What I Read This Week: March 20 to March 26

This week’s reading was a mixture of fiction and memoir, all books from my to-be-read list as I’m trying to clear my shelves. Here’s a recap of the reads I finished this week.

The Many Daughters of Afong Moy

I wanted to love this book by Jamie Ford; I really did. The Many Daughters of Afong Moy had all the conventions that I love on a regular basis: strong female main characters, a sweeping family saga, and deep explorations of the past. However, this book didn’t live up to my expectations. The concept of generational trauma is very compelling, and I think that Ford should be commended for his ideas in this book. Yet, it was a slow read for me, and even though each daughter was intriguing, they weren’t compelling enough for me to love the book. I think I would have enjoyed it more if there had been more focus on two or three Moy daughters, rather than a briefer look at them all. I wanted more of Afong Moy’s own story as well. Still, Ford is an accomplished writer and the book’s concept was unique.

Kiss Her Once for Me

Alison Cochrun’s Kiss Her Once for Me was the best book I read for the week.In general, I don’t care for the fake-dating trope in romance novels, but Ellie’s connection to Andrew, her fake fiancee, wasn’t overdone or trite. To summarize, Andrew proposes that he and Ellie get married in order to open the inheritance that his grandfather left him under stipulation that he marry before receiving the $2 million. Broke and lost after losing her dream job, Ellie says yes, but she soon finds out that Andrew’s sister is Jack, the woman with whom Ellie spent a magical 24 hours last Christmas. I really liked Ellie and Jack’s story, and I think the LGBTQIA+ representation was excellent. This was a good story with great character development and growth over the course of the chapters, and I recommend this read.

All Boys Aren’t Blue

I love a good memoir, and George M. Johnson’s writing took me into his world of being a gay Black man raised in a family who supported him as well as let him discover his own personhood. All Boys Aren’t Blue is a young adult memoir, written for young people like George so that they could hear from someone like them, an experience that George never received. As a forty-something white cis woman, I’m not Johnson’s target audience, but it’s important for me to read and learn about experiences like his so that I can be aware and more educated about the topics of race and sexuality. I appreciated his honesty and openness throughout the book, and I was happy to learn.

So now it’s the last week of March, and I have a goal to read three more books by the end of the month. I’ll be tuning in to at least one audiobook, but as I review the month so far, March has been a good reading month.

The Important Story of the Yellow Wife

Five-Star Read: Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson

I recently wrote about five reasons I love reading historical fiction, and Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson is an excellent example of why I love this genre.

About Yellow Wife

Yellow Wife is the story of Pheby Delores Brown, born on Bell Plantation in Virginia. She was favored by the owner of the plantation, who is her biological father, and his sister. Her mother, Ruth, protects Pheby from as many of the horrors of slavery as she can. However, when tragedy strikes, Pheby is taken from the plantation and loses all whom she loves, including her beloved Essex Henry.

Pheby is transferred to Lapier Jail, also known as Devil’s Half-Acre, where she quickly sees and experiences the brutality of the enslaved who are held at the jail, whether they are to be auctioned to new owners, punished for perceived wrongdoings, or forced into work of many nightmares. The owner of Lapier Jail takes her as his own, and Pheby must decides what sacrifices she must make as she lives under his rule.

I don’t have the adjectives for a review that encapsulate my feelings for Yellow Wife, but here are a few of the reasons I loved it and firmly believe it is a book to be recognized by all.

Revealing Real History in Yellow Wife

Yellow Wife is an example of what U.S. schools have not taught in history classes. Like most products of this education system, I studied the Civil War, but I’m ashamed to acknowledge that slavery wasn’t covered in detail. While it’s been several decades since I was a public school student, I should know more now. Learning about the jails that slaves were sent to, like Devil’s Half-Acre, was eye-opening, and now I am determined to learn more about what my teachers never discussed, and it’s my responsibility to ensure that my children learn the entire history.

Sadeqa Johnson and Research for Yellow Wife

Alongside learning about history by reading this novel, I greatly appreciated the research in Yellow Wife. Ms. Johnson explains how she was inspired to write the book, and she outlines all of the research she conducted. This is really important because it reveals a part of history that needs to be shared in a correct, authentic way. Reading her explanation made the story of Pheby and her time at Lapier Jail even more powerful, even though she is a fictional character.

