Just finished: Kindred by Octavia Butler

Here’s the blurb:

Having just celebrated her 26th birthday in 1976 California, Dana, an African-American woman, is suddenly and inexplicably wrenched through time into antebellum Maryland. After saving a drowning white boy there, she finds herself staring into the barrel of a shotgun and is transported back to the present just in time to save her life.
During numerous such time-defying episodes with the same young man, she realizes the challenge she’s been given: to protect this young slaveholder until he can father her own great-grandmother.

My thoughts:

This is a classic for a reason. The story is compelling and consuming. You never know what is going to happen, but you can be sure it will be brutal. It was interesting to read this book for the first time in 2016 and it made me wonder how much differently it would have been read if I had read it when I was younger, or if I had been able to read it as an adult when it was released in 1979.

Kevin and Dana are a mixed race couple only 10 years after the Loving case was decided. They were facing racism in their own time and now Dana was getting pulled back into slavery. And still, there were times when I wanted to shake her and tell her to wake up. She kept thinking the white folks were going to live up to their image in her mind, even after stooping low time and time again.

The dialogue was stellar, so was the world building. The distinction between times was clear even for an audio book reader. The plot was furiously paced. There was never a boring moment, and you always want to know what was going to happen next. I wish there had been more structure for the magic of the book. It was hinted that the reason Dana kept giving white people, Rufus in particular, second chances was related to the magic that was also throwing her back and forth in time. The time intervals seemed completely random which made this side effect of the magic also seem to come out of left field.

I would recommend this to anyone that enjoys historical fiction, time travel stories, or classic sci-fi/fantasy. It is a fast read even on audiobook, clocking in at only 10 hours (translates to about 1 week of commuting for me). I am also reading Devil in a Blue Dress from Walter Moseley right now and these two books go hand-in-hand. I’ll have a review up for the Moseley piece soon.

Overall: 4 stars

Just finished: Curse of the Spellmans by Lisa Lutz

Here’s the Blurb:*

Meet Isabel “Izzy” Spellman, private investigator. This twenty-eight-year-old may have a checkered past littered with romantic mistakes, excessive drinking, and creative vandalism; she may be addicted to Get Smart reruns and prefer entering homes through windows rather than doors — but the upshot is she’s good at her job as a licensed private investigator with her family’s firm, Spellman Investigations. Invading people’s privacy comes naturally to Izzy. In fact, it comes naturally to all the Spellmans. If only they could leave their work at the office. To be a Spellman is to snoop on a Spellman; tail a Spellman; dig up dirt on, blackmail, and wiretap a Spellman.

*This is actually a blurb from the first book, but it gives you an idea of the overall flavor of the series and applies to all of the books.

Specific to this book:

When Izzy Spellman, PI, is arrested for the fourth time in three months, she writes it off as a job hazard. She’s been (obsessively) keeping surveillance on a suspicious next door neighbor (suspect’s name: John Brown), convinced he’s up to no good — even if her parents (the management at Spellman Investigations) are not.

When the (displeased) management refuses to bail Izzy out, it is Morty, Izzy’s octogenarian lawyer, who comes to her rescue. But before he can build a defense, he has to know the facts. Over weak coffee and diner sandwiches, Izzy unveils the whole truth and nothing but the truth — as only she, a thirty-year-old licensed professional, can.

My thoughts:

The obvious comparison for these books is Janet Evanovich. Among the Spellman’s however, there is a lot more family drama and a lot less love triangle (for which I am thankful). I tried out the first book in this series several weeks ago and immediately ordered up the next one. After I finished book 2 and realized that this was good, fun story telling I ordered up the rest of the series.

Lisa Lutz is so clever in the way she introduces her stories and propels the narrative. Yes, you will be able to guess some threads of the mystery, but it is likely you won’t catch them all (that was only coincidentally a Pokemon reference).

These stories feel like the old capers in Get Smart (a favorite of the main character Izzy). They are simultaneously slapstick funny while also getting characters into deadly serious situations. The family dynamics really take the cake though. Like many families, the Spellman’s are up in each others business, but in a very unique way. They are all simultaneously spying and keeping tabs on each other, manipulating each other through obfuscation and false leads, and, in general, inserting themselves into the lives of innocent bystanders like a friendly detective and neighborhood bartender.

I highly recommend this for anyone that is a fan of the old caper comedies or of books like the Stephanie Plum series from Janet Evanovich. At the same time, readers of family or women’s humor are also likely to enjoy these stories with their flawed protagonist and her adorkable family.

Overall: 4 stars

Just finished: Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai

Here’s the blurb:

Inspired by the author’s childhood experience of fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to Alabama, this coming-of-age debut novel told in verse has been celebrated for its touching child’s-eye view of family and immigration.

For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, and the warmth of her friends close by. But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food . . . and the strength of her very own family.

My thoughts:

Oh, how this book squeezed my heart. The struggle’s of Hà’s family contrasted with her vitality and sense of humor was just perfect. I actually read the book through twice. Once for the story and a second time just to savor the words.

I went to one of those schools where taking History classes essentially meant that you learned the same bit of history each year because they barely got past the Civil War most years and even World History was a little sketch. I’ve always made an effort to find stories that filled in the gap of my knowledge of history and this did that in a beautiful way.

Hà is smart and sarcastic and full of life. Her brothers each have their own personalities which are revealed more slowly but no less thought is given to their individuality and their wholeness. Because the story is from the point of view of a child, there is a sense of an oncoming train that as an adult I knew what was going to happen and just wanted to delay it for her sake, for the sake of her family. But they are swept away by events, and they do not get a warm loving welcome to the U.S. Much like the current Syrian refugees must feel coming to the States now.

I highly recommend this for parents who are trying to help their kids understand how their actions can hurt or help others. With that comes the caveat that kids in military families may have a hard time with it because of Hà’s father being lost to a military conflict. I would highly recommend this to anyone who is looking for a way to introduce poetry to their lives, adult or child. Having that continuous narrative makes the verse easy to approach and understand, but each poem carries its own weight and rhythm and story as well.

Overall: 5 stars