Tag: Books

Review: The Stars Are Fire by Anita Shreve


“The fire runs underground?” Grace asks.
She imagines secret fires tunneling beneath the house. “But how? There’s no oxygen.”
“There’s oxygen in peat and dead vegetation,” Gene explains. The fires move solely beneath the surface, he adds, burning enough to bring more oxygen into the soil. They can burn, undetected, for months, for years.

In October 1947, coastal Maine was ravaged by devastating fires. Sixteen people were killed and more than twenty separate fires burned throughout the state. Against this backdrop, Shreve introduces us to Grace, a housewife whose surface life is everything she thought she always wanted—two children and a successful husband who comes home to her every night. Its only as the fires take everything from Grace that she is faced with deciding what she really wants and, in turn, who that makes her.

Grace as a Survivor

I struggled with this review more than with others, simply because it is difficult to talk abut the evolution of Grace without giving away major plot points that, like a new shoot of growth, she must grow around or risk dying out. As I thought through writing this review, the thought I kept circling back to is that this is the story of surviving a violent relationship, yet most readers will not see it as such. Grace’s husband Gene, in his callousness, his entitlement, stifles and chokes Grace, nearly extinguishing her, yet almost never places his hands on her. Even in those moments, because of the way Shreve has developed the story, because of how familiar Grace’s unhappiness in her marriage feels, the reader is disinclined to jump to recognizing the violence—both emotional and physical—for what it is. Let me disillusion you. From working with survivors of violence and being one myself, this is what a violent relationship looks like. It is not all hits and slaps. It is the contempt Gene feels for Grace. The attempts to isolate. The gas-lighting. Grace is what it looks like to be a survivor.

The violent marital relationship, however, is not the main point of the book. Grace is not defined by Gene—a fact she has to come to realize herself as the fire, having burned away almost everything she thought she knew and held dear, instead gives her room to breathe for the first time. Just as some forests cannot live until the underbrush choking the tender new growth is burned away, so Grace cannot live until the fire burns away everything she knows.

“Classic” Anita Shreve

Admittedly, I have only read one other Anita Shreve and that was quite some time ago; however, this book has much of what I think of as Shrevian characteristics. Her language sizzles and smokes. Shreve writes in juxtapositions, highlighting the brightest whites with the inkiest blacks. Maine first goes through a wet season—so wet that once a dry day finally comes the white laundry flaps on the lines so that “it looked as though an entire town of women had surrendered.” The town, having nearly been destroyed by flood must now contend (or fall) to an all-consuming fire.

Her descriptions are neither lush nor spare, striking the right balance that leaves the reader well acquainted with their new surroundings in Grace’s world in Maine without feeling overwhelmed or slowed by strings of adjectives. There’s a more sex than I typically prefer in my reading; however, nothing that becomes gratuitous. No one is mistaking this book for a Harlequin anytime soon.

Her main character is a female who initially comes across as a shrinking violet before being faced with a series of plot twists that force Grace to either stand or fall on her own. The relationships among women are paramount, with Rosie being Grace’s anchor and safe place to land.

The Friendships of Women

Shreve shines with Rosie. The initial impression is that she’s a bit of a mess—her house is always cluttered, Grace has to save her and her children from the fire—and yet, Rosie is happy. Rosie is fulfilled and loved in her relationships and, as a result, Grace is drawn to her and to what she doesn’t have. I loved Rosie and hope that I can be the kind of friend she was to Grace. Without giving away more, I was pleased with Shreve’s use of Rosie and glad she stayed a part of the story for Grace despite their physical distance after the fire.

Published: April 18, 2017 by Knopf (@aaknopf)
Author: Anita Shreve
Date read: July 2, 2017
Rating: 3.5 stars

Review: I Found You by Lisa Jewell


She wants to keep the key to the door of this life she has had such a small taste of…

On a rainy afternoon Alice comes across a man on her beach. The man, named “Frank” by the youngest of Alice’s three children, has lost himself—his name, his place, his past. Against her better judgment and the judgment of her neighbors, Alice takes him in, slowly coming to love the man before her, even as they both strive to find out who that is exactly. Simultaneously, Ukranian Lily Monrose, the twenty-one year old newly-arrived bride of Carl, is reporting her husband missing. Put off by the police, Lily takes matters into her own hands, looking for her husband while simultaneously navigating her new world of London with its unusual inhabitants.

Interspersed with the modern story is the tale of Gray and Kirsty, a teenage brother and sister on summer holiday who meet and fall into the web of Mark, a boy more complicated than anyone realizes.