A Vivid, Brutal World

Ms. Johnson’s book took me into a vivid, but horrifying, world with a well-researched, well-told story about Pheby and how she and others experienced deep pain and injustice in Lapier Jail. This was a difficult book to read because of the subject matter, but I know that the story was important for me to read. I encourage everyone to do the same because of the quality of Ms. Johnson’s writing and storytelling, but most importantly because it demands attention to a part of history that may not have been shared otherwise.

A Family Saga — Pheby’s Sacrifices

The spirit of family is integral to Yellow Wife, as we meet Pheby’s mother, Ruth, and her children. I felt the power of these familial connections, as well as the impact of found family. Pheby’s relationships with the other slaves at Bell Plantation and in Lapier Jail showed how connections to others was key to Pheby’s survival as she made extreme sacrifices to help her family and loved ones.

Yellow Wife is an excellent novel, one that I’m glad to have read. I hope you will read it, too!

Books I Read Last Week: March 13 to March 19

Another week of reading some backlist books! Last week was a varied mix of satisfying reads and audiobooks. Here’s a quick review of the three books I checked off my list last week.

Spells for Forgetting

Spells for Forgetting by Adrienne Young was one of my 2022 Book of the Month picks, and overall, it was a satisfying read. The premise—August returns to Saoirse Island, his home that he and his mother fled years ago, to bury his mother and finds himself reckoning with his past, including the love of his life, Emery. This book is about family, loyalty, and commitment, with a dose of ancestral magic. August and Emery were by far the most interesting characters in Spells for Forgetting, and I could relate to the experience of growing up in a very small, insular community. Overall, this is a book I enjoyed and may recommend in the future.

Bloomsbury Girls

I had high hopes for Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner as it is a historical fiction novel set in a London bookshop. The plot and settings checked all the boxes for me, but in the end, the characters felt a little flat to me. I didn’t feel strong emotions toward any of them. The best part of the book for me was a scene at the end that was very reminiscent of one scene in The First Wives Club, one of my favorite comedies. I won’t say any more to avoid spoilers, but if you’ve read Bloomsbury Girls and seen The First Wives Club, I’m sure you’ll make the connection.

Yellow Wife

I finished Yellow Wife by Sadeqa Johnson late Sunday night, and I’m still processing the book. A full review will definitely be posted soon, but what I can say for certain is that Yellow Wife is one of the most impactful novels about slavery that I have ever read. It’s brutal and unflinchingly open about the horrors that Pheby Delores Brown sees and experiences when she’s sold from Bell Plantation and taken to Lapier Jail, The Devil’s Half-Acre. This book, based on actual slave jails in the South in the 1800s, is one I felt through my core and a definite 5-star book. Everyone should read it.

And so, another week begins with more books to be read in between doing “life” things. What did you read last week?

Five Reasons I Love Reading Historical Fiction

“What’s your favorite genre?” Nearly every avid reader will have heard this question at one point or another, and sometimes it can be as difficult to answer as the dreaded question: “What’s your favorite book?”

I read nearly every genre–contemporary, fantasy, thrillers, some romance, and young adult. As a mood reader, it’s really about what suits my fancy at the moment, but I stay away from horror and science fiction generally–they’re just not my vibe. However, my favorite genre is historical fiction. Give me a book about the past, let me explore that time and place, and I’m a happy reader.

Before I get into five reasons I love reading historical fiction, a important note from this well-read blogger of a certain age. Books set in the 1980s and 1990s are not historical fiction yet. I refuse to accept that premise, and I stand by my position that if I was alive for the period in question, it’s not historical fiction yet. Come on, publishers. Let’s be gentle with the Gen Xers of the reading world. We were latch-key kids raised on ABC Afterschool Specials, punk music, Tupac, Kurt Cobain, The Outsiders, Flowers in the Attic, American Psycho, and Heathers. We know how things work.

Diatribe over.

Why I Love to Read Historical Fiction

Here are five reasons I love historical fiction. I hope they’ll encourage you to pick up a book from this genre soon!

Reason 1: Putting the History in Historical Fiction

It’s in the genre name, right? Every historical fiction book teaches me something about history. Some examples of this are in two of my favorite historical fiction books. Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir is the story of Lady Jane Grey who was queen of England for nine days in the 16th century before she was beheaded. A most recent novel that I loved, Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins Valdez, tackles the horrific period of eugenics in U.S. history and fictionalizes the story of two real-life teenage sisters who were surgically sterilized against their knowledge Alabama. I love history as a whole, but I often find that the historical fiction genre really brings true events into focus, even when fictionalized, and I generally finish the book wanting to learn more.

