The Miniaturist

The Miniaturist is the story of eighteen year old Nella who’s marriage to Johannes Brandt has been arranged due to her family’s drastic money problems.  Johannes is a very wealthy IMG_2582merchant from Amsterdam and he is twice her age.  Arriving in her new home, Nella, a simple girl from the countryside, is greeted with indifference and her husband isn’t even there to welcome her.  Quickly Nella realizes the lady of the house seems to be her sister-in-law Marin, who’s in her  early thirties.  Marin is shrewish and unwelcoming.  There is also a young maid named Cornelia and Otto, Johannes’ manservant described “skin is dark, dark brown everywhere, his neck coming out from the collar, his wrists and hands from his sleeves – all unending, dark brown skin.”(The Miniaturist, p.11)

Johannes eventually appears and bestows upon Nella an exceptional cabinet-sized replica of their home.  He also leaves her quite a bit of money so that she can take the time to have pieces made for it by a miniaturist.  Nella isn’t impressed with this gift for she  anxiously wants to inhabit her role as wife and doesn’t want to be thought of as frivolous. After contracting a miniaturist to make pieces for the cabinet, Nella begins to receive pieces that she has commissioned from the miniaturist along with others she hasn’t and they replicate her actual life exactly.  From there we follow Nella’s discovery of her new home and the secrets of its inhabitants.

Now I must say I did vote for this one but once I got started reading I found it very hard to get into for the first 60 or so pages.  I realized I needed to concentrate more and that allowed me to get into the story.  I found myself sucked into the beautifully descriptive passages and the semi-dark mysterious home and life in 17th century Amsterdam.  The best thing about this novel is the writing.  However, literary fiction it is not.  For those who don’t care about that, you can still enjoy the story and development of Nella’s character.

As for the things I had problems with, the main one was the miniaturist. I thought because the novel was called The Miniaturist there would be more explanation as to who he/she was and what he/she was about.  Instead the miniaturist was, in my opinion, a sort magical realism element to connect the characters and the storylines.  Now this will work for some, but it didn’t work for me at all.  How did the miniaturist know what to make and when to leave the dolls?  Nothing of that is explained.  The second thing I had trouble with was the way Nella reacted to things and how she did things.  Her reactions and behavior seemed to be very 21st century.  In the end I had to reason myself to this and get on with the reading.  There are some twist and turns throughout which I found to be predictable but that some people at my book club hadn’t caught on to in advance.  I’m going to leave that untouched because I’m approaching spoiler territory if I continue.

Lastly what I didn’t like about the novel was the ending.  What the heck?!  I recommend jessieburtonthat you go reread the first Chapter once you’ve finished the novel, but still… What?!  That ending left me with too many unanswered questions.  This can sometimes influence to what degree I like a novel.  I have to say after much thought I’m rating this one 3 stars because it does have some very strong points that do overweigh the bad points.  So yes The Miniaturist is a good book. Is it great?  Did it merit to be so hyped up?  I’m sure everybody has an opinion on both of those questions and I’d like to read it below.

The Miniaturist is Jessie Burton’s debut novel and has been a major success selling over a million copies by 2015.  She worked on this novel for four years, while working a day job as a PA in London.  She’s currently working on her second novel, The Muse, which concentrates on four heroines set in Civil War Spain and 60s London.

My Copy: The Miniaturist, hardcover 435 pages

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Author Interview: Dwayne Alexander Smith talks about Forty Acres

I picked up IMG_0494Forty Acres by Dwayne Alexander Smith, while browsing on Amazon.  After reading the premise of the novel I was immediately intrigued and wanted to know more about it.  So September started with a bang!

I definitely made the right decision.  Forty Acres, is about a young upcoming African-American Civil Rights lawyer who gets involved with a secret organisation of affluent African-American businessmen.  Little does he know, they are resolute in the idea of  preserving slavery where they are the masters and white people are their slaves.

The novel is extremely engrossing, a real page turner, and very difficult to put down.  Smith’s writing is fully descriptive and his clever way of telling the story explains the legacy of slavery in details that the average person may not be ready to read, but tells the cold hard history that is never told in history class.  Martin Grey, the main character, is intelligent and a bit of an idealist and at times does things that we as the reader know are a bit reckless but we can’t help but like him and root for him, all the same.