Structure and Characters

I Found You has an interesting structure in that while it is a mystery/thriller, the twist is revealed well before the end of the book, leaving over an hour of the recording (I listened to this one on audiobook) to wrap up. This structure could be listless and dragging if Jewell hadn’t developed her characters with such depth that I felt compelled to find out what happened to them. It is one of the main strengths of this book that Jewell develops her characters so compellingly that even outside of the mystery and the twist, the reader is hooked by the relationships. Will Lily find her husband and, if so, what will happen to her? Will Alice wind up with Frank? In fact, Jewell does such an excellent job putting her characters forefront that the twist was all the more shocking for its darkness—I had almost forgotten I was reading a book that had been compared to The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl. (Both books, by the way, that I absolutely hated. Can we retire comparing books to those two yet? Take heart, you too can love this book if you hated those.)

Strangers and Being Found

In I Found You, everyone is a stranger. Alice is a refugee to Ridinghouse Bay, seeking quiet and solitude after a tumultuous life (both generally and romantically). Frank, by virtue of having no idea of who he is, is quiet literally a stranger to everyone, including himself. Lily as the recent immigrant is strange to everyone around her. Gray is the quintessential teenage boy, finding himself, but lonely and adrift in the way only teenagers can be. Carl and Mark are both strangers even, or especially, to those who know them.

In some ways this is a relief. Strange does not have to mean bad or even that one will always be lonely. Some strangers are dangerous, but not everyone is and some strangers are worth taking risks to welcome. Which leads to the title—if everyone is a stranger, then everyone is waiting to be found. Indeed, there are at least seven combinations of characters finding each other in an overlapping scheme that could each give impetus to the title here. I love that Jewell leaves who found whom ambiguous.


One of the things I appreciated most about I Found You was Jewell’s ability to make me identify with and care about someone who is nothing like me. Alice makes bad choices. Alice watches the telly rather than reading books. Alice lives somewhat messily. Alice is almost nothing like me and yet I loved her and rooted for her. It’s rare I can be made to care deeply about someone that I cannot find a single thing in common with and it speaks to Jewell as a writer to be able to develop her so gently and so well. Additionally, if you had asked me before I read this book, I would not have believed that you could convince me that a likeable, mostly rational character would invite a total stranger to live in her house and yet, Jewell made that choice fit into who Alice is. Of course Alice would invite Frank in and, of course, the reader will love her for it.


I admit that I particularly enjoy getting audiobooks when the reader is foreign, even where the original language is still English. There’s something fun about listening to a British accent telling the story, describing people in their jumpers eating scones (ok…I’ll stop). The audio for I Found You is voiced by Helen Duff, who does an excellent job. Because so much of the story is told (particularly at the beginning) around Alice’s point of view, I came to hear her voice as Alice’s, drawing me closer to her as a character. Since Alice is nothing like me and makes choices I wouldn’t make (hello bringing in strange amnesiac living on the beach), this extra level of connection to Alice was valuable to me as a reader/listener. She also does an excellent job with Lily’s Ukranian-accented English. Duff’s voice is melodic and soothing for an audiobook without being so soothing that one loses what’s going on. (We’ve all been there right? The voice is so soothing you stop paying attention to the actual words and have no idea what is happening.) The cadence and rise and fall of Duff’s voice were a perfect selection for I Found You and make this book particularly fun as an audiobook.


I will start by saying that I am particularly sensitive to people using mental illness as a plot device and it is almost never something I think is done well. With that out of the way, it irked me to no end that the villain in this case was described at one point as mentally ill. While it is true that sociopathy and psychopathy are in the DSM V, these are personality disorders which should be distinguished from things like bipolar disorder and even schizophrenia. We’ve come to believe and accept that sociopaths and psychopaths are dangerous (a gross generalization as well) and when those groups are lumped in with general mental illness, we’ve created a culture that believes having any mental illness automatically means you’re dangerous. In fact only 3-5% of violent crimes are committed by people with mental illness. On the contrary, having a mental illness makes you more likely to be the victim of a crime than a perpetrator.

To a lesser extent, I had trouble believing some of Lily’s actions. She is supposed to be a brand new immigrant, only twenty-one and married to someone almost twice her age. While I did not think she had to be a shrinking violet (and was glad she wasn’t), her choices and decisions made me forget how young and new-to-the-country she was supposed to be. While Jewell has points of her character development that remind you of her age—her grocery store run for what is ultimately 90% junk food—overall, she was a bit too capable and old-sounding to be the almost child-bride she was supposed to be. This may also have been as a contrast to Alice, whose character was developed so well that it highlighted ways in which Lily wasn’t as much.


