The Tombs [Review]

The Tombs

In the dark industrial city of 1882 New York, Avery Kohl is a girl trying to get by. She works at an IronWorks factory to support she and her father who are still reeling from the institutionalization of her mother in the notorious Tombs, an aptly named prison and asylum.

But Avery has a secret. She keeps her head down fearing that she’s suffering from the same madness that took her mother when she starts seeing visions. She buries this secret down until it presents itself in a workplace explosion that reveals her secret powers. Now she must hide in the city to avoid the Crows that run the Tombs.

I must state up front that I had high expectations for this book. It was a historical fiction with a brilliant premise full of intrigue, madness, and the spiritual supernatural. But I was greatly disappointed. Actually, disappointment is not a strong enough word for how I felt about this book in the end. I kinda hated it but I really hate to use that word but it’s how I feel.

Every time I picked up The Tombs, I felt like I was reading a series of events, not an actual story. The story is a historical fiction with some slight steampunk leanings. There’ are airships and advanced clockwork robotics but that’s not really delved into. (This is a theme, by the way)

The book reads like a cookie-cutter historical fiction. It’s obvious that Deborah Schaumberg did some research into the times but the history isn’t integrated that well.

Take, for instance, the rise of unions in response to unreasonable work conditions. Avery works as a welder in an IronWorks factory. She’s apparently so good that despite the obvious sexism that would arise in such a profession of the era, she’s kept on the force. But the narrative really never explores her position in an all-male profession or how she dealt with some the sexism that naturally comes with that. The narrative never shows why she’s passionate about her job and it doesn’t help that she frames the job as a burden to support her alcoholic father. More egregious is the narrative’s treatment of the history of unions and the reductiveness it takes to both sides of the conflict. Avery never personally gets herself involved. She’s let in on the secret union meetings but she never takes part in them and the narrative never thoughtfully delves into the nuances of the issue. Instead, we get mustache twisting industrialists and rioting protestors to push through a message that “We are all people so why can’t we get along?”

A lot of the historical detail is treated this way. It’s referenced but not thoughtfully explored. Sexism, racism, lingering civil war tension, and the horrible conditions in mental health institutions are paid some lip service but before we really delve into those topics we’re skipping to the next thing. The history is just window dressing to a weak narrative of personal growth, self-acceptance, and a surface level screed on human compassion.

disappointed
My face when I got to the ultimate “They’re fighting but why can’t we all get along. If only they could see we’re human and…[insert reductive reason that never discusses nuances here]” climax
I don’t think that the characters were entirely fleshed out either. The cast in this is huge and juggling all those people around is a huge effort. But you never know how important a character is. Minor characters are given more of a spotlight. Major characters are shoved into the background. A random love triangle is shoehorned in just because and obvious dumb mistakes were made by the main character a little too much for my liking.

I guess I’ve made no secret of my dislike of this book. I’m very big on my historical in my fiction. I’m rather sensitive to it. If you’re curious, I say pick it up. One critic did say it was a good cross between the Gangs of New York and Cassandra Clare. If you like either of those…maybe go for it. I mean, I don’t see it but okay.

My Rating:

 

1 star

Burial Rites [Review]

burial rites

Burial Rites is a haunting historical fiction exploring the last months of Agnes Magnusdottir, the last person beheaded by the state in 1830. Convicted because of her involvement in murder and arson, she’s sentenced to spend the rest of her days with a family who is horrified at the prospect of sheltering a murderess under their roof. At first, only Toti, a local priest that Agnes chose to prepare her for the afterlife, would have anything to do with her but as those around warm up to her, they come to realize that not all is as it appears to be.

I’m really glad I picked up this book. It’s haunting, foreboding, and as you’re reading you can feel the weight of everything that’s happening. The setting of a dark and harsh rural Icelandic landscape was so visually expressed, I could feel the sting of the cold.

One of the themes of this book explores the nature of gossip and how it does much to influence how other’s perceive characters. How someone can be ostracized by what is simply said about them. The setting is similar to a big small town. Everyone knows everybody and one public transgression of societal norms can brand someone for life.

One of the things I loved about this book is how narratives can be twisted. Even as Agnes was giving her account, she commented how her words were taken from her. Used, abused, and turned around to reflect a reality that is ascribed to her.

I remained quiet. I am determined to close myself to the world, to tighten my heart and hold what has not yet been stolen from me.

Due to this, she finds herself cold. She doesn’t try to protest the ways people perceive her finding some solace in the quiet and manual labor.

