When I pull a novel off the shelf, I expect to rate it a minimum of 85 out of 100 points. Publishers of books are charged with publishing what is well-written, though not what is perfect. Achieving perfection is an impossible task- even for a brilliant writer like Ursula LeGuin. Publishers who ignore this responsibility foist upon readers a novel whose only claim to fame might be a lengthy IMDB list. The consumer of books suffers the consequences.
Trusting that such a responsibility was accepted, I recently pulled four books off the shelf of my Douglas County Public Library relating to women's issues. I was not disappointed in the quality and experienced a full work week of pleasure.
Here is the list of reads that stimulated my thinking as well as entertained me over forty hours:
- "The Liars' Gospel" by Naomi Alderman
This novel reveals the historical Jesus from an unemotional perspective, based on detailed research-- though the entire narrative does not focus on Yehoshuah, but rather on four people alive during the tumultuous days surrounding the burning of Jerusalem's Temple. I found his mother Mary's chapter most compelling, perhaps because I am a mother and had not considered how Yehoshuah's choices might affect her life beyond what is portrayed in New Testament snippets. The other stories are narrated by: one of Yehoshuah's disciples; the man Christians call Barabbas; a Temple High Priest. I admit to losing interest during the final chapter and to a wandering mind during the telling by Barabbas. And I emotionally struggled with some of the facts Ms. Alderman accepted. However, I appreciated opening to a fresh look at what might be Jesus' reality. The writing is compelling. I would rate this novel 92.
- "In The Kingdom of Men" by Kim Barnes
Protagonist Gin Marshall is a young upstart who stumbles into what might become a posh life in Saudi Arabia, when she marries the father of her child, Mason McPhee. Gin seems to stumble into a great deal of serendipitous luck as the novel unfolds, happening to be quite sophisticated despite her humble roots. What I liked about this novel were its unconscious moments, unveiled when a scene was fully fleshed out: the initially sweet interactions between Gin and Mason; a moment on the sea, when Gin connects with a young boy; persuasive glee as she takes off on an Arabian horse. The most likable character in the novel was a young Bedouin woman, whose motives were less self-centered than others in the novel. Barnes plot pieces fit together too conveniently to satisfy me, but I would rate her writing an 89.
- "The Yonahlossee Riding Camp for Girls" by Anton DiSclafani
Holding back a major plot point to create suspense did not work for me in this novel about a young girl sent away from her family to camp, in the middle of The Great Depression. Rather than propel my curiosity forward, I found it quite annoying. There was so much more to focus my attention: how a new girl at a posh camp creates a place for herself; the fascinating rise and fall of other camper's fortunes and how they manage to hold up their heads to avoid becoming gossip fodder; the competitive urge of riders at high levels. Thea Atwell may have botched life in her isolated Florida homestead, but I never cared that much about her plight; she seemed to have not learned from it and went fully into another botch. Yet, I kept reading to the end, as DiSclafani included some brilliant paragraphs that revealed character and made me consider my own life choices. I give this book a 91 for writing but dilute it down to an 87 due to its frustrating plot.
- "Hattie Ever After" by Kirby Larson
I have not read "Hattie Big Sky", the first volume written about Hattie. I did not know it existed until I had finished "Hattie Ever After", a novel that shares the story of a young woman coming of age in 1919 San Francisco. Larson wrote these books for Young Adults, yet this one has a certain adult female appeal: Hattie is attempting to break into the male-dominated world of journalism. Her pluck and imaginative manner of attacking life's challenges generates an embodied character that I liked a lot. I found myself laughing out loud at times, as she naively- and sometimes intentionally- reacted to events with wit and humorous wisdom. Though I disliked her frequent cliches and unbelievable opportunities, I found this a fun winter read. I believe Young Adult novels answer to a higher calling than adult books and therefore must be better written. I would rate the easy style of this novel an 86. Hattie seems to lose her nerve in the end, which disappointed me- though it may reflect the times.
I would like to thank publishers Little, Brown and Company (The Liars' Gospel), Anchor (In the Kingdom of Men), Riverhead (The Yonahlossee Riding Camp For Girls) and Delacorte Books for Young Readers (Hattie Ever After) for these compelling reads that grapple with women's issues.