Review: The Scarlet Pimpernel by Emma Orczy

In the wake of the French Revolution, one man stands against the Terror and the bloodthirsty guillotine. He is known as… the Scarlet Pimpernel!! In this pulpy adventure-romance, Emma Orczy originates the trope of a hero with a secret identity.

The main character is not the Scarlet Pimpernel, but rather Lady Marguerite Blakeney, a clever Frenchwoman married to a handsome, wealthy, and stupid Englishman. When an old acquaintance blackmails her into joining his efforts against the Scarlet Pimpernel, she struggles between her personal good and the greater good.

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This book reads the way you might expect from the description. It’s chock full of action and adventure, the Scarlet Pimpernel maneuvering himself out of high-stakes situations at the last moment. Or, rather, he very often prepares his escape before he’s even trapped. Like in Sherlock Holmes, there are builds to elaborate reveals.

Unlike in Sherlock Holmes, though, these reveals can be fairly predictable. I was taken in by one or two of the Pimpernel’s tricks, but I was able to foresee the better part of the last third of the book. I enjoy figuring out a twist here and there, but in this case, some of the puzzles are just too easy.

Also, as you might expect from a novel with anti-Revolution tendencies, there is a hefty dose of classism with sides of sexism and racism. It’s such a light and frolicsome read that I couldn’t take the author’s biases too seriously, but if these things are likely to ruin your reading experience, steer clear.

Nonetheless, The Scarlet Pimpernel is a fun and swashbuckling sort of read. Like a modern-day action film, it’s meant more for a thrilling ride than anything else. I recommend it to anyone looking for a short book that goes down easy, especially if you’re trying to get into classics, but are intimidated by more complex works.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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Review: The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai

She was struck by the selfish thought that this was not fair to her. That she’d been in the middle of a different story, one that had nothing to do with this. …Stupid men and their stupid violence, tearing apart everything good that was ever built.

In the 1980s, Yale Tishman is weighed down by a tricky art acquisition for work, relationship problems, and the AIDS crisis striking down his community. In 2015, Fiona chases a shadow of a hope to Paris, where she searches for her estranged daughter. The connection between the two? Fiona’s brother, Nico, was a pillar of Chicago’s gay community and a good friend of Yale’s before dying of AIDS.

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The Great Believers is a twisty book. While its narrative is firmly entrenched within the perspectives of its two main characters, its cast is a large ensemble, sweeping across decades and tied together by all kinds of messy, strained, and complicated relationships.

And frankly, as I got further and further into the book, I got the distinct impression that it’s something someone my mom’s age would read for their book club. There’s the nostalgia for the youthful eighties in one thread, a relatable middle-aged woman of the present day in the other, and they’re tied together by the regrets and hardships in between. It’s a book that I, as a young person, struggled to read in the same way I struggled to read The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (although that book is hard to read for multiple reasons).

The intricacy of the characters’ relationships combines with the reader’s initial unfamiliarity with said characters in such a way that the book ends up with a slow start. At the beginning, I had trouble mustering the curiosity to follow all of the petty intrigues that were happening. Fiona’s thread suffers from this more than Yale’s. However, as new facets of the characters reveal themselves, and as connections arise between past and present, the plot gradually becomes more engrossing.

By the end of the book, every new detail makes the tale more heart-wrenching. It makes me realize that it’s easy to forgive a slow start in a book if the ending is good. The ending here is an agonizing denouement, scratch upon scratch and bruise upon bruise. A blurb on the back of the book calls it “a healer and a heartbreaker,” but the healing is in catharsis and survival, the healing of a scar rather than a cure.

This book is meaty, emotional, and an excellent tribute to the gay community of 1980s Chicago. It’s also not really my type of book, although I did enjoy it overall. If you are looking for a book club book, though, The Great Believers is a solid fresh pick and a tearjerker without being wholly depressing.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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Review: The Calculating Stars by Mary Robinette Kowal

A female astronaut heads into outer space on the first moon mission. That’s it; that’s the premise. But what does it take to get her there? The Calculating Stars is an alternate history that explores how women might have made it as early astronauts if circumstances were different. While the upcoming sequel promises to tell of their adventures in space, this first book is focused on the who, what, where, when, and why.

