Book Review: How Much of These Hills is Gold

I’m continuing my way through the Booker Prize longlist with How Much of These Hills is Gold. The story centers around two young Chinese-American siblings, Sam and Lucy, who become orphans during the peak of the American Gold Rush. After their Ba dies, the siblings set on a journey to bury him, and to find a home for themselves beyond their poor mining town.

The book: How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

I have mixed feelings on this novel, but I’ll start with what worked for me. Structurally, How Much of These Hills is Gold was very interesting: the novel is divided into four sections, which are non-linear and not all narrated by the same person. Non-linear timelines can be so hit or miss for me, but Zhang executed this one beautifully; I particularly liked that the family’s history prior to Ba’s death wasn’t described until after Ba’s passing. Things are going well for the family in the second part of the book, but it is clear (to the reader) from the first section that their luck is going to turn – this dramatic irony left me with a sense of suspense, dread, and impending doom.

I also really enjoyed Zhang’s writing voice, which manages to pack subtle, yet powerful, commentary into seemingly simple sentences. Through Sam and Lucy’s experiences, Zhang depicts the complexity of family dynamics, as well as the intense racism that Chinese Americans faced in the 19th-century. Some of the prejudices that Lucy and Sam experience – particularly the way they are fetishized and exoticized, and the way their teacher talks about “domesticating” them – felt like they could have been written about contemporary times, rather than 170 years ago.

The character development is where I start to have mixed feelings. Lucy, who I consider to be the main character of the novel, is portrayed as lacking agency and a strong sense of self, while her sibling Sam is full of swagger and personality. Surprisingly, I thought Lucy was more well-developed than Sam: the driving forces behind Lucy’s reserved nature are deeply explored, whereas Sam is portrayed as bold but somewhat hard-to-understand. I would have loved to see more of the novel from Sam’s perspective! At the same time, I can appreciate that Zhang decided to focus more on the internal workings of someone reserved and insecure, who in real life might be overlooked next to their spunky sibling (or maybe I’m just projecting my middle-child baggage onto a fictional character).

I feel even more conflicted about the portrayal of Sam and Lucy’s Ba, who for the first two sections is characterized as an intimidating, prideful, and at times violent alcoholic. Then, the third section of the book is narrated by Ba himself, and Zhang shows the family history from his perspective, as well as the pain and trauma behind his abusive behavior. While this chapter was incredibly moving, and added layers of nuance to the story, I also found it troubling. Yes, the abusive character in this novel is obviously struggling with his own trauma, but why should that mean that he gets to be the most complex and well-explored character in the novel? When authors do this, it almost feels like they are excusing abusive characters for their atrocious behavior.

Where I took the most issue with the book, though, was the ending. Without spoiling anything, How Much of These Hills is Gold ends with a character making a huge sacrifice that (to me) felt completely unnecessary. The emotional impact of that sacrifice wasn’t well-explored, either, so the ending felt abrupt and unsettling. On top of that, the last sentence of the book leaves things open-ended, so the novel’s ending is not only jarring, but also vague.

As you can probably tell, How Much of These Hills is Gold was a rather mixed bag for me. Although this review focuses more on what I didn’t enjoy, I really liked the majority of this novel. I found the prose and main characters complex and compelling, and the commentary intensely powerful. But the aspects of this novel that didn’t work for me really didn’t work for me. With a different ending, this book would have been a 4-star read, but because of the vague and abrupt ending, I’m rating it 3.5 stars out of 5.

Book Review: The Vanishing Half

Black lives matter, Black voices matter, and Black stories matter! The Vanishing Half is a multigenerational story about a pair of light-skinned Black twins, Desiree and Stella, who end up leading drastically different adult lives. Desiree marries a darker man in Washington D.C., but soon returns to her hometown in Louisiana to raise her daughter, Jude, who is also dark-skinned. Stella, on the other hand, passes as white, marries a white man, and raises a white child. The Vanishing Half shows how Desiree and Stella’s choices affect their own lives and the lives of their children.

The book: The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Told over the course of four decades, The Vanishing Half follows four main characters: twins Desiree and Stella, and their daughters Jude and Kennedy. I normally prefer one highly nuanced main character to multiple potentially-underdeveloped characters, but I thought this story offered a good balance between the number and depth of characters. I found Stella’s character to be the most nuanced, which makes sense given that she made the enormous decision to live the rest of her life as a white woman – there’s a lot to unpack there.

