Review: Hannah Kent’s The Good People is a Devastating Read

The Good People by Hannah Kent

The Good People coverFormat/Source: Hardcover/Library
Published: September 2017
Publisher: Little, Brown
Length: 380 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: ★★★★½
GoodReads Indigo | IndieBoundWordery 

I waited impatiently over a year for this book to be released in Canada. I first expected it in September 2016 (but that was only the Australian release date), then in December 2016 (but then it got pushed all the way back to September 2017). The book was worth the wait! I devoured it in three days. The Good People tells the story of three women – Nóra, a widow whose daughter has also recently died, leaving her young son Mícheál in Nóra’s care; Nance, the village’s healer woman; and Mary, a young woman Nóra hires to help care for Mícheál.

And at once Nóra, her heart fluttering at his screams, saw that the boy was not, could not be the child she had seen in her daughter’s cabin. Her eyes began to water, and she saw plainly the puckish strangeness that people had been speaking of. All those months she had thought there was a shadow of Johann about the boy, a familiarity that anchored him to her. martin had seen it, had loved him for it. But now, Nóra knew that nothing of Johanna ran through this child’s blood. it was like Tadgh said. She had not recognised him as her own because there was nothing of her family in the creature. He was a cuckoo in the nest. (140)

Nóra unsettled me. At first, she’s quite the sympathetic character, grieving for her husband and daughter. She misses the happy, healthy Mícheál she once met.  She seeks the priest’s help but he dismisses her, saying that Mícheál  has turned ‘idiot’ and that Nóra shouldn’t speak of fairies. After her visit with the priest, she whips Mícheál  with nettles, claiming she hoped to cure him, as Nance once used the method to cure Nóra’s husband of a minor injury. But as the story progresses, Nóra starts believing the whispers of the townspeople. The boy is not really Mícheál – he’s a changeling, and perhaps Nance, familiar with the Good People, can bring the real Mícheál back. I grew uncomfortable with Nóra’s behaviour as she takes increasingly drastic actions to be rid of the ‘changeling’. Thankfully, Mary brings an outsider’s perspective to Nóra’s actions. She emphasizes the idea that Nóra’s beliefs and actions aren’t right, despite what folk belief says.

The keener. The handy woman. Nance opened her mouth and people thought of the way things went wrong, the way one thing became another. They looked at her white hair and saw twilight. She was both the woman who brought babies to safe harbour in the world, and the siren that cut boats free of their anchors and sent them into the dark. (28)

The villagers play a significant role in the story. They gossip and fuel rumours about a changeling in Nóra’s household, then they disdain her further when she believes those rumours. The new priest, who wants the village to disavow Nance, only increases the tension. The villagers continue to seek help from Nance, as they have always done, but they scorn her afterwards and spread lies about her intentions. Even redheaded Mary frightens some of the villagers, Mary who does her best to protect Mícheál. Kent excels at capturing the nuances and hardships of rural life two centuries ago, at exploring how relationships and behaviours can be transformed by belief.  When I think about this setting, I often reduce it to a simple kind of life. Kent crafts a story from a rich history and time period and gives us a striking look into a different way of life, where people’s lives are just as full of story and emotion as our own today.

‘Oh, Nóra,’ Peg murmured. ”Tis no easy thing. As Nance was telling ye, sometimes ’tis better to care for the changeling in your grandson’s place if you can’t be getting rid of it.’ (253)

I recently reread The Witches of New York. That book features real witches performing real magic; I would call it historical magical realism. Here in The Good People, which is pure historical fiction, I found myself wishing the magic was real so that Nóra could be set at ease and everything could turn out alright, as she imagined it would.  Although I knew true events inspired this book, I didn’t know what those events were. In Burial Ritesit was well-publicized that the book was about the last woman executed in Iceland, so I knew that Agnus would die at the end. The conclusion of The Good People was a surprise to me.  What happened at the climax was particularly intense – I found myself holding my breath and having to look away from the page.