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It’s a disastrous meteorite collision with Earth that sets into motion an accelerated space race, but it’s the ambition of Dr. Elma York that enters women into the program. Far from being a flight of fancy, the story takes more from nonfiction books like Hidden Figures and Code Girls than from other science fiction. York is a former WASP and a computer, an expert in the fields that make spaceflight possible.

The story takes on not only sexism, but also racism, religious discrimination, and mental health stigma. Our protagonist, a Jewish woman who struggles with anxiety, works hand in hand with men and women of different ethnicities to achieve her goal. It’s a refreshing reminder that all sorts of people have existed in the USA throughout its history, and that despite barriers, many marginalized people have accomplished great things, even when they weren’t recognized for it.

And while I love that, it’s also attached to my biggest quibble with the book: the lens through which we see the story is too modern. The dialogues and attitudes of the more progressive characters align with extremely current perspectives and analyses of race, gender, and religion. I’m not saying that there weren’t forward-thinking people in the 1950s. There absolutely were. I’m saying that the specifics of their forward-thinking thoughts seem streamlined and overly consistent with the politics of 2018. While this makes it a digestible read in the moment, I doubt that this aspect will hold up well over time.

My other quibble is relatively minor, but it has to be said. Elma and her husband engage in lots of science-related flirting and innuendo. It’s unnecessary, and to me, kind of cringey. Yes, it’s great that Nathaniel is a loving and supportive husband… but do we really need those kinds of details?! I don’t think we do.

That being said, Elma is a sympathetic protagonist, and her nemesis is equally as hate-able, being the embodiment of petty sexism. The pacing is dynamic and full of action. Overall, it’s a well-written book that does what it came here to do: no frills, just an exciting, empowering read.

I recommend The Calculating Stars to fans of Hidden Figures, or to anyone who wants to see a more diverse range of faces in science fiction.

Rating: 4/5 (calculating) stars.

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Review: Everything Belongs to Us by Yoojin Grace Wuertz

You made a fool of us– what right do you have? Not everything is your plaything. Not everything belongs to you.

This novel takes places in the simmering political environment of South Korea in 1978, a year before the assassination of dictator Park Chung-hee. Its opening scene takes place at a factory workers’ protest, unarmed women facing a government crackdown. With this kind of setting, you might expect the plot to be political in nature.

It is and it isn’t. The central dilemma of Everything Belongs to Us concerns three students at Seoul National University, the country’s most prestigious school. Jisun is a poor little rich girl turned labor activist, the heiress of a chaebol, an elite, massive conglomerate with fingers in every pie. Namin, her foil, claws her way up from poverty, determined to succeed in life. Caught between the two of them is Sunam, a male student among thousands, neither rich nor poor, ambitious but lacking in drive. The politics here are personal, a microcosm of three different strata of society meeting.

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While their story is totally different from the book, Wuertz was inspired by her parents’ college years.

In short: everything belongs to Jisun, but she doesn’t want it. Namin has nothing and wants everything, but not if she has to eat it from Jisun’s hand. Sunam has something, but he’s opportunistic. He could always have more.

The entanglements of these three students, rather than resolving themselves, become nastier and more complex throughout the novel. Like so many tragic heroes, fate binds them ever stronger in its hold as they try to struggle against it. Rather than ending with a violent fall from grace, though, the story twists into an unsatisfying anticlimax that mirrors the protagonists’ dissatisfaction with their own lives. All of them get what they want in life, more or less, but with a tinge of bitterness to it. “Everything belongs to us,” claims the title, but what did they sacrifice to get it?

The types of these characters seem obvious, easily cast as leads in a drama. However, sometimes a character that can be painted in broad brushstrokes is exactly what a story needs. Simple on their own, they become fuller versions of themselves through the ways they interact with one another. The fact that they end up more or less where they began only makes it more intriguing.

The prose of this book is like a pinball machine, each sentence bouncing from the one before it. Sometimes the angle is expected, and other times it ricochets to a completely different direction. Wuertz has the chops to skillfully paint pictures with words, but she resists the temptation to over-describe. We learn just enough about the scene to set the tone before diving into the action.

The plot develops so quickly that saying much about the contents of the book would spoil it, so suffice it to say that I was seriously impressed with this book. It’s almost hard to believe that this is Wuertz’s debut novel. It makes you think more deeply about the meanings of words like money, love, and success. I recommend it to anyone looking for a fast-paced but thoughtful read steeped in interpersonal drama.