This theme is what kept me hooked into the book. I loved how the story does the work of bringing to life this historical character. It most sharply does this by giving her a first person voice in contrast to the third person narrative. The reader is privy to the mental throes she goes through as she thinks on her past, her present, and the future that ebbs shorter with each passing day.

But I still didn’t love the book.

When I give a book a four-star rating, I try to really question what, if anything, prevents me from loving it. Oftentimes, this is hard to articulate. In this book’s case, it was the ending.

The ending is a foregone conclusion. Agnes Magnusdottir is executed. This historical record tells us this and since historical fiction draws heavily from that, it has to stick to it. This isn’t what I had a problem with. The central question of the narrative is the “how” and “why” to the murders in Illusgastidir. It hangs over most of the cast and does a lot to influence what the audience takes away from Agnes’ character. But I felt neither of these things had an impact on the course of events. It doesn’t necessarily have to but it says something that these details were thrown in as a plot dump near the very end.

This one little issue didn’t detract to the whole experience, however. More of the point of the story was to give a voice to a woman didn’t get much of one during her actual time. In this, the story is really successful and I recommend it highly on this alone.

My Rating:

 

4 half stars

Yesterday [Review]

17264080The Skinny: Amanda is trying to get her life back on track after experiencing a recent tragedy. While making her way to her job, she runs into a Mark Callahan, a mounted policeman of the Chicago force. After their dramatic meeting, they feel drawn to each other. Almost as if they’ve known each other in a former life. Their discovery of what ties them together takes them from the battlefields of the Civil War to the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

You know those novels where the premise just sounds so perfect. Where it seems to have the perfect blend of action, psychology, history with the right smatterings of a romance to make for a compelling narrative? Ever had all these hopes dashed?

Okay, that might be a bit harsh. While reading this book, I just couldn’t help but feel so disillusioned with everything: the characters, the structure, the romance (oh the romance!). But let me take a step back.

Of course, there were narrative elements I really did like about the story. The opening chapters are full of action and quirky character details were instantly engaging. Every step back in time was beautifully written with rich historical detail. I looked forward to the sections where we were seeing the Civil War through a child’s eyes and the devastation wrought by the Chicago Fire of 1871. Samyann’s clear love of Chicago, past and present, really comes through. These were the parts where I thought the book truly shined.

Let me just preface the next section by stating that I know that this book wasn’t written for me. For a mystery, horror, and nonfiction enthusiast, romance ends up being a really hit or miss genre. I more enjoy romance as a piece of greater narrative, not the point of the narrative. Whether two people get together can’t be the only stake. Despite the many elements in Yesterday, it is essentially a romance story with that one stake. More frustratingly, however, is that it’s a romance novel where I didn’t even care if the leads got together.

I really disliked the characters, particularly the leads. Amanda has suffered many tragic losses throughout her life and finds that these tragic incidents define her life. She refuses to get close to any other person. When she feels that she might lose someone, she completely breaks down. This is not too bad by itself but how it was executed grated on my nerves. She has obvious coping issues but the narrative posits love instead of therapy as her ultimate cure.

The psychological therapy where she regresses into her past life was supposed to reveal a trend of trauma and to figure out how she knows Mark, the other main lead. The story continually posits Mark as the fix to her trauma. That being together will ultimately fix Amanda’s mindset and I wasn’t here for it. Something about it rubbed me the wrong way and it was really difficult for me to root for them as a couple because of it. There’s no growth that naturally springs from the narrative. The solution is that they should be together and the narrative more hinges on that question than any personal development.

I also had a problem with how the story was structured. Most of the plot happens while the characters are sitting down talking and drinking their favorite beverage (be it wine, beer, coffee, what have you). Important plot points are referenced in the past tense. Scenes outside of these that I would’ve much rather seen like Mark’s discussion with the antique store owner are skipped over so the characters can talk about it in Amanda’s apartment. This structure becomes quite trying. Even in past scenes, I would’ve more liked to see how Bonnie’s (Amanda’s past life) family lived through the Civil War before ultimately making the decision to go North. Or how I would’ve loved to see Bonnie and Daniel first meeting in the past rather than just dropping into that story at a much later date–skipping right past their first meeting to their courting.

Unfortunately, this is why I could hardly enjoy the book. I really, really wanted to love it but I couldn’t.

 

My Rating:

1 star

Pachinko [Review]

pachinkoThe Skinny: A sweeping epic of a Korean family that starts with the Japanese colonial acquisition of Korea in 1911 in Yeongdo to around 1990s Tokyo. In the years in between, the reader is introduced to several generations that try to make the best through poverty, discrimination, and struggles with identity.

