What I love most about Joshilyn Jackson’s books is that they are never about what they appear to be. It is always more complicated, more nuanced, and she writes in such a way that it is welcoming to the reader, whether she (yes probably her readers are women) is expecting Chick Lit or a psychological page turner. They often get both. In Someone Else’s Love Story, Shandi and her brilliant 3-year son Natty are preparing for a change in their lives and on the way to Atlanta, they stop at a convenience store and become involved in a stick-up. It is there they meet William, a very damaged scientist who becomes their savior and when she falls in love with him, their life gets even more complicated. This novel is so much more so keep reading through the plot twists.
And then, read Almost Sisters, my introduction to Jackson, about a pregnant woman who returns to her family in Alabama to care for her aging grandmother and discovers a secret that upends all her perceptions about her family. It’s not only about family, but race and southern small-town culture, and in addition of course, love.
Lisa See is known for her many novels based on the strong bonds of women, primarily Chinese women. This novel, The Island of Sea Women, however, is set on Jeju Island off the coast of Korea. Against the historically accurate portrait of an all-female diving collective, Lisa See highlights the friendship of Young-sook and Mi-ja, best friends since they were young divers in the 1930s during the Japanese occupation of Korea. This is a tricky situation for them because Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator, hated by most islanders. Young-sook’s mother is the head of the all-female diving collective, who invites Mi-ja to be part of the “baby divers”, young girls learning how to dive.
The novel follows their friendship throughout their young lives, as they travel to foreign lands diving for their collective and planning their future together. Their lives take different turns as Young-sook marries a young progressive teacher and Mi-ja marries a rich, strong, often violent, businessman allied with the Japanese government. The sad and violent history of Korea from the Japanese occupation, throughout WW2 and the Korean War colors their lives and drives them apart. And one terrible day, their friendship is ripped apart and there is no turning back. Each woman must find her own way separately. As Young-sook learns to deal with tragedy and heartbreak, can she learn to forgive Mi-ja for what she feels is an unforgivable act?
Much of this novel is based on fact. The all-female diving collective, known as the Haenyeo, has been active since the 17th century and has created a semi-matriarchal society where women dive, and men take care of the family. If you are interested in the history of Korea, this novel is actually a good source of information. And please read other novels by Lisa See. Another fascinating novel about the effect of the Japanese on Koreans is Pachinko by Min Jin Lee.
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett is at the face of it, a novel about African American identical twin girls, one of whom passes for white and disappears from the family. But it is much more than that. It is about identity, knowing who you are and who you want to be and what you will give up to achieve it.
The girls were brought up in Mallard, LA where, although it is populated by African Americans, everyone is light skinned. When the 16-year-old girls escape to the wider world, Stella passes for white and disappears from her family while Deseree marries a dark-skinned man and gives birth to a girl who looks like her father. She returns to Mallard after several years, with her dark-skinned daughter, Jude.
The novel switches to Stella’s life with her unknowing white husband and daughter in California and then to Jude’s life when she moves to Los Angeles. And finally, to the intersection of their lives. This is a fascinating novel, written with such care and lack of judgment on all the characters’ life choices. Watch for it on HBO as a series.
One of the privileges of writing a blog is that my friends suggest their favorite books…books that literally live on their bookshelves. Peace Like a River by Leif Enger is one of them. Part odyssey, part adventure, a little love story thrown in, a classic western plot with an inspirational theme. What a lovely book. And what a fascinating family. My favorite character though, has to be Swede, with an imagination and literary talent that is as wide as the west itself.
North Dakota, 1951, the Land family, father, Jeremiah, 11-year-old asthmatic son Reuben, 17 year old Davy and 7 year old daughter, Swede find themselves in a terrible predicament when Davy shoots and kills two teens that have been harassing the family and break into their home. Davy is tried for murder and before he is convicted (and he certainly would have been) he escapes to parts unknown. Jeremiah resorts to prayer and decides to take the family and head west where Davy could possibly be headed. Reuben narrates the novel, and we see the odyssey through his eyes. As an 11-year-old he does not always make correct decisions. Do they find Davy, is there divine intervention, does Davy return to prison, there’s only one way to find out, and it is worth the read. This would be a great book club choice.
That’s all for now. Keep reading and tell me about your favorite reads! Happy Spring!