Reason 2: The Research that Historical Fiction Requires

I love research. If I could make a living at being a researcher and fact checker, I would. I can’t tell you how many wormholes I fall into on a regular basis when I’ve gone to Google to get a simple answer. I spent hours reading about eugenics in the U.S. during and after reading Take My Hand. I researched the Dust Bowl and the exodus to California during the Great Depression because I loved The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah. As I’m conducting my own research, I’m intrigued even further about the types of research that historical fiction authors do to write their books.

However, and this is a huge caveat, the authors have to capture history correctly. Historical fiction novels have to be factual and correct; otherwise they become more like history-light fantasy books. There are many instances of books that don’t accurately depict history or elements of the chosen time period. I’m not a historian, but if I can pick up on inconsistencies or errors, then it tells me that the author took too many liberties with history or was just — simply — disinclined to do a fact check about their work.

Reason 3: The Escape into Worlds of Historical Fiction

The Final Revival of Opal & Nev by Dawnie Walton is a book I highly recommend because it pulled me deep into the world of 1970s music in England and America, not a topic I thought I’d find interesting as a whole. But this book, like other historical fiction novels that I love, delved into that world with such detail and attention to detail, I couldn’t put it down. The book focuses on music and the partnership of a white English male musician with a powerful, talented Black singer who should take the U.S. by storm with her voice and stage presence. I was engaged in every part of Opal and Nev’s world, from the descriptions of Opal’s clothing to the ignorant, racist actions of side characters to Nev’s reactions to becoming a musical star.

This reason to love historical fiction isn’t solely for this genre, obviously, but it is an important aspect of what historical fiction means to me. When I read a historical fiction novel, I want to feel like I’m part of that time period, and that’s accomplished with accurate, expansive details that are carefully woven into the story by brilliant authors.

Reason 4: Historical Fiction Often Includes Multiple Timelines

Not every historical fiction novel is structured around multiple timelines, but when it is and is done well, then that helps deepen the story for me. An author who masters this literary device is Fiona Davis, author of The Lions of Fifth Avenue and many other historical fiction novels. Davis’s books generally center around a mystery or event in the past that is somehow tied to a character in the more recent past or current day. In The Lions of Fifth Avenue, the story is set at the New York City Public Library in 1913, shortly after it was built, and in 1993, when a main character is set to learn more about her family’s heritage. As books like The Lions of Fifth Avenue alternate between the two time periods, you can see the differences and similarities of the human condition across history. While an author like Davis controls those aspects, the interconnected plots add another layer to a historical fiction novel.

Reason 5: A Family Saga Across History

Like multiple timelines, not every historical fiction novel includes a family saga, but when it does, I am here for all of it. I love a deeply nuanced, complicated family drama, and all the better when the saga includes historical elements. Kristin Hannah is well known for a great family saga, and The Four Winds does this exceptionally well. Another novel that bridges two families’ joint struggles and challenges is The Family by Naomi Krupitsky. As two best friends grow up in families with ties to organized crime in the mid-twentieth century, we learn about about the various definitions of family, the social expectations on women during this time period, and the complications of tested loyalty. This multi-family saga would take on a different look and feel had it been set in a current or more recent time period.

These are just five reasons I love to read historical fiction. Is this a genre you enjoy? Tell me why or why not!

More Adventures with Jess Gabriel – A Place Like This Review

Book Review: A Place Like This by Cari Scribner

Jess Gabriel is figuring out life as a single woman in her fifties. As a follow-up to A Girl Like You, author Cari Scribner takes us alongside Jess as she wonders what could have been if one of her two marriages had worked out, as she explores more of the dating world, and finds ways to fill her world once she suddenly becomes an empty nester.

Thank you to Ms. Scribner for my copy of A Place Like This in exchange for my honest review.

What I Enjoyed About A Place Like This

A Place Like This is a character-driven novel full of emotional events, ranging from Jess spying on her ex-husband Bryan at his beachside wedding to her encounters with patrons as an Uber driver to her recaps of the conversations of her coworkers — the Three Stooges — at Town Clerk’s office. Jess is an endearing, authentic character with quirks and a lot of heart, and I enjoyed getting to know her better in this novel. The side characters, especially Jess’s friends Nadine and Eddie, are people I’d want to have in my own life.

Much of this book is about Jess mourning what could have been. Her first husband, Adam, left the family to travel the U.S. in an RV., unsatisfied with the stable family life that Jess treasured. Years after Adam left, Jess still questions what made him so unhappy and why he didn’t find comfort in the home and family time she embraced.

