Jeanne Blasberg is a novelist, travel writer, and adventurer. She is a voracious reader and regularly reviews books on her blog, Goodreads, BookBub, LibraryThing, and Amazon.

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How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps her House by Cherie Jones · NYJB Review

how-the-one-armed-sister-sweeps-her-house-cherie-jones-book-reviewHow the One-Armed Sister Sweeps her House by Cherie Jones

This review was originally published by the New York Journal of Books.

How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps her House is the type of novel you finish and then return to Chapter One to begin again. Because it is that good, but also because it is filled with nuance, subtlety, and rich relationships between characters, the depths of which unfold gradually.

The wonderful title refers to a cautionary parable told to Lala, the primary character, by her grandmother in the opening pages. She warns there were two sisters, one obedient and one naughty who couldn’t quell her curiosity to explore the infamous tunnels of Baxter Bay, Barbados. The grandmother recounts, “This sister question her mother, wonder what in the tunnels that so sweet she warning her away from it, because this good-for-nothing girl already developing a taste for things that her mother tell her not to have, this slack-from-she-born, force-rip sister already thinking that some bad things real sweet it can’t be evil. This sister thinking to herself, It not that dark, it not that spooky, what is the use of a tunnel if you don’t get to see where it lead?”

By opening One-Armed Sister with this warning, Cherie Jones casts a foreboding veil over the rest of the book. Her use of language is consistent with that sentiment, rhythmic and poetic, carrying a tone of impending tragedy. Set in Barbados in the mid 1980s, the plot is heartbreaking although fairly straightforward. A poor young woman goes into premature labor, alone and afraid; a wealthy white family is robbed and the father murdered; a baby girl is born and also dies. There are investigations, grief, and cover ups, but this novel’s real accomplishment is the weaving of characters’ backstories, evoking a sense of inevitability and compassion even for the so-called villains.

Alongside the narrative of Lala and her husband Adan, Jones details the lives of Peter Whalen, the wealthy tourist who was murdered, and his widow Mira. The Whalens had traveled to Baxter’s Beach for many years and were, on this particular trip, attempting to rescue their marriage. Peter is killed while protecting Mira from the robber, leaving her with not only extreme guilt, but the job of consoling Peter’s children, dealing with the investigation, collecting the body, and fielding condolence calls from friends and relatives including her mother in London.

It is in Mira’s characterization of her mother that a key message of the novel is conveyed: “Extremes of anything are bad, and the two extremes of possession—deprivation and deluge—are especially crippling to the soul. For that reason, Mira Whalen’s mother has always advocated having just enough. Enough to keep you happy. Enough to eat. Enough to drink. No more or no less.” In this novel with prominent themes of class difference, extreme poverty, and lives of crime, Jones makes a profound statement, writing, “There is perhaps enough diversion in seeking to ascertain what enough is to last a lifetime.”

Along with Lala and Mira, each major character (and some minor characters as well) has chapters written in their point of view. Some of the most sublime are ones Jones writes in a haunting, second-person point of view, giving them an aura of Lala’s internal strength-summoning, and possibly phantom guidance offered by her deceased mother, Esme:

“If you is woman enough to call your own taxi from the hospital and tell it where to go, you tell yourself now, if you can mince out of that taxi with your stitched up parts still stinging and you can pay the taximan and you can cross the sandy soil with two bags and five pounds of baby in a pink dress you buy her with money you make from the same braiding, if you can get up the same twenty-five steps you mince down that night you went to find him, with two bags and a new baby, ain’t you woman enough to decide when you will take that baby and go back to doing heads?”

Later in How the One-Armed Sister Sweeps her House, when the question of how one learns to love a man is posed, Lala eventually recognizes “that if you must learn to love a man, he is probably not the man you should be loving.” Although the novel portrays generations of abuse, eventually landing at the feet of Lala and Adan and informing the way they relate to each other, it also paints a picture of a good, loyal man who will become Lala’s protector. Lala knows love with this man named Tone, who had been her first love as a girl, quite ironically, in those forbidden tunnels. The knowledge that such love does exist is Lala’s salvation. Jones writes, “This knowledge, you tell yourself, and not the hands and the tongue and thighs of Tone beneath you, on the ground in these tunnels, is why you are singing. This truth that only the girls who dare to enter the tunnels are able to find out.”

 

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Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi · NYJB Review

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Burnt Sugar by Avni Doshi

This review originally appeared in the New York Journal of Books.

Burnt Sugar is an incredible novel with messages and characters that remain with its reader far beyond the final line. In this sometimes humorous, sometimes dark, always ephemeral piece of literature, Avni Doshi unspools an original take on the theme of inheritance—what we take on willingly and unwillingly.

