June 5, 2015

May Reading Recap

May was a busy month, so I only had time to finish two books, but they were both great! I'm still in the middle of the also-great A GOD IN RUINS, which I'll report on next month.

THE TURNER HOUSE by Angela Flournoy isn't really a ghost story, but it opens with the family legend of the haint who appeared one night to young Cha-Cha, the eldest of what would eventually be thirteen Turner siblings. When Cha-Cha believes he sees the haint again fifty years later, it raises unpleasant questions about his mental health and his upbringing. Meanwhile, his youngest sister, Lelah, has troubles of her own. She doesn't want her siblings or her daughter to know she's been evicted, so she moves back into the family home, which is unoccupied and facing repossession. As their stories unfold in 2008, occasional chapters recount the early part of their parents' marriage, when the Turners came north to Detroit in the 1940s hoping the city would offer a better life for a black family.

Telling the story of an enormous family presents a challenge, and Flournoy handles it well by focusing on the oldest and youngest siblings and letting the other family members play roles with varying degrees of importance. Every character, no matter how minor, is fully developed, and the family dynamics are clear and realistic. I found this a very satisfying family story.

It's also an excellent novel about a particular place. The story is specific to the economy and culture of Detroit, and it's clear Flournoy has done her research. Detroit's economic decline plays an important role in the plot, since it revolves around the fate of the devalued house. The city's black-white relations are also explored, especially the way these have changed over time, as well as the different forms of racism encountered in the North and South. All these details of the setting are incorporated seamlessly into the story and provide a fascinating portrait of a city over time.

I admire Flournoy's strong depiction of both a family and a place (something I've set out to achieve myself), and I definitely recommend THE TURNER HOUSE.

OF NOBLE FAMILY concludes Mary Robinette Kowal's Glamourist Histories (at least for now), and Kowal really outdid herself in this book. It was a delight to be back with the beloved characters in the wonderful Regency-era-with-magic setting, but this installment takes the familiar elements somewhere new. Jane and Vincent travel to Antigua after learning that Vincent's terrible father has died and the affairs at his plantation must be settled. There, they encounter the horrors of slavery and are confronted by unsavory family secrets and reminders of the past.

Kowal put a great deal of care into both the real historical details of this story and how these might interact with her magic system. As always, she's crafted an intricate and exciting plot, and glamour is tightly woven throughout, providing a surprising array of complications, obstacles, and solutions. The introduction of new cultures reveals that glamour around the world has broader possibilities than the British characters realized, and this is handled with sensitivity and cleverness. In this episode of Writing Excuses, Kowal talks about how she approached research and worldbuilding for the novel. (The discussion doesn't focus on many plot details, so you can listen with only limited spoilers or confusion.)

You could read this fifth book in the series without having read the others, though you'd miss out on some of the emotional impact without the background of the main couple's history. I'm a big fan of this series, and I love the skill and inventiveness with which Kowal assembles a story, so I look forward to her future work, in this setting or any other.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ Ben H. Winters explains why he works on two books at a time: "I like to be doing two things at once. I sort of need to be. One thing in active motion and one in the starting gate, warming up, ready to come out swinging--something else I've started to play around with, to make notes on, maybe done a wild first pass on."

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