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review 2017-06-26 11:01
Multi-award winner historical fiction in pre-revolution New York with a fabulous narrator and an intriguing main character
Golden Hill: A Novel of Old New York - Francis Spufford

Thanks to Net Galley and to Faber & Faber for offering me an ARC copy of this novel that I freely chose to review.

I had an interesting experience with this novel. In the last few weeks, every time I reviewed a novel that was nominated for an award and checked out what novel had won it, it was Golden Hill (among them, the Costa First Novel Award, The Desmond Elliott Prize, the RSL Ondaatje Prize 2017…) and I thought I had to read it and find out what the fuss what about.

It is not difficult to see why people are fascinated by this novel. It is a historical fiction novel by an author who has written non-fiction extensively and has chosen a very interesting narrative style. (I must confess to being very intrigued by his book called The Child that Books Built. A Life in Reading, especially in view of a recent discussion we had on my blog about books on reading). The story is set in the New York of the late 1740s and is narrated by an anonymous narrator (or so it seems as we read) who tells the story of a man, Richard Smith, who arrives in the New World with a money order for 1000 pounds and acts quite mysteriously. The story is told in the third person, but the narrator breaks the third wall barrier often, at times to despair at being unable to describe a card game, or a fight, at others to decide where we can or cannot enter. Although the book’s language and style are word-perfect (and will enchant those who love accuracy), it appears more sensitive to certain aspects of the society of the time than perhaps a novel of the period would have been (slavery, gender, and race issues…) but the narrating style reminds us of Henry and Sarah Fielding, and in a nod to metafiction, in the book itself there are discussions of novels that include Joseph Andrews or David Simple. I have talked often about my fascination for narrators and this is one of those novels that will keep it alive for a long time.

The book transports the reader to the New York of 1747, a provincial and small place, with only a few streets and a mixture of inhabitants mostly from Dutch and English origins, with a jumble of different coins and bank notes in circulation, what appear to be the equivalent of small-town politics and an interesting judicial system, and dependent on ships from London for news and entertainment. Although I have read historical tracts and fiction from the era, I don’t think any of them managed to give me as good an understanding and a feel for what colonial New York was like.

The story itself is built around the mystery of Smith’s character. Who is he? Is the money order real, or is he a con-man? Is he a magician, an actor, a seducer, a trouble-maker, all of the above? Everybody wants him, or better, his money, for their own goals (political, financial…) and he allows himself to be courted by all, although he is only really interested in the daughter of one of the Dutch businessmen who is holding his money order until they receive confirmation of its true value, Tabitha. Tabitha is my favourite character, a shrew, sharp and witty, and somebody I wouldn’t mind learning much more about.

Smith is a good stand-in for the reader because although he is from the era, he is naïve as to the colonies and the different social mores, politics, and customs there, and keeps getting into trouble. Although his adventures are interesting, and the mystery that surrounds him seemingly propels the story (although half-way through the novel we get a clue as to what might be behind the intrigue), I found it difficult to fully empathise with him, perhaps because of the style of narration (although the story is told by a narrator, and in the third person, at times we get a clear look at what Smith is thinking, but, for me, the hidden information somehow hindered my full investment in the character). There are many other interesting characters, although we do not get to know any of them in a lot of detail. For a great insight into the book and all that it contains, I recommend you read the About the author note I have included above. The man can write, for sure.

The ending… Well, there is an ending to the story and then there is a final twist. If you picked up the clues, the ending will not be such a big surprise. The twist… Yes, it makes one look at the book in a completely different way, although it makes perfect sense.

I highlighted many fragments that I particularly liked, but on checking them again I was worried they might, either give too much away or confuse somebody who is not following the story. So I’d advise you to check the book sample available on your favourite online bookstore and see if you enjoy the style. If you do, it only gets better.

I recommend this book to anybody curious about its reputation, to lovers of historical fiction, in particular, those set up in the colonies prior to the revolution, and to readers and writers who enjoy narrators and look for something a bit different.

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review 2017-06-17 17:51
Good background and historical information.
Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America ... Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy - Sheryll Cashin

With the recent anniversary of Loving v. Virginia case I was excited to see this book become available at my library. I recently watched the 2016 film about the case and so thought this would be a good pickup.

 

This wasn't quite what I expected at first. Author Cashin takes the reader though the history of interracial relationships in US history, from the first settlers through the present. Sometimes when authors do this it can be a really dry and boring retelling but it was quite intriguing to see cases and stories of couples who were willing to defy convention, societal ridicule, violence/death, financial hardships, etc. to be together. That is not to say Cashin focuses solely on the happier and consensual relationships but it was nice to see examples that I had never heard of.

 

Unfortunately though, those were the exceptions. Cashin traces how these relationships were ignored, tolerated, etc. but eventually laws and slavery made these relationships illegal. Of course, that never stopped slave owners or even the Founding Fathers as Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings are discussed. Not being a Jefferson scholar by any means I was interested to know a bit more about Hemings and read a bit about her, her family and her descendants fared after Jefferson died. 

 

Cashin also notes how even rumors of these relationships were used as dog whistles in political battles, how sons of slave owners took public office during and after Reconstruction, etc. It was quite interesting and it was not an angle I had thought of or knew much about. 

