Scandalous Women: The Lives and Loves of History’s Most Notorious Women by Elizabeth Kerri Mahon

I’m super behind on reviewing books, but that’s ok cause I’m also in a reading slump and haven’t been able to focus on anything, even my beloved Jane Eyre. I’m slowly getting through Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology now. Since it’s been a while though, this review is going to be short.

Mahon’s book, Scandalous Women, is based on what started as a blog. It’s categorized by “Warrior Queens,” “Wayward Wives,” “Scintillating Seductresses,” “Crusading Ladies,” “Wild Women of the West,” “Amorous Artists,” and “Amazing Adventuresses.” Mahon covers famous (and infamous) women such as Boudica, Zelda Fitzgerald, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Calamity Jane, and Frida Kahlo. Mahon’s writing is simple, clear, and funny. It’s like she’s talking to you and gushing about how cool some of these women are. I read some reviews on Goodreads where some people were annoyed by the tone. Personally, it’s why I enjoyed it. I don’t need my nonfiction to always be academic — I did enough of that reading for the almost 7 years of graduate school. Mahon’s book is a great way to learn some history and learn about some amazing women. Even if you know some of these women, you’ll learn some new things about them. If it wasn’t for some of the sexual aspects, I was ready to give this to my friend’s 11 year-old daughter who is a burgeoning feminist. However, this is a great book for some youngsters to read and learn more about some of the top players in history that tend to be ignored.

My next review will be of The Light Between Oceans. That review might be a little longer since I remember more of it! I’m also thinking about watching the movie, though I haven’t heard great things. Meanwhile, back to Gaiman and the Norse gods!

 

N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

I’ve never read “high” fantasy. I know Tolkien is considered high fantasy, but his writing is so heavily influenced by medieval texts and culture so it’s easy to understand the rules of the world he has created, much like George R.R. Martin. I purchased the ebook of N.K. Jemisin’s The Inheritance Trilogy (not to be confused with The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini) on a whim before traveling to Europe for 2 weeks. I always assume I’m going to read a lot more than I actually do when I’m traveling. However, I didn’t actually start the first book till this year… March 1st, to be precise. The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was a little difficult to get into because it was so unlike the other fantasy books I’ve read (namely Tolkien, Martin, and Rowling). It took a while to understand the world Jemisin created. By the end, I could say that I really enjoyed this book, but am not in a rush to finish the trilogy.

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Source: Goodreads

It was a slow start for me and I was never in a rush to get home and pop open the book. I can’t pinpoint why — maybe because while it was really interesting, it wasn’t captivating. The story follows Yienne Darr, a young woman from a warrior tribe. She is the child of a high-born heir to the throne of the Arameri kingdom (the highest of all) and a Darre man. Summoned by her grandfather, Yienne learns that she is a pawn in his game to determine which of Yienne’s two cousins will be the next heir. Besides dealing with a psychotic (I think it’s very fair to use this term here) cousin, Yienne also has to deal with four gods — or beings that were gods, but were imprisoned by another god. The backstory of the gods (there are three main ones) unfolds slowly and is very interesting. Yienne is an outsider not just by race (her skin is darker, implying the difference is racial and not only ethnic) but also culturally. In her tribe, women are the rulers and politics are a lot more clear cut. At Arameri, however, there are multiple alliances to consider.

Like I said, the story is interesting once you get into it. The world Jemisin created is unique, though I still would have liked to see more world-building. On the whole, I enjoyed Jemisin’s writing, but I could do without one thing she did pretty frequently: character’s eyes did a lot more than I thought eyes were capable of doing. Yienne was always able to see the true feelings of a character through that character’s eyes, something akin to “I could see in X’s eyes that he was doing his best to stay calm.” I don’t mind this once or twice, but it happened enough for me to notice and, eventually, get a tad annoyed. I learned later that this was Jemisin’s debut novel, so I could see an editor calling her out a bit on these in the later novels.

