. Before the pandemic, we had an annual party with all the food, music, etc. on Saturday. With my immune issues, it's now a small celebration with our oldest friends, who lived in New Orleans when we did. We enjoyed takeout from a favorite local New Orleans restaurant (a husband and wife team who were both chefs in New Orleans, under two of the top chefs there!), plus lots of shrimp. Today, Mardi Gras day, we will finish off the season with our annual tradition of Popeye's at that same friends' house (yes, Popeye's is authentic Louisiana food). And, of course, we've decorated for the occasion, and I'm wearing purple, green, and gold with my beads on!

 
Want to join the fun? Here is a collection of ways to celebrate Mardi Gras, New Orleans, and Louisiana today...including food, recipes, travel tips, movies & TV shows, and, of course, some great books! You can also check out my column in Shelf Awareness from last year that features books about and set in New Orleans, Armchair Travel: Destination New Orleans. And if you prefer a video, check out my Recommendations for Mardi Gras Reathathon: Books, Movies, and TV Shows.
 
Great Adult Books Set In/About Louisiana (additional titles in my article linked above):
  • The Crowning Glory of Calla Lily Ponder by Rebecca Wells, author of Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood - I listened to Calla Lily's story on audio and laughed out loud & bawled my eyes out! It takes place in southern Louisiana, with plenty of local color.
  • Gumbo Tales: Finding My Place at the New Orleans Table by Sara Roahen - I loved this memoir about the food, history, people, and unique culture of New Orleans.
  • Trail of Crumbs: Food, Love, and the Search for Home by Kim SunĂ©e - although this food-focused memoir covers everyplace from Sweden to France to Korea, the author grew up in New Orleans, where the food culture impacted the rest of her life.
  • Burn by Nevada Barr - part of her Anna Pigeon series, about a National Park ranger, this one is set in the French Quarter (where there's a National Historic Park). I haven't read it yet, but I plan to this year!
  • Mardi Gras Mourning by Julie Smith - I first read this back in the 90's and am rereading it now for the Mardi Gras Readathon on Booktube. It's a classic detective novel, set in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, so the setting and atmosphere are great!
  • The Book of Lost Friends by Lisa Wingate - outstanding historical fiction set in Loiuisiana, with a dual timeline in 1863 and 1987. It made my list of Top Ten Audios in 2023
  • The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is another excellent dual timeline historical novel, about twin sisters born in Louisiana. One moves to New Orleans and the other twin decides to "pass" as white and lives a very different life.
  • Horse by Geraldine Brooks - in this historical novel from one of my favorite authors, some of the story takes place in 1800's Louisiana.
Middle-Grade and Teen/YA Books Set In/About Louisiana:
  • Ruined by Paula Morris - a teen/YA mystery/ghost story set in New Orleans (the perfect setting for a ghost story!)
  • The Freedom Maze by Delia Sherman - a compelling middle-grade historical fiction adventure (with a touch of time travel), where a girl from 1960 travels back to 1860 Louisiana
  • Zane and the Hurricane by Rodman Philbrick - a middle-grade novel about Hurricane Katrina - powerful and gripping
  • Out of the Easy by Ruta Sepetys - most people are familiar with her two YA novels set during WWII (Between Shades of Gray and Salt to the Sea), but this historical novel is set in New Orleans in 1950

Movies & TV Shows
  • Chef  - a wonderful, uplifting movie about a family food truck that travels from Miami to LA, with a stop in New Orleans, of course! My favorite movie of the year in 2015.
  • NCIS: New Orleans - though it's a crime show, it includes many scenes of New Orleans, mention of local restaurants and landmarks, and other local tidbits, plus some great local music. They usually do a Mardi Gras episode once a season, for extra fun. It's streaming on Paramount Plus (which used to be CBS All Access).
  • Treme - we LOVED this HBO show, which we were somehow able to watch on cable at one point. You can see it now streaming on HBO Max or Hulu.
  • You can also check out some classic movies and modern classics with New Orleans settings, like A Streetcar Named Desire and The Big Easy.
  • Or tune in to watch parades and other scenes in New Orleans streaming live (or if you missed the parades, some great videos) at www.mardigras.com.
One of the locals in Louisiana
Travel
All this talk of Louisiana making you want to visit? I have written articles about visiting New Orleans  and Exploring Cajun Country - check them out and start planning your trip (plenty of food recommendations in both!). I'm certainly ready to go back!

Crawfish!

