The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

At first I thought the author was trying too hard to be relevant, and cool, and “this is how black teenagers live and talk in the ‘hood”. But I kept reading.

And even though some situations and characters were indeed stereotypical and maybe exaggerated, I was completely absorbed in the story and the people in it. And I came to the conclusion that this book provides an important perspective on current events, contemporary racial issues, and violence in our communities. And the author does try to be “fair” by including as supporting characters a black uncle who is a (good) cop and a white boyfriend who tries to understand the perspective of his black sixteen year old girlfriend. The girlfriend, Starr, is the central viewpoint character who sees her best friend, Kahlil, murdered by a white policeman during a routine traffic stop.

From Gina Dalfonzo’s review at Breakpoint:

“Thomas’ realism also means that the book is very heavy on profanity and on damaging, sometimes dangerous behavior. In Starr’s community, people help and care for each other, often to the point of great and admirable sacrifice; but the community also is full of broken families, men who beat their girlfriends and children, fighting, and promiscuity.”

And:

“None of this means that Angie Thomas is telling this story from a secular perspective. Thomas is a churchgoing Christian, and her faith influences her work. Starr often refers to Jesus as ‘Black Jesus’, a cultural construct she was raised with that nonetheless doesn’t seem to change her understanding of who Jesus is. We see her and her family praying together and attending church, her parents teaching her to ‘keep doing right’ no matter what.”

What she said. It’s worth reading and discussing, maybe with your teen, if you can deal with the language and the violence and the open talk about sex and relationships.

Mandala by Pearl S. Buck

Oh, my. I have read and enjoyed several novels by Pearl S. Buck, but this 1970 novel set in in India wasn’t one of them. I did read about 4/5 of the story before I skipped to the ending and put myself out of my own misery.

The book presented such a cliched view of India, of Americans, of British, of priests, of men and women, of sex and sexuality. The entire book was hard to read, not because it was philosophically difficult, but because it wasn’t—but tried to be. Prince Jagat, the male protagonist, is a man of the “new India”, full of ideas about how he will fit his life into the changes that have come about since the ending of the British Raj. And yet he expects his wife and his daughter to passively respond to his every whim and demand. And for the most part, they do.

Other cliches and stereotypes include the bluff, good-hearted American Bert Osgood; the mysterious and beautiful American lady Brooke Westley (really, Westley because she’s a Westerner, get it?); the rebellious daughter Veera who eventually gives in with a pout; the ghostlike Moti, Jagat’s wife, who glides about in her traditional sari, drinking tea and mumbling wise proverbs; Father Francis, the priest who has sublimated his sexuality in doing good works among the poor; and of course, beautiful, mysterious, esoteric India itself. Common Indians are “poor but happy”, uneducated, stuck in the past, unwilling to give up customs and religious practices that are damaging to their own well-being, but at the same time essential to their Indian heritage. They are stuck between the past and modernity, and no Westerner can truly fathom the depths of the history and heritage that have made the Indian culture what it is. Ah, it is a mystery.

300+ pages of Eastern mysticism combined with agnosticism, adultery and religious speculation is just too much. The end: “Believing and unbelieving, he gave a great sigh. ‘I do not know,’ he said, and believing and unbelieving, he went his way.”

10 Best Adult Fiction Books I Read in 2017

News of the World by Paulette Jiles. It’s a surprise, even to himself, when in Wichita Falls Captain Jefferson Kidd agrees to deliver ten year old Johanna Leonberger to her relatives near Fredericksburg. Johanna has been a captive of the Kiowa for four years, and now the girl has been recovered. But, unfortunately for her, Johanna still believes she is Kiowa, but the Indians don’t want her back and the only choice Johanna has is whether or not to go quietly to her unremembered relatives’ home in German country.

The Scent of Water by Elizabeth Goudge. A lovely novel about enduring suffering and finding one’s place in the world.

Safely Home by Randy Alcorn. American businessman Ben Fielding discovers the truth about the persecuted church in China when he goes to visit his former college roommate, Li Quan.

