The Afterlife of Stars
The Afterlife of Stars by Joseph Kertes was a very unusual book and hard to get into. The subject matter—the flight of people fleeing the Russian invasion of Budapest against the Hungarian Revolution—was a very intense topic, but that was not the cause of concern. The difficulty of reading this book was from the syntax of the language style. I’m unsure if this book was translated or if it was meant to represent the sporadic pattern of a normal thought process, but either way this book read very strangely. At first, it was the odd way of counting age (“I turned 9.8” or “he was 13.7,” for example), but as I continued reading I was given a very strange sense of unusual family behavior. The interactions with the main character’s older brother always seemed a bit…incestuous. From asking his brother if he wants to see him make semen to the overly affectionate pet names (“my lambkin,” “my one true love,” “my tender love,” etc). It gave a very creepy overtone to the older brother that I was just unable to shake. The book was decent, but the language was very difficult for me personally.
Little, Brown and Company
House of Eight Orchids
Thayer’s House of 8 Orchids was engaging straight from the beginning, with swift pacing and very detailed description that made it feel like being there. I was hooked from the start.
Orchids follows the story of John Yellow Hair, and his brother William. At very young ages, they were kidnapped in China, and raised by Eunuch Chang to serve in criminal enterprises. John grows to become one of Chang’s most valued assassins/enforcers, while his brother is a master forger. All that changes when John is forced to choose between loyalty to his brother or loyalty to his kidnapper. John chooses blood over bond and attempts to help his brother escape, after William tries to flee with a young lady sold into slavery, and is subsequently caught and punished.. On the same day John and William flee, Chungking is attacked by the Japanese, creating chaos, and separating the two brothers. William and Lily, the girl he was trying to aid, are captured by another criminal, and sold along the Yangtze. John coerces the help of some unusual people (and a creepy gigantic hound) and sets off to find William, and get revenge, all the while trying to avoid those Chang sends after him.
This is a historical thriller, set in late 1930s China. I cannot vouch for full historical accuracy, but there were things I recognised as being so, and there is certainly a feel of authenticity. The bombing aftermath brought the feeling of numbed terror alive. This part was my favourite, in terms of vivid description. Another thing that stuck out to me was Madame Tuon and her feet. I do know foot-binding was a custom once practised in China. I cannot at all imagine having my feet bound like that, and needing the assistance of others to walk. I’m now interested in learning more of this odd, archaic custom, how it evolved, and better yet, *why*.
If you enjoy a good thriller, especially of the historic variety, be sure to check out House of 8 Orchids by James Thayer. This book will keep you reading till the midnight hours!
Arcadian Nights: The Greek Myths Reimagined
The Greek myths are ones that have been told thousands of times in every form and to varying levels of degree. Yet, I can never seem to keep myself from reaching for them and devouring page after page. My absolute favorite is The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller and now there’s Arcadian Nights.
Arcadian Nights is somehow, miraculously, approached differently than the other retellings of myths I’ve read. Author John Spurling draws from his own experiences in Greece to give the reader a sense of the modern country and the land that is very much still Greece from the soil to the olive groves it nourishes, from the seas to the ships they stock with fish. At the same time, however, his focus remains on the myths. Spurling approaches these stories with the tone of an authoritative historian, but his third person narration offers the read a glimmer of the fantastical nature the myths are known for. Inventing dialogue to ease emotional responses into the narration and offering the classic characters with relatable motivations, Spurling’s writing promises to keep even the most well-read mythology lovers intrigued.
I love any telling that is able to bring these characters back to life, but I’m finding more and more now that any great departure from the traditional tellings of the myths is enough to get me to close the book. Spurling walks that tightrope between not transforming the characters enough and tampering with the authenticity and offers the reader a well-balanced collection of myths that hovers nearer the realistic side of the spectrum than Homer and Aeschylus may have endorsed, but it is nonetheless well tailored to a modern audience.
Where My Heart Used to Beat: A Novel
Robert Hendricks’ father died at a young age, leaving Hendricks with his mother “who feared the worst” and a mentally-ill uncle. While serving in World War II, Hendricks was injured but cannot remember what occurred. At the same time, he met and lost the great love of his life, never to form another close attachment. By the novel’s opening in London in the 1980s, however, Hendricks has become a successful psychiatrist and author, although he feels a sense of disconnection. One day, Hendricks receives an unexpected invitation to visit a neurologist living on an island of France who knew Hendricks’ father and admires Hendricks’s work. This doctor encourages Hendricks delve into his past, but to what conclusion?
In Where My Heart Used to Beat, Sebastian Faulks explores complex themes as Hendricks draws out his past: memory and its basis, mental illness, the value of human consciousness, role of love, and the damage inflicted on the human psyche by modern warfare are but a start. This novel is wonderfully satisfying because Faulk provides the reader with substantial food for thought in a story that will remain with the reader long after finishing the final page.
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.
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.