For a book with as many twists and turns as this one—no one’s real life is actually like this, right?—Jewell does well to conclude the story in a way that is satisfactory without being too neat and tidy. At some point in a book like this, everyone’s hands have gotten too dirty for everything to end happily ever after, something Jewell seems to recognize. In that way, it would be easy to end this book earlier, to leave the reader hanging. The story itself is messy enough (in terms of action, not in terms of Jewell’s writing or story development) that it would be plausible for no one to have a happy ending. It is a credit to Jewell that in addition to hooking the reader with her characters, she then cares enough about them and us to allow us some resolution without completely losing the plot. There may be some who think the story ends implausibly; however, I didn’t find it any more implausible than the rest of the book. (I need to think things like this are implausible. I need to think that people like Amy in Gone Girl and certain characters in I Found You are not actually running around out there.)


I Found You is great for the beach or a dark and stormy summer night on the veranda. It’s never going to be read for a literature class, but it’s not trying to be high literature. I love books like this for a palate cleanser when I’ve been reading things that are heavier. I Found You is an excellent contribution to its genre.

Published: April 25, 2017 by Atria Books (@atriabooks)
Author: Lisa Jewell (@jewellwrites)
Date Read: June 26, 2017 (by Hoopla audiobook)
Rating: 3 ¾ stars

Hindsight / Foresight July 8, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this week —

Picked up the pace a bit with reading this week, but it did help that I was reading some lighter and shorter books.  I finished The Stars are Fire, When Dimple Met Rishi, and Inside Out & Back Again.  I wound up only having a day to knock out a draft of The Stars Are Fire before I had to return the book–I really need to plan a little better to finish books before the day before they’re due.  Blog posts for those are coming towards the end of the month or beginning of next.  I adored Inside Out & Back Again.  I’m really not familiar with novels in verse outside of Inside Out and Brown Girl Dreaming but I’ve loved them both and need to find more.  Inside Out also showed me I know absolutely nothing about the Vietnam war, thanks to only ever getting somewhere into the sixties in history class before the end of the year every year (and, even if we had gotten that far, we wouldn’t have gotten the perspective of someone from Vietnam).  I’m taking it as a sign that I need to read The Sympathizer or, you know, a non-fiction book.  But we’ll start with The Sympathizer.

I’ve got Goodbye, Vitamin as my Book of the Month pick and applied for a few ARCs through LibraryThing, so I’ve got some new books on the way along with a pile waiting for me at the library.  I’ve almost hit that spot where I’m getting books faster than I can read them.  Oh, bookworm problems.

I’m a little more than 3/4 of the way through The Hate U Give and I’m simultaneously mourning the coming end and wanting it to go faster so I know how it ends.  Boyfriend and I listened to the first half of Waking Gods on the drive to an from Dallas to see the Sox this week.  It’s rare that I double-listen to audio books but these are as different as two books can be and I didn’t think I could sell him on jumping into The Hate U Give in the middle.  Not sure if I’ll review Waking Gods or not–it’s ok but it’s not as amazing as the first book so far.  (Is the second book in the series ever as good as the first?)

The only library addition this week was Hillbilly Elegy which is on deck after The Hate U Give and a catch up episode or two of What Should I Read Next.  Speaking of WSIRN, Anne Bogel is currently running a promotion to boost reviews of the podcast.  Winners will receive a free deluxe reading journal kit from the Modern Mrs. Darcy store.  I actually enjoyed writing my review, thinking through my recent favorite episode and how I’ve seen the podcast evolve.  I’ll likely post a bonus post here in the coming weeks with my review expanded since it is a source of many of the books on my TBR pile.

Foresight for the coming week–

Posts for I Found You, a British mystery/thriller, and The Stars Are Fire should be posted next week with The Sisters Chase, When Dimple Met Rishi, Lincoln in the Bardo, and The Fall of Lisa Bellow on deck after that–I hope to knock out all those drafts next week and get myself a little stocked up on reviews so I’m not trying to finish posts the day before they’re due (except, of course, this one).

I’ve had A Bridge Across the Ocean and Among the Ten Thousand Things on my Kindle from the library so long that they’ve already expired and I can’t update my Kindle til they’re done.  At least one of those is the plan for this week along with Anything is Possible by Elizabeth Stout.  I adored Olive Kitteridge but could not stand My Name is Lucy Barton (so. whiny. no. plot.) so we’ll see where I land on Anything is Possible.  Either way, it’s closing out my reading challenge category for three books by the same author.  That one isn’t due as soon as some others but I’ve been delinquent in the MMD book club and I need to go ahead and read that one so I can engage in the discussion boards.


What are you reading next? Have suggestions about books I should read? I’d love to hear from you.

