THE NIGHTINGALE

nightingale

The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah

★★★★

Well I have found the first book that made me cry in 2016. I’m actually a relatively stoic reader (or so I like to think) but this book just gutted me.

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UNDER A PAINTED SKY.

painted sky

Under a Painted Sky by Stacey Lee

★★★

I think this book had the misfortune of following These Shallow Graves, one of my favorite books of the year. I definitely had a bit of a book hangover, and maybe that hampered my enjoyment of Under a Painted Sky. But I just never felt like this book got to where it wanted to go.

Missouri,1849. Sammy is a Chinese-American girl who dreams of becoming a professional violinist. But when a double-helping of tragedy strikes, she finds herself orphaned and wanted for murder. Seeing no other options, she takes off on the Oregon Trail with Annamae, an escaped slave. The Oregon Trail is no place for two young women, so Sammy and Annamae go undercover as two young argonauts seeking their fortune out west.

My favorite thing about this book was that it features a strong female friendship. Sammy and Annamae build a beautiful bond together as they both escape the demons of their pasts. I really grew to love both of their characters — especially clever and headstrong Annamae. She was a perfect foil to the more introspective Sammy. Even when romance entered into the picture, Lee was careful to make sure the true focus of the novel remained on the relationship between Sammy and Annamae. I loved that.

The author, Stacey Lee, is one of the founders of #WeNeedDiverseBooks, and I so appreciated the diversity of this novel. Sammy is proudly and unapologetically Chinese, and many of her conversations and inner monologues are peppered with cultural references — it’s educational but not at all didactic. Annamae, too, is proud of her heritage and does not allow herself to be bullied or harassed by racists. I wish all books embraced diversity as much as this one did.

I thought the plot was lacking. The book gets off to such an exciting start, but after Sammy and Annamae hit the trail, it all kind of drags on. They meet the hot cowboys who take them under their wing, and then there’s like a hundred pages of cowboy lessons (roping, hunting, etc), sing-a-longs, and mild sexual tension. There’s a lot about horses and hunting and fishing. I kept waiting for the Big Climax or Shocking Conflict but it never really materialized. It was just kind of a fun cowboy story, which isn’t a bad thing at all, but it didn’t hold my interest.

The writing itself is very beautiful. Stacey Lee paints the landscape of the wild west expertly. It’s definitely atmospheric, and it was really easy to picture myself sitting around the campfire with this band of cowboys. She’s a great descriptive writer. One of my favorite descriptions:

I never heard someone call the sky painted before, but it’s the perfect word. Clouds outlined in gold streak across the firmament, casting uneven shadows over the landscape.

It’s definitely not a bad book — I think this could’ve been a four-star read if I hadn’t just finished an almost-perfect historical novel. But the plot was too unstructured, and by the 3/4ths mark, reading it kind of felt like a chore.

THESE SHALLOW GRAVES.

These Shallow Graves by Jennifer Donnelly

★★★★★

“‘If you’re going to bury the past, bury it deep, girl. Shallow graves always give up their dead.”

I’ve been giving out so many two- and three-star rating recently that I was starting to worry that maybe I was getting a wee bit too picky with my ratings. Were my expectations too high?

Then I came across ‘These Shallow Graves’ by Jennifer Donnelly on NetGalley. I had neve read anythoung by Ms. Donnelly before, and I went in with basically no expectations – I read the blurb and thought it sounded interesting. When I started to read it, though, it completely knocked my socks off. It reminded me that YES, there are five-star books out there, you just have to be lucky enough to cross paths with them.

Josephine is a Montfort. A member of a well-to-do family that made its fortune in the shipping industry in the 1800s. Not much is expected of Jo. She’s just supposed to complete finishing school and accept the proposal of Abraham Aldrich. A life of luxury and privileged awaits her. But Josephine isn’t satisfied with the confining path that she is expected to walk.

“The glittering ball, Jo realized, was a symbol for her life. Everything was lovely and perfect as long as each person knew the steps and executed them. The women must only ever watch and wait. The men were the ones who would decide. They would choose. They would lead. And the woman would follow. Tonight and forevermore.”

Jo harbors a secret desire to be become a newspaper reporter like her idol, Nellie Bly. Bly famously posed as a mentally imbalanced woman so she could report on the injustices woman face in insane asylums. Jo, too, wants to draw back New York’s gilded curtain to unveil the ugly truths lurking underneath the surface.

Then, tragedy strikes. Jo’s kindly father, Charles Montfort, unintentionally shoots himself while cleaning his pistol. But as Josephine hears more and more about her father’s tragic accident, she becomes suspicious of the circumstances surrounding his death. Would her father really be foolish enough to clean a loaded gun? Perhaps Jo isn’t the only Montfort with a secret.

What follows next is a compelling mystery as Josephine enlists the help of a handsome local reporter to uncover the mystery of her father’s death. The plot moves along at breakneck pace, so even though the book is 500 pages long, it didn’t drag for a minute. I would have happily read another two hundred pages of Josephine’s adventure. The adventure is filled with colorful characters, atmospheric depictions of New York’s seedy underbelly, and a healthy dose of both friendship and romance.

Josephine is one of my favorite characters in recent memory. She is determined and brave, often chafing against what society expects of her. Still, her level of rebellion feels appropriate for the time period. She’s been so sheltered for so long that she’s still clueless about a lot of ways the world works, with often funny and touching results. She’s courageous and flawed and a wonderful voice through which to experience the novel.

