Women Talking

Rating: 
Author: Miriam Toews
Genres: Fiction, Historical fiction
Pub Date: Aug. 2018 (read Aug. 2018)

How do I review this book? It’s just so damn important and something everyone should read.

I saw Women Talking on display at Chapters and as soon as I opened it up and read the forward, I knew I had to read it (plus I’ve been walking to read some Miriam Toews). Women Talking is a fictional account of the real life crimes committed against mennonite Bolivian women. Between 2005 and 2009, in a remote Bolivian community, women were repeatedly waking up having been attacked in the middle of the night. The attacks were attributed to demons punishing the women for their sins, but it was later discovered 8 men were sneaking in the the rooms of women all over the village, knocking them out with an animal aesthetic, and then raping them. Horrifying.

Women Talking focuses on some of the victims of these attacks, women from 3 generations of the Loewen and Friesen families. The rapists have been jailed in a nearby town and the rest of the men in the community have taken livestock to the town to try and sell to post their bail money. While the men are away, 8 women of the Loewen and Friesen families call a meeting (on behalf of all the women) to discuss what to do. When the men return home, the women will be called upon to forgive them, so as they see it, they have 3 choices:

1. Do Nothing
2. Stay and Fight
3. Leave

The entire novel consists of these women talking through these 3 choices and deciding on a course of action, and boy are their conversations illuminating. They discuss many philosophical questions about what each of these choices means and how their village got to this point. Some of the women are hurt, some of them are angry, and some of them are afraid. But while this is an upsetting story, it is also filled with love and even humour. The novel is only a short 200 pages, but I loved getting to know each of these women, watching them talk and relate with each other, share experiences, and share laughter. It is a brilliantly written novel and such a thought provoking piece of fiction. This book matters. Women matter.

There was so much of this book that I loved that it’s hard to pinpoint specific pieces. But one part I found particularly striking was when one of the women (can’t remember who… Ona maybe?) voices that maybe they should consider a 4th choice: asking the men to leave. It’s such an obvious solution. Absolutely the men should be the ones to leave. They are the ones that have violated and torn their community apart, they should no longer be permitted to participate in community life. But the option never really catches any traction with the women and they even openly laugh at it because it really is an outlandish idea to think that the men would consider leaving or even that the rest of the men and community would support the women in forcing these men to leave. It’s a sad truth, but these women understood (and I’m sure most other women do to), that even though it was the option that made the most sense, it would never really be an option.

I don’t want to give too much away about the book, so I’ll just say, please please please go to the library or the bookstore and pick yourself up a copy of this book!

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The Map of Salt and Stars

Rating: ⭐⭐.5
Author: Jennifer Zeynab Joukhadar
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub date: May 2018 (read July 2018)

The Map of Salt and Stars is another one of those books that I wanted to love, but I just didn’t. Books like this are super important, so it’s hard to give them a bad review because I’m really glad that someone has written a split modern day/historical story about Syria. But unfortunately this novel just didn’t work for me at all.

The Map of Salt and Stars tells two stories simultaneously. The first is about Nour, an eleven year old Syrian-American who grew up in America, but whose family has just returned to Syria only to be bombed out of their house and forced to flee the country. The second story is set 800 years in the past and features a young girl Rawiya, who seeks her fortune as a map maker with the famous (and real-life person) Al-Idrisi.

Everything about this synopsis seems like a story that I would absolutely love, but the writing and characters both fell flat to me. I thought the relationships between Nour and her mother and sisters were underdeveloped and the story of Rawiya and Al-Idrisi was not engaging. I was a little more interested when I realized that Al-Idrisi was a real person, but even though Rawiya’s part of the story includes fantastical elements, it was really boring to read and I was disappointed every time the chapters switched because I didn’t want to go back to reading about her.

Likewise, Nour’s story had the potential to be super interesting, but I thought there were a lot of really weak and clumsy metaphors interspersed throughout the story and I wanted more developed relationships between all of the characters. Both stories are progressing on a road trip of sorts that align with one another, but I was never really sure what the point of pairing these two stories together was. I thought the whole secret map metaphor between Nour and her mother was laboured and ineffective. I feel like either of these stories could have been a standalone, but together neither was developed enough to really work.

I do applaud the author for what she tried to accomplish in this book and I think she has some great ideas, she just needs to keep writing and developing them into something stronger than what this book had to offer.

