The Secrets of Lizzie Borden
The Secrets of Lizzie Borden explores the events leading up to and after the infamous murders of the Bordens.
This was one of the worst books I ever read. There was so much potential for this story. I went into it thinking I would get a glimpse of the character and psychology of Lizzie Borden and what would drive her to commit these murders. Instead it turned into a way for the author to spend over 350 pages describing in explicit detail the fetishes and unnatural desires of the main character. It is a fictional account based on a real person, but the way it was written with very little regard to the facts, I don’t know that you could even claim this as historical fiction. The murders and the trial took up maybe two or three pages, with the rest detailing her sexual deviance which did not even seem realistic considering the time period. I was so disappointed in the lack of character development. There was not one character that I could relate to or be even remotely interested in.
This quote from the book perfectly sums up how I feel, “nothing turned out the way I thought it would.”
One Cowrie Shell
Sparks’ One Cowrie Shell is a tragic coming-of-age story set amidst the backdrop of a terrible period in humanity’s near history. Jaiye is a member of the Yoruba tribe. He is on the cusp of manhood, tending his yam field, and dreaming of the woman he wants as his wife. Unfortunately for Jaiye, Kembi is already promised to another. It is the custom of the Yoruba that village elders arrange marriages. Kembi is promised to Ekun, and Akinya to Jaiye. Our young protagonist is very inquisitive and very stubborn. He is ready to go fight the neighboring Dahomey, as his people have done for as long as anyone can remember. He wants to turn prisoners over to the slave traders and earn cowrie shells. While merely pretty shells to the Europeans and Americans, cowrie shells serve a monetary value to the Yoruba and Dahomey.
Jaiye repeatedly insists, with the stubbornness teens anywhere can muster, that he will have Kembi for his wife. Despite the counsel and contrivances of his father, Jaiye will not let go of the foolish idea. He commits a terrible crime, earning him thirty cowries in blood money, and his actions lead to three villagers being taken away by slavers- Ekun, Kembi, and Jaiye’s little brother, Lekan. Jaiye embarks on a perilous journey to find them, crossing the ocean and stalking plantations like a panther in the dark, careful to stay out of sight. His journey takes him up and down the U.S. coast, across the sea to England, and back home to the Yoruba.
Though Jaiye learns of all three who were taken, not one of them makes the journey back home with him. Jaiye returns with a wealth of knowledge, though. He is the first to travel to ’the other world,’ and returned to tell of it. He has seen the atrocities inflicted on the slaves–the beatings, the rapes, the senseless killings. Jaiye has a new mission in life, albeit, perhaps a somewhat futile one. He wants to stop the fighting between Yoruba and Dahomey for good, something easier said than done. Jaiye goes from being g a self-absorbed child, for the most part, to a somewhat respectable man.
Fun stuff: I am an anthropologist by schooling, if not active practice, and I loved the glimpses of Yoruba culture and history. These details seem accurate so far as my knowledge goes. This region/cultural milieu isn’t my forte, but I am now interested in learning more. The details of slave trading, and this era of slavery, were an accurate reminder of a harsh and senselessly heartbreaking period. One particular point of interest for me was the funerary customs of the Yoruba and the superstitions regarding daytime burials, such as the spirit seeing their shadow and retaliate against the living.
Jaiye slowly learned valuable lessons, such as the Yoruba and Dahomey should stop fighting and sending people to the slavers, and that the loss of dignity suffered by captives of either side has no monetary value. I was particularly touched when Jaiye found Ekun and came to the realization that Ekun had seen him as a friend, not a competitor. Jaiye began to realize the harsh consequences of his actions in relation to what happened to Lekan, Kembi, and Ekun, which were horrific events even hearing about them ‘second-hand.’
Not so fun stuff: the writing seemed very simplistic at times. There was a good deal of telling, when showing would have been more engaging. Some of the dialogue, and other phrasing, seems stilted. It comes across as forced and unrealistic. There were also descriptions of daily activity that is random and, while interesting, not relevant to the story.
I would strongly recommend a professional editing round to help strengthen and tighten the writing. There is a good deal of unnecessary repetition that could be phrased differently, implied in different ways, or eliminated altogether. Point: Jaiye’s father reiterating numerous times that Akinya will be his wife; she is the one chosen for him, and it cannot be changed. Jaiye needs a smart Gibbs smack to the back of the head. His poor da has patience to put a saint to shame.
Another issue that cropped up often were places where quote marks were missing or where they are present and should not be. Tense bounced back and forth from present to past in same paragraph, sometimes even same sentence. Occasionally, type switched to italics for no apparent reason, which jarred me from the story as I attempted to suss out why the change had been made.
This story has a lot of potential, and Sparks could take it so much further. There’s certainly room for Sparks to bloom as an author. I hope to see an edited, cleaned-up second edition of One Cowrie Shell in the future! I will happily adjust my rating accordingly, and I do intend to keep a weather eye out for new works by the author.
String’s Cross is a difficult book to describe. It reads like a family history, with String’s grandparents arriving in America, then the story of his parents, then of himself. In the middle of String’s narrative, the “me” of the narrator enters, and continues in, a back and forth style for the remainder of the story. Part family history, part social and religious satire, this is an atypical history that goes from fruit ranching to the wild west of early computing, with family, religion, and a sense of aging and times gone by underlying the narrative.