The reverse racism is presented as a way for these African-American men to “even the score” as they put it.  Smith incorporates many important themes in this novel that make it a thriller with substance, although some critics may have felt that he could have and should have gone deeper.  I was surprised at the length and depth Smith’s story went to exposing the problems of race in the United States.  He covers the details of slavery but most of all he delves into the way African-Americans feel at times in society today.    We haven’t had many contemporary novels of late get into the details of race the way  it’s dealt with in Forty Acres.  It’s a novel that will make you reflect, question your ideas of race and racism, and at times cringe.  After I finished Forty Acres I kept asking myself,  “Could this happen today?”

I had the great pleasure of interviewing Dwayne Alexander Smith. Check out the interview below to learn more about this budding novelist.

1.  I really enjoyed reading Forty Acres. Could you tell us how you came up with the idea for this story?

Forty Acres started out as a sci-fi story, believe it or not. A black astronaut crash lands on earth, but in the past, during the period of American slavery. Unable to speak due to an injury, he is captured an held captive on a plantation with African slaves. I loved the idea for this story because it would give us a modern black man’s view of slavery. Unfortunately I couldn’t make the story work the way I wanted. After lots of rethinking Forty Acres took on the form it has now.

2.  With all that’s been going on racially in the United States at the moment, how has your book been received?

I think that the book has been received well considering the tough and uncomfortable subject matter. Slavery is a touchy subject in the United States. Many readers who are looking for something entertaining to read, won’t easily select a thriller centered around such a sensitive topic. Surprisingly, the book has been better received in Europe.

3.  I can say being a black American that I was very proud to see your book placed on the new releases wall at WH Smith in Paris. How have you been accepting the attention?

The attention from readers around the world has been the best part of having Forty Acres published. Right before sitting down to answer these questions I read an email from a gentleman in the UK who loved the book and just wanted to let me know that. Also, a week ago I found out that I have been nominated for a NAACP Image Award. I was blown away by this news. The attention is great and very addictive.

4.  I heard that Forty Acres started as a movie script. Could you tell us a bit about the process of adapting a movie script to a novel?

Well, Forty Acres was never actually a script, it was an idea for a script. I’ve never actually adapted a book into a screenplay, but I hope to have that problem if and when the Forty Acres movie rights are acquired.

5.  Martin Grey is an interesting character, but most of all Dr. Kasim, who is one hell of a villain. Will there be a sequel to 40 Acres or other novels with Martin Grey as the central character?

Yes there will be a sequel. Will that sequel be published by a major publisher or self-published by me is the only unknown. Book sales will be the deciding factor. Regardless of how it reaches the public I do plan to write a sequeI. I have the story figured out and yes Martin will play a central role. Also, I think a lot of women will be happy to know that Martin’s wife Anna will have a much larger role.

6.  Forty Acres is centralized primarily around black men. What were you trying to accomplish with that dynamic?

From the very beginning, when Forty Acres was a sci-fi tale, I just wanted to find a new way to tell a story that involved American slavery. It’s amazing that more movies aren’t made about slavery, considering its lasting impact on American culture.

7.  Are there plans for Forty Acres to be adapted to film?

No plans as of yet but there’s a small army of people in my corner, agents, managers, and lawyers, trying to make that happen. The truth is that Forty Acres scares a lot of producers. It’s controversial and very in your face and that projects like that tend to make the powers that be in Hollywood queasy. It’s going to take a producer with vision and courage to bring Forty Acres to the screen. It will happen, it’s just a matter of when.

8.  Are you working on a second novel? If so when will it be released?

I am working on another thriller called White Widow. No one has seen it yet so there’s no publishing deal or release date in place. Right now I’m just laser focused on making it as good as possible. Forty Acres has a lot of fans, many of which have stated in reviews that they are eager to read my next book. The last thing I want to do is let my newly found fan base down. For that reason I’m working really hard to get White Widow right.

9.  What advice can you give to other black writers that are trying to write, to get published, and recognised?

I get this question a lot. The advice I give doesn’t just apply to black writers but to all writers who are trying to break into a writing career. I firmly believe that the best way to grab the attention of publishers and readers is to have an amazing idea for a book. Dozens of thrillers about cops chasing bad guys cross the desks of editors everyday. What’s going to make yours stand out? I’ve wanted to write a novel for a very long time but I knew that when I did I had to have a killer idea, an idea that would demand attention and interest. When I came up with the idea for Forty Acres I had a great time telling people because I loved to see their stunned expressions. That’s how I knew I had a solid concept. So my advice to writers is simple. Before you sit down to write, spend as long as it takes dreaming up an idea that will set mouths agape and widen eyes. When you nail that you’ll know that you’re on the right track.