Actually, there’s a lot to unpack throughout the entire novel, as Brit Bennett critiques institutionalized racism, internalized racism within the Black community, classism, materialism, discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community, and intergenerational trauma. What struck me most about Bennett’s commentary was how relevant it still is today. Certain scenes that were set in the 1970’s and 80’s – which included white people focusing on “black-on-black” crime instead of larger systemic issues, white people centering their own feelings of guilt in their relationships with Black acquaintances, and rich white families using generous donations to get their children into elite colleges – could have been written about the year 2020. I appreciate that Bennett included examples of racism that still occur now, because they emphasize how deeply prevalent racism is in the United States.

The Vanishing Half is also full of subtle commentary in the form of sentences that seem straightforward, but actually reveal a lot about the novel’s characters. One example of this that sticks with me is when Stella’s daughter, Kennedy, compares a play that she’s starring in to Hamlet. The third-person narrator follows up on this, saying that “the play was nothing like Hamlet but she said it with such conviction that you almost believed her.” Not only does this sentence convey a lot about Kennedy’s self-assuredness, but in the context of the scene, it also reminds the reader who is afforded the privilege to be confidently wrong.

My biggest critique of The Vanishing Half is that the plot is largely driven by unrealistic coincidences (yes, coincidences, plural). But Bennett acknowledges the implausibility of key events, with sentences like: “Statistically speaking, the likelihood of encountering [redacted for spoilers] was improbable but not impossible.” Bennett follows-up that acknowledgment by moving into a passage about one of the characters becoming a statistics teacher. It’s like she is saying “yes, this coincidence is pretty implausible. Now we’re going to move on.”

NOTE: because I am cisgendered, please take my opinions in the following paragraph with a massive grain of salt, and feel free to let me know if you disagree.

One thing that I’m unsure about is the portrayal of Reese, a trans man. For the most part, I thought that Reese was characterized compassionately: he is a loving and supportive partner, he has as much depth as any other supporting character in the novel, and he is never needlessly exploited for being trans. But there is a moment where Jude claims that she understands Reese’s desire to change his outward identity, because she knows about Stella, who has chosen to pass as white. Being so tired of racial discrimination that a Black woman chooses to live the rest of their life as white is heartbreaking and complicated…but I don’t think that it’s directly comparable to the struggle of not having your personal sense of gender match your assigned gender/birth sex, and I wish that this had been addressed. Again, I am a cisgendered person, so I may be way off the mark here. If you think that I missed anything important about Reese’s characterization – positive or negative – please feel free to let me know.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend The Vanishing Half, especially if you like thought-provoking novels that are rich in social commentary. While this book didn’t quite live up to the hype for me, there was still a lot that I liked about it.

Notes:

  • So far I haven’t found any reviews of The Vanishing Half by trans book-bloggers. If you are a trans blogger who has read this novel and would like to share your review with me, I would love to read it!
  • If you are interested in reading and supporting more works by Black authors, please feel free to check out the following resources: my ever-growing Black lit challenge shelf on Goodreads, Fatma’s list of 2020 book releases by Black authors, this post from Emily which includes a TBR list of books by Black authors, and this extensive radical reading list.
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY! Racism is not just an ugly part of the United States’ history – it is still deeply prevalent today. Please check out this list of anti-racist resources, which includes links to various funds supporting black lives, as well as educational resources.

Book Review: Hamnet

Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet is a historical fiction novel centered around the life of William Shakespeare’s family. Told largely from the perspective of William’s wife, Agnes, the novel covers Agnes and William’s romance, the birth of their three children, their long-distance relationship, and the grief of the Shakespeare family after the death of their son Hamnet.

The book: Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Hamnet was an enjoyable read for me, but I definitely went into the novel with the wrong expectations. For some reason, I was under the impression that the book focused entirely on the death of William and Agnes’ son Hamnet, and how their grief inspired William Shakespeare to write the play Hamlet. In actuality, Hamnet is a book in two parts. The first part alternates between chapters telling William and Agnes’ love story, and chapters focusing on the days leading up to Hamnet’s death. The second part of the book, which is written as one long chapter, shows the family in their grief after Hamnet has passed. This format would have worked so much better for me if I hadn’t expected the entire novel to focus on the grieving of Hamnet’s death, but because I did have that expectation, I found myself getting pretty impatient with the first part of the book.

