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review SPOILER ALERT! 2018-04-22 18:01
Biafra: The World Was Silent When We Died
Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie,Zainab Jah

Half of a Yellow Sun is named for the centerpiece of the Biafran flag:

* Red for the blood of those massacred in northern Nigeria after the country's 1960 independence; in the time period leading up to the Nigeria-Biafra war, and in that war itself;

* Black for mourning them and in remembrance;

* Green for prosperity;

* And half of a yellow / golden sun for a glorious future: The sun has eleven rays, representing the eleven provinces of Biafra.

 

 

In this novel, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tells the inside story of the Nigeria-Biafra war, of the anti-Igbo massacres preceding it, and of the short-lived Republic of Biafra roughly corresponding with the area chiefly inhabited by the Igbo (as well as the Ibibio, and Ijaw) and, in colonial times, known as Eastern Region of Nigeria: to this day, the political period most haunting Nigeria and its people.

 

Though the novel is not autobiographical (Adichie was born several years after the war ended), it is inspired by the experience of Adichie's parents, as well as numerous other eyewitnesses, who individually and collectively informed her protagonists: middle class twin sisters Olanna and Kainene, their lovers -- university professor and political activist Odenigbo, and English journalist and would-be novelist Richard Churchill (a distant relative of Winston) --, and last but not least Odenigbo and Olanna's houseboy Ugwu.  Through their eyes, and chiefly through those of Ugwu, Olanna and Richard, Adichie conveys a fragmented and multi-faceted image of the events, from the search for an authentic post-colonial (national? Igbo? pan-African?) identity to the shock and sheer terror of the anti-Igbo massacres -- primarily in Northern Nigeria --, the euphoria accompanying the foundation of the Republic of Biafra, and finally the unspeakable horror of a war conducted, on the Nigerian side, by way of a systematic campaign of starvation, shutting off Biafra's access to necessary food products and producing the images which have come to define the word "Biafra" once and for all to this day.

 

 

Although these images were front page news all over the world, and relief organizations such as the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders (which in fact owes its very existence to the Nigeria-Biafra war) did the best they could to battle the impossible odds, most of the First World stood by and let events take their course, out of a mixture of political self-interest, ignorance, sheer disbelief, and helpless apathy in the face of the enormity of the genocide.

 

In the novel, it is initially Richard, who has come to identify with the Igbo at least as much, or even more than with his English roots, who tries to convey a sense of what is happening inside Biafra to the outside world, through newspaper articles published in England and North America.  But his big project, a book about the Igbo (initially about their history and art; later on, about the war), keeps getting thwarted, and he ultimately abandons it:

"Ugwu fumbled, awkwardly, for something to say. 'Are you still writing your book, sah?'

'No.'

'"The World Was Silent When We Died".  It is a good title.'

'Yes, it is.  It came from something Colonel Madu said once.'

Richard paused.  'The war isn't my story to tell, really.'

Ugwu nodded.  He had never thought that it was."

And in fact, it will end up being Ugwu himself who writes that very book.  As it should be -- the story of Biafra, and the Nigeria-Biafra war, is for the Igbo and the Nigerians themselves to tell, first and foremost.  That obviously doesn't mean the rest of the world should ever stand by and keep silent in the face of war and genocide; but Adichie's point here (and I agree with her) is about authenticity, both cultural and emotional:

"I taught an introductory creative writing class at Princeton last year and, in addition to the classic 'show don't tell', I often told my students that their fiction needed to have 'emotional truth' [...]: a quality different from honesty and more resilient than fact, a quality that existed not in the kind of fiction that explains but in the kind of fiction that shows.  All the novels I love, the ones I remember, the ones I re-read, have this empathetic human quality.  And because I write the kind of fiction I like to read, when I started Half of a Yellow Sun [...], I hoped that emotional truth would be its major recognizable trait. [...]

 

Successful fiction does not need to be validated by 'real life'; I cringe whenever a writer is asked how much of a novel is 'real'.  Yet, [...] to write realistic fiction about war, especially one central to the history of one's own country, is to be constantly aware of a responsibility to something larger than art.  While writing Half of a Yellow Sun, I enjoyed playing with minor things [such as inventing a train station in a town that has none].  Yet I did not play with the central events of that time.  I could not let a character be changed by anything that had not actually happened.  If fiction is indeed the soul of history, then I was equally committed to the fiction and the history, equally keen to be true to the spirit of the time as well as to my artistic vision of it. 

 

The writing itself was a bruising experience. [...] But there were also moments of extravagant joy when I recognized, in a character or moment or scene, that quality of emotional truth."

 

(Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie, In the Shadow of Biafra -- essay included in the 2007 Harper Perennial edition of Half of a Yellow Sun).

