Review: The House Girl by Tara Conklin

Summary: Virginia, 1852. Seventeen-year-old Josephine Bell decides to run from the failing tobacco farm where she is a slave and nurse to her ailing mistress, the aspiring artist Lu Anne Bell. New York City, 2004. Lina Sparrow, a first-year associate in an elite law firm, is given a sensitive assignment that could make her career: she must find the “perfect plaintiff” to lead a historic class-action lawsuit worth trillions of dollars in reparations for descendants of American slaves.

Lina discovers Josephine and a controversy roiling the art world: are the iconic paintings long ascribed to Lu Anne Bell really the work of her slave, Josephine? A descendant of Josephine’s would be the perfect face for the reparations lawsuit – if Lina can find one. While following the girl’s faint trail, Lina finds herself questioning her own family history and the secrets that her father has never revealed: How did Lina’s mother die? And why will he never speak about her?

Genre: historical fiction
Rating: 2.5/5 stars

I’m just going to come right out and say it: a white woman who quit her job in law should not be writing a book about slavery. There were a lot of other problems with this book, but this was the most upsetting to me. It’s so important to share (and it’s obviously okay!) to fictionalize slavery. However, Black characters in these stories should not be known simply for being enslaved. They were more than that. They defined themselves by other aspects of their lives. Were they enslaved? Yes. Was it the only trait they had? Absolutely not. These were real people, and it’s crucial in a story to ensure that Black slaves are remembered as more than just slaves.

Unfortunately, that’s not the case here. Josephine is the most interesting part of this story, but she gets the least amount of screen time, despite the book allegedly being about her. When the story ends, the reader has learned almost nothing about who Josephine was as a person, other than an artist. We know some of her backstory, we know how her life ends, but what does her laughter sound like? How does she grieve? How does she spend her alone time? We see that she’s loyal to her mistress, but we have no idea what her relationships are like with others. We’re given a glance here and there, but there’s nothing solidifying her as a real character. Josephine exists purely to be a slave, purely to be a convenience to a white woman in present day, purely to move the story along. She’s given the book’s title and cover art, but she’s completely lost to us because the author refused to make her the most important story arc.

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ARC Review: The Death of Jane Lawrence by Caitlin Starling

Summary: Practical, unassuming Jane Shoringfield has decided the most secure path forward is this: a husband, in a marriage of convenience, who will allow her to remain independent and occupied with meaningful work. Her first choice, the dashing but reclusive doctor Augustine Lawrence, agrees to her proposal with only one condition: that she must never visit Lindridge Hall, his crumbling family manor. Yet on their wedding night, an accident strands her at his door in a rainstorm, and she finds him changed. Gone is the bold, courageous surgeon, and in his place is a terrified, paranoid man—one who cannot tell reality from nightmare, and fears Jane is an apparition, come to haunt him. By morning, Augustine is himself again, but Jane knows something is deeply wrong at Lindridge Hall, and with the man she has so hastily bound her safety to.

Genre: horror, gothic, historical fiction
Rating: 4/5 stars

The Death of Jane Lawrence boasts inspiration from stories like Crimson Peak and Rebecca, but the biggest difference between these stories is that Jane Lawrence packs all the punches and isn’t afraid to go beyond what you would expect from a gothic horror novel. Don’t get me wrong, Crimson Peak and Rebecca are equally deserving of their praise, but Jane Lawrence pushes the envelope, diving deeper into a truly haunting world that will leave you questioning what, exactly, you just read.

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Review: The Four Winds by Kristin Hannah

Summary: Texas, 1934. Millions are out of work and a drought has broken the Great Plains. Farmers are fighting to keep their land and their livelihoods as the crops are failing, the water is drying up, and dust threatens to bury them all. One of the darkest periods of the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl era, has arrived with a vengeance.

In this uncertain and dangerous time, Elsa Martinelli—like so many of her neighbors—must make an agonizing choice: fight for the land she loves or go west, to California, in search of a better life. The Four Winds is an indelible portrait of America and the American Dream, as seen through the eyes of one indomitable woman whose courage and sacrifice will come to define a generation.

Genre: historical fiction
Rating: 3.5/5 stars

When I was in grade school I read a book about a girl surviving the Dust Bowl era, and I hated that book so much that I swore off any interest in that specific period again (and yes, that includes never reading The Grapes of Wrath, much to my husband’s dismay). In May, I picked up The Four Winds as my birthday bonus pick for Book of the Month. I’d heard so many good things about it, was vaguely familiar with Hannah’s work, and figured 20+ years was enough to get over any negative feelings I had about that part of history.

So why the average rating? Here’s the thing. Kristin Hannah is a beautiful writer. She knows how to create intricate characters and tug at your heartstrings and maybe even make you cry a little bit. But the Dust Bowl is still an extremely dull, depressing topic. I loved all of the characters, I felt their grief and heartache alongside them. I was rooting for Elsa and her family throughout the novel, but I had this constant niggling thought that just maybe this book could have been about half the length and still gotten the point across.

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Review: Conjure Women by Afia Atakora

Summary: Conjure Women is a sweeping story that brings the world of the South before and after the Civil War vividly to life. Spanning eras and generations, it tells of the lives of three unforgettable women: Miss May Belle, a wise healing woman; her precocious and observant daughter Rue, who is reluctant to follow in her mother’s footsteps as a midwife; and their master’s daughter Varina. The secrets and bonds among these women and their community come to a head at the beginning of a war and at the birth of an accursed child, who sets the townspeople alight with fear and a spreading superstition that threatens their newly won, tenuous freedom.
Genre: historical fiction, magical realism
Rating: 4/5 stars

When I was younger, I heavily avoided historical fiction as a whole. The details always felt bogged down. I didn’t understand what could be so interesting about a story that we already know. If it’s part of history, surely we learned about it to some extent, and what’s the point of rehashing that when there are so many other unique stories we can tell instead, you know? My naivety was kind of embarrassing.

Within the last five years or so, I started reading historical fiction based in WW2 Europe and instantly fell in love with the genre, because here’s the thing: yes, if it’s historical fiction we’ve most likely learned about it to some extent, but there are so many unique sides to history that we aren’t always taught. We can’t possibly be taught history from every single perspective, and the historical fiction genre serves to educate us in that realm. Conjure Women is an excellent example of the different narratives that we miss in our standard history lessons in school.

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