The first chapter introduces us to Antara, narrator and protagonist, a woman obligated to care for her mother. Antara explains, “The reason is simple: my mother is forgetting, and there is nothing I can do about it. There is no way to make her remember things she has done in the past, no way to baste her in guilt. I used to bring up instances of her cruelty, casually, over tea, and watch her face curve into a frown. Now, she mostly can’t recall what I’m talking about; her eyes are distant with perpetual cheer.”

On the surface Antara does the right things: moves her mother in with her, takes her to the doctor, experiments with her diet. But resentment simmers as she admits, “It seems to me now that this forgetting is convenient, that she doesn’t want to remember the things she has said and done. It feels unfair that she can put away the past from her mind while I’m brimming with it all the time.” The story soon becomes as much about Antara’s remembering as her mother’s forgetting, a revelatory examination of memory both individual and shared.

The novel’s structure mirrors this tug of war, pulling back to Antara’s childhood and even to her mother’s, then propelling forward to reveal new truths (or perceived truths) about the characters. As a girl, Antara suffers her father’s abandonment, and her mother’s exploits render them homeless for a period. Her grandparents are saviors, although their rescue is always tainted with grim-faced displeasure and disapproval of Antara’s mother.

These intergenerational ties are woven masterfully, highlighting parallels in behavior and appearance, as well as the genesis of wounds and trauma. With biting language and dark humor, Antara slowly reveals the troublesome behavior she undertook while emerging into adulthood, further developing her complex and multi-dimensional character. All the while in the present, Antara is so fixated on the wrongs inflicted on her in childhood that she evolves into a madness that echoes her mother’s neurological ills.

Antara attempts to hold it together with the very societal trappings her mother eschewed. She finds a perverse safety in marrying Dilip, a repatriated Indian who “grew up in Milwaukee, where his ears knew only soft Q-tips and suburban stillness.” Antara’s family is a product of Pune, an Indian city described by Dilip as sensory overload, loud and too pungent. Antara goes to great lengths to create a calm home her husband will find satisfactory, yearning for a “marriage free of gray, fuzzy edges,” and even calculates a pregnancy in order to stay safe from the chaos of her memory.

In this way, Burnt Sugar explores security and permanence, the lengths to which people go in search of what they were denied as children. It is a commentary on how women play by the rules in order to establish a place from which they can’t be evicted—and the danger that lurks when they choose not to.

Dilip’s perception of his wife’s situation gains importance for the reader as Antara’s perspective becomes increasingly unreliable. “It’s hard,” he notes presciently, “for me to understand your relationship with [your mother] sometimes. Being around her is very stressful for you. And the other way round. To be honest, I wonder if you’ll make her worse or better.” Antara does eventually succeed in returning her mother to the present moment: lucid, even sharp, herself again. But in that particular moment of clarity, when the two women are finally able to confront each other on an even battlefield, Antara realizes the power she has over her mother’s well-being.

The novel ends with an incredible crescendo as the major characters gather in Antara and Dilip’s apartment. Antara struggles to juggle a newborn baby, a self-destructive mother, a judgmental grandmother, a manipulative mother-in-law, and the reappearance of her long-lost father upon whom the family heaps their attention. Meanwhile her husband delights in the occasion, oblivious to her concerns. The small talk and frivolity covering all that is wrong under the surface is more than Antara can bear.

Antara is a flawed heroine, admitting even in the opening line, “I would be lying if I said my mother’s misery has never given me pleasure.” But she is a heroine many women will identify with. She bears her mother’s imprint and indeed the mark of many generations of women. Under such pressure, who wouldn’t dance on the precipice of madness?

 

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Leave the World Behind by Rumaan Alam

Maybe not the best audiobook choice for the day after a coup-attempt and the height of a global pandemic, but Leave the World Behind’s end-of-the-world omniscient narrator thoughtfully contemplates what matters, who we are, and, even as we are ignorant to the end of the world approaching, how we choose to behave. So inspirational…? We aspire and we have bad habits, we find comfort in what we throw into our grocery cart, we have real-life behavior and vacation week behavior, we judge people based on the interior of their homes and by their names, but when the end is in sight, what really matters? This is an intelligent, nuanced, work of literary fiction that pits the survival instincts of two couples against one another. It is a highly suspenseful, microscopic examination of just a few days of Amanda and Clay’s Airbnb vacation in the Hamptons. The home’s rightful owners, Ruth and GH, show up after an emergency in the city and even though distrust, fear and judgment are initial reactions, this novel illuminates the true qualities that bring peace to humans as the end looms near. And for that matter at any time.
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The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson

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The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz by Erik Larson