The best word to describe this book is ambitious. It does a lot of things, goes in many directions, somehow manages to link flappers and computers, masturbation with Jesus, and pulls it off to a greater or lesser extent. It has a strong voice and is vividly descriptive in places, but can jarring as well, especially after Essen begins to interject his personal narrative into the story, telling both it and String’s. While these asides can be read as satire, it’s also distracting, especially when combined with the wandering narrative. The narrative itself is also problematic. For the most part, it remains linear and contains lots of little tensions, but it lacks one overarching tension to draw the whole story together. This is very much a text that will depend on what readers bring to it. In some ways, it’s a quaint novel about a family as it experiences the twentieth century. Yet there’s also an air of dysfunction, unhappiness, and religiosity that may not sit well with other readers.
One line that stands out is about Grandma Caroline, a very proper, stoic German woman, who never said much about the old country she came from, except how when asked why she came to America, replied, “I didn’t wish to eat any more brown bread.” Likewise, this book is equally enigmatic, with aspects that can be appreciated and others that remains downright puzzling.
The Renegade Queen
Victoria Claflin is a woman for the ages: this would be true except for the fact that her role in history, if not women’s history, hadn’t been sanitized, or even scrubbed out. She is at the forefront of the women’s suffrage movement along with the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. But this is getting ahead of the book at hand, The Renegade Queen. Our protagonist is the sixth of ten children, conceived in a tent during a revival. She is given the gift of clairvoyance, yet exploited and abused by her huckster pimp father. She is seen as the Sybil of the Midwest. Her wretched future is derailed by the seeming good nature of Canning Woodhull, who frees her from the captivity of her abusive father. Victoria marries the dashing Canning and immerses herself in the anti-slavery movement, but is subject to the drudgery of her new husband’s drinking and womanizing. She sees parallels between the move for freedom of African Americans and women in the United States. She also equates the handicap of her son with her husband’s lust for drink. Victoria throws herself fully into the woman’s equality movement along with her sister Tennessee. They are iconoclasts who are not willing to tread lightly in their path towards the vote, but will burn every bridge if necessary. That is what ultimately sets them apart from those in the history books.
Eva Flynn’s work is powerful in its portrayal of a renegade suffragette. Victoria Woodhull is a multifaceted character who evokes empathy, the occasional laugh, and ultimately sympathy for the plight of the hardworking woman. Victoria is not your conventional heroine, but in this time of the United States, conventions mattered little.
Whitehall (Season 1 Episode 1): “Embarkations”
The stage is set for a royal alliance between England and Portugal through the marriage of England’s Charles II, who has just regained the throne, and Infanta Catarina (Catherine) of Portugal. Catherine comes to England to marry Charles, but also to seal the alliance with the promise of a hefty dowry. Before the union takes place, sacrifices must be made by both royals – Princess Catherine: her home and family; King Charles: his open debauchery, or, one would think. Questions hang in the air scented with the perfume of a mistress who has no plans of giving up her place ‘pleasing’ the King. There are and will be secrets. The question remains: are there ever such things as well kept secrets? We shall see.
Whitehall, published by Serial Box, delivers what looks to be another multi-episode storyline that will keep readers coming back for more week after week. The season opener introduces main players such as Charles II, the King’s mistress Barbara Palmer – the Countess of Castlemaine, future queen of England Infanta Catarina (Catherine) of Braganza of Portugal, and many more. Set during a time of reformation in England – where scandal lurks around every corner – this historical fiction serial has definitely started off on the right foot.
Read our other episode reviews of Whitehall.
The Weekend Warriors
The story setting is the 1980s, the Cold War dragging to a close. However, it’s not over yet. The Soviet Union is increasingly engaging with NATO countries, Russian planes invading U.S. airspace and moving into an unprepared peacetime Germany. The Americans have had enough, and family man Mike Fitzmaurice of Boston finds himself mobilized overnight. He commands a unit headed for Germany, a group of civilians who trained but never really expected to go to war. They are “weekend warriors,” forced to pull together limited resources and face battle against a professional Russian military hardened by years of war in Afghanistan.
One of the strongest parts of this novel is the battle scenes, which move from the grand scale of an airstrike and then into the intimate point of view of the soldiers on the ground scrambling to learn their trade on the fly. They rise to the occasion in such scenes as a corporate executive finding a use for her Russian language skills. Just as strong are the personal relationships that develop between characters whose lives depend on each other. In a subplot, Fitzmaurice’s wife Elizabeth, a surgeon in Boston, finds herself treating Mike’s fallen comrades. Some parts of the book could use attention, such as the frequent use of unfamiliar military jargon. I interpreted this language by context as much as possible and then when finished with the novel found the glossary in the back. A better way to handle such terminology is to incorporate the definition in the text itself, through interior and exterior dialogue, rather than the reader constantly referring to a glossary and being taken out of the story. The story doesn’t grab interest initially, as the first scenes are told from an omniscient narrator or through memos and announcements—at times the narrator seems to be the announcement itself. However, once the story moves into Michael Fitzmaurice’s point of view, the reader is hooked in the desire to find out if this weekend warrior and his rag-tag team will prevail.