The Bottom Line

A bleak yet atmospheric read, The Good People tells the tragic story of what can happen when a woman finds no support in her community and has to cling to folk beliefs in the name of love.

Further Reading

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Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017 – WWII + Japanese Experiences

Multicultural Children's Book Day 2017Today is Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017! A perfect day to kick of my series of Cybils nominee recommendations that will run for the next few weeks.  The goal of MCCBD is “to not only raise awareness for the kid’s books that celebrate diversity, but to get more of these books into classrooms and libraries”. Check out the Twitter chat at 9PM EST to discuss with the state of children’s book publishing (and maybe win an excellent MCCBD book bundle!). Use the hashtag #ReadYourWorld.

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Cybils 2016From October to December of last year, I read just over 50 middle-grade fiction books in my role as a round one judge for the Cybils. To share some of the books I’ve read, I’ve decided to create a few lists grouping books by similar characteristics. All of the books meet the Cybils nominating criteria, which means they were published in English in Canada or the US between 16 October 2015 to 15 October 2016. Today’s list features three books that explore Japanese or Japanese-American experiences of World War II.

Paper Wishes by Lois Sepahban

Coveer of Paper Wishes

Ten-year-old Manami did not realize how peaceful her family’s life on Bainbridge Island was until the day it all changed. It’s 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Manami and her family are Japanese American, which means that the government says they must leave their home by the sea and join other Japanese Americans at a prison camp in the desert. Manami is sad to go, but even worse is that they are going to have to give her dog, Yujiin, to a neighbor to take care of. Manami decides to sneak Yujiin under her coat, but she is caught and forced to abandon him. She is devastated but clings to the hope that somehow Yujiin will find his way to the camp and make her family whole again. It isn’t until she finds a way to let go of her guilt that Manami can accept all that has happened to her family.

This is a short tale that would be a good introduction to the interment of Japanese-Americans. I liked the characters, and thought Manami’s withdraw demonstrated how difficult the experience was. A somewhat sad and quiet story, the story of the lost dog provides a way into Manami’s life to which children may relate.

Review @ The Children’s War | Add to  GoodReads

The Last Cherry Blossom by Kathleen Burkinshaw

Yuriko was happy growing up in Hiroshima when it was just herThe Last Cherry Blossom and Papa. But her aunt Kimiko and her cousin Genji are living with them now, and the family is only getting bigger with talk of a double marriage! And while things are changing at home, the world beyond their doors is even more unpredictable. World War II is coming to an end, and Japan’s fate is not entirely clear, with any battle losses being hidden from its people. Yuriko is used to the sirens and the air-raid drills, but things start to feel more real when the neighbors who have left to fight stop coming home. When the bomb hits Hiroshima, it’s through Yuriko’s twelve-year-old eyes that we witness the devastation and horror.

I visited Hiroshima a couple of years ago. Visiting the Peace Memorial Museum was one of the most sobering experiences I’ve had. This book compliments historical artifacts and information by focusing largely on what life was like for a young girl growing up in Japan during WWII. Told in first person, Burkinshaw’s writing is sensitive yet evocative. Burkinshaw’s mother’s experience surviving the Hiroshima bombing loosely inspired the story. Like Paper Lanterns, The Last Cherry Blossom would make an excellent introduction to the atomic bombing of Japan.

Review @ Randomly Reading | Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Add to Goodreads

Click Here to Start by Denis Merkell

Click Here to Start coverTwelve-year-old Ted Gerson has spent most of his summer playing video games. So when his great-uncle dies and bequeaths him the all so-called treasure in his overstuffed junk shop of an apartment, Ted explores it like it’s another level to beat. And to his shock, he finds that eccentric Great-Uncle Ted actually has set the place up like a real-life escape-the-room game! Using his specially honed skills, Ted sets off to win the greatest game he’s ever played, with help from his friends Caleb and Isabel. Together they discover that Uncle Ted’s “treasure” might be exactly that—real gold and jewels found by a Japanese American unit that served in World War II. With each puzzle Ted and his friends solve, they get closer to unravelling the mystery—but someone dangerous is hot on their heels, and he’s not about to let them get away with the fortune.