Half of a Yellow Sun has been called everything from "stunning" and "a landmark novel" to "heartbreaking", "exquisitely written, "a literary masterpiece" and "a classic" (the last four of these, in one and the same sentence of a Daily Mail review blurbed on the front cover of my edition).  The novel is probably all of these things, and yet, let's face it, all of these terms are nothing so much as well-worn reviewer's clichésSince they're the coinage by which professional reviewers the world over operate, I'm sure Ms. Adichie still preferred getting plenty of this sort of accolades over being ripped apart by these same professional reviewers' mercilessly acidic tongues, which the same time-honored traditions of the trade reserve for books not considered worth the respective reviewer's precious time. -- Being a mere amateur, I'm going to content myself with saying that this novel is precisely what Ms. Adichie hoped it would be: an emotionally brutally honest book; a fragment of Nigerian history told through the eyes of a small, diverse, and devastatingly flawed group of people.

 

(And of course I'm going to count this towards the letter "A" of the Women Writers Bingo ... never mind that I've already read another book qualifying for that particular square.)

 

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review 2018-04-21 19:35
Zombie Abbey
Zombie Abbey - Lauren Baratz-Logsted

[I received a copy of this book through NetGalley. ]

A story with Austen undertones… and zombies. (I’ve seen it compared to ‘Pride and Prejudice and Zombies’, but not having read that one, I honestly can’t tell.)

At Porthampton Abbey, a couple of years after World War I, the Clarke family has to contend with the problem of the entail, just like in ‘Pride and Prejudice’—meaning that if one of the daughters (preferably the elder, Kate) doesn’t marry very soon and has a male heir, their family will lose their estate after the death of Earl Clarke. Which is why the latter has invited a couple of potential suitors to stay for the weekend, including an older businessman from London, a duke, and a recently discovered cousin who’s very likely to inherit anyway, considering he’s the only male heir (but here’s to hope he’ll marry Kate, and all will be well in the world). And the story would go its posh, merry way, if not for the strange death of a villager, found half-devoured… A villager whom his widow has to kill a second time with a bullet to the head.

The beginning of this story definitely has its appeal: the Clarkes display a comical mix of common sense (Kate when it comes to hunting, for instance) and quirky, whimsical inability to grasp that other people are not only their servants, they’re, well, human beings with their own lives, too. This was a conflict in itself in the book, with the ‘Upstairs’ people having to realise that they have to pay more attention to the ‘Downstairs’ people. The build-up to the part where zombies actually make an appearance was a little slow, but in itself, it didn’t bother me, because discovering the characters (and rolling my eyes while trying to guess who’d kick the bucket) was quite fun. Granted, some of the characters weren’t very likeable; the earl felt too silly, Kate too insensitive… but on the other hand, I liked where Lizzy and Grace started and how they progressed—Lizzy as the girl whom everyone thinks stupid, yet who turns out to be level-headed when things become dangerous, and Grace being likely the most humane person in her family. The suitors, too, looked rather bland at first, however a couple of them started developing more of a (pleasant) personality. And I quite liked Fanny as well, the quiet-at-first but assertive maid who refuses to let ‘propriety’walks all over charity.

After a while, though, the style became a little repetitive. The way the various characters’ point of views were introduced at the beginning of each chapter or sub-chapter, for some reason, tended to grate on my nerves, I’m not exactly sure why; and while I don’t have issues with casts of more than 2-3 POV characters, here the focus regularly went back to some action already shown in a previous chapter, but this time from another character’s point of view, which felts redundant.

I also thought that while there -were- zombies, I’d have liked seeing a little more of them. There was tension, but I never felt the story was really scary (for me and for the characters both), and the moments when a character got hurt was usually due to their being too stupid to live and doing something that no one in their sane mind should’ve done anyway.

Finally, I’m not satisfied with the ending: I don’t know it there’ll be a sequel or not, but if it’s meant to be a standalone, then it leaves way too many things open.

Conclusion: 2.5 /3 stars. I’m curious about how the situation at Porthampton Abbey will unfold, and if there were a sequel, that’d be good, because it’d mean the characters could finish growing, too.

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review 2018-04-21 19:17
I Was Anastasia
I Was Anastasia - Ariel Lawhon

I Was Anastasia

 

Ariel Lawhon, 2018

 

 

In 1918, after being overthrown and imprisoned by the Bolshevicks, the Tsar and his family were taken into a basement in Ekaterinburg and murdered. This included the Tsar, his wife, his son, his four daughters, and four members of their staff. No one survived... or did they? Rumors spread that the youngest daughter, Anastasia, survived the attack. In 1920, a woman is pulled from a canal in Berlin. Covered in scars, she at first refuses to identify herself, but eventually claims to be Anastasia herself. This is the story of both Anastasia as a child and of the woman known as Anna Anderson, and about the mystery that surrounded them.

 

I'm going to try and do this review without any major spoilers.