Review: Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann


“I did not prove who killed my grandmother…My failure was not just because of me, though. It was because they ripped out too many pages of our history…There were just too many lies, too many documents destroyed, too little done at the time to document how my grandmother died…A murdered Indian’s survivors don’t have the right to the satisfaction of justice for past crimes, or even of knowing who killed their children, their mothers or fathers, brothers or sisters, their grandparents. They can only guess—like I was forced to.”
— Dennis McAuliffe, Jr from Bloodland: A Family Story of Oil, Greed, and Murder on the Osage Reservation quoted in Killers of the Flower Moon

In the 1800s, the United States government intentionally and systematically attempted to decimate First Nations. Members of First Nation tribes were rounded up, forced off their ancestral homelands, and (what was left of them after plague and wars) forced onto reservations on undesirable and often barren lands. The Osage were driven from their original homeland and crowded into a small part of an Oklahoma wasteland that no one would be interested in…until oil was discovered underneath of it. As a result of their retaining their mineral rights, the Osage suddenly became millionaires. Because Osage “headrights” to the minerals couldn’t be sold but only inherited, the nation was plunged into a Reign of Terror as white settlers plotted and assassinated large numbers of Osage to inherit their wealth. The fledgling FBI was sent to investigate and was able to convict a major conspirator and mastermind behind several of the killings; however, as Grann shows, the killings solved by the FBI were only the tip of the iceberg. Most killings were never recognized as killings or investigated, leaving lasting impact on the remaining members of the Osage Nation today.

Expectations and Reality

I dove straight into Killers of the Flower Moon after finishing Dreamland Burning. Will’s mother in Dreamland is an Osage and Latham mentions a few times the need for her to have a white guardian to manage the money she made from oil wealth. I already had Flower Moon on my bookshelf, so I took that as the nudge to dive into this one next. A coworker who talks books with me had recently recommended Lost City of Z, another of Grann’s books, so I came into this one excited for a compelling nonfiction narrative.

Unfortunately, Flower Moon fell a tad flat. I’m not sure the fault is Grann’s— it probably is much harder to write a compelling legal drama with approximately fifty different white male villains and make it as interesting as a trek in the Amazon. Before I go further, I do want to say I think this book is still a “should-read,” despite my lackluster initial reaction.  (As an interesting aside, in the MMD book club interview with Jennifer Latham, she tried to pitch a YA book about these events but was turned down.  Attention Little Brown publishers: I would read this.  Please rethink this decision.)

What Worked and What Didn’t

Grann structures Flower Moon into three parts. The first tells the story of Mollie Burkhart (“The Marked Woman”), the assassination of her family members, and her initially futile attempts to determine who was killing her family. The second follows the still brand-new FBI as agents in the Oklahoma office (“The Evidence Man”) attempted to secure a conviction of the mastermind behind the Burkhart murders. The third is told from Grann’s perspective (“The Reporter”) as he traveled to Oklahoma, met with remaining Osage, and attempted to research the extent of the Reign of Terror against the Osage. The first part of the book successfully grabs the reader’s attention. The tension and terror are palpable as Mollie Burkhart seems to watch those around her—two sisters, mother, brother-in-law—drop like flies as she herself starts to feel sicker and weaker, not knowing if she is actually sick or being poisoned by someone close to her. This part of the book moves at a fair pace and the characters are relatively easy to keep distinguished from each other.  Having specific Osage to care about also brought the Reign of Terror down from the large-scale and theoretical and worked to pull the reader into the larger conspiracies.

The second part of the book is where Grann lost me a bit. The action revolves around Tom White, an exemplary agent and former Texas Ranger who was put in charge of the Oklahoma field office and the Osage investigation. This section desperately needed a character key. Without going back and counting, there had to be at least fifty white men with white men sounding names (Tom, Buck, Bill, Will, Vaughn, Joe, Morrison, etc.) who were almost all villains and involved in overlapping conspiracies. Some of these villains were married or related to Osage, making these villains even more insidious; however, since I had trouble keeping all the bad white men straight, I probably didn’t appreciate the full extent of some of this evil. I couldn’t remember if this bad guy was just bad because he wanted money or bad because he wanted money so badly he played the long game and tricked and married an Osage woman. Not being able to easily flip to a character cheat sheet meant I eventually gave up flipping (there’s also no index) to keep all the white men with their white men names straight. The action here also drags somewhat—it takes quite a few words to clearly explain who was involved in each plot and the details in each plot. Turns out the minute details of murder can become kind of tedious.

There are, however, major points made in this section worth gleaning from the minutiae of murder. Among them is just how racist most Americans were at this point in history that they were unwilling to convict or impose maximum punishment on a white man for the killing of an Osage, even when guilt was proved beyond a reasonable doubt. The depths of corruption in the state courts were astounding as were the lengths the villains would go—essentially, anyone could be bought and if you can’t be bought you can be killed and replaced with someone who can be bought. These are certainly not the details that made it into my high school history curriculum or even my American history curriculum in college.