The seventeen hour Splendid and the Vile audio book was the perfect companion on a cross country drive. Churchill’s bravery, determination, and leadership rang through as did the efforts of his wife, Clementine, to not only support her husband, but to guide and support the lives of their daughter, Mary, and their daughter-in-law Pamela in light of their son’s disappointing ways. The fact that every detail of this hefty book was drawn from letters and journal accounts, contributes to the authentic voices and development of the characters. A splendid work of weaving together what must have been volumes and volumes of research. Reading about a great leader during a time of national crisis was aptly poignant. The humility, humor, and resolve on display in this book served of a reminder of what could be. It is also a reminder of the way life goes on in the midst of even a blitz, something the history books fail to make note of. Inspiration at I time when I really needed it.

 

Check out what else Jeannie is reading here!

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Dreamland by Sam Quinones

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I picked up Dreamland at the suggestion of a person I admire. It details the convergence of our national Opioid crisis and heroine addiction, fueled by criminal drug marketing techniques, an anti-pain revolution, Mexican drug dealers, Medicaid, and more. The web of factors was very interesting and I commend the author for attempting to connect all the dots. His writing, however, was tedious and repetitive. If this book had been edited, it would have been so much better. I was tempted to give up many times, but there would be another nugget of good information that kept me going. I do not recommend the audiobook as the narrator mispronounced dozens of words, diminishing the credibility of an already sloppy bit of writing.
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Plain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

plain_bad_heroines_emily_danforth_book_review_jeanne_blasbergPlain Bad Heroines by Emily M. Danforth

Okay, so a haunted girls boarding school set in Little Compton, Rhode Island… Plain Bad Heroines had me at hello. Emily Danforth has such a punchy and quick-witted use of language that there were always several layers of entertainment going on for me, and I was taken by her unabashedly addressing the reader throughout.

This novel has been described as Gothic, but it harkened to early Nineteenth century novelists such as Mary Shelley, Emily Brontë, and George Eliot in its third person omniscient voice. The story braids two time frames, 1902 at the Brookhants boarding school with contemporary Hollywood, and features a mostly all-female cast of characters. Both time periods include triads of young women who fall in love and suffer jealousies within their respective triangles. The initial love at Brookhants between Flo and Clara and curious Eleanor (on the outside) was inspired by the work of Mary MacLane, a shocking memoirist who in the late 1800’s scandalized readers with her bisexuality. I mention this only because it was the first of many literary and cultural references that made my experience of this book expansive, ie. a second layer of entertainment value.

As for the story itself, it was not so much a haunted tale as it was a parody of haunted tales past and present, and I am not lying reader, when I say a portion of my home was infested with yellow jackets while I was listening to the audio (you must read the book to get this.) I hear the printed version is 600+ pages, but still I would suggest picking it up if you like smart writing and courageous technique.

 

Note that I listened to the audio version courtesy of Libro.fm and the narrator was outstanding!

 

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White Ivy by Susie Yang · NYJB Review

This review was originally published by the New York Journal of Books.

white-ivy-susie-yang-book-review-jeanne-blasbergWhite Ivy by Susie Yang

White Ivy is a suspenseful novel with a protagonist who is intentionally portrayed as an anti-heroine. It begins “Ivy Lin was a thief but you would never know it to look at her.” In classic anti-heroism style, Ivy has few redeeming qualities at the beginning of the novel, and although she experiences growth and revelation, she never comes around morally. She steals, lies, prostitutes herself, and even treats her own body like a garbage dump. So the question is: How do we feel about detestable protagonists? Such a structure certainly demands tolerance from a reader and some appreciation for its departure from what we’ve been raised on—characters who transition over the course of a novel and in so doing deliver a universal message of hope or possibility.

Can we enjoy novels with protagonists we don’t like? There are plenty of male anti-heroes, the Humbert Humberts of the world, detestable protagonists we end up rooting for despite their faults. The fact is the reading public is especially hard on female characters who do not adhere to stereotype, who are not kind and thoughtful and domestic, or do not at least come around to these attributes by novel’s end. Because of this, one can hold White Ivy up as a work of art that challenges societal bias. It receives five stars on that measure, if only three stars on the whole.

On the other hand, the jacket copy describes the novel as one that offers “sharp insights into the immigrant experience.” That statement is pure marketing and potentially exploitive. Ivy Lin is a very complex individual as are the members of her family. One would hate to think that Susie Yang wrote Ivy Lin’s character or the Lin family in general to be representative of Chinese Americans. If that is the case, it paints an extremely negative and troubling picture.