This story differs from the other two in that the Japanese connection is not the main focus of the story. The main character is a Jewish-Japanese American whose now deceased great-uncle fought in World War II. The story has a lot of fun action-adventure components. It also deals with how second and third generation Americans navigate their cultural identities.

Review @ Ms. Yingling Reads | Goodreads

Be sure to check out some of the other posts in the Multicultural Children’s Book Day 2017 link-up.  What other books (picture books, MG, YA, anything) about Japanese experiences in WWII would you recommend?

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Review: The Witches of New York by Ami McKay

Cover of The Witches of New YorkAuthor: Ami McKay
Title: The Witches of New York
Format/Source: ebook/Netgalley (hardcover since purchased)
Published: 25 October 2016
Publisher: Knopf
Length: 504 pages
Genre: Magical realism/historical fiction
Why I Read: Browsing NetGalley, cover caught my eye
Rating: ★★★★½
GoodReads | Indigo | The Book Depository

 

I received a copy from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for my honest review.

Is there a better feeling than when you accurately judge a book by its cover? I requested The Witches of New York on NetGalley solely because of the cover.  I have since purchased a copy. This is one of those editions that reminds me how beautiful books can be. If the image above intrigues you, then you probably don’t need to read the rest of my review – go grab a copy now and enjoy. Ami McKay has penned an excellent tale about three witches living in 1880 New York City. I am already crossing my fingers for a follow-up tale. Here are six reasons why this book is one of my favourites of 2016.

6 Reasons Why You Should Read The Witches of New York

  1. The witches, of course (Eleanor St. Clair, Adelaide Thom, and Beatrice Dunn) – I loved the characterization of these three ladies. They each felt deeply real to me, with their flaws and mannerisms and talents. I felt as though they were real people the author might have known. I rarely connect so well with one character, let alone three. I also appreciated how, despite their differences and disagreements, they always cared for each. It would be easy to reduce them to stereotypes in an attempt to briefly describe them, but Eleanor, Adelaide, and Beatrice are much more than that. (Plus, they all have charming names.)
  2. Feminine magic – I have recently discovered that I enjoy stories of feminine magic, where women have their own special power and work fight the patriarchy. That is not a sentence I would have written even just two years ago. I am a novice feminist when it comes to literature (see note after the list for more about feminism in this tale). But I do know that I loved the magic in this book. McKay differentiates the witch’s talents. Their magic felt real to me; I believe in it while reading the story (and I think that ties in to my point above about the realness of the characters).
  3. Historical context – McKay strikes the perfect blend of historical fiction and magical realism for me in this tale. The Witches of New York sits neatly in history, as McKay incorporates things such as the installation of Cleopatra’s Needle, the Victorian interest in spiritualism and science, and of course women’s rights. The witch’s magic fit snugly in the setting McKay crafts.
  4. Supporting characters –  I haven’t mentioned Dr. Brody, who wants to work with Beatrice to test her abilities and who may have a crush on Adelaide and who is an actually lovely man. The Reverend functioned well as the villain of the tale. (I get squirmy and angry when I think about the twisted logic people like him use to justify their actions.) He may be a one-dimensional character, but this isn’t his story. He symbolizes what’s working against women in society.  There are additional characters who we occasionally read passages about. I like stories like this where threads about seemingly unconnected people come crashing together.
  5. Additional texts  – Included throughout the book are bits of news, snippets of spells, excerpts from writings about witches, and other ephemera. These are nicely integrated into the text (both the physical book and the narrative) and give the story a little more flavour.
  6. Hints of more to come?? – While the story works fine as a stand alone, there were a few things not entirely explained that I would love to read more about. Not to worry, the plot is largely tied up in this volume, but I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a sequel! Adelaide features as her younger self Moth in McKay’s The Virgin Cure, so there’s always that to check out in the mean time.