Eat, Drink, and Be Merry!
Notice that many of the books and movies about Louisiana are focused on FOOD? Yes, Louisiana - and especially New Orleans - is known for its amazing, unique food. This blog post on how to celebrate Mardi Gras includes my own recipes for some classic Louisiana dishes, plus food you can grab locally today and webcams where you can vicariously experience Mardi Gras - there are plenty of suggestions in this post that you can still manage to do between now and Tuesday. Or save it for later if you like - we eat this food all year round. 

NOTE that Zapp's potato chips - which you absolutely MUST try) have been bought out by PA-chip maker Utz, so you don't have to get them by mail-order anymore. We can now find them in local stores like Wawa here in Delaware or ordered on Amazon (Cajun Crawtator and Cajun Dill are the best flavors.)

 Laissez les bon temps rouler!

Me & my sons, about 10 years ago

Monday, February 12, 2024

It's Monday 2/12! What Are You Reading?

Hosted by The Book Date

Life

I'm off to a late start this morning, as I'm guessing is much of the U.S. I am normally in bed by 9:30 (reading, of course) and lights out by 10:30, so last night's Superbowl game going into overtime was a challenge! We had a very fun weekend of celebrations--there is so much going on this week! Our oldest friends came over Saturday to celebrate Mardi Gras (part 1--we'll go to their house tomorrow). The four of us all lived in New Orleans in the 80's; it's where we all met and became friends. So Mardi Gras is a big deal! I'm still on this carnivore diet (and my husband is now mostly keto), so most of the menu items at our favorite local New Orleans restaurant (lots of rice, bread, beans) were off-limits, but our friends got their food there, as well as some gumbo sans rice for us, and we contributed lots of steamed shrimp and Andouille sausage. It was all delicious, and we had our favorite New Orleans music playing, and videos of the latest parades. Lots of reminiscing and chatting, too!

Happy Mardi Gras!

Last night, another set of friends came over for Superbowl. We hadn't seen them since last Superbowl, so we really enjoyed catching up, eating good food, enjoying the commercials ... oh, yeah, and the game, too!

Mardi Gras & Superbowl celebrations!

Friends Over for Superbowl!

In between, I helped my friend more with her move (packing china Saturday and loading another friend's car for a Goodwill run). Yesterday was one of those days where I sat down in the morning to get a couple of easy things done ... and nothing went right! Downloading airline apps for our trip to Texas this week turned into an hour on the phone with customer service. And then trying to put the new password into my Excel password file turned into another customer service odyssey with Microsoft that I only just resolved this morning.  

Helping a Friend - Dumpster's Almost Full!

Beautiful View Saturday Near Home
 
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On the Blog

Movie Monday: Stillwater - my husband and I both enjoyed this movie, starring Matt Damon, that combines family drama, mystery/thriller, romance, and travel. Very moving story.

Teen/YA Review: I Am Not Alone by Francisco X. Stork - another excellent YA novel from Stork, about living with mental illness.

Fiction Review: Last Summer on State Street by Toya Wolfe - an outstanding pick for Black History Month, a coming-of-age story about four young girls growing up in a Chicago Housing project in 1999. This one deserves more attention!

__________

On Video

January Reading Wrap-Up - my summary of the 6 books I read last month--novels, nonfiction, memoir, audios, graphic novel, YA.

Friday Reads 2-9-24 - my quick weekly update of what I am currently reading

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 What We're Reading

I kicked off Black History Month right, reading Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, the highly acclaimed novel that everyone else has read except me! I'm almost finished now, and wow, this is such a remarkable, powerful novel! It begins in Ghana in the 1700's, with two half-sisters, Effia and Esi, who have never met and live in different villages, part of two separate (warring) empires, Fante and Asante. Effia marries a white British officer and moves to Cape Coast Castle (a real place), while Esi is captured and sold into slavery. From there, this incredible story follows Effia's and Esi's bloodlines through eight generations, from Africa to a Mississippi plantation through the Civil War and Harlem's Jazz Age to modern times. It's completely engrossing, and I am learning a lot about history that I'd never heard before. It's beautifully written, a stunning, epic story.