 

The parts about the Lovings were admittedly a bit boring to me. I already knew some of this from the movie and research/reading I had done after (plus the various reviews and articles that reiterate the case's journey and the life stories of the Lovings). I also was not that interested in some of the post-Loving effects, although it reinforced the stereotypes of how people fear what they don't understand and what they are not exposed to. As an aside it reminded me of the need for greater diverse representation of all types in the media and of one recent story that told of a man who hated the idea of refugees moving into his town and apartment building. The man was afraid they were terrorists but when these people moved in he saw the changes in his neighbors go from drug addicts to being replaced with families who would bring food over or have children who'd knock on his door to ask him to fix their bikes. He admitted he no longer felt the same once he heard their stories and saw these refugees as actual people.

 

Overall I'm glad I read it. At times it does get a bit dry and academic but it was quite informative and I'd say it's a good compliment to the 2016 movie if you want more information. It's also not that thick but Cashin does an excellent job in packing in a ton of knowledge in the text. It was right for me to borrow from the library but I wouldn't be surprised if it shows up on a college syllabus either. 

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review SPOILER ALERT! 2017-06-16 19:57
The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad (Oprah's Book Club): A Novel - Colson Whitehead

This book was horribly sad, it tore my heart open repeatedly. I don't usually read books like this but it was chosen for a book club I wanted to attend. I couldn't even get through the first page without crying. I had to put it down to rest my heart. I never made it to that book club meeting.

 

I know it is fiction and one major detail was changed but that didn't take away from the story. I know that the majority of the book was close enough to the real thing and the terror that people endured was just as real. I have read about the horrible things that humans did to other humans because of the color of their skin and it is heart-rending. I wish it all could be considered fiction but the sad truth is that this horrible story was a reality for too many souls. There is language that I like to avoid but in this book, it is part of the reality.

 

I feel wounded now and think I'll go back to reading total nonsense fiction.  

 

Spoiler below

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review 2017-06-07 14:17
Travels with Charley
Travels With Charley: In Search of America - John Steinbeck

In the fall and early winter of 1960, John Steinbeck packed up a camper-converted pickup truck and along with his dog went in search of America.  Travels with Charley finds Steinbeck making a round trip around the United States with his dog, the titular Charley, looking to rediscover the voice, attitude, and personality of the characters he peoples his fictional work with.  Yet like all journeys this one takes unexpected turns that the author doesn’t see coming.

 

Save prearranged meetings with his wife in Chicago and then in Texas for Thanksgiving, Steinbeck and his loyal canine Charley traverse various sections looking to get back in-touch with other Americans that he’s missed by flying over or traveling abroad.  Quickly though Steinbeck learns that the uniqueness of speech and language was beginning to disappear into a standardize English in many sections of the country.  He finds the Interstate and Superhighway system a gray ribbon with no color in comparison to state roads that show color and local character of the area.  And his amazement about how towns and cities have begun to sprawl losing local character as they became mini-versions of New York or Los Angeles which includes his own home town in the Salinas valley, highlighting the changes the country had occurred to the nation during his life time alone by 1960.

 

Yet Travels with Charley isn’t gloom or despair, Steinbeck writes about the national treasure that is the various landscapes around the country that help give locals their own personality even in the face of “standardizing”.  His interactions with people throughout his trip, whether friendly or hostile, give the reader a sense of how things remain the same yet are changing in the United States at the time of Steinbeck’s trip.  But Steinbeck’s interactions and observations of this travel companion Charley are what make this book something that is hard to put down.  Whether it’s Charley’s excitement to explore that night’s rest stop or Steinbeck’s amazement at Charley’s nonchalance at seeing a towering redwood or Steinbeck’s concern over Charley’s health or Charley’s own assessment of people, Steinbeck’s prose gives Charley character and lets the reader imagine the old dog by their side wherever they’re reading this book.

 

Written later in the author’s career, the reader is given throughout the entire book the elegance of Steinbeck’s prose that embeds what he his writing about deep into one’s subconscious.  Though there is debate about how much of Travels with Charley is fiction or if an individual is a composite of several others or even if events are ordered correctly, what the reader learns is that Steinbeck’s journey is unique to himself as theirs would be unique for them as well.

 

Written almost 60 years ago Travels with Charley details a changing America through the eyes of one of its greatest authors, even today some of Steinbeck’s passages resonate with us in today’s cultural and political climate.  But if like me you wanted a book by Steinbeck to get to know his style and prose than this is the book to do so.

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text 2017-06-02 09:35
REVIEW BY ANGI - Resurrection America by Jeff Gunhus
Resurrection America - Jeff Gunhus

When helicopters and armored vehicles filled with soldiers in hazmat suits quarantine the small mountain town of Resurrection, Colorado, Sheriff Rick Johnson feels like the Jihadi wars have followed him home. But while the town follows martial law out of fear of a virus released into the air, Rick isn't buying the official version of events. As he investigates, the cover story unravels and he discovers the military's presence and the salvation they offer isn't what it seems. 

 

@AngiPlant, @XpressoReads, #TechnoThriller, #Post_Apocalyptic, #Science_Fiction, 4 out of 5 (very good)

 

Source: sites.google.com/site/archaeolibrarian/angi/resurrectionamericabyjeffgunhus
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