The third and final section picks up the pace and is much easier to read. I flew through the final section in about an hour of reading. Grann puts himself into the story, explaining briefly how he came to hear about the Osage and his research. His conclusions are heartbreaking—while J. Edgar Hoover and the newspapers made much of the success of the FBI cases in the 1920s, their convictions were the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds more Osage were likely killed in ways that looked like accidents (poisoning by tainted homemade alcohol, lost while traveling) or simply disappeared in areas where the white law enforcement was either involved/paid off or simply didn’t care enough about Osage lives to look closer. Because history at that time (and largely still) was written by white men, there were little to no documents created about these deaths so even with more attention now, it is next to impossible to determine just how many Osage were murdered and by whom.

White Savior Problems

The major downfall of this book and my hesitation in recommending it is that, in many ways, there are two levels of the White Savior here. The first is with Agent Tom White—the narrative is clear that but for the white men in the FBI, the Osage would have no justice at all. In some ways, this White Savior narrative bothers me less. While I’m sure the contributions of the Osage are not explored as fully as they could have been (if this information and these documents even still exist), the backdrop of anti-First Nation racism and the details of the Osage’s unsuccessful attempts to solve the murders themselves makes it clear that only a white man was going to solve the Burkhart murders. The system was designed and the deck stacked such that only a white man was going to be able to navigate the white system here.

Grann as the White Savior bothers me more, though he too is the product of a system stacked to be navigated by white men. Grann meticulously documents his sources, including several books written by the Osage themselves. A reader could read these books and get the Osage story of what happened; however, these books haven’t received the attention or acclaim that Grann has. Flower Moon is more accessible than the books written by the Osage and so the system continues—white storytellers tell the stories of people with color—white people learn about these horrific events—but the white man again gets the credit for the story of the people of color. To me, the lesser of two evils here seems to be that at least this story will reach a wider audience, though this of course does nothing to change the system or otherwise ensure the voices of people of color will ever be heard telling these stories themselves. I concede, of course, that this is a much larger problem than this brief summary can do justice and that many may feel differently—that rather than letting white men like Grann tell these stories at all, the system of publishing should be changed such that minority voices are honored and provided resources and space to tell their stories—after all, they are theirs.


Much like Part III and the debate about who gets to tell what stories, the book ends with no real resolution. While this would normally drive me a little crazy (I don’t need a happy ending but I need an ending), this choice fits the story here. What resolution can the reader have when the Osage have none?


Published April 18, 2017 by Doubleday (Instagram @doubledaybooks)
Author: David Grann (Twitter @davidgrann)
Date read: June 21, 2017
Rating: 3  1/2 Stars

Hindsight / Foresight July 1, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this week —

It’s been an unusually slow week for me this week! Thankfully two of my library books with looming deadlines were eligible for renew so I won’t be forsaking sleep any more than usual to finish my towering TBR pile.  These last seven days I finished was The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal and The Sisters Chase by Sarah Healy (at 11:45 last night–finished by the skin of my teeth!).  The Heart left me with that hangover feeling you get from eating rich food.  Like nothing else will ever taste that good and I’m not sure I want to eat anything else for a while.  Such a beautiful book, but it made me slow to dive into the next read.  Review should be up within the next two weeks.

Finishing The Sister’s Chase put me closer to my goal of actually reading my Book of the Month picks so I can decide whether to stick with it.  I’m *thinking* I am but jury is still out.  I picked my BOTM last night and should be getting Goodbye, Vitamin as my July pick soon.  I was torn between it and American Fire which I’ll be putting on hold soon at the library.

For listening, I am entranced by Bahni Turpin reading The Hate U Give and love it to the extent you can love a book that rips your heart out and shows it to you while you weep over the gaping hole in your chest.  Bahni Turpin also read A Piece of Cake by Cupcake Brown–she did such an excellent job in that reading that I keep having to remind myself that Starr is not Cupcake.  Turpin wins rewards for her audiobook reading and I can absolutely see why.  She’s phenomenal.

In other media, I finally saw Wonder Woman and loved it.  I don’t have the background or bandwith to analyze it like I do books so I won’t try.  I’m sure it’s not perfect but I don’t care.  Loved it.  The day after I posted last week’s note about GirlBoss, Netflix announced they canceled the show.  I liked it enough to plan to watch the second season but can’t say I’m heartbroken.  As awful as Sophia comes across on the show, Netflix has gotten criticism for downplaying some of the truly awful stuff she did to other people.  I think that’s bumped #GirlBoss the book back down a few pegs in the TBR pile.

