Tag Archives: Fiction

My Notorious Life by Kate Manning

My Notorious Life by Kate ManningThis should be a must read book for our times.  A cautionary tale that reminds us what the “good old days” consisted of.  That reminds us of what life without choice means.    And how one man’s personal crusade can and shackle lives for generations.

My Notorious Life is a novel based on the life of Ann Lohman, a 19th century midwife and abortionist dubbed the Wickedest Woman in New York.  Mostly because she was successful, rich and flaunted it with her lifestyle and dress.

Kate Manning does a superb job of portraying this fascinating figure from our history.  Her fictional version of Ann Lohman is Axie Muldoon, daughter of Irish immigrants who is sent off to fostering by a “well-meaning” man of the cloth when their mother falls ill.  Her and her siblings are split apart, each going to a different family.  Axie runs away to find her mother with another “orphan” Charlie.  She finally reunites with her mother, only to have her mother fall ill from another pregnancy.  She gets her to a local midwife where her mother dies because it was too late for treatment.

It is here, with the midwife, that Axie finds her home and learns her trade as midwife and eventually abortionist.  When her foster mother, the midwife, dies, Axie takes with her the recipe book of remedies.  She begins to peddle the remedies on the streets with the help of Charlie, childhood friend and soon to be husband.

Charlie takes the advertising to the newspapers and then expands to surrounding towns.  It isn’t long before they are no longer the poor near homeless orphans.  They rise rapidly in society and finances.  Axie’s letters to her sister are no longer lies of a luxurious life, but are quickly becoming the reality.

She performs her first abortion when her friend shows up and begs her to help her.  Then word of mouth begins to bring her more and more patients.  Women/girls who are victims of rape, incest, married women who can’t support the children they have, married women who have too many children.  Rich woman, poor women, street women and society women.  Abortion is illegal if the fetus has quickened.  And Axie won’t intervene if it is “quick”.  She will shelter the woman till its time.

Midwives are generally left alone.  But the male medical industry wan’ts to rope in this lost business.   But, women then, as women often now, want another woman.  One who truly understands the workings of a woman’s body.  Who understands how to work with the natural rhythms.  Not one that wishes to bring forceps and surgical instruments to force what should happen on its own.

Enter into the arena Anthony Comstock, not a doctor, not an elected governor, but a postal inspector.  A hateful prude of a man who called himself a “weeder in God’s garden” who boasted of having driven at least 15 people to suicide with his persecution.  From Anthony Comstock, we have the anti-pornography laws that still exist on the law books today.  Laws that imprisoned many for years for crimes as vile as the sending of medical texts, distribution of condoms or birth control, distribution of information about sex, birth control, human anatomy, etc.

Though Axie is too big, too well known for Comstock to come after in the beginning, as his power grows, he begins to set his sights on her.  Her flamboyant lifestyle and challenges to him make her a target he has to make an example of.

My Notorious Life is a story that should be required reading anyone who questions a woman’s right to choose with her own body.  For, it shows you a world well before women had those rights.  When women didn’t even have the right to vote, own her own money, much less her own body.  It also shows you when our body’s care was wrested from the hands of the skilled women and into the uncaring hands of the physician.  And it introduces you to a fictionalized version of a lost woman hero, Ann Lohman.   A pioneer and warrior for women who still served the lowest born even at the peak of her fame and wealth.  One of many unsung heroes that paved the way for women to rise above the servitude of men and forge a life of their own choosing and making.


Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee

go-set-a-watchman-harper-leeI must admit that I have not yet read To Kill a Mockingbird.  I saw the movie and the book is on my “to read” list.  But then again, so are a couple thousand other books.  And I realize that movies don’t do books justice, so I will read it.  And now that I have read “Go Set a Watchman”, it has moved higher up on the must get to list.

I’m not sure what I expected with this book, only that it wasn’t what I thought I should have expected.  It was quite slow in getting around to some of the main themes of the book.  Much of the book fills you with the atmosphere, the people, the customs, the history and the unique level of interactions that is distinctly Southern.  Having been raised by a father that was born and bred in a small town in Georgia and spending many years of my childhood surrounded by his family, I became all to familiar with these types of ways.

The central character of the book is Scout or Jean Louise (gotta love the South’s use of double names), daughter of Atticus Finch, who has returned home from her life in New York City.  The story is a slow awakening of the racial bias in all its complexities that existed at the time of de-segregation, and even persist today.  Actually, it goes even further than the racial bias, but also covers the social and gender bias.

The book offers a unique and interesting perspective on the thoughts and culture of America’s South.  A perspective that still holds to a large degree today in many areas, as is evident by the popularity of the rhetoric of many of the politicians emerging from this area.