Rust & Stardust

Rating: ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Author:
T. Greenwood
Genres: Historical Fiction, True Crime
Pub Date: Aug. 7th, 2018 (read July 2018)

Thank you to NetGalley and St. Martin’s Press for providing me with a free electronic copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

I got an ARC of Rust & Stardust a while ago, but I was never really in the mood to read it, so I kept postponing. But I finally started it last week and totally powered through it in 3 days.

As is my style, I knew very little about this book going in, except that it was about the true crime that inspired Nabokov’s classic, Lolita. Disclaimer: I haven’t read Lolita, so I’m not really sure what intrigued me so much about this one, but I’m glad I requested it because it was a really interesting fictional account, based on the true kidnapping of 11 year old Sally Horner.

Rust & Stardust features a series of narrators from Sally’s family and from individuals that crossed paths with Sally during her kidnapping, but it is predominantly narrated by Sally herself. I don’t often like child narrators that much, but I thought Sally’s voice in this book, and Greenwood’s style of writing, we’re perfect for this time setting and plot. Sally reads a copy of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn throughout this story (one of my personal favourite books), and I thought that the writing and narration style were very similar to Betty Smith’s classic and I thought it was such a fitting comparison to have Sally relate to Francie’s experience.

For some context, this story starts when Sally gets caught trying to shoplift a notebook by Mr. Warner, a customer in the store. However, he convinces Sally that he actually works for the FBI and that she is in big trouble for trying to steal. He essentially blackmails her into coming to Atlantic City with him so that she can clear her name before a judge and convinces her she needs to keep this shame secret from her mother and sister.

What follows is 2 years of captivity for Sally at the hands of the perverted Mr. Warner (Frank La Salle in real life). While her family is desperate to find her and slowly starts to fall apart in her absence, Sally is coming of age in extremely horrifying and abusive circumstances. Her kidnapping is pretty horrifying, but I appreciated the author for not being overly graphic in her descriptions. I thought the author totally nailed Sally’s voice. As the reader, you just want to rage at Mr. Warner, but you can also understand Sally’s confusion at the turn of events, her inner guilt and shame at what she’s done and what’s been done to her, and how her thoughts get so turned around by Mr. Warner’s constant gaslighting.

In reality, almost all of this story is fabricated, but the bones of the novel are based on true events. It is mostly unknown what actually happened between Sally and Frank La Salle during the 2 years of her captivity, but Greenwood has appropriately conveyed how evil Frank La Salle is (even if some of the events are fabricated). He was a character that made me so mad, mostly because of how he mentally abuses and gaslights Sally throughout the entirety of the book. He is so manipulative and aside from physically abusing her, he really gets inside her head and makes her question everything about her family and the world. It was so heartbreaking to watch a young girl have to come of age (something that can be traumatizing enough for an 11 year old) without her mother and sister for support.

There’s also a whole side story going on with Sally’s mother, Ella, and her sister and husband, Susan and Al. I didn’t find the side plot as compelling as Sally’s story, but it did add an interesting dimension to the story.

Mostly I just liked that I learned something new from this book, and my enjoyment was greatly aided by Sally’s voice in this novel. I thought the writing fit the time period perfectly. I felt like I had been transported to 1950 and even though I thought the writing was told in a slightly detached kind of way, it conveyed so well Sally’s horror and confusion and how a single event can compound and become unimaginably bad and seemingly insurmountable without proper emotional support.

A good (but upsetting) read, I liked this a lot more than anticipated.

Bright We Burn

Rating: 
Author: Kiersten White
Genres: Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Pub Date: Jul. 10, 2018 (read Jul. 2018)

An excellent conclusion to a fantastic series! I gotta say, the cover art for this finale is super odd and seemingly unrelated, I have no idea why they picked a pomegranate, but whatever because Kiersten White is awesome!

I really liked the first two books in this series. They are bloody and brutal and so so much fun to read. This is basically re-imagined history with Vlad the Impaler as a teenager girl and centers around her relationship with her younger brother, Radu, and their friend, Mehmed the Conqueror. Essentially, Lada and Radu were taken hostage by the Ottoman Empire as children and developed a relationship with Mehmed. They all eventually go their own ways, with Mehmed and Lada chasing after power, while Radu gets stuck in the middle, conflicted by his growing feelings for Mehmed and his love and reverence for his sister.