I haven’t really discussed the feminist aspects of this story. Honestly, I hadn’t thought about how this book can be considered feminist literature until I attended an ‘Evening With’ event with Ami McKay. The area was packed with women. The discussion focused on the persecution of female witches by a patriarchal society,  and how relevant this book is today (especially in context of the US election, which happened two days before the event). I appreciated the discussion as it expanded my understanding of the story. I want to learn more about the role of witches and their treatment throughout history. Can you recommend any great books (fiction or non-fiction) about historical witches?

The Bottom Line:

Ami McKay is spot on when she describes her book as “historical fiction with a twist—part Victorian fairy tale, part penny dreadful, part feminist manifesto”. Eleanor, Adelaide, and Beatrice make The Witches of New York a 2016 must read.

Further Reading:

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Family Reads: Every Hidden Thing by Kenneth Oppel

Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book.

Dad and Jenna read Every Hidden Thing

Why we chose Kenneth Oppel’s Every Hidden Thing

I had planned to attend Oppel’s talk, reading and signing at McNally Robinson at the end of September. As a Canadian growing up in the late 90s/early 00s, I devoured the Silverwing books. Recently I’ve enjoyed The Boundless and The Nest. Dad had accompanied me to a few other author events at McNally (Chris Hadfield and Will Ferguson come to mind), so I invited him along. Dad thought it would be neat to read the book after hearing Oppel give a presentation about it. I felt iffy about Every Hidden Thing (which has been described as Romeo and Juliet meets Indian Jones), but I decided to give it a go because I was curious to see what Oppel would do with dinosaurs and YA fiction.

Our Discussion

We used Every Hidden Thing as a jumping off point to discuss young adult literature. First, we tried to determine whether Dad had ever read YA literature. He recalls reading The Hardy Boys, The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia, which don’t quite make the cut.  I asked if he may have read The Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, or The Outsiders (all of which were not considered ‘YA lit’ back when they were first published but are today popularly read among teens). He couldn’t recall, but he noted that there was no Goodreads back in the seventies, so it’s hard for him to keep track 😛

I asked Dad what he liked about Every Hidden Thing, considering it was a ‘genre’ (more on that later) new to him. He appreciated the novel because he found it a light read – in general, not necessarily because it was YA. We agreed that the story moved at a good pace and had some surprises. The shifting perspectives occasionally tripped both of us up. We had to reread some paragraphs once we realized the narrator was not who we thought (this despite the change in fonts!). Overall, though, the two perspectives kept the narrative interesting without being too distracting.  I appreciated knowing ahead of time that Oppel was riffing off Romeo and Juliet, so I was prepared for the teen romance that’s central to the novel. (I am not a big fan of romance.) Dad liked the contrast between Sam and Rachel’s relationship and their fathers.

Dad and I agreed that the dinosaur fossil hunting was what really sold us on this book. Oppel gave a great presentation about his research process for Every Hidden Thing. You can read about how he wrote it in this article  from the CBC.

Finally, I asked Dad if he thought he might like to read more from the YA genre. He questioned whether YA is really a genre, and not just a marketing recommendation. We discussed some of the debate surrounding the use of a YA as a genre term rather than a general audience target. Dad says he would assume YA novels are an easier read than some of the adult fiction he reads, but he wouldn’t oppose reading a YA novel if it sounded interesting. He appreciated that he could read Every Hidden Thing in small pieces during his workweek and still be able to keep track of the characters and the plot.

I think most of my readers have grown up reading young adult literature. What books would you recommend for someone new to the ‘genre’? Have you read any novels about the discovery of dinosaurs?

Family Reads: And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

 Welcome to Family Reads! Family Reads is a monthly feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book. Posts with a link-up go live during the last week of each month, so feel free to grab the banner and join in however you like.