Rating: 5/5 stars.

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Review: Ramya’s Treasure by Pratap Reddy

I was provided with a digital advance reader copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Ramya has just been laid off from her office job. Approaching fifty, she reflects on the steps that have taken her from a privileged childhood in India to scraping by in Canada, depressed and alone. Sounds bleak, doesn’t it? While Ramya’s life’s journey has its low points, she also takes us through her joys and adventures, and the novel ends on a cautiously optimistic note.

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Ramya tells her story through a box of mementos, each one representing an important person or memory in her life. While this premise seems promising at first, I found that the objects in the box act as scaffolding, helpful for providing structure while writing, but unnecessary in the final draft. This book could easily have told the same story without relying on the “treasure” idea. Additionally, the title Ramya’s Treasure, while apt, is not very compelling.

Parts of the story are told in the present tense, while others are in the past tense. This does have a functional purpose for the narrative, but the execution comes across as a bit stilted. Writing in present tense can be a tricky business, and Reddy doesn’t always pull it off.

The book has a slow start, but gains steam quickly and maintains momentum through the end. This is in part due to how the structure loosens up as it goes along, not quite as restricted to the object-story premise as in the beginning. The exposition at the beginning snowballs and reading becomes easier as more puzzle pieces connect.

Reddy’s characterization of Ramya is a strong point in his writing. Authors of a different gender from the characters they write can sometimes make mistakes, but Ramya is a believable woman, and beyond that, a complex, well-rounded character. The depiction of depression is realistic and her background perfectly establishes how she has arrived to this point in her life.

On the other hand, there is a bit too much of “write what you know” in this novel. To a certain extent, I think that writing characters similar to oneself can be a good thing. Reddy’s portrayal of the immigrant experience clearly draws on his own life in a way that enriches the story. However, I’m always skeptical of a writer writing a writer character. It can be done well, but very often, including here, it comes across as navel-gazing.

As an editorial aside, I think that some sentences in this book have more commas in them than necessary.

Ramya’s Treasure has good bones. Still, it’s apparent that this is a debut novel, and Reddy’s previous publications have been short stories. There is an echo of the short story in the way this book is structured, and I wish that Reddy had reworked it a bit more to fit the novel format. I think that he has a lot of potential as a writer. Certain passages sucked me in. Still, he also has room for improvement. If he publishes another novel, I will keep an eye out for it because I want to see where he goes from here.

Ramya’s Treasure will be released on September 1st. If this review intrigued you, check it out! You can buy or pre-order it here.

Rating: 3/5 stars.

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Review: Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson

Everywhere we looked, we saw the people trying to dream themselves out. As though there was someplace other than this place. As though there was another Brooklyn.

If I had to describe Another Brooklyn in terms of other books, I would say it lies somewhere between The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and the poetry of Langston Hughes. Jacqueline Woodson’s writing takes the outward shape of prose, but it is imbued with poetry.

It’s a short, quick read. In the first place, it’s less than two hundred pages, but it’s also made up of short paragraphs that are separated by spacing rather than indentation. Even the writing style is a bit “easy come, easy go” — it’s easy to get into, but also easy to put down. For that reason, I would recommend swallowing it whole, if possible. You can easily finish it in one or two afternoons, then go back and reread to soak it in more. I read this book pretty slowly, and that did me a disservice because it was harder for me to remember what happened when I picked it up again.

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August moves to Brooklyn with her father and brother at eight years old in 1973. The story encompasses her girlhood, flush with the affection of her three best friends, Angela, Sylvia, and Gigi. Their bond keeps them afloat through their various personal trials — in August’s case, coming to terms with what happened to her mother. August’s memories of her childhood are bittersweet, though. “What is tragic isn’t the moment,” she narrates. “It is the memory.”

The nostalgia in this book tugged at my heartstrings. In some ways, I could see my young, girlish friendships in August’s little crew. I remember how important it was to have a clique growing up, not for the purpose of excluding others, but as a safe haven. The people you could trust no matter what. In other ways, though, August’s childhood is much darker and shorter than my own. The shadow of her mother’s death hangs over her, and in the streets of Brooklyn lie in wait hardships and experiences that force children to grow up too fast.