 

First of all, I want to talk about the structure of the book, which is really the only thing I had an issue with, although I'm not sure how I would have done it differently. The chapters alternate, with one telling the story of Anastasia from the point where the Bolshevicks begin their rebellion and overthrow of the imperial family, through to the point of the execution. The other chapters are told from the point of view of Anna Anderson, starting in 1970 when the courts are ruling about whether or not they believe her claim, and work backward from there to 1918. This is the point where I had some trouble. I want to say that I think it was probably the right way to tell this book, allowing for the two stories to meet in the middle, but I sometimes found it hard to follow. A chapter would introduce a character and I would know I had heard the name before, but couldn't always remember the details. I think my problem might have stemmed more from the fact that I didn't read this book straight through - the last 100 pages or so I read in a much shorter span of time and had no trouble keeping characters straight. So I definitely recommend just reading this one through and not taking your time with it. In general I'm not always a huge fan of weird timelines like this, but while I didn't necessarily love reading it this way, it definitely made the most sense for the book. I don't think it would have worked otherwise. 

 

Second, the plot. Now, anyone who knows any Anastasia Romanov history knows that the woman named Anna Anderson is a real person and really did claim to be Anastasia, but that it was later proved that she was not Anastasia - Anastasia unfortunately died with the rest of her family in 1918. This is not a spoiler. This is actual historical fact. What I didn't know going into this book - and what I won't reveal in this review - is how the author was going to use these facts. Was she presenting the book as an actual true account, or was she using these real people and writing a fictional account: "What if Anna Anderson really was Anastasia?" I didn't know. Which made the book interesting (and which is why I'm not revealing it here.) All I will say is that when the two stories reach their conclusion in 1918, I was pleasantly surprised by the outcome. 

 

Overall, I'm not quite sure how to rate this book. I found the plot to be enjoyable as a whole. I much preferred the Anastasia chapters to the Anna chapters, however. I thought that, at times, the Anna story dragged a bit - it covered a large number of years, but not a whole lot happened. They weren't bad, and they were well written, I just found that overall I found Anna's timeline more interesting and kept wanting to get back to it. I did find the book as a whole to be well-written and well-researched, though, and overall I liked it, even though there were a few chapters that dragged and despite my initial problems with following the reverse timeline. I would recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the Anastasia story or who enjoys historical fiction.

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review 2018-04-20 17:19
Harem by Colin Falconer
Harem - Colin Falconer

I don't know much about this time period, or the Ottoman empire, but this book certainly pulled me in from the beginning!

 

 This is the story of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent and his harem, specifically about 1 of his slave girls from his harem, (Hurrem Sultan), and how she rose to have so much power. I'm sure no one knows exactly what she was like in real life, but in this book she was vile! Just a really vindictive and mean person, but I think that's why I couldn't stop reading this book...because I just had to know what this woman was going to do next!

 

 

 

There was another side story going on the book that was just as interesting, at least to me, because it involved the chief eunuch in the harem, and that one was a bit sad.

 

I hadn't read a Falconer book in a long time...since his Cleopatra book many years ago, (which I also enjoyed). But I have a few of them sitting in my kindle and I am definitely going to be moving them up the queue.

 

Recommended for historical fiction fans.
4/5 stars

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review 2018-04-20 09:08
The Black Diamond by Andrea Kane
The Black Diamond - Andrea Kane

Aurora Huntley has spent more than a decade as a virtual prisoner in her home due to her overprotective brother and dangers lurking outside her little world. Her family is besieged by privateers and burglars trying to get their hands on the legendary black diamond that's supposed to be in her family's possession. Yet it isn't, and they have no idea where it is.

Still, dangers abound, and Aurora's brother, Slayde, decides on an ultimate protection for his sister—marriage. But Aurora doesn't want to get married, despite the suitability of the suitor, so she devises a cunning plan—she'll get a man to compromise her, thus ending her forced betrothal.

Little does she know that the man doing the supposed ruining is the Romeo to her Juliet, the last remaining descendant of the Bencrofts, her family's archenemies. Julian might have been the black sheep of the family, but he's still a Bencroft, and he's still in the search of the black diamond that's supposedly brought ruin to his family. But Julian isn't searching for the diamond out for its monetary value, his reasons run deeper, and he's willing to bring Aurora along on the journey.

A journey that will be more rewarding than either of them ever suspected.


Yes, yes, yes. If Legacy of the Diamond was a bad start to the "story", this one is a great ending.

First of all, Aurora, the rather self-centered brat from Legacy received a personality transplant and I actually liked her. She was lively, spirited, stubborn, resilient, and adventurous, a perfect other half of Julian, the hero.
They complimented each other, they were each other's equals, no matter what, and the budding friendship, partnership and romance that developed were wonderful to read. It didn't feel rushed (despite happening in a mere week), both characters were nicely developed, and the flow of the story gave the reader ample time to get to know both of them, and ultimately understand what drew them together.

The rest was also very well done. The pacing was excellent, the mystery intriguing, I loved the treasure hunt styled following of the clues, and the suspense scenes were well-written and gripping, offering one jolt after another when all was revealed.
I didn't see the other danger coming, and was pleasantly surprised by it.

The resolution to the utterly stupid family feud was beautifully done, and the finale with the affirming epilogue was just the right icing on this particular cake.

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