“History has failed us, but no matter.”

It says something that a book manages to hook me into the thick of its narrative by the power of its first line alone. Historical fiction has come to define my year in books thus far. Here’s another one and it’s soooo good!

This book highlighted a part of Asian history that I haven’t quite explored before. I don’t know much about Korea. I’ve been a big enthusiast of Japanese culture since middle school. It started out as an obsession with anime that bloomed to a love of the country’s history, culture, and music. I was only introduced to the country’s racial and ethnic tension fairly recently.

My last semester of college actually where I took a Japanese film class. One of the first movies we studied was a 2001 drama called Go! It told the story of a Korean/Japanese teenager growing up in Japan. It was when I first learned that most Koreans in Japan are treated as foreigners in the land where they were born. It was quite eye-opening and showed me the different ways around the world people are othered and it’s internally manifested in othered populations.

The extent of this truly didn’t hit home for me until I picked up Pachinko. It tells the story of how several generations of a Korean family struggled throughout the 20th century. From colonization to the Pacific War to the modern day. Amidst the everyday struggles of poverty, desire, subjugation, and despair, they scratched out the best living they could.

It’s a beautifully written historical epoch with a cast a wholly memorable cast of characters. It was a great book which also serves as a good primer to begin learning about the social and historical issues confronted in the narrative.

My Rating:

 

4 half stars

Kindred [Review]

KindredThe Skinny: Dana, an African-American woman in the 1970s, finds herself constantly forced back into the antebellum South. Each time she saves the son of a plantation owner’s son, Rufus, and forced to play the part of the slave until she’s transported home. But each stay proves increasingly dangerous.

Kindred was an interesting book to dive into. I’ve been meaning to dig into an Octavia Butler book for a few years now and after an eventful bookstore trip, I decided to pick up this one first. It took several months after to unearth it from my TBR pile and I wasn’t disappointed.

One of the things that I found most interesting about this book (and what it’s most often remarked on in reference to it) is how it blends genres. Of course, there’s sci-fi with its time-traveling element but there’s also historical fiction. It uses futuristic elements to explore the past which I always find an interesting premise. The story more specifically fashions itself after the traditional slave narratives where former slaves recount the horrors of their experience. At the time, they were more utilized for advocacy purposes by abolitionists to bring an end to the institution. Think Harriet Jacob’s Incidents from the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) or Narrative of a Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845).

Articulating how I feel about books like these are difficult. I’m not quite sure about my decision to read this so soon after Homegoing.  I was hit by the same feelings, hurt by the emotional rollercoaster, musing over the same thoughts long after finishing.

It’s another book that touches on the impact of chattel slavery and its dehumanizing effects on the human soul. How slaves are forced day by agonizing day to making the best from a terrible situation. Like Homegoing it also takes on the impact of erasure, where family lines are cut, blurred or erased completely due to the institution. I would like to say that this was a difficult read due to the brutality of the narrative but I’ve read books like this before both fictionalized and not. It was hard to read but it was a harshness that I’ve grown used to.

Despite the last statement, this book does manage to set itself apart by its characters and how they interact with each other. The relationship that develops between Dana and Rufus was one plagued with strife (to put it extremely mildly) but it was underpinned by an intrinsic trust built on the other’s preservation. Seeing how this plays out throughout the course of the narrative kept me engaged throughout. Dana coming to terms with the era, interacting with the various people within and her place within it was also something that kept me feverishly turning through the pages.

This book has a lot of heavy moments–a lot of painful moments–but I recommend it to anyone curious about the period. It’s an excellent historical narrative and a great introduction to Octavia Butler.

My Rating:

 

4 half stars

Homegoing [Review]

HomegoingThere’s a certain trauma that runs throughout Homegoing. It acts deeply as generations get further and further from who get further and further from who they are. The trauma of Erasure. The trauma of not knowing. The trauma of being unable to trace that straight line through your family as names and histories are scratched out and smudged.

I find myself surprised by how deeply I fell in love with this book. Even reflecting on it brings a certain pressure to my hearts, loosens the well behind my eyes especially its last few pages. As two family lines finally meet through unconscious of their meeting. Though there’s healing in it beyond words.

This book had many characters and I felt for each and every one. Though the window we get to peer into each life seemed short, there was a wealth of feeling, a wealth of history. The language poetic and effusive.

I really can’t recommend this book enough.

My Rating:

5 stars