Book Review: Glow

GLOWThank you so very much to Penguin/Viking for allowing us the opportunity to read and also to giveaway a copy of this wonderful novel. Glow is Jessica Maria Tuccelli’s first novel (!) and she is now easily an author that I will look to in the future. Hopefully her next novel is not too far off! (Seriously!)

I’m also very happy to have read it in paperback version and not on the e-reader. Glow has a wonderfully detailed family tree at the beginning of the book, and with all its characters and family history, being able to flip quickly back and forth between the page you were at and over to the family tree(s) was wonderfully helpful. Without being able to flip back to see where the characters connected would surely mean you lost out on so much of the bonds across many generations, and their three, intertwined races. Glow is, in the very least, a fantastic tale of connection and how each of these characters – white, black, native Indian – are intertwined with one another.

The promotional material for Glow states it is “Lushly conceived, cinematically detailed, and epic in historical scope.” Absolutely! Glow was a very beautiful and stunning book to read. From the very first pages I was drawn right in. It’s fantastic reading! Ghosts, spirits, evil, slavery and also the hope, promise, joy and love among these characters.

The description of Glow is taken from Tuccelli’s website: October 1941. Eleven-year-old Ella McGee sits on a bus bound for her Southern hometown. Behind her in Washington, D.C., lie the broken pieces of her parents’ love story—a black father drafted, an activist mother of Scotch-Irish and Cherokee descent confronting racist thugs. But Ella’s journey is just beginning when she reaches Hopewell County, and her disappearance into the Georgia mountains will unfurl a rich tapestry of family secrets spanning a century.

Told in five unforgettable voices, Glow reaches back through the generations, from the eve of World War II to the Blue Ridge frontier of 1836, where slave plantations adjoin the haunted glades of a razed Cherokee Nation. Out of these characters’ lives evolves a drama that is at once intimately human and majestic in its power to call upon the great themes of our time—race, identity, and the bonds of family and community.

So you can see how everything about this description sings of a novel that I knew belonged on my shelf. A multi-generation saga, a tapestry of family secrets, multiple voice/perspective and a good old southern read. Yup. Sign me on. And it was everything I anticipated it would be and more. Tuccelli is a very gifted writer! Gorgeous prose, beautifully described, heartfelt and touching emotions pouring out on every page, the words flowed like a beautiful, rippling stream of water.

I strongly encourage you to read Glow, you will surely not be disappointed. It was a read I savoured, it seemed to take me longer to finish than my normal reading progress. This was not due to any dislike of it at all, I was merely lost in it and savouring the words of Glow. Basking in the glow perhaps? I did find myself stopping many times and just enjoying the words and the emotions she’s written. Many times. It was something that touched me, is so emotionally written and will stay with me for quite some time for certain. Right up to the very, very end you are completely invested in this story. It simply won’t let you go. It’s also an incredibly emotional story that decidely confirms history’s unfortunate way of repeating itself.  4.5 stars.

A person got to wonder at the misery one human being inflict upon another. Got to wonder what the Lord intended (Willie Mae Cotton).

Book Review: The House Girl

house girlThe House Girl by Tara Conklin holds every hallmark to become a favoured historical fiction novel.  Family secrets, pre-Civil War American history, perserverance of the human spirit, alternating time perspectives…it’s all in there!

Many may know of my personal penchant for the historical fiction genre,  especially if it involves personal history in some way and definitely when it shows the perseverance of the human spirit or the willingness of those few that put their own lives in danger for others. The House Girl offers all of this and more.

Here’s what The House Girl has to offer (taken from Tara Conklin’s site): Lina Sparrow, an ambitious first-year associate in an elite Manhattan law firm, is given a difficult, highly sensitive assignment that can make her career: find the “perfect plaintiff” to lead a historic class-action lawsuit worth trillions of dollars in reparations for the descendants of American slaves.

An unexpected lead comes from her father, renowned artist Oscar Sparrow, who tells her about a controversy currently rocking the art world. Art historians now suspect that the revered paintings of Lu Anne Bell, an antebellum artist known for her humanizing portraits of slaves from her plantation Bell Creek, were actually the work of her house slave, Josephine. A descendant of Josephine’s would be the perfect face for the firm’s lawsuit—if Lina can find one.  But nothing is known about Josephine’s fate following Lu Anne Bell’s death in 1852.  Did Josephine die at Bell Creek?  Was she sold? Or did she escape?  Searching for clues in old letters and plantation records, Lina begins to piece together Josephine’s story—a journey that leads her to question her own life, including the full story of her mother’s mysterious death twenty years before.

Alternating between antebellum Virginia and modern-day New York, this searing tale of art and history, love and secrets explores what it means to repair a wrong, and ask whether truth is sometimes more important than justice.