The Glorious Cause by Jeff Shaara. A fictionalized history of the American revolution as seen through the eyes of George Washington, Nathaniel Green, Benedict Arnold, the Marquis de Lafayette, British Generals William Howe and Henry Clinton and Charles Cornwallis.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett. Dr. Annick Swenson is working, in the heart of the Amazon jungle, on a fertility drug that will revolutionize the world, if it can be brought to market. The trouble is that Dr. Swenson can’t be bothered to communicate with the pharmaceutical company that is sponsoring her work and that hopes to make a fortune by selling her discovery. The company has already sent one person down to Brazil to find out what’s going on, Anders Eckman. But he’s disappeared, reported dead. Now, they want Dr. Marina Singh, a researcher who worked with Eckman, to go to Brazil, find out exactly what happened to her friend and colleague Anders Eckman, and bring back a firm timetable for the completion of research on the fertility drug.

Frederica by Georgette Heyer. Solid Regency romance with strong characters and witty and slangy repartee. I liked the romantic leads quite a bit, and I even felt sympathy for the ingenue parts, played by Frederica’s sister Charis and her crush.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman. World War I veteran Tom Sherburne, returns to Australia and takes a job as the lighthouse keeper on Janus Rock, a small, isolated island off the coast of western Australia. He marries a local girl, Isabel, and although the marriage is happy, the isolation of the lighthouse leads Isabel to make a fateful decision.

Kindred by Octavia Butler. Dana, a twentieth century black woman, is transported back in time to the early nineteenth century in a slave state where she is forced to decide again and again whether she should do something to save the life of a young white slaveowner, Rufus.

Demelza by Winston Graham. This second book in the Poldark series ends with death, destruction, and loss. From its hope filled beginning with the birth of a child for Ross and Demelza Poldark to the end when all is dark with only a hint of light in the last line of the novel, the story is an engaging look at late 18th century Cornwall and its politics, characters and social customs.

Jeremy Poldark by Winston Graham. The third book in the Poldark saga.

Escape From Aleppo by N.H. Senzai

The two previous books by N.H. Senzai that I read, Shooting Kabul and Saving Kabul Corner, were both about Afghan immigrants to the United States, and they were both good, informative reads. Escape From Aleppo is set in Syria, mostly in 2013, as the protagonist, Nadia, becomes separated from her family and is caught between government troops, rebel brigades, and ISIS fighters, as she tries to flee to Turkey for safety and to find her family.

The story is a little heavy on the “informative” side, probably necessarily so considering the ignorance of most Americans in regard to Syrian history and politics. Nevertheless, I enjoy learning about history and current events through the medium of fiction, and Escape From Aleppo tells a good tale of life and the struggle for survival in a war-torn country.

Fourteen year old Nadia, even as she is escaping the bombs and snipers of Aleppo, remembers her twelfth birthday, December 17, 2010, which happened to coincide with the beginning of the “Arab Spring” insurrections and demonstrations, all ignited by a young man’s suicide in Tunisia. The civil unrest and rebellion against “authoritarian regimes” moves to Syria in 2011, and to Aleppo where Nadia lives in 2012. All of this history is covered in the book by means of interspersed flashback chapters that interrupt the flow of the narrative about Nadia’s journey to safety at the Turkish border through war-torn Aleppo and through the Syrian countryside. However, I’m not sure how the background information could have been conveyed in any other way, and I did learn a lot about recent Syrian history and government, and a little about more ancient Syrian history.

The story includes some mystery; who is the mysterious old man with the donkey who agrees to help Nadia reach the Turkish border? And there’s quite a bit of suspense and adventure. Of course, since it takes place in the middle of a war, there’s violence and tragedy, but none of the descriptions is too horribly graphic. Nadia is the central and most fully realized character in the book, and readers will identify with her fight to grow up quickly, be brave, and take charge of her life and her journey.