 

I started a new audio book last week, The Invisible Girls by Sarah Lebarge, a memoir and another very powerful story. Sarah was brought up in a very restrictive, religious environment. She got a Physician's Assistant degree and was engaged to a wealthy man when her life was decimated by a very aggressive breast cancer at age 26. After multiple surgeries, a double mastectomy, chemo, radiation, and a devastating break-up, she was left scarred both physically and emotionally. She moved to Portland, OR, to start over. Riding the train one day, she met an exhausted Ghanian mother with two small children. The little girls took to her, and she spoke with the mom and ended up visiting their apartment. That kicked off a very unique relationship between Sarah and this refugee single mother of five girls. Her abusive husband had left, the system was failing them, and the family was close to starvation. What followed was life-changing for the family and for Sarah. I worried this might be a sort of "white savior" story, but it's not like that at all. It's a beautiful, moving, compelling story of found family, hope, and connection. My only problem is that I didn't have the full audio download (it was a free download from SYNC, years ago)! It just quit last night, in the middle of a sentence, and I want to read the rest of it. My library doesn't have it, the Kindle edition is $10, and I probably only have a chapter or two left to go. Any ideas?

 

My husband, Ken, finished The Secret by Lee Child and Andrew Child, book 28 of the Jack Reacher series, my husband's all-time favorite! Now, he is reading Dark Ride by Lou Berney, author of November Road, which I gave my husband last year and he loved (it's now on my side of the TBR bookcase!). This new one is a thriller, and it sounds great. I know it's got a good sense of humor because my husband has been laughing out loud while reading it!

 

Our son, 29, finished reading book 2, Blade Breaker by Victoria Aveyard, book 2 in her Realm Breaker series,, that we gave him for Christmas. Now, he's reading The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buelhman, another gift from us! I heard about this one from Todd's Booktube, a channel that I follow by  young man who has very similar tastes in fantasy as my son. He's loving it so far and says it has a unique style and voice and is very well-written--another winner!

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What Are You Reading Monday is hosted by Kathryn at Book Date, so head over and check out her blog and join the Monday fun! You can also participate in a kid/teen/YA version hosted by Unleashing Readers.

You can follow me on Twitter at @SueBookByBook or on Facebook on my blog's page. 
 

What are you and your family reading this week? 

Friday, February 09, 2024

Fiction Review: Last Summer on State Street

I was looking through my long audio backlog for something to read for Black History Month when I found Last Summer on State Street by Toya Wolfe. I had, of course, chosen to download this 2022 release from the publisher's offerings, but I didn't remember hearing anything at all about it or hearing other readers mention it. It won the Chicago Writers Association Book of the Year award and was a finalist for the PEN Open Book Award. This beautifully written, poignant coming-of-age story deserves a lot more attention.

Twelve-year-old Felicia "Fe Fe" Stevens lives in a high-rise Chicago Housing project apartment building with her mother and older brother in 1999. She loves to play Double Dutch with her two best friends, Precious and Stacia. The three of them seem like an odd group of friends on the outside. Precious comes from a very religious family, and Stacia's mother is Queen-Pin of a local gang, Gangster Disciples, with all of her older siblings already involved in the violent, drug-dealing gang. Fe Fe's mom is trying desperately to protect her two children from all of that, though it's all around them. The family has a set routine whenever gunshots are heard--to get down low in the hallway of their little apartment, where there are no windows. In spite of the chaos around them, the three girls do their best to enjoy childhood, going to school, buying icy cool treats in summer, and playing jump rope in a lobby area of Fe Fe's floor (the playground is a known gang domain). Fe Fe has noticed a girl who recently moved to their building, Tonya, and one day invites her to join their games. They soon learn that Tonya's mom is a drug addict. The highlight of that summer is when Fe Fe's mom takes the four girls downtown to see the fireworks on the Fourth of July. Besides gang violence, the residents of their building have another fear. They know they will get kicked out soon, as the buildings in their project get emptied and demolished by the Chicago Housing Authority one at a time. The view of the empty building across the street is a constant reminder that their home is only temporary. Soon, the innocence of their childhood games and friendships is interrupted by gang violence, police violence, and the ever-present threat of losing their homes.

This debut author has been compared to Jacqueline Woodson, and I can definitely see the parallels to some of Woodson's coming-of-age novels set in Brooklyn. These young girls are wonderfully complex characters, each dealing with her own challenges. While the topics in this novel are certainly dark and disturbing, the girls' childhood innocence and joy (especially at the beginning) are a welcome contrast to their depressing surroundings. The author paints a nuanced picture of that place and time, though I realized that places exactly like this still exist and are often invisible, whole populations living amid terrible violence and the threat of losing their homes to gentrification. The audio production was outstanding and immersive, narrated by Shayna Small, making me feel as if Fe Fe herself was telling me her story. It is told from Fe Fe's perspective as an adult, so there is some hope throughout, as you know that she grows up and turns out fine. I was captivated by this moving, powerful coming-of-age story and still find myself thinking about Fe Fe and her friends, a week after finishing it.