Josephine and Lina are two superb and inspirational women, but it wasn’t only them that drew me so deeply in to this story. No, because while I’m a sucker for personal historical fiction, I’m an even bigger devotee to ones that are written using letters as a way to tell the story. Oh how I adore those! And, The House Girl features much using this format, between sisters and in one part, and a letter from a father to his son in another. Through much of this book I couldn’t keep my eyes away from it, but when it came time to read the letters written by Dorthea Rounds to her sister Kate, I was enthralled. Dorthea has but a fleeting moment with Josephine, but it is her writing about her abolitionist work with her father that is truly fascinating. These letters describe the danger the Rounds involved themselves all in order to help the tortured and mistreated slaves seek freedom. Ms. Conklin has written complete fiction in these women and in this particular tale, but has done such an astounding job on making it seem as though we were reading about true historical figures. (Believe me, I was searching online!) Much like myself, Lina, while researching this “perfect plaintiff” becomes entranced in the correspondence written by Dorthea, and also develops this fierce bond with the history of a woman whom lived 150 years before.  The writing in these letters were like a gift and just added such richness to the tale.

Even when it flips back to the present day and we read of Lina and her personal and professional struggles, we are not left wanting for the quick return to Josephine’s tale, because Lina’s is just as engrossing! The House Girl is a thoroughly enjoyable tale! I know you will be seeing this book around quite often once it releases (mid-Februrary). It is definitely going to be sought after book-club read and is for certain a Literary Hoarders approved book!

Philida: Review for BookerMarks

Rating: 4

A Novel by Andre Brink
2012 / 320 Pages

The setup: Philida is the mother of four children by Francois Brink, the son of her master. The year is 1832 and the Cape is rife with rumours about the liberation of the slaves. Philida decides to risk her whole life by lodging a complaint against Francois, who has reneged on his promise to set her free.

His father has ordered him to marry a white woman from a prominent Cape Town family, and Philida will be sold on to owners in the harsh country up north. Unwilling to accept this fate, Philida continues to test the limits of her freedom, and with the Muslim slave Labyn she sets off on a journey across the great wilderness on the banks of the Gariep River, to the far north of Cape Town. Philida is an unforgettable story of one woman’s determination to survive and be free.

Philida was one of my first choices for the 3 assigned to us from the Man Booker Long List for our BookerMarks collaboration. I was drawn to it based on the description and the historical fiction genre. Philida is an epic tale of suffering, betrayal, hope, love and destiny and retribution. It is told from the perspectives of Philida, her master’s son Francois, an old slave woman whom has been granted freedom, Petronella and the master himself Cornelis Brink, (the right bastard).

Philida is the slave girl that has had four children from her owner’s son Francois. He has always promised her freedom but is now being made to marry a white woman in order to stave off bankruptcy. Knowing this means a uncertain future for Philida but most certainly potential separation from her children, she travels by foot to Stellenbosch to file a complaint against the family, for Francois has reneged on the promised freedom. Francois is the son of the Oubaas Cornelis. When we listen to Francois, we learn he is deeply in love with Philida, has known her all his life, watched over her all his life, loved her all his life, born 4 children with her and did promise her freedom, and the shoes to wear on her feet which go hand in hand with freedom. However, he is arranged to marry a white woman and before he can explain or discuss with Philida, she takes off to file her complaint forever altering their futures.

That I remember specially well. The shoes on my feet. What he say about the shoes he promised me from the very first day. Because he knew, I knew, as the whole world know: the man or the woman with shoes on their feet, they cannot be slaves, they are free, shoes mean that they are not chickens or donkeys or pigs or dogs, they are people.

Philida is a woman wise to her surroundings and to a broader sense of the way of the world which she consistently questions. Philida is not a believer that the ONLY way the LordGod wishes their lives to be is the way they must endure now.

Philida, it doesn’t work like that, there’s nothing you or I can change about it, this is just the way the world is.

Then we got to change the way of the world, Frans, she goes on nagging, otherwise it will always stay the same.

Too often I felt wretched horror and shame for the stories of the slaves in this novel. The wretched, cruel and inhumane treatment is gut-wrenching and told with unflinching prose and purity. At the time of the “auction”, where Philida is taken to be sold off in to the interior following the filing of her complaint, I was left with utter disgust and a rolling stomach. I wanted to cry over the inhumanity for these people.

Following the auction, and in her new place, Philida meets an old, devout Muslim named Labyn. As her relationship with Labyn deepens in respect she begins to move forward living a new and better life, one where she feels is her place now, but back in Zandvliet all is unraveling for the Brinks. The Brinks are completely chagrined and not prepared for what the loss of Philida means to so many.