Saturday Review of Books: January 20, 2018

“Be as careful of the books you read, as of the company you keep; for your habits and character will be as much influenced by the former as by the latter.” ~Paxton Hood

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Welcome to the Saturday Review of Books at Semicolon. Here’s how it usually works. Find a book review on your blog posted sometime during the previous week. The review doesn’t have to be a formal sort of thing. You can link to your thoughts on a particular book, a few ideas inspired by reading the book, your evaluation, quotations, whatever.

Then on Friday night/Saturday, you post a link here at Semicolon in Mr. Linky to the specific post where you’ve written your book review. Don’t link to your main blog page because this kind of link makes it hard to find the book review, especially when people drop in later after you’ve added new content to your blog. In parentheses after your name, add the title of the book you’re reviewing. This addition will help people to find the reviews they’re most interested in reading.

After linking to your own reviews, you can spend as long as you want reading the reviews of other bloggers for the week and adding to your wishlist of books to read.

The Stranger from the Sea by Winston Graham

This eighth installment of the Poldark Saga begins with King George III and his final descent into madness in 1810, and it ends with a marriage proposal for one of the Poldarks, refused, in 1811. Ten years have passed since the ending of the seventh book in the series, The Angry Tide. The growing-up years of Ross and Demelza’s children—Clowance, Jeremy, and little Bella—have been largely happy and uneventful. The Ross Poldark family are neither immensely rich nor poor, neither socially active nor reclusive, and finally comfortable and happy. Ross and Demelza are comfortable in their marriage; the enmity between George Warleggan and Ross Poldark has moved into a phase of distant truce, after the death of Elizabeth Warleggan at the end of The Angry Tide. Ross’s tin mine produces an adequate living, but not too much.

George Warleggan continues in this book to be rich, although he nearly loses his fortune in a bad investment decision. Ross Poldark continues to be idealistic and somewhat eccentric. Demelza is still salt of the earth and beautiful and commonsensical, all at the same time. In fact, all of the old characters from the previous seven novels make an appearance, each one playing his part. But the focus has shifted in this book to the younger generation: Ross and Demelza’s children, Valentine Warleggan, Geoffrey Charles Poldark, the progeny of the Sawle villagers, and other turn of the century young adults who are now coming of age and making their own decisions about love, friendship, and business.

Then, there’s the “stranger from the sea”, one Stephen Carrington, rescued from drowning by Jeremy Poldark and friends. It’s a bit odd that the book is named for Stephen Carrington, and I wonder who had the authority to give titles to these books, the author or the publisher? If Mr. Carrington were not the eponymous “stranger” of the title, he would not be nearly so important a character in the book as he seems, given the reference. Stephen Carrington is certainly mysterious throughout the book; I never did know whether to believe a word he said, even though he was a likable, perhaps harmless, liar. But the story is really about Jeremy and Clowance, not Carrington or any one of the other suitors attracted to Clowance, and certainly not either of Jeremy’s erstwhile flames. Jeremy is really more in love with steam engines than with with girls, although he manages to have loved and lost (a girl) by the end of the book.

I find the history woven into these novels—the Napoleonic wars, the madness of King George, the political maneuverings of Whigs and Tories, the Industrial revolution—by Mr. Graham to be fascinating, and the picture Graham draws of a society in the midst of upheaval and change is excellently well done. I recommend all of the Poldark Saga novels that I’ve read so far, and I plan to read the next one, The Miller’s Dance, post-haste in hopes of finding out what will happen to Miss Clowance Poldark and Master Jeremy Poldark as they come into adulthood.

You Bring the Distant Near by Mitali Perkins

A multigenerational story of a family that combines and stands out with so many common traits and differences that it’s hard to keep up with who resembles whom and who’s going to defy cultural and family expectations and strike in a new direction.

The Das family is Bengali to begin with, immigrants from India/Bangladesh to the United States, via England and Ghana for brief stays in both of the latter places. Over the years in the U.S. the Das girls, Sunny and Starry, find their own connections to their Bengali heritage while forging a new connection to the United States and to its many peoples and varied cultures. And their children, the third generation, also have to negotiate the sometimes delightful and sometimes treacherous decisions that come with upholding tradition and opening oneself up to change at the same time.