Although Hamnet wasn’t what I expected, I still found it compelling. Maggie O’Farrell does an excellent job of making the reader feel connected to 16th-century England by drawing upon relatable emotions and experiences, like the stigma and shame of being a social outcast, and the overwhelming burden of grief. And with the novel’s release in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, the passages depicting societal anxiety surrounding the Plague were eerily familiar. But at the same time, O’Farrell juxtaposes those relatable elements against historical details that unquestionably place the novel in the 16th century. Children die frequently, mothers die frequently, cruel parenting methods are common, and medical knowledge is so limited. That balance between timeless human experiences and very specific historical details was the most striking part of the novel for me.

I also appreciated how much the novel focuses on Agnes, as opposed to her very famous husband. William Shakespeare’s works are incredible, and he is famous for good reason – but part of what allowed him to become so successful was the invisible labor of Agnes. By centering so much of the novel around Agnes and the work she put into running her household and taking care of her family, O’Farrell demonstrates that Shakespeare probably couldn’t have become so successful without major sacrifices and support from Agnes.

Hamnet is also beautifully written, and Maggie O’Farrell is the master of showing, not telling. In this scene, for example, where young William Shakespeare defends himself against his abusive father, O’Farrell writes: “The sight of the mark seemed to enrage the father further because he lifted his arm again, for a second blow, but the son reached up. He seized his father’s arm. He pushed, with all his might, against him and found, to his surprise, that his father’s body yielded under his. He could push this man, this leviathan, this monster of his childhood, back against the wall with very little effort. He did so.” O’Farrell could have just said that William hit his father back, but instead she turns a small action into an immersive scene. With that being said, there were definitely some instances where the flowery language was too much for me, and where I thought a succinct description would have been just fine.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend Hamnet. My expectations of the novel did affect my enjoyment of it, though, so I would recommend that other readers not go into this novel expecting it to focus entirely around one specific event.

Book Review: How We Disappeared

Alternating between timelines in 1942 and 2000, How We Disappeared follows Wang-Di, who is taken from her Singaporean village during WWII and forced into sexual slavery as a “comfort woman” for Japanese soldiers. Nearly 60 years later, while Wang-Di is still reckoning with her trauma from the war, 12-year-old Kevin overhears a shocking confession from his grandmother’s deathbed, leading him to uncover secrets about what she lived through during WWII.

The book: How We Disappeared by Jing-Jing Lee
Genre: Historical fiction
Rating: 4 stars out of 5

The prose in this novel is absolutely lovely. Lee tells her story in three distinct sections: young Wang Di when she is captured during WWII, old Wang Di trying to overcome the trauma that still haunts her in the year 2000, and Kevin investigating his grandmother’s history in 2000. All three sections are beautifully and convincingly written, with the historical scenes set during WWII especially immersive. There are some passages where Kevin uses language that seems too advanced for his age, but he sees the world in a very curious and childlike way, so he was still believable as a 12-year-old to me.

How We Disappeared isn’t just well-written; it is also written with immense compassion. The horrific details of Wang Di’s sexual slavery are never told more graphically than they need to be, so the book never enters trauma-porn territory. Lee does describe the horrors that the comfort women endured (rape, violence, near-starvation, and unsanitary living conditions, to name a few), but she spends just as much time focusing on the psychological effects and aftermath of sexual slavery. What broke my heart the most wasn’t the violence that the comfort women endured (although it was certainly harrowing), but the stigma and shame that followed them for the rest of their lives after the war.

I also enjoyed the way the various timelines eventually weaved together. Before the connection between Wang Di and Kevin’s stories became clear, the transitions between the two sometimes felt a bit disjointed, but I felt that the slightly discontinuous storytelling was worth it for the way the two stories eventually connected. Also – minor spoiler here, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to read it! – I’m not sure how realistic it was for Kevin to figure out the connection between his story and Wang Di’s, but it was such a satisfying conclusion to the novel that I was happy to suspend my disbelief.