Reno: This post was meant to go up at the end of July, but evidently I didn’t finish it then…Well, here it is now! Let me introduce my final participant – my Dad! Dad chose this month’s book. I’d never read anything by Hosseini, so this was a good opportunity to give him a go.

Dad: I wanted to read this book because I really liked The Kite Runner. I had also seen a lot of positive reviews about And the Mountains Echoed.

I give this book 3 stars and Dad gives it 3.5 stars (he says, “I’m not a big reader, otherwise I might give it 4 stars. I re-read The Kite Runner but that was by accident. I started reading it, thought ‘Hey, this is familiar…’ and then kept reading it because it was good!”). This discussion was a little more challenging for us than the others – Dad doesn’t usually talk about the books he reads, and I don’t usually read this kind of story. But, that’s why I wanted to start doing these Family Reads! We both enjoyed reflecting on this book through conversation. You’ll get more out of this discussion if you’ve read the book (spoilers ahead!). Here’s our condensed discussion on chronology, characters, and how the stories fit together.

They say, Find a purpose in your life and live it. But, sometimes, it is only after you have lived that you recognize your life had a purpose, and likely one you never had in mind.

Dad: I liked the book because it’s about human interest, about real life, and I like those types of stories. For years I only read genre books like spy or mystery novels. Then I started reading more books like these – stories about ordinary lives. I found And the Mountains Echoed interesting and challenging because I was trying to understand what’s happening in the story, as it jumps around so much. The story’s kind of choppy; it can be very non-linear. Didn’t you wonder about how the character’s lives connect, how they might be introduced early on, you wonder how they connect, and then find out later on?
Reno: I liked that interlocking component to the stories, but I wasn’t dying to figure everything out or actively put it together. What about you?
Dad: No, I didn’t think too hard, either. I just read and thought, “Oh, that’s cool, I see” as things started to cohere. Like how you’re introduced to the doctor across the street, then you get a back story on him and how he connects to Nabi’s (and therefore Pari’s) story.
Reno: That was the main story for me – Nabi and all the characters who are affected by his story – even if Pari seems to be the main connecting thread.
Dad: I found it a bit confusing to keep track of Pari’s family.
Reno: Yeah, the story of Adel and his Admiral dad really confused me. I’m not sure how it fit in. At first I thought the old man and his son fighting to get back their land were Saboor and Abdullah. It was someone related to them, but I can’t remember who or how. That story didn’t seem too integral – you could have skipped it and not missed anything.
Dad: Mostly, though, I liked how the storytelling worked. You couldn’t predict where it was going.
Reno: Yeah! Because you have so many characters working in different ways. But on the flip side, I found some of the stories didn’t really fit for me. Such as the Greek doctor and his childhood friend. It was kind of a long story… I guess it shows why Markos is in Afghanistan. I can feel my brain hurting trying to figure it out! Some people don’t like all the little stories. They think the book is too disconnected. What did you think?
Dad: No, I thought it forced me to pay attention to what I was reading. I made notes, arrows of names and connections. …
Reno: I should have done that, haha. It was okay while I was reading but now I’m forgetting names and who was who. Especially with the two Paris at the end!
*We talked about Idris and Tamir’s story*
Dad: So, how did that tie in?
Reno: I guess that’s the big question about this book! How do all these stories tie in? They grew up across the street from Nabi, but it seems they have nothing to do with his story. It’s a good story on its own, but what’s the point of including their story in the novel? I guess you have to decide for yourself if you want to make the connections (hm, in this way maybe it is a bit like Annihilation!). I guess you can discount some stories more than others. Consider how you like the book and making connections but some stories you don’t even remember.
Dad: I would reread it to understand the connections better. It’s not that I want to reread it because it was amazing.
Reno: Hear hear.

 Have you anything by Hosseini? What would you add to our conversation?