I found this book to be both insightful and challenging. I am plain bread white Texan (with maybe a little bit of Native American heritage that’s been mostly lost in the annals of time). I have no cultural heritage except for the culture of white Southern/West Texas country folks. My family never expected me to square dance or two-step or enjoy certain books or music or dress is a certain way. And yet. I understand the pull of family expectations, both the ones I felt from my parents and the ones I have for my own children. I get the difficulties of combining very different families and learning to accept each other’s differences while appreciating the commonalities. Families are a great joy and a great challenge, and this book speaks that truth in a Bengali/American context.

It’s also a great book about growing up, about appreciating your family and their strengths and weaknesses while at the same time working to differentiate yourself from them. Sunny and Starry grow up to be just like their parents, except for the many ways that they are not at all like their parents. And the book also takes socioeconomic differences and challenges and decisions into account as yet another set of intricate cultural influencers that make the characters in the book look at themselves and and others in disparate, sometimes conflicting, ways.

Don’t get the idea that Sunny and Starry and their parents and their children are simply flat, stand-in characters representing Every Immigrant or the “immigrant experience” or AnyTeen who has a journey to make to “find herself”. The people in You Bring the Distant Near are memorable, well-rounded people who make choices that are sometimes surprising and sometimes predictable, always thought-provoking and endearing. Not all of the people in the book make the best decisions, but they are all trying, and as a reader I was rooting for them to succeed in building strong families and strong connections, the same things I want for my own family.

The Great Good Thing by Andrew Klavan

The Great Good Thing A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ by Andrew Klavan.

I dearly love a good Christian conversion story or memoir. And Andrew Klavan’s story is a good one, full of insight and self-reflection and understanding that only a man from an intellectual Jewish background, who came to faith in Christ by way of a tumultuous childhood, a writerly and journalistic sensibility and career path, and a nervous breakdown, could express and communicate.

“It reminded me of the sense I’d had then that our mortal lives were just incarnate metaphors, that we are stories being told about the living love that created us and sustains us. Maybe all of history’s beauty and bloodshed was a story not about pleasure and pain and power but about humanity’s relationship with an unseen spirit of love. We yearned for the spirit but we feared and hated it, too, because when it shone its terrible light on us, we saw ourselves as we were, broken and shameful, far from what the spirit of love had made us. Maybe all our wars and rapes and oppressions were just our attempts to extinguish that light and silence that story.”

“We are stories being told about the living love that created us.” I really like that formulation. I pray that my story is somehow glorifying the God who made me, and I trust that He will make it so.

I’m feeling a bit inadequate to actually review Mr. Klavan’s version of “Confessions”, so I’ll just link to some other reviewers who say good things about The Great Good Thing. I do recommend the book and its author.

John Wilson at Books and Culture:The Great Good Thing tells the story of his conversion with candor, wit, and humility (no preening, no cant). It is a memoir, he emphasizes, focused on that story, not a full-fledged autobiography, but it encompasses the whole arc of his life, and especially his childhood and growing-up years before he left home at the age of seventeen.”

An Orthodox Jew Reviews Andrew Klavan’s ‘The Great Good Thing: A Secular Jew Comes to Faith in Christ’ by Avner Zarmi.

What Would the Founders Think?: “Klavan’s conversion was not that of Saul on the rode to Damascus. Klavan’s journey was more like that of an archeologist who senses that there is something to unearth beneath a tell but does not know what it is. As each artifact is excavated, he begins to formulate one hypothesis after another, discarding each until the final piece is revealed. When all the parts are assembled, he has no choice but to accept the result as truth.”

Read it. Then, come back and tell me what you think.