Big thanks again to you Dwayne Alexander Smith for taking the time out of your extremely busy schedule to answer these questions.  Good luck with your future writing!

 

Ruby

IMG_1147I hate expecting great things from a novel but as every page gets turned I feel a little let down.  Ruby, not at all what I expected,  is Cynthia Bond’s debut novel that explores the life of an African-American woman called Ruby Bell, who has mentally and physically broken down from plenty of neglect and abuse past and present.  Ephram Jennings is the man who loves her and has done so since they were children.  He’s described as being a simple man.  He has never forgotten her.  And so the story begins…..

The first 60-70 pages seemed to be fairly uneventful and many characters were being introduced into the story, at times I thought too many.  Then things started to happen but it all felt too over the top.  Everything seemed to be too intense and at times I questioned some scenes in the novel that I felt were unnecessary.  Reading about sexual abuse is hard enough but when it involves children it’s insupportable.  There were scenes in Ruby that pushed me to some extremely uncomfortable moments, so uncomfortable that they made me physically ill.  I really do question if one scene in particular absolutely needed to be written in the way that it was.  After much thought, I’m not convinced it was.  Some scenes could have been written in a way that would be more suggestive and I’m sure that would have passed better and given a greater effect to the novel.

Magical realism is used throughout the novel which almost symbolises her insanity from all the abuse Ruby’s been through.  At least that was what I thought.  There is constant mention of the Obeah and the Dyboù.  The Obeah is Igbo religious practice, folk magic, and sorcery.  The novel being deep-rooted in religion and voodoo, the magic realism seemed to work really well.  Until it seemed that Ruby was actually being possessed by the Dyboù.  That’s when I really started to not take that part of the story line as seriously.  Not to mention, I couldn’t understand how in such a small town more people didn’t know about this group of prominent church men participating in these voodoo rituals. That was not realistic at all.

The symbolism in the story is strong and consistent.  It is the underlying thread that Bond runs through the story as a common denominator.  For example one of the most obvious symbols is the name of the town where the story takes place, Liberty.  It is a town of total contradiction.  It’s a place where no one is really free,  They are all locked up slaves to their demons – religion, sex, voodoo, social/racial condition, etc.  The colour red is always mentioned – red dust, Red bus, red velvet pouch, red rope, red roses, red beacon,…  Red brings text and images to the foreground.  It is a colour that intensifies and exudes strength.  It also symbolises love.  It’s unbelievable  but this novel is more a love story than anything else, while at the same time being the story of a woman coming to grips with her demons.  (apparently real and metaphorical)  The crow can symbolise many things but in Ruby, I felt it symbolised  personal transformation and destiny, which refers to both Ruby and Ephram.  In order to be able to love Ephram, Ruby must overcome her demons and return to a somewhat normal life, even though it’s clear that Ephram is willing to wait for her.  Ephram must break away from his sister/mother to become a real man.

Lastly, the structure of Ruby is overly complex at times and misleading.  The main characters’ backstories are narrated towards the second half of the book.  They are told as a succession of erratic scenes jumping from past to present, and in the end I felt that took away from the power of the book.  It just made things more difficult to piece together.  The reader is faced with having to put all of those puzzle pieces together in order for better understanding.  For example it took me a while to figure out how much time actually passed in the novel.  What tipped me off that the story took place over about twenty years was when I heard Ephram played Killing me Softly for Ruby. I knew that song was sung by Roberta Flack in the early seventies, maybe 1973 and earlier in the novel we know that Ruby goes to New York in the 1950s.  Nevertheless, I’m still not sure of Ruby’s age.  In spite of everything I disliked about this novel, Bond’s writing is very good, containing some excellent, creative one liners and at times rich descriptions.  I rated Ruby 3 stars on Goodreads.  It will be interesting to see where Bond moves this poignant, complex love story, which is to be a multigenerational trilogy.

 

 

Wench

I’ve wanted to get my hands on this book for quite some time and the Clutch 2013 reading group on 6751356Goodreads gave me the shove I needed.  Wench is the four-part story of Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet, and Mawu.  They are more than wenches.  In the beginning, before the novel really starts, Perkins-Valdez depicts the change in meaning of the word wench.  “In the middle ages the word wench simply meant a girl, maid, young woman; a female child, but in the United States from 1812-1832 a wench was a black or colored female servant; a negress and by 1848 the definition became a colored woman of any age; a negress or mulattress, especially one in service.”(Wench)  This sets the lugubrious tone of what is yet to come in the novel.