Library additions to the growing TBR pile this week include Salt Houses (kindle), The Hate U Give (audio by Overdrive), All Our Wrong Todays (recommended on Insta after I posted about Dark Matter), and Anything is Possible.

I fell into the black hole of online book-related-things including being the last one to know that Goodreads has a giveaway section where you can enter to get free books, including some very recently and soon to be released books.  I’ve got approximately a one in ten thousand chance to get some of those but you know I will post here if I do!

I also discovered LibraryThing, a site/app that lets you log your books so you know what you actually own (and it also has a free book section!).  In logging all 600+ of my books (including kindle books) I discovered I have at least ten duplicates of books that I didn’t realize I had.  And this is why I need to log my books.  At least this way I’ve got a stack of books for my local Little Free Libraries.  (Side note: when I’m not reading, I help with Austin Lost & Found Pets which works to reunite lost pets with their owners.  This sometimes includes chasing/trapping lost pets.  I caught a little guy on Tuesday this week that had been out and about for a week in my neighborhood before we got him.  He was an excellent house guest for the day I had him except for when he peed in my car…don’t worry.  The books that were waiting for the Little Free Libraries soaked it all up….and no, of course I didn’t donate those).

Foresight for the coming week–

Review for Killers of the Flower Moon will be posted Tuesday and The Heart will be coming later in the week.  Though it will be a while til they are posted, I’m hoping to schedule posts a few weeks out and have The Fall of Lisa Bellow, Lincoln in the Bardo, I Found You (audio), and The Sisters Chase to draft reviews on this week as well.  I’m on the wait list to get a copy of Dark Matter back into my hot little hands so I can review it soon.  I’ve read these all recently, it’s just hard to review a book that isn’t in front of me.  If you’ve got a preference for which review gets posted next of those choices, I’d love to know in the comments below.

I’m cracking open The Stars are Fire by Anita Shreve today with A Bridge Across the Ocean next because it’s about to expire on my Kindle.  The Red Sox are in Dallas on the 4th so boyfriend and I got tickets to head up and see the boys play.  With Tuesday and Wednesday off, I should be able to have a pretty good reading week and *might* even get to start Among the Ten Thousand Things as a third book this week.  Boyfriend is currently burning through Sleeping Giants so that we can listen to the sequel Waking Gods while we drive to and from Dallas which could take anywhere between six and sixty hours.

I’m also hoping to get a review cranked out for the What Should I Read Next podcast–both because I want to include bonus posts on where I get my books and things I’m listening to and because Anne Bogel is doing a giveaway of her Bullet Journal kits and I’m a sucker for free bookish-stuff.  I’ll either link or repost my review here this week.

What are you reading next? Have suggestions about books I should read? I’d love to hear from you.

Review: Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham


It was probably quieter a hundred years ago, but that doesn’t necessarily mean better. I understand now that history only moves forward in a straight line when we learn from it. Otherwise it loops past the same mistakes over and over again.
– Rowan, “Dreamland Burning”

Awakening on the first day of summer—and her only day off before her boring internship starts—Rowan Chase quickly finds herself plunged into a mystery—whose body is buried in her backyard and how did it get there? As Rowan and her best friend James investigate, real life intervenes and Rowan’s internship plans fall through. Rowan finds herself working at a medical clinic in a rougher part of town, having to face prejudice she’s largely been sheltered from and that (white) Tulsa has largely tried to forget and pretend isn’t there.

Alternating with Rowan’s story is that of Will Tillman, a half-white, half-Osage (First Nation) teenager in racially segregated Tulsa in the days before and during the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots where whites brutally and without provocation destroyed the prosperous African American community of Greenwood, terrorized an entire community, and killed hundreds of innocent African Americans. Will gets to know an African American brother and sister named Joseph and Ruby Goodhope and, on the night of the riots, has to make choices about what he really believes about their worth as people

Told in alternating chapters, “Dreamland Burning” explores how choices can separate “good” people into both the best and worst of humanity

Expectations and Reality

I came to Dreamland Burning with some trepidation. From reading the summary I really wanted this book to be good. I know embarrassingly little (ok—pretty much nothing) about the Tulsa Race Riots besides vaguely that something happened where white Tulsa destroyed the black part of Tulsa in the 1920s.* In the last few years I have learned more about my own privileges and prejudices and have tried to make an effort to read more diversely—both non-fiction and fiction. Dreamland Burning provided another opportunity to grow and learn more while getting to enjoy a young adult fiction book that came highly recommended by Anne Bogel in her Modern Mrs. Darcy (“MMD”) book club.

