Sometimes I forget to write up the books I’ve read, even with short reviews. Sometimes I remember to review them on Goodreads, but I otherwise forget to mention them here. It’s often difficult because I don’t have much to say about them, especially when I absolutely love them; it’s hard to say more than “This book is amazing, please start reading it now.” For now, I’m going to do some catching up on my most recent completions.
The Heretic’s Daughter by Kathleen Kent
As much as I love historical fiction, I often find that I hate stories that are set during the Salem Witch Trial; there’s often far too much focus on the possibility that the entire situation could’ve been the result of ergotism. This is particularly true for one of the most studied period pieces that also happens to be an allegory to McCarthyism, though many people seem to forget that: Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.
Which is why this novel is refreshing. It’s a mixture of fiction and of family history, as Kathleen Kent is writing from the perspective of her ancestor: Sarah Carrier. The novel starts off feeling so slow, but that slowness builds the whole environment. It sets the scenes, it develops the characters, and it creates the motives; it turns the whole situation into a relatable moment that people can understand, showing how people can antagonise each other to the point that they’re driven to murder.
It’s startling in that way because we often don’t want to admit that jealousy can lead us to murdering someone; we want to claim it’s some other excuse – that a person is a witch and is, through spectres, harming us – so that we don’t have to admit that we’re upset that specific traditions weren’t strictly followed, that someone wasn’t religious enough in the right ways, or that certain people might have stepped beyond their determined “place” in society.
Perhaps because it is so personal but so far away, Kent is more capable of making the whole period interesting all over again.
The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor
As before with Zahrah the Windseeker, Okorafor creates an atmosphere that is so compelling and beautiful; it comes to life with every detail she gives. While I love this book somewhat less than the other, it is still such a beautiful coming-of-age story that’s mixed with aspects of questioning the morality of a situation.
You follow Ejii as she develops into a fully-fledged shadow speaker who is destined to change the world, meeting many people who come from backgrounds where they’re constantly battling with their own issues and conflicting beliefs. Starting with Ejii, who witnessed Jaa murdering her father after he usurped power in her absence, feeling both upset and happy at his death; you see everyone grappling with their own issues including her mother, her friends, her half-siblings, and everyone else you meet throughout the story.
Again, the books take a lot from cultures in Western Africa and mesh it together with those of other regions. This is something I love because it makes her worlds that much more vivid and believable; there are so many different people, different traditions, different values that it feels exactly like our own world despite the fantasy elements.
The biggest issue I would’ve had is that this story is not as fleshed out as it could be; the ending felt rushed to completion. Despite this, it was still an enjoyable and easily imaginable world to delve into.
Factory Girls: From Village to City in a Changing China by Leslie T. Chang
This is one of the few non-fiction books I’ve read recently, and it answered a lot of the questions I’ve had regarding Chinese cities ever since moving to one. Though it was published in 2009, you can still see how the cities today came from the histories and personal stories that Chang describes in her work. For me, it was fairly eye-opening without being too presumptive.
That’s what I liked most about this book, though: She openly states that these are the stories of the girls and women who would talk to her, that she lost touch with many of them because of how they shifted through their own lives, how they simply moved to new jobs, and how they could lose contact with everyone if someone lost their phone.
It was also intriguing because of how empathetic it was. Chang openly states in the book’s discussion pages that she wanted to write it because of how many times Chinese workers were written about as objects rather than people; we constantly see articles written about Chinese workers and how we perceive their lives without giving them a chance to talk about how they feel. Their voices are rarely heard, and we only see them through the eyes of how Westerners talk about them. That makes this so much more compelling, as these are their (translated) words and feelings.
But it is repetitive at times. Sometimes you feel as if you’re rereading pages that you’ve already read. And it’s sometimes disconnected, as she’s telling the stories of her mostly male family members – her great-grandfather, her grandfather, her father, male cousins, a man who was a friend of the family – in parallel with those of these rural girls and women who are working in factories in Chinese cities. While it gives large chunks of needed historical context, it’s sometimes confusing how it relates to these women’s lives.