But, the thing that is unique in this book is the way it is presented to you.  The issue is not just black and white and there are no real “good guys” or real “bad guys”.  They are humans, many of which believe they are acting for the greater good, attempting to preserve what they believe is a way of life they are entitled to.  In fact, many don’t even see their prejudice for what it is.  They see it as watching over “less fortunates”.  And this does not, by any means, excuse bigotry in any way.  It simply gives you a peek inside the heads of many of these people and seeing there are many shades of gray in there.  And as inexcusable their bigotry is, there is also immense decency in them.  The truth is, they are not unlike many other people who truly believe they are doing good when their acts diminish and marginalize others.  People of faith, and most of these are, believe it is their duty to watch over and guide those that don’t share their beliefs, look different, etc.  They hold a class structure that they will often deny.  And a belief that one can only rise so far above one’s origins.  So often through the book was peppered the line, “Love who you want, but marry your own kind.”

And I give Harper Lee credit for also turning the mirror effectively back the other way when she had Scout called a “bigot” and offered the definition, “a person who is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices;especially :  one who regards or treats the members of a group (as a racial or ethnic group) with hatred and intolerance”  For, when we close the doors of communication through failing to hear, to understand, no matter how right our cause, we will doom it to failure.  The world didn’t become the way it is overnight, nor shall it change overnight.  And part of changing it is to understand it with empathy and respect.

It’s a coming of age, a God busting, religion busting, hero busting, blinders shattering journey.  Others refer to it as rough around the edges in comparison to To Kill a Mockingbird, but I think that gives it more power.  Because, the emergence from the shroud of our youth can be a very messy and rough journey.  I don’t know what the criteria is for a Pulitzer for a novel, so I have no idea if this one qualifies.  But, it is an amazing work of writing that makes you at least glance at the world through the eyes of another and shows you nuances and hues you had previously missed.


The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd 2I somehow made it all the way through this book before I discovered that it is based on the lives of two sisters from our history.  Women I have never heard of, even in all the reading I had done on the women’s rights movement.   Okay, more on that later.

I picked up The Invention of Wings at the library.  Looked interesting.  Was so much more than just interesting!

The invention of Wings is told through first person narratives of a number of the main characters in the book.  Primarily through the words of Sarah Grimke, the young white debutante from an old slave owning Charleston family, who from a very young age finds issue with the owning of humans.  And Handful or Hetty, the young black slave that is gifted to Sarah on her eleventh birthday.

Hetty gives a beautiful rich texture to the story with her voice as she tells of her mother, the quilt maker, who tells stories with the appliques and stitches she loving places in each of her quilts.  The hoarding of tiny scraps of fabrics from making clothes for the family to weave into these quilts.  And teaching Hetty her art and giving her a value to the family that few slaves have.  For, mother and daughter are so good with their needles, their services are wanted by those even outside the family.

When Hetty is given to Sarah, Sarah immediately attempts to free her with a letter she leaves on her father’s desk.  When this attempt fails, Sarah begins to teach Hetty to read.  A crime for both the teacher and the student.  Sarah,is brilliant, headstrong, and set on a path to defy her family’s heritage of Southern slave owners.  Sarah dreams of defying the norms and following in her father’s footsteps and becoming an attorney and reads through his library with a fury.  However, when he learns of her teaching Hetty to read, she is given the punishment of being banned from her father’s library and furthering her education.  Her sole consolation is in becoming the Godmother to her sister, Angelina or Nina, who quickly takes more to Sarah than she does their mother.

As both girls mature into adulthood, the friendship changes and they move in different directions.  Hetty becomes involve with the black abolitionist movement after her mother fails to return from an escape excursion to meet with her love and Sarah meets an enigmatic Quaker man while travelling with her sick father.   This brings her into the abolitionist movement, though from a different direction.

She returns home after her father’s death and begins a correspondence with Israel Morris (the Quaker man she met) and after a time, returns to Philadelphia to join the Quaker church there.  There, she meet Lucretia Mott, a still famous abolitionist, feminist and Quaker minister and realizes that she also, wishes to be a voice in front of the crowds.

The Invention of Wings is different than most slavery era books I have read.  It gives you a view of history, the lives of the women,  and what life was like for them and expected of them.  Even in the least likable characters, such as Sarah’s mother, she gives a depth and range showing the lights as well as shadows that reside in all of us.

The book resonates with all the lessons of racism, religious bias and fundamentalism, sexism and the full sociological gamut that was a part of that time in our history.  The characters are believable and engaging, drawing you deeply into their world and immersing you in it.  And thankfully, a couple of them have been drawn from the annals of history so that you might delve further into their stories.