Tawawa House was a resort built in the free state of Ohio.  It was built for the white Northern elite to partake of the natural spring water which was deemed good for the health, but over time Southern slave owners began frequenting the resort accompanied by their slave concubines for the summer.  Here these women bonded with each other  in their own way through their condition of utter servitude.  At Tawawa House the women were subjected to all kinds of mistreatment, sordid situations, and persistent promiscuous sex in an animalistic way.  It’s obvious that the author is trying to show the backward thinking of the period,i.e. that slaves were like animals and extremely promiscuous.  “I felt that given the sexual servitude of my female characters, this word would most accurately evoke the set of cultural expectations they were entangled within.” (Wench About the author, p. 4)

Lizzie was the only one of the four that didn’t seem to understand her place as a slave.  She loved Drayle, her master, and she seemed to believe that he loved her.  It is very hard to imagine that to be true, but I believe this is the main controversy of the story.  At times she even imagined herself dressed as if she was a lady and tried to adopt their mannerisms.  The only time she thought of freedom was for her two children, Nate and Rabbit.  Mawu, however, was head-strong and determined.  She didn’t mind saying what was on her mind and it was clear that freedom was on her mind from the beginning of the story.  She spoke of how she tried to devise ways to discourage her master from sleeping with her.  Sweet was pregnant with her fifth child, the embodiment of motherhood, whereas Reenie was the oldest of the group, trying to hide herself anyway that she could.

Surprisingly, Tawawa House was not the only resort around but low and behold existed another resort not very far away for free coloreds.  The slaves’ first encounter with free blacks, other than the blacks working in Tawawa House’s kitchen, was a moment of freedom in itself, yet darkened by a large dose of fear.  It opened Pandora’s box.  In spite of the fear, the visit sparked a desire for freedom that never stopped growing.  It compelled them all to reflect on their individual situations.  It was like a disease seeping into their veins for which there was no cure.  How did this all affect them?  You’ll just have to read for yourself and find out.

The writing style was beautiful and sensitive.  The descriptions were detailed, realistic, and poignant.  In my opinion, the characters were endearing, but for me Lizzie was a total enigma.  I didn’t feel very sympathetic toward her as a character and I was always anticipating the worst to happen when she was involved.  Her character made me uncomfortable.  The controversy around Wench lies there.  Could there have actually been love between a master and a slave?  What kinds of horrendous stereotypes go through the minds of people today when they see white men and black women in relationships? And, why? Perkins-Valdez definitely has a way with words; so much so that there were scenes that made me want to cry.  Wench is heart-rending.

Perkins-Valdez has painted a story that focuses quite closely on slavery in a way that hasn’t been explored in literary fiction before.  This is mainly because of the taboo nature of the novel.  She was inspired to write this book after reading  the biography of W.E.B. Dubois where he mentioned slave masters taking their slave mistresses to a resort in Ohio.  So, Tawawa House really existed.  Although she could never find any documented specific stories about this place, she began to imagine what it would be like to be one of those slave mistresses.  It’s a known fact that these unusual arrangements were existent and widespread among slave owners, but the resort adds a new facet, which allowed her to explore and focus on the slave mistresses.

Unfortunately, I have to talk about what I didn’t like about Wench. There were two things in particular.  The first problem was sometimes when she switched topics within the story, it was sometimes done with no warning.  That threw me off guard at times and I found myself rereading certain passages.  The second real disappointment was the ending.  It fell totally flat for me, while leaving so many unanswered questions.  It was as if she had no idea how she was going to end  the story, especially since she’d worked so hard to spin an interesting one.  Perkins-Valdez wrapped the package up, but forgot to put ribbon and a card on it.  That really killed me.

This is Dolen Perkins-Vladez’s first novel.  She was born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee.  She is a Harvard graduate and has written essays appearing in the North Carolina Literary Review and The Kenyon Review.  She is currently working on her second novel.

Title: Wench

Genre:  Women’s/African-American/Historical Fiction

Published:  2010

Edition:  Harper Collins Publishers – Amistad

Pages:  290

Language:  English

My rating:  * * *  1/2 

My favorite quote:  ”Don’t be afraid to say how you feel.  Learn a craft so you always have something to barter other than your private parts. ” (Wench, p. 288)

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