Latham did not disappoint. Dreamland Burning raises questions of race relations both in 1921 as well as now. Interestingly, in a recent discussion with the MMD book club, she indicated that she originally envisioned the book as being solely set in 1921 with Will but the more she wrote, the more she saw history repeating itself. Just as white Tulsa saw African Americans die in 1921 and do nothing, so do white citizens today see innocent African Americans being killed in the streets and, largely, do nothing.

With that in mind, she added Rowan into her narrative. While Rowan herself is mixed race, her family’s relative wealth has insulated her from quite a bit until she finds herself unexpectedly working at a medical clinic in a poor part of town and comes dramatically face-to-face with a situation that sets off debates recently seen around Mike Brown, Philando Castile, and Sandra Brown. In her story Rowan is beautifully human—she makes mistakes, she avoids the spotlight when the reader might want her to just say something already. Latham treats her gently, makes her relatable, and the story is better for it.

What Latham did best

Latham’s choice to not make Rowan and her BFF’s James’s relationship into a romantic one was smart and welcome. The seriousness of the book wasn’t distracted by tension of will-he-won’t-he-kiss-me-please-oh-please (which, frankly, would have been off-tone in a book this serious and there’s enough tension in this book without it). It also enabled Latham to add another note of diversity. As you would expect from a book exploring the Tulsa Race Riots, the characters are racially diverse, but with the inclusion of James, an almost-adult who identifies as asexual, Latham was able to reflect sexual diversity in a way that felt authentic, eliminated very early any question of whether there would be romantic tension between Rowan and James, and mirrors the sexual diversity of most of us these days (whether we realize it or not). Latham didn’t set off fireworks with the announcement of James’s asexuality, but folded it neatly in an early description of him that also served to explain some of James’s own background and semi-estrangement from his father. This choice was skillfully made and even more skillfully executed.

Latham’s choices in Will’s story had similar nuance. Without spoiling the end of the book, Latham places “good” characters into situations where they have to choose who they’ll be and what they believe. She lulls the reader into thinking that she/he knows who is “good” and who is “bad”…until they aren’t. In telling this story, Latham shows the harm in being just a “little” prejudiced and how “good” people can very swiftly make choices that set them far on the other side of that line. Though set in 1921, these themes still resonate.

I also greatly appreciated Latham’s attention to detail. While the story is told in alternating chapters, there is more that connects Rowan’s and Will’s stories than just the body in Rowan’s backyard. Latham sprinkles her book with little gems that tie Rowan’s half even more tightly to Will’s. If you miss the little connections, you don’t miss the story but where the reader can catch them, they sparkle and highlight Latham’s skill as a storyteller. In addition, while I did not pick up on this, native Tulsans will apparently recognize many of the places she mentions—her effort at a little inside “nod” to her local readers.

But wait? A white author is writing about race?

Because her picture is not in the jacket of the book, I didn’t see a picture of Latham until I was about halfway through. I assumed that anyone who would be writing such an on-point book about race was herself a person of color—I was wrong. I am not myself a person of color so my judgment on this comes from my own limited perspective; however, the book did not seem to suffer from many of the cringe-worthy pitfalls found when other white writers attempt to bring to life the voices and experiences of people of color. With that said, no book is perfect. The main character is herself part white and wealthy, having grown up somewhat sheltered until she takes the job at the medical clinic. Similarly, Will is part white—while he suffers some prejudice for being part Osage (First Nation), it is nothing compared to how the black community suffers. From the interview, I was impressed with how aware she was of this tension and how seriously she took the duty she had to make Rowan and Will accurate as mixed-race White/Black and White/Osage. She indicated she had both African American and First Nation beta readers as well as having an outside consultant read a final draft from her publisher.

I was still left with a lingering question of whether people of color who read this book would see Will’s part of the story as another white savior story. It wasn’t as neatly wrapped up as other White Savior endings and I have not found criticism for Latham in this but I do not know how widely this book has been read since it is only recently published. Joseph and Ruby (the main characters of color in Will’s story) are presented with strength, dignity, and agency even in the midst of the riots and, because of this, the book did not read to me as problematic in that regard.

Who should read this book?

While this book addresses serious and weighty themes, Latham presents the material in a way that feels age appropriate for young adult readers. She strikes a balance in the violence of the Riots—they are not sugarcoated nor is it vague what is happening—however, her descriptions are never gory. For authenticity, she does use the N-word in dialogue. In a recent interview, she indicated that she had her eleven year-old read the draft and, as a parent, felt comfortable with eleven and twelve year-olds reading the book as long as they have parents who read with them and can process the serious themes in this book.