“‘Headstrong girls always end badly,’ Katie said now.
“‘Headstrong is just a word, Katie — a word other s call you when you don’t do what they want,’ Jo said.”

The feminism in this book is so refreshing. As a wealthy young woman, Josephine struggles against the expectation that she marry well and then shut up. But the book also looks at what life was like for women from all walks of life in the 1890s (hint: it wasn’t great). There’s also a lot of strong and courageous female characters and powerful female friendship between Jo and a notorious pickpocket, Fay. Josephine and Fay, from two entirely different social classes, both long for the same thing — freedom. Freedom to do and be whoever they want.

He’d assumed she was a prostitute simply because she was walking on her own in the city at night. Men could walk the city at night and no one thought the worse of them, but a woman walking alone…that was scandalous enough to get oneself labeled as a prostitute.

The romance was kind of perfect. I’m not big on romance in books, but Jo and Eddie develop a very sweet and understated relationship. It’s a slow-burn (a nice change from all the insta-love on the market), and their attraction is deepened by mutual respect and collaboration. I might have even swooned. But I also love that Eddie’s love does not lessen Josephine’s own development. At the end of the day, she is her own heroine.

I could honestly write another ten paragraphs about how much I loved this book, but I think I’ve made my opinion clear. This book will stay with me for a long time.

“This is the best thing, Jo. The city stretched out before you, glittering like a sack of diamonds. Yours for the taking. A drink and a smoke and no one to please but yourself. Freedom. That’s my answer. The freedom to be your own best thing.”

YONAHLOSSEE RIDING CAMP FOR GIRLS.

The YONAHLOSSEE RIDING CAMP FOR GIRLS by Anton DiSclafani

★★★

Full disclose: I read this book in June 2013, and it was instrumental in my reading renaissance. I didn’t blog back then, so this is a review from the archives. I wrote this right after finishing my finals in my junior year of college, and I think it maintained a little too much of an academic style.

Thea Atwell is a young girl who is sent away from her native Florida to Yonahlosse Riding Camp in North Carolina following her role in a family tragedy. She is originally resistant to life at Yonahlosse, but soon settles in and begins to adjust to life at camp. It’s an entertaining read, but definitely left me unsatisfied by the ending.

The plot spans about a year in Thea’s life. It alternates between Thea’s life at Yonahlosse and the story of what put her there in the first place, which is a style I really like, and I think it worked well for this kind of story. It was frustrating to not know the true reason Thea got sent to camp until about 2/3rds through the book, but it kept me reading fast.

Her life at Yonahlosse is often lackluster, and the story lacks a sense of flow. Time jolts around, characters are introduced and never mentioned again, two months pass and nothing really changes. I found myself waiting for the chapters about her past, which were much more interesting to me.

Thea is not a particularly likable character to me. One of the reasons she is sent to Yonahlosse is because she’s never been around girls her own age before. As a result, she has a hard time connecting and empathizing with them. She is headstrong and independent, but also careless of other peoples’ feelings. She adores horses, but is oddly okay with losing her childhood pony (“I was outgrowing him anyway”). DiSclafani tells us (over and over again) that Thea is so good at putting unpleasant memories out of her mind, and this has the effect of making it seem as if Thea never really bares the full weight of the emotional consequences of her actions. She does take a step towards the end of the book to save her friend, which is beautifully done and quite noble, but it also lined up with the course of action she was already planning on taking. Everything she did came off as quite self-serving, regardless of the feelings of others. The only characters I felt were really well-developed and likable were Thea’s twin brother, Sam, and her best friend at Yonahlosse, Sissy. But while these two characters are important in the first chapters of the novel, their stories end up being footnotes as Thea gets more involved in a doomed romance with an older man.

DiSclafani is a talented, lyrical writer. Her style reminds me a bit of Curtis Sittenfield, from whom there is a blurb on the book’s cover, and a thank you in the acknowledgements. DiSclafani is an experienced horseback rider herself, and her knowledge and love of horses came across nicely in Yonahlosse. DiSclafani describes the scenery of the North Carolina mountains beautifully, as well as the fields and orange grove of Florida. Sometimes the descriptions take over the actual action of the story, however, which left the book feeling exhausting and too long.

My biggest problems overall with the book was the ending (this will be spoiler-free). The ways in which Thea acts towards the end of the book emphasized how static her character had been over the course of the book. She behaves in the same way, treats people the same way, and generally uses the same ideas to rationalize her behavior as she did at the start of the novel. The end pages detail the rest of her life, as well as that of her family, and its frankly depressing and disheartening. It’s a sour note on which to end the book.

Overall, it’s not a great book, but I found it entertaining. A couple of other reviews mentioned that it was “unfinishable” to them, but I actually thought the last third of the book went really fast, if only because I was eager to have Thea pay some kind of consequences for her actions. If you love horses or are familiar with the story’s Southern settings, I think you will enjoy this book significantly more. Many parts of the book are well-thought out and nicely woven, but the overall plot and character development left me looking for much more.

THE INVENTION OF WINGS.

suemonkkidd

★★★★

A well-researched, beautifully written story of real-life abolitionist Sarah Grimke’s lifelong quest for racial and gender equality. It is told parallel to the (fictionalized) story of her slave, Handful, who refuses to allow her mind to be enslaved even if her body is. It follow both women from the ages of eleven through fifty as their lives grow together, apart, and back together again.

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