Rules for Thieves by Alexandra Ott

Thieves have been rather popular in middle grade fantasy fiction for the past few years. The “thieves” are usually Oliver Twist or Artful Dodger types, lovable scapegraces who come out of poverty and sometimes end up as princes or kings or long lost sons of rich families. And mostly the thieves are boys. (Megan Whalen Turner’s Thief series, Jonathan Auxier’s Peter Nimble and His Fantastic Eyes, The Dungeoneers by John David Anderson, The False Prince by Jennifer Nielsen, Jupiter Pirates series by Jason Fry, Chronicles of Egg by Geoff Rodkey, and many more that I’m not thinking of, I’m sure.)

Twelve year old Alli Rosco fits the prototype in some ways. She’s an orphan who never really suited any of the many families looking to adopt, but she didn’t like any of them either. Her mother abandoned her on the orphanage doorstep at the age of three, and Alli has been trying ever since to forget her mother and the brother who didn’t get sent to the orphanage. And she’s also been trying to escape from the orphanage, from any adoptive parents foolish enough to take her home for a trial run, from all of the rules and fences that orphanage life is all about.

But when Alli does escape, she finds that life on the streets is not so easy. And she learns that she can’t trust anyone, but also she can’t live without trusting someone. In fact, Alli must trust a thief, maybe even become a thief, if she is going to survive. She may have to commit herself to follow the rules of the Thieves’ Guild if she wants to remain free of the orphanage, but is that a trade-off she’s willing to make?

Alli is spunky, independent, resourceful, and outspoken, but she also has her own code of conduct that gets tested and crowded by the necessities of survival on the streets. At first, she’s not sure she should steal at all, but she soon realizes that in order to eat she will have to take food from market stalls. The trash cans are not an adequate source of nourishment. Then, Alli get caught in a situation in which she must choose to join the Thieves Guild and become a professional thief or choose to die a slow and painful death. She chooses the Guild, but not without some qualms. What is all of this thieving doing to her soul?

This debut novel by an Oklahoma author has a lot of action and character development, but it also tries to deal with the deeper questions inherent in a story where thieves are the protagonists, the “good guys” to some extent. Is it really fine to steal from the rich, just not the poor? How do you decide who’s rich and who’s poor? Is violence or at least the threat of violence an inexorable part of being a thief? If so, where does one draw the line? Do haughty, selfish rich people deserve to die protecting their valuables? If they do, is it the thief’s fault or the owner’s? Is there “always a price” for everything you get in life? What if someone else ends up paying the price for your survival?

Perhaps the sequel to Rules for Thieves, Shadow Thieves, will answer some of those questions as Alli “must risk everything to save her new family from a rogue organization that is threatening the Thieves Guild’s existence—and the lives of all its members.” I’m looking forward to reading it when it comes out in June, 2018.

12 Children’s Books from Around the World to Read in 2018

My Children’s Books Around the World project has been languishing somewhat. It’s not always easy to get one’s hand on the books, sometimes necessarily in translation, in order to actually read them.

Here are 12 books I’d like to go ahead and read this year:

Blinky Bill by Dorothy Wall. (Australia)

The Boundary Riders by Joan Phipson. (Australia)

Owls in the Family by Farley Mowat. (Canada)

The Horse Without a Head/ A Hundred Million Francs by Paul Berna. (France)

A Girl Named Disaster by Nancy Farmer. (Mozambique)

Simple National Slovak Tales by Pavol Dobsinsky (Slovakia)

Jungle Doctor by Paul White. (Tanzania)

Children of the River by Linda Crew. (Cambodia)

It’s a Jungle Out There! by Ron Snell. (Peru)

The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis. (Afghanistan)

The Storyteller’s Beads by Jane Kurtz. (Ethiopia)

The Princess and the Lion by Elizabeth Coatsworth. (Abyssinia/Ethiopia)

All of these, except for the Slovak tales, I have in my library, ready to be read.

I also have a separate list of British children’s books that I’d like to read this year and also a list of books about India (mostly adult), a country I’d like to focus on in 2018. Stay tuned for reviews and comments on all of these as the year progresses.