Rating and Recommendations

I gave this one four stars though a bigger YA fan would likely rate higher. The side-story of Will’s mother as an Osage who had to have a guardian to “manage” her wealth inspired me to go ahead and start Killers of the Flower Moon next from my TBR pile. That review should be up next Tuesday. For readers interested in “book flights,” I recently finished Piecing Me Together by Renee Watson and would recommend that book (another YA) with this one. While I am just starting it, Latham herself recommended The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas as well as American Street as other excellent (older) YA books to pair with books on these themes if you want to read more.

*A note about language—while the incidents of the nights in 1921 are called the “Race Riots,” that language is accurate only so far as it describes what white Tulsa did. The African American community of Greenwood did not riot and largely fled or hid in terror from the rampaging and rioting white community bent on destruction. I refer to the events as the Race Riots, only because that’s the most common name, though it does not fully reflect reality. Latham explains this in more detail in her Author’s Note in Dreamland Burning. To put faces on the youths who lived this story, the yearbook of the 1921 Senior Class from Booker T. Washington High School–the school that should have been having their prom the night of the massacre–is available online.

Published February 21, 2017 by Little, Brown (Instagram @littlebrown)
Author: Jennifer Latham (Instagram & Twitter @jenandapen)
Date read: June 16, 2017
Rating: 4 Stars

Hindsight / Foresight June 24, 2017

Mark Solarski

Hindsight this week —

I finished the third book in the March trilogy, the graphic novel of Representative John Lewis’s experiences fighting for civil rights of African Americans.  I deliberately held this book to read on Monday since it was Juneteenth.  It was a way for me to take time to honor the day and think both about how far we’ve come and how far we still have to do.  I’m glad I waited to finish it.

In other media, I wrapped up binge-watching GirlBoss on Netflix.  Not sure how I feel about it–Sophia is not a likeable character but she grows on you.  She’s not as bad as say…the narrator of The Girl on the Train.  I’ve got #GirlBoss on my Kindle and this may push it higher up the TBR pile before I forget how the show progressed and made me feel.  Time will tell.

Library additions to the growing TBR pile this week include When Dimple Met Rishi, Six Stories, and Inside Out and Back Again.

I’m a little more than halfway into Voyager by Diana Gabaldon now.  I’m just permanently hanging out in the middle of Gabaldon’s Outlander series.  I read a few chapters a week when whatever I’m currently reading just isn’t the right tone or mood and I need something a little lighter or more mindless.  I appreciate having Gabaldon as a standby for times when I just need a little junk food reading.

I stumbled upon this Washington Post article a little late but was pleased to see Exit West and the Twelve Lives of Samuel Hawley on the list of best books of 2017 so far.  I adored Exit West.  It’s earned a place in my favorites of all time.  I loved Samuel Hawley as well –the story, the characters, and the structure–and love that it’s getting more press.  I’ve got Priestdaddy and Anything is Possible on hold already at the library.  I’ve seen SO much good press for Hunger and I loved Bad Feminist, but I’m a little afraid of how dark Hunger is.  I”m inching closer to putting it on the hold list.  I may get a few more book ideas from the others on the list, but I don’t see anything convincing me to read a book on Richard Nixon any time soon.

I also finished Dreamland Burning by Jennifer Latham and Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann.  Which brings me to ….

Foresight for the coming week–

Reviews for Dreamland Burning and Killers of the Flower Moon will be posted soon.  The Modern Mrs. Darcy book club is talking with Jennifer Latham this week so I’m deliberately holding that review in case I want to add to it after talking with her.  Since Dreamland Burning lead me to pick Killers of the Flower Moon as my next read, I don’t want to publish those out of order.  You’ll just have to wait a little bit longer for my first review.

I will be finishing The Heart by Maylis de Kernagal tomorrow, if not tonight.  I’ve got a pile of library reads with swiftly approaching deadlines but I also want to make sure I read all of my Book of the Month picks so I can decide if I’m going to stay subscribed past July.  I’m leaning towards yes but I can’t exactly make an educated choice if I haven’t read the four books I’ve gotten.  That puts The Sisters Chase by Sarah Healy up next.  After that, Beartown, The Stars Are Fire, and The Versions of Us all have the same due date at the library so we’ll have to see which of those strikes my fancy.  At my current rate, I should have to make that decision by the end of the week.

I should finish I Found You by Lisa Jewell on audio this week with The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas on deck.

Finally, I think I might start either The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu (I know.  I’m behind) or Anne with an E on Netflix.  I want to reread Anne of Green Gables later this year for a book challenge so I may hold off on that.  I re-read The Handmaid’s Tale over Christmas last year and don’t want to wait too long to start it.  I’ve heard good things about both.

What are you reading next?  Have suggestions about which book I should read after The Sister’s Chase?  I’d love to hear from you.