I go back and forth on Jemisin’s main character. It was understandable that Yienne feels and is helpless when she first arrives to Arameri. She’s been isolated from this part of her heritage and she’s only heard about this kingdom for her mother. It becomes clear she is a pawn and while we see some instances of the warrior queen she is supposed to be, on the whole, she seemed lacking in agency. Ultimately, Yienne comes to her own by playing by some of their and some of her rules, asserting some agency in a situation in which she isn’t allowed any. The entrapped gods have also taken away her agency in a way I can’t explain without spoilers. When Yienne does take control it almost seems accidental. That being said, I really liked the conclusion to Yienne’s story. I was concerned about how Jemisin was going to end the novel and I was pleasantly surprised.

On Goodreads, I gave this book 4/5 stars. I am curious about the 2nd and 3rd books, because I do like the world Jemisin created, but I’m thinking of reading The Fifth Season first. Anyone have their own suggestions on whether to finish this series before checking out The Fifth Season?

Mudbound by Hillary Jordan

I’m not one who willingly picks up a book that takes place in the American South. I usually read books that help me escape my reality, not remind me how awful the present is. My reason for picking up Hillary Jordan’s Mudbound is pretty shallow. Jason Clarke and Carey Mulligan, two actors I’m big fans of, are starring in the adaptation and I’m the kind of nerd who needs to read the book before watching the movie (I still haven’t watched PBS’s Wolf Hall because that book is on my shelf waiting to be read). I have no idea when the movie is coming out, but I borrowed the book from a friend so it moved up on the list. I wasn’t expecting to love this book, merely read it as part of my nerdy desire to know the book before the adaptation ruins it. Well, you can probably see where this is going…I absolutely loved it. I read it in one sitting during my 7 hour shift at the library. Don’t get me wrong–this isn’t a happy, feel-good book. This is the book that will wrench your heart out and make you eat it. Which is why I loved it.

mudbound-cover

Mudbound takes place in post-WWII South. Jordan brings to life not just the blatant racism against black Americans dominant in the South, but also the hypocrisy of sending out black men to fight for a country that rejects their humanity. Jordan writes about two families: the McAllens (white farmers) and the Jacksons (the black tenants). Laura is 31 when she meets Henry McAllen, a 41 year old engineer who uproots her from her comfort in Jackson and moves her to a farm in the middle of nowhere. Henry was cheated out of a house he rented so the family of four with Henry’s awful father in tow have to live in a broken-down house on the farm. Jamie McAllen and Ronsel Jackson are WWII veterans who face different realities when they come home. Both traumatized from their experiences, they struggle finding their place outside the war. Ronsel, who was in an all-black division that actually fought (most all-black divisions were forced to do manual labor), had an affair with a woman in Germany. Here is where Jordan highlights the complexity of race. In WWII Germany, a place not very welcoming to non-white, non-Christian people, a white German woman could be seen having an affair with a black American soldier. Jordan shows a black soldier being treated better in Germany than at home. The book is not for the faint-of-heart; there is an attempted lynching, which while the character survives, he is maimed. This is a man who fought against fascism, but is not shown the civility and honor of the white veterans. As someone interested in trauma theory, I was also enthralled by Jordan’s depiction of PTSD. With just two characters who suffer from war trauma, Jordan manages to show how trauma affects people differently and how those who didn’t experience the war first-hand react to the broken men who return. While the novel is relatively short, it is complex in its themes and depictions of its characters. 

Jordan presents the narrative from each main character’s perspective. I’m personally a fan of that technique; it’s probably why I enjoyed A Song of Ice and Fire and Dickens novels while many of my friends got annoyed. By weaving through the past and present of the characters, Jordan builds up the story slowly. You kind of know where the plot is headed, but the journey is just as important as the climax. Typical to the multiple point of view narrative technique, you sympathize with each character. Henry is the 1940s version of the “good” slave owner and while you still hate his ideas, Jordan makes it clear that he is the product of his times and you end up pitying him. In fact, I ended up pitying all the characters, just for different reasons. I think I loved this book so much because both the plot and the characterizations worked so well that I was lost within the text. It’s not easy reading a plot taking place in the late 1940s and realizing not much has changed in 70 years, but Jordan wrote such a beautifully-crafted book that the sad realization didn’t stop me from enjoying the novel.