All in all, I really enjoyed How We Disappeared. Almost all of my WWII education was focused on Europe and the Holocaust, so it was very eye-opening to read this well-researched and beautifully written story about the Japanese occupation of Singapore. The novel was challenging and heartbreaking at times, but it was absolutely worth the read. I highly recommend this book!

Book Review: Where The Crawdads Sing

Both a coming-of-age narrative and murder mystery, Where The Crawdads Sing follows “Marsh Girl” Kya Clark from early childhood, when she is abandoned by her family and left to survive alone in the marshes on the North Carolina coast, to early adulthood, when she becomes a suspect in a murder case. The two timelines alternate throughout the book until Kya’s coming-of-age trajectory eventually catches up to the murder trial.

The book: Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Genre: Historical fiction/mystery/coming-of-age
My rating: 3 stars out of 5

The gorgeously immersive setting of the marshes on the North Carolina coast immediately drew me into this book, but the first 100-or-so pages moved very slowly, plot-wise. Some of that slowness seemed necessary to portray Kya’s self-reliance and loneliness. The mundane details of her fishing, cooking, and doing handiwork in her shack demonstrate how hard she worked to survive alone. The long, slow-moving passages where Kya observes wildlife and ruminates in nature allow the reader to really feel the slowness and loneliness of Kya’s day-to-day life. But that being said, the novel still could have been around 60-70 pages shorter.

It’s also worth noting that Owens phonetically spells out the characters’ Southern dialects. I found this jarring and uncomfortable at first, but quickly got used to it and even found that it further immersed me in the Southern setting. I don’t think that the phonetic spelling of dialects in this book was problematic, since Owens was born and raised in southern Georgia and speaks with a Southern dialect herself.

Where this book really shined for me was in its tender portrayal of societal and environmental issues. Through Kya’s story, Owens demonstrates how hard it is to get an education in certain parts of the United States, how individuals from poor communities can end up in perpetual cycles of disadvantage, and how being “othered” by society has detrimental effects on a developing child. While showing all of this, Owens also compassionately rejects stereotypes: she never judges Kya’s mom or siblings for abandoning their family, she demonstrates that Kya is quite intelligent and resourceful despite lacking a formal education, and she even portrays Kya’s abusive father with considerable nuance (not so much so that it excuses his abuse – just enough to show that he is complicated).

I also enjoyed the way Where The Crawdads Sing spans multiple genres. The book is described as a coming-of-age narrative and murder mystery, but being set in North Carolina in the 1950’s and 60’s before the Civil Rights Movement, it is also very much a historical fiction novel. The book also crosses into romance at times, and into courtroom drama toward the end. And as mentioned before, there is beautifully vivid nature writing throughout. However, some genres were explored more successfully than others. I found the legal/courtroom drama scenes to be the most engaging and evocative, and the romance to be a bit trite.

Overall, I enjoyed and would recommend Where The Crawdads Sing. It’s not a perfect novel, but I appreciated its immersive setting, its themes of accepting others and rejecting stereotypes, and the page-turning courtroom scenes toward the end.


Side note: based on the Goodreads rating (4.5), most readers really connected with this book, so perhaps I’m being too harsh or just didn’t connect with the writing as much as others did.

Unimportant fun fact: the author, Delia Owens, and I went to the same universities (although not at the same time, and not in the same order).

Book Review: A Thousand Ships

“This was never the story of one woman, or two. It was the story of them all.” A Thousand Ships is an all-female retelling of the Trojan War, with each chapter told from the perspective of a different woman.

The book: A Thousand Ships by Natalie Hayes
Genre: Historical fiction/fantasy
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

A Thousand Ships was an uneven reading experience for me: some sections were incredibly compelling, while others felt dry and repetitive. For example, the Penthesilea and Laodamia chapters were short, and the respective protagonists of those chapters barely reappeared in the novel, so those chapters didn’t add much to the story for me. On the other hand, the longer chapters (like the Clytemnestra chapter) and the characters that reappeared throughout the story (like Cassandra) were well-developed and compelling.

Even if not all the individual characters in A Thousand Ships were well-developed, the role of women as a whole in the Trojan War was well-explored. With great detail and compassion, Haynes demonstrated that the women of the Trojan War were more than just wives and daughters of the warriors who normally take the center stage in Trojan War stories: they were complex women who experienced loss, anger, grief, and devastation. I did wish at times that Haynes had been more subtle with this message, though: there were points when it felt like she was beating the reader over the head with the message that the Trojan War was also a woman’s war. The message is important, but it would have been effectively communicated without repeated statements like: “But no one sings of the courage required by those of us who were left behind” or “he needs to accept that the casualties of war aren’t just the ones who die” or “When a war ended, the men lost their lives. But the women lost everything else.”