In this epic conclusion, Mehmed has taken the city of Constantinople and Lada has taken the Wallachian throne. In an effort to protect her people, she goes on a bloody rampage through Bulgaria, attracting the attention of the Ottomans. Though Mehmed loves her, he cannot let her insolence stand and asks Radu to aid him in meeting Lada in war.

I admit, I remembered the general gist of the last two books, but I forgot who a lot of these characters were outside of the core 3. I have always loved Lada’s character, but this book was all about Radu for me. It kind of reminded me of Lord of the Rings a little bit where you think Frodo is the protagonist of the story, but really Tolkien had always intended Sam to be the hero of the story. I feel like I was always so focused on how insane Lada is that I totally missed out on what a hero Radu is in this trilogy! Lada and Mehmed are so focused on power and will do and hurt anyone to get it, while Radu’s strength comes from his unending kindness and heavy conscience.

I don’t have a whole lot to say about the conclusion. It’s just as political as the first two, but also just as bloody. It is incredibly heartbreaking, but it also has a very satisfying conclusion. I would definitely recommend and could see myself binge reading this entire series again in the future.

I Was Anastasia

Rating: 
Author: Ariel Lawhorn
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub Date: Mar. 2018 (read June 2018)

I had pretty high expectations of this book and unfortunately it just did not live up to them. Anastasia was pretty much my favourite animated film growing up (even though it is not at all historically accurate) and I was super excited to read a whole book about the lost princess. Plus this book had the added intrigue of being written from two contrasting timelines.

I was Anastasia tells the story of the Romanov’s from two points of view. The first is from the POV of the Grand Duchess Anastasia, commencing at the Russian Revolution and leading towards the execution of the entire Romanov family. The second point of view is from a woman going under the name of Anna Anderson who claims to be the princess Anastasia. Anna’s story is told backwards, starting near the end of her life and chronicling her lifelong struggle to be formally recognized as the Grand Duchess.

I was super excited about the structure of this book, but it ended up not working for me at all. It’s a really interesting concept to tell a story backwards and I was definitely intrigued, but I felt it was very poorly executed. There were way too many names and dates and the timeline was constantly changing, so it was extremely difficult to keep track of what was happening and I eventually gave up. Plus the author would constantly end chapters on cliffhangers, but because the story was being told backwards, you would never re-visit that part of the story and it made everything feel very disjointed and de-valued the story because you were constantly meeting characters that only mattered for a chapter or two. It made character development very difficult and Anna Anderson a pretty unlikable character. Because I found her story difficult to follow, I was really only interested in Anastasia’s timeline and would dread every time I had to switch back to Anna (although to be honest, Anastasia’s story started dragging a little bit towards the end as well.)

There were still parts of this story I found interesting though. I’m going to talk about them below, but if you’re still interested in reading the book, than I would suggest not reading any further and not doing any prior research on the Romanov’s – just read the book. This has the potential to be an interesting read if you go into blind because of the way the author has written the story. So be aware that there are spoilers below and you shouldn’t read any further if you’re still planning to read this book.

So what I did like about this book is that I didn’t know Anna Anderson was actually a real person and this is where I think most of the enjoyment of this novel came from. I thought Anna was an entirely made up character and that the author was telling a fictional story to let us decide whether or not we thought Anna Anderson was actually Anastasia. I think this is the greatest strength of the book and I appreciated the authors note because she tells a story that makes you want to believe that Anna is actually Anastasia.

What I didn’t realize is that Anna Anderson is actually a real person and most of what is written in this novel about her is based on true events. Because there was so much secrecy surrounding the deaths of the Romanov’s, there was a great myth that maybe the youngest daughter had survived. There were many Anastasia impostors over the years, especially when it became known about the great wealth the Romanov’s had stored in the Bank of England. However, Anna Anderson is the most famous Anastasia impostor and she does deserve credit for keeping Anastasia and the Romanov’s legacy alive for many many years. She claimed to be Anastasia for over 50 years and had many supporters, many of who actually knew Anastasia, yet she was never able to successfully prove her claim.

I liked that, while the author did take some liberties, this was a historically accurate book. Both stories told in this book are based in fact and as horrific as they both are, they were very interesting to learn about. I can’t love this book because I did have a lot of problems with the timeline and I honestly just didn’t find the writing or the storytelling that compelling. But I learned a lot and I still appreciate what Lawhorn was trying to do with this book. Not a favourite for me, but an interesting read if you’d like to learn a bit more about Anna Anderson and the Grand Duchess Anastasia in her final year and a half of life.