The only slight flaw(s) I had with Philida is the way the author would “set up” each chapter with a little summary. That is fine, really, but my feelings were that these were written as though the reader is somewhat dense and needed a summary to understand what lay ahead of them in the following chapter (for instance: Chapter XX: In which the Story moves back to Zandvliet and the constant Tension between Francois and Old Cornelis until an unforseen yet unavoidable Event interrupts the Course of all the Lives drawn into it.”). Then I couldn’t decide if it was “cute” in a way or what. It also began to lag during Labyn’s teaching of the Islamic religion to Philida.

Overall, this may very well be a strong short list contender as it is indeed an epic piece of historical fiction, uplifting as much as it is difficult to read, with added hints of mysticism and religion sprinkled throughout. Albeit I’m not one to make such comment yet as this was the first to finish in the long list. It most certainly is a story that will long leave an indelible mark upon its readers, as it did for me.  Philida is a powerhouse of a woman determined to better her life, overcome the life of cruelty and slavery and discover the freedom she was so often promised. The journey we take with her is a very, very memorable one and in the end quite uplifting as well. 4 stars for me.

(as an aside, Google comes in right handy while reading Philida, as there are a great number of South African and Afrikaans terms and phrases that require definition in order to fully grasp their meaning.) (another note, no, the Brink’s in the novel and the author is not a coincidence.)

But they don’t have the right to say: Philida, now you free. That is something only I can say. And this I say today: Today I am a free woman. …Philida. 

Book Review: The Secrets of Mary Bowser

The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a fascinating, lyrically and wonderfully written, well researched story based on the true life accomplishments of Mary Bowser and her determination to aid in the freedom for slaves and the abolishment of slavery during the Civil War.

Here is the synopsis from Goodreads: Based on the remarkable true story of a freed African American slave who returned to Virginia at the onset of the Civil War to spy on the Confederates, The Secrets of Mary Bowser is a masterful debut by an exciting new novelist. Author Lois Leveen combines fascinating facts and ingenious speculation to craft a historical novel that will enthrall readers of women’s fiction, historical fiction, and acclaimed works like Cane River and Cold Mountain that offer intimate looks at the twin nightmares of slavery and Civil War. A powerful and unforgettable story of a woman who risked her own freedom to bring freedom to millions of others, The Secrets of Mary Bowser celebrates the courageous achievements of a little known but truly inspirational American heroine. 

 Mary has an eidetic memory, and often played I Spy with her mother when she was young. Her mother always told her that Jesus had a special plan for her and her excellent recollection and I Spy games would prove very advantageous to Mary in the future.

Mary’s “owners”, the Van Lew’s had a daughter, Bet, whom was fueled with certain desire to do her part to end slavery and offered freedom and a presitigous education in Philadelphia to Mary. Yet, after a time, living this free life in the North didn’t feel as though it were meeting her mother’s expectations of her. Also, the free life in the North wasn’t exactly as it was made out to be, as Mary witnessed many acts of hatred against the Negroes, both rich and poor:

It was better than slavery…But still it wasn’t what freedom ought to be.

While in Philadelphia, Mary finds herself intricately involved in helping spirit slaves to the North through the Underground Railway. Certain that Civil War was imminent, Mary decides to head South and pose as a slave inside Jefferson Davis’ “Gray House”. Here she acts as an “ignorant darkie”  in order to gather information and help the Union achieve its goal for emancipation.

All of these acts made me greatly admire Mary’s tenacity. Leveen portrays an eloquent Mary and she is a wonderful heroine! There is one point in particular which was wonderful to read and is when Mary is attending an abolition meeting in Philadelphia. She speaks out against a comment made by a person that “any creature who would choose to remain enslaved rather than take his freedom does not deserve the title of man.” This annoyed Mary greatly she felt it was directed at Mary’s parents, whose choice it was to remain enslaved so that Mary could be freed and educated.  Mary shouts out that

 “Plenty of those who don’t come North are truer men, or finer women, than many of the self-proclaimed better sort of colored Philadelphia.”

The Secrets of Mary Bowser was lyrically written and fascinating to read, with beautiful passages like:

 But rumors were like dandelion puffs, they sprung up everywhere those warm spring days, only to prove as delicate as they were plentiful, dissipating in the first hard blow of truth. No one knew when the next blow would come, or what truth it would bring.”

 In the end, Mary is rewarded for her brave actions and is able to meet with Abraham Lincoln. In answer to his question about working for Davis says, “I wasn’t working for Jeff Davis. I worked for freedom, and for you, Mr. Lincoln.”

Overall, I’m saying 3.5 stars for me. It was indeed fascinating and so beautifully written, however my only complaint would be that it was longer than needed be, in my opinion.