224 pages, William Morrow Paperbacks

HarperAudio

This book fits in the following 2024 Reading Challenges:

 

Alphabet Soup Challenge - L

Diversity Challenge and February Mini Challenge: Black/African American

Literary Escapes Challenge - Illinois

 

Visit my YouTube Channel for more bookish fun!

 

Listen to a sample of the audiobook here and/or download it from Audible. The sample will give you an idea of how Fe Fe's telling her story will pull you in and the setting.

 

Or get this audiobook from Libro.fm and support local bookstores (audio sample here, too).

 

Print and e-book from Amazon.

 

You can buy the book through Bookshop.org, where your purchase will support the indie bookstore of your choice (or all indie bookstores)--the convenience of shopping online while still buying local!


    
  

Thursday, February 08, 2024

Teen/YA Review: I Am Not Alone

I'm a longtime fan of Francisco X. Stork, who wrote (my reviews at the links) Irises, Marcello in the Real World, The Memory of Light, Disappeared, and its sequel, Illegal. Like The Memory of Light, his latest novel,  I Am Not Alone, provides a realistic, enlightening picture of what it feels like to struggle with mental illness. I was engrossed by this excellent audio book.

Alberto is an undocumented older teen, living with his sister, Lupe, and her baby in Brooklyn. They live with Lupe's abusive boyfriend, Wayne. Alberto wants her to leave Wayne, but they rely on him and live in his apartment. Alberto works hard for Wayne, doing maintenance and repair work on the apartments he manages, and sends most of the money he earns back home to Mexico, to help support their family, including a sick sister. His real talent--and love--is for pottery. Lately, though, Alberto has begun to hear a man's voice talking to him, and it's saying disturbing things. It's not like thoughts in his head, but like a voice outside of him that no one else can hear. Even more strange is that it talks to him in English, while he still thinks mostly in Spanish. One day, Wayne sends Alberto to do a job in a nice apartment in another building, and he meets Grace. She is about his age but seems to have a perfect life. She's an excellent student, on track to be valedictorian and attend Princeton pre-med, and she has a wealthy, perfect-seeming boyfriend. Beneath the surface, though, Grace has been struggling ever since her parents' divorce. She's no longer sure about anything in her life or even if she's on the right path. Alberto and Grace meet that day and become friends, each confiding their fears to the other, as Alberto's voice gets more urgent, trying to force him to do terrible things, and harder to ignore.

As with all of Stork's novels, this one fully immerses the reader/listener in the characters' lives, here showing what it feels like to deal with the disturbing voices Alberto hears (which an author's note explains might be schizophrenia or any of several other mental illnesses). The topic is handled here with compassion, as are Grace's problems. Alberto's undocumented status is simply a fact here, that complicates his getting the help he needs, rather than a main subject. The two new friends find comfort and support in each other during difficult times for both of them. There is also plenty of suspense here, as Alberto starts to have memory black-outs and ends up running from the police who suspect him of a horrific crime. All of that tension, though, comes to a satisfying conclusion for both main characters. The audio production was excellent, with two narrators reading Alberto's and Grace's chapters. I was fully engaged in this moving, suspenseful story, and I learned a lot about mental illness.

(Another outstanding YA novel about this kind of mental illness is Challenger Deep by Neal Schusterman (my review at the link), based in part on the author's son's own experiences with schizoaffective disorder and accompanied by drawings from his son that show his declining mental health.)

320 pages, Scholastic

Scholastic Audio

This book fits in the following 2024 Reading Challenges:

 

Alphabet Soup Challenge - I

Diversity Challenge

Literary Escapes Challenge - New York

 

Visit my YouTube Channel for more bookish fun!

 

Listen to a sample of the audiobook here and/ordownload it from Audible. The sample is from the start of the novel and gives a great introduction to Alberto's life.

 

Or get this audiobook from Libro.fm and support local bookstores (same audio sample here, too).

 

Print and e-book from Amazon.

 

You can buy the book through Bookshop.org, where your purchase will support the indie bookstore of your choice (or all indie bookstores)--the convenience of shopping online while still buying local!