Something that surprised me (in a good way) was the familiarity of some of the novel’s themes and characters’ behaviors. From overpopulation stressing the Earth’s resources, to egomaniac leaders who are power-hungry yet incompetent, to women attacking other women when their real issue is with the men who hold unfair amounts of power over them — I appreciated how Haynes presented an ancient story in a way that felt somewhat relatable.

Although I normally don’t enjoy “uneven” reading experiences, A Thousand Ships was an overall enjoyable read for me. Even when the story got dull or repetitive, the prose was lovely. And certain chapters (like Clytemnestra’s chapter, which explores her emotions and motives in a beautifully written and moving way) were so powerful that they made it easy for me to overlook some of the novel’s shortcomings. I liked this all-female retelling of the Trojan War, and would certainly read more of Haynes’ work in the future (especially if she ever wrote an entire Cassandra or Clytemnestra book).

Book Review: Actress

Yup, another novel from the Women’s Prize for Fiction longlist! Actress follows Norah – adult daughter of the (late) superstar Katherine O’Dell – as she looks back on her mother’s life history and tries to figure out why Katherine went mad and shot her colleague in the foot. In retracing her mother’s history, Norah uncovers old secrets and reflects on how her mother’s stardom affected her own life.

The book: Actress by Anne Enright
Genre: Literary fiction
Rating: 4 stars out 5

One thing that immediately stood out to me about Actress was the writing. The prose is beautiful, intimate, and sometimes cynically funny. Structurally, the novel had a non-linear timeline, and shifts in whose story the novel was telling (Katherine’s and Norah’s stories are intertwined throughout the book). These are both elements that don’t always work for me, but Actress was so well-written that these elements felt natural in the context of the story.

I’ve seen mixed reviews on whether or not Norah was a good choice of narrator for this story – I thought she was. Norah is the person that Katherine was closest to, and therefore the best person to write about her in all her complexity. Because of their close relationship, Norah is able to write about her mother in an unflinchingly honest way, while also expressing tenderness and compassion. The only thing about the narrative that didn’t work for me was it being written in the 2nd-person to Norah’s husband; I think using the 1st-person (still with Norah as the narrator) would have made more sense.

A weird experience that I had reading this novel was immediately loving the writing, but not finding the first ~100-or-so pages of plot to be particularly interesting. I wasn’t that compelled by Katherine’s family history or her childhood exposure to stardom, but at the same time, I could appreciate that it was exceptionally well-written. The remainder of the book – Katherine’s young adult career, her rise to stardom, the way that fame changed her, and Norah looking back and figuring out what broke her – really pulled me in. This could be because Norah, who was born when Katherine was 23, tells the parts of Katherine life that she personally remembers with more warmth, intimacy, and nuance. Or it could just be some personal bias that made it hard for me to get into the story at first!

Another strength of Actress was the historical commentary. Throughout the novel, Enright weaves in historical details about old Hollywood and The Troubles in a way that is believable, immersive, and pertinent to the story. I thought that the impact of certain historical events, especially the political violence of The Troubles, could have been given a bit more consequence…but having just read Dominicana, where major political events were simply mentioned without being meaningfully woven into the story at all, I thought that Enright captured the political climate of 20th-century Ireland in a way that made sense to the story as a whole.

Overall, I thought Actress was a beautifully written novel featuring a realistically complex mother-daughter relationship. I’m not sure if the first ~1/3 of the book was actually slower or less interesting than the rest, or if it was just me. Regardless, once I did get into the story, it absolutely captivated me. I would be very happy to see Actress advance to the WP shortlist.

Side notes:

  1. The summary of this book (the American version) on the inside of the cover contained what I thought were major spoilers. This was on the physical copy of the book only, not in the Goodreads summary.
  2. Once again, this book led me to retroactively change another WP longlist book rating. I keep rating books in a way that makes sense to me at the time, but then doesn’t hold up when I directly compare/rank the longlisted books.