Then, Jess’s emotions are torn even further as her son, Ian, decides to join Adam on the road after finishing his college classes. Nearly every chapter of the book including Jess reminiscing about when Ian and her daughter, Madison, were young. The memories are sad yet heartwarming as they demonstrate how dedicated Jess is as a mother, and the inclusion of so many shows the impact of Jess’s feeling of loneliness.

A Place Like This is a quick, entertaining read with short chapters, engaging characters, and fun vignettes of Jess’s adventures, including some very steamy date nights. If you’re looking for a read that hits all the emotions and leaves you feeling satisfied, this is a book for you.

What I Read This Week: March 6 to March 12

This week was a continuation of clearing my to-be-read shelves. Two of the three books I read will stay in my collection, and one will be added to the donate pile. All in all, not a bad week of reading!

Final Girls by Riley Sager

Final Girls is Riley Sager’s first novel and my third read of his collection, but wow, this one knocked it out of the park. Is a normal life achievable for someone who survived a brutal massacre? Quincy Carpenter is determined to prove that it is, despite being a Final Girl. From the moment she ran out of the woods in a blood-soaked dress 10 years ago, Quincy hasn’t been able to remember the details of the night her friends were butchered at Pine Cottage and she escaped. Now, as things start to happen to other Final Girls, Quincy must face her past once more to address what really happened in the woods that night.

This was a definite win for me. Sager added all the necessary elements: unreliable characters, plot twists, and spooky locations, to create a book that left me on edge. Final Girls is a definite recommended read!

A Place Like This by Cari Scribner

Cari Scribner’s follow-up to A Girl Like You is a sweet, emotional look at how a woman in her fifties deals with loss and finding a new life once she becomes an empty nester. A highly character-driven novel, A Place Like This is a quick read with endearing characters, particularly the female lead, Jess Gabriel.

I enjoyed Jess’s storyline and all the close-to-home adventures she experiences over the course of a year in this book. My full review of A Place Like This will be up on my blog later this week!

It’s Been a Pleasure, Noni Blake by Claire Christian

I’m pretty certain this book was an impulse purchase as part of a buy two-get-one-free sale or something similar, as It’s Been a Pleasure, Noni Blake has been on my shelf for at least a year and I knew nothing about it. I did use the audiobook for my reading this week, though.

Noni’s long-term relationship with Joan is over, and now she doesn’t know what to do. She’s hopping from bed to bed in hopes of finding a new person to fill her heart, but nothing works. It takes a decision to focus on her own pleasure—from haircuts to vacations to intimate positions—for Noni to learn what she really wants, even with heartbreak along the way.

I appreciated the representation in this book of bisexuality and fluid sexual partners, but ultimately Noni just wasn’t a likable heroine for me and I couldn’t get invested in her journey. Still, I’m glad to have read the book.

Quick Reviews from My Shelves

As part of my challenge to clear my shelves this year, I’m reading to many of my backlist books–those that have been sitting on my shelves for years with the promise of being read someday. February 2023 was a big month of checking off to-be-read books from my shelves, particularly for books that are recognized as part of the literary canon. So here is my quick recap review of three books I should have read sooner than when I’m in my forties…

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is the book that won Toni Morrison the Pulitzer Prize, and it deserves all of the praise that I can give. It is a brutal, lyrical book that sears the pain of racism, slavery, and generational trauma into your brain. I listened to this book as Ms. Morrison was the narrator, and I found that experience to be even more powerful. I can’t recommend this book enough, and if you can find the audiobook, get it.

Atonement by Ian McEwan

The 2007 movie adaptation of Atonement left me sobbing in my car after leaving the movie theatre. Knowing the twist of the story kept me from reading the book, even though I knew Ian McEwan’s book would be exceptional, and I found that I didn’t enjoy the book as much as I think I would have if I hadn’t watch Kiera Knightley and James McAvoy on screen. But, it was still a four-star book for me.

The Plague by Albert Camus

I was supposed to read The Plague by Albert Camus in my last semester of college, and if my annotations in this copy are evidence enough, I must have at least skimmed it. However, reading and listening to the audiobook in 2023 brought an entirely different meaning and weight to this reading experience. I didn’t enjoy the book; Camus’s writing style is not for me, and it felt much too raw in the wake of COVID-19.

So, February was the month in which I cleared 10 books off my to-be-read list, and I’m grateful that I checked these off. Beloved is the read that will stay with me the longest, and reading it excites me to pick up more of Ms. Morrison’s novels.