In addition, for a story primarily set in Boston and fictitious towns surrounding the city, it fails to offer authentic details. In fact, there are several erroneous details, creating lapses in credibility that trip up the reader and diminish her eagerness to go along with the narrator on a journey that already demands she withhold judgement on Ivy Lin’s character. For example, bad winter weather usually comes in from the west, not the north, and not from the Atlantic; when leaving Boston one does not drive through upstate New York in order to get to New Jersey; there is no block on Beacon Hill where there are rows of identical front doors; a state senator works in Boston and not in Washington. While Yang writes well and employs fine use of metaphor, occasional poor grammar and word choice threaten to startle the reader from the fictive dream she is working hard to establish.

Ivy Lin grows up in a poor family but attends a private school in Massachusetts on account of her father working there. It is at this school that she develops a crush on Gideon Speyer. After lying to her parents in order to attend a slumber party at his home, Ivy is sent to stay with relatives in China for the summer, and the family moves to New Jersey while she is out of the country. Lin goes on to attend an unnamed women’s college outside of Boston where she reconnects with the Speyer family and drama ensues.

The early chapters of this novel are enjoyable. The relationship Ivy shares with her grandmother is great, as are her travels and the relationships she makes that summer as a young teen in China. The choices she makes to fit in and survive in her family seem plausible. If this is the description of the immigrant experience Yang is going for, then it’s laudable. The second half of the novel, however, is where plot twists enter around the superficially and simplistically wrought Speyer family and the story succumbs to a downward spiral of baseness.

White Ivy is entertaining insofar as it is extremely original. The conclusion left this reader without a sense of hope, depressed over an ending that rewards self-centered opportunism. The final scene is one where Ivy faces off against Gideon’s sister, Silvia Speyer, in a contest of innuendo between two equally loathsome human beings. However, maybe that was the point. The lesson for the reader might be in the irony—that if you are looking for a real hero, the most self-aware and honest character in this novel is the one you would have least expected.

 

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Jeanne McWilliams Blasberg is an award-winning author and essayist. Her most recent book is The Nine, winner of multiple awards including a Foreword Indies Gold Award in Thriller & Suspense. She is the founder of the Westerly Writer’s Workshop as well as a board member of the Boston Book Festival.

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Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

brown-girl-dreaming-jacqueline-woodson-book-review-jeanne-blasbergBrown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

To write a memoir in prose, to distill each experience into just the right words, to leave enough white space on the page for a reader to jump in and participate with the language, that is the work of a master. Reader, you already know you are in masterful hands with Jacqueline Woodson. I listened to an interview with Woodson on the Write-Minded podcast with Brooke Warner and Grant Faulkner where she admitted that it was possible to consume Brown Girl Dreaming in one sitting, but that it pained her to hear when readers did that. She really wished we wouldn’t. Indeed, I enjoyed this memoir slowly in bites I could savor. Keeping it on hand for quiet moments when I could sit and think and enjoy the cadence of the verse. It is a book you will want to keep close at hand, a reminder that poignant imagery transports and conveys meaning better than pages and pages and pages. This is a beauty of a book!

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Anxious People by Fredrik Backman

anxious-people-frederick-backman-book-review-jeanne-blasbergAnxious People by Fredrik Backman

With an equal measure of humor and philosophy, Backman’s latest work examines the intricacies of family and home and the anxiety we feel over getting it right. The novel’s structure engaged me from the very beginning with its omniscient voice moving two steps forward and then one step backward, telling what the novel was about in a way that was delightfully unreliable. And as the dots connected and puzzle pieces began to fit together, the experience of this novel was as much an intellectual exercise as a dive into the neuroses of its many delightful characters. I was struck by Backman’s ability to develop all eight characters in a hostage situation so masterfully. The book goes beyond story telling and is a plea for compassion in this crazy world. It will have you laughing at our foibles and universal oddities, its observations are really spot on. I listened to the audio version of Anxious People and the narrator did an incredible job of giving each speaking character a voice of their own. I highly recommend this book!

 

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The Book of V by Anna Solomon

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The Book of V by Anna Solomon

I loved this book’s ambition. Any modern retelling of a biblical character has me hooked as well. The braiding of the three point-of-view characters’ stories in The Book of V was masterful and the reveal about two-thirds of the way through around how their lives were even more tightly wound was terrific.

Having just finished reading Cassandra Speaks by Elizabeth Lesser, I am struck by how Esther and Vashti’s stories might have been interpreted entirely differently if a woman had first written them. Here was my chance to find out! Just as the Lionel and Ian in the novel malign and misconstrue Vee’s intentions, so has been the masculine lens on a woman’s life.

The Book of V grapples with such important issues around motherhood, femininity, misogyny, but with a structure that is incredibly innovative and entertaining.

 

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