As an adult, August’s preoccupation with death has led her to become an anthropologist in study of funerary rituals. Throughout the novel, passages are punctuated with descriptions of death around the world, tinted with suggestions of what customs say about a culture’s attitudes toward life and death. This motif is clever and it certainly works within the context of the story, but for me, it is a touch too on the nose.

The one part of the story that I felt was a bit self-indulgent was toward the very end, when August discovers herself in jazz music. On a structural level, this has the function of closing one of the many circles that Woodson likes to draw in her writing, but in practice, we see August become a moody, artistic young adult who sleeps around and travels the world. Maybe I just don’t have any poetry in my soul, but I feel that the sort of person August becomes as an adult is doing things and liking things in place of having an actual personality. The closest thing we get to a glimpse of August as a settled, self-actualized adult is in a brief meeting with her brother at the beginning of the novel.

Another Brooklyn is a lyrical and neatly constructed story of a childhood in snapshots. In some places there is a flair for style over substance, but it still has a lot of heart. I recommend this if you’re looking for a book that is easy to read, but meaningful and poetic.

Rating: 4/5 stars.

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Review: Biography of an American Bondman, by His Daughter, Josephine Brown

Most American students are familiar with the genre of slave narrative. We’ve all at some point been assigned autobiographies such as Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass or Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Jacobs. These books are the product of a peculiar class of African-Americans, fugitive, yet often famous, risen from ashes to become leaders in the most pivotal movement in American history.

The contents of these books tend to follow similar structures: the horrors of slavery, the moment of enlightenment and desire for freedom, the failed attempt, the daring escape, the perilous journey, and the struggle to establish oneself afterward. Among the pages is usually chronicled the method by which the former slave learned to read, and pleas to the reader against slavery in the name of reason or religion punctuate it all.

There’s a disparity, though.

Writers like Frederick Douglass or the subject of this biography, William Wells Brown, became respected intellectuals in their time. Female authors like Harriet Jacobs or Harriet Wilson, who wrote Our Nig about her indentured servitude in the North, received no such accolades. The most prominent female abolitionist author was always Harriet Beecher Stowe, a white woman. Even famed poet Phillis Wheatley died in poverty. The pre-emancipation manuscripts we have that are written by black women have largely been dug up by historians over one hundred years later.

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Harriet Jacobs wasn’t confirmed as author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl until many years after her death.

The same problem exists for the writings of black men, of course. Solomon Northup’s Twelve Years a Slave was also lost to history for a time. Still, the lives and work of black female authors have been systematically devalued to an even greater extent, and during the time of slavery, there was little hope for them to achieve similar literary success to their male counterparts.

Josephine Brown didn’t write in order to get credit for it, that much is clear. At the beginning of the books, she clearly states that the reason for her publishing this biography is that her father’s autobiography was out of print at the time. What follows is a staid, no-frills biography that one would scarcely believe was written by Mr. Brown’s daughter, were it not stated in the title. She takes excerpts from her father’s writings and from critics of his work, transcribing paragraphs at a time without hesitation. Her concern is not literary quality, but rather historical documentation.

Her most egregious fumbling with words takes place in the first chapter, where her hyperbole is particularly effusive. “A finer situation for a farm could scarcely have been selected in any part of the country,” she writes. “…Distinguished for her strength both of body and mind, and a woman of great courage, Elizabeth was considered one of the most valuable slaves on the place. Although Dr. Young was not thought to be the hardest of masters, he nevertheless employed, as an overseer, a man whose acts of atrocity could scarcely have been surpassed in any of the slave States.”

She does include occasional anecdotes, some more believable than others. The story of her father arguing his fare with a white train conductor, for example, seems like it ought to have gotten him arrested rather than a clean moral victory. The tales of his setting up shop as first a barber, then a banker, are similarly lively, but somewhat less outrageous. She also injects a certain amount of family pride into the narrative when she lists the various elites with whom her father hobnobbed in Europe as well as excerpts of glowing reviews of his books.

Brown is not the most engaging writer, but she knows this, and so she keeps her narrative short and to the point, sparing the reader most poor attempts at flourishes. This is a woman who wrote out of necessity, not wanting her father’s efforts to be forgotten, and for that, I admire her.

I recommend this book to anyone interested in African-American history or in slave narratives. It’s a dry but not terrible read that provides valuable historical information.

Rating: 2/5 Stars.

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