Sarah and Angelina Grimke were both major players in both the abolitionist movement as well as the early women’s movement.  They were the first female speakers in the United States.  And it was primarily the rebuking of their public speaking by the religious community, including the Quaker community, that pushed them into the feminist arena.  The fact that we have not heard their names in our history books shows again how women who defy the status quo are erased.  Thankfully, there are writers like Sue Monk Kidd that dig up their bones to remind us.

The Invention of Wings is a book I would place well into the top tier of books that should be on a required “to read” list.  The author is stellar in her use of the language (understandable, since she also wrote, The Secret Life of Bees).  And she has definitely earned a spot on my favored author’s list.


Ruby by Cynthia Bond

Ruby by Cynthia BondWow does not even begin to cover this book!  Cynthia Bond is a Storyteller of the highest degree.  She softly invites you to take a seat next to her so she can tell you something and gives you a taste of her tale.  You sit down and she slowly wraps a blanket of words about your shoulders, the sounds entering your flesh and mixing with your blood to travel to your heart.   Her lips busy speaking the words to guide more threads into the pattern.  She is not just telling you the story, she is making the story a part of your very soul.  The primal word thoughts of Ruby draw forth forgotten memories that live in all of us.  Magical words, desperate words, joyful words and painful words.

Ruby is the story of a young woman, a victim of abuse her entire life, given over to a brothel where the black girls are sold and rented for the men to do any dark intents to.  She learns to survive by internally fracturing, leaving her body to be used in whatever way their sick desires lead while she lets her mind wander.  When the men take her in the streets or gutters or behind the store counters, she retreats, merging with her environment, the nearby trees, rocks, streams.  She speaks with the ghosts of the children lost to abuse, drawing them to her and inside her to protect them.

Ephram sees her in a way no one else ever has.  He is untroubled by her past, understands the things she does are the only way she has ever known how to survive.  Ephram’s father was the Reverend, a harsh cruel and abusive man that had dark secrets.  Found hanging from a tree when Ephram was still young, Ephram was raised by his sister Celia.  He is docile and obedient to Celia until he meets Ruby again.

Ruby is told in scattered time frames.  The memories of the past merging into the events of the present.  Ephram and Ruby are introduced as children when they visit a Voodooein who sends them both off with poppets.  They don’t meet again till years later when Ephram sees Ruby laying in a puddle of mud in the gutter in town as the townspeople make fun of her.  He becomes enraptured with her and follows her quietly home where he begins to care for her as no one ever has, beginning with cleaning the filth and squalor of her home as well as her body, restoring her to the beauty that she is.

Ruby is a hard book to categorize.  Its a love story, sort of. Its a ghost story, but not like most ghost stories.  Its about the supernatural, magic, religions, superstitions, family, prejudice, abuse.  Its about just about everything that is ugly in humanity and everything that is beautiful in it.  Its about how nothing and no one are how they really appear to be, how things are more complex than they seem at the surface and how the complex can be viewed in simpler terms as well.  Its the paradox that life is, was and probably always will be told in imagery that emblazons your mind, words that ring through your ears and invades every sense with its magnificence and subtleties.

I keep very few novels on my shelves after reading them nowadays.   Only those whose words I know I want to revisit again and again.  There are not many that I feel that way about.   Cynthia Bond has become one of those few authors whose pages will find a permanent place on a shelf.  Her book, I doled out in small doses, savoring the words, for she is a master with them.  This is a book where you wish there were extra credit stars or some way to mark it as a truly exceptional work.  Alas, you are left with only giving it the highest marks that are in a standard rating.

The book jacket says Ms. Bond teaches writing to street people.  That is enough to make you want to pack up and move out into her streets to beg to sit for her classes.

June 15, 2015

No Book but the World – Leah Hager Cohen

No Book but the World - Leah Hager CohenThis was a very unexpected book!  I’m not sure where I learned of it.  I believe it was through Kirkus.  At any rate, I remember that the description was a bit elusive but for some reason caught my attention and it got put on my “to read” list.  And I am very glad I did.

Ava and Fred are siblings being raised on a farm/ex-commune by parents who “free-ranged” them.  Believing that children will thrive best in such an unfettered environment to learn in their own ways and their own time.

Fred has always been uncommunicative for the most part.  Rarely talks, avoids eye contact and touch, sucks his thumb, flaps his hands and likes to wander the woods alone.  It becomes quite obvious early on that he suffers from quite probably some form of autism, and though the author alludes to this herself, she never really states it flat out.  I think this may be because she didn’t want to single out a specific disorder, or add another shadow to an already misunderstood disorder.

The story is told in dual time frames, when they were children on the farm and the current day.  Fred has been arrested for a horrific crime and Ava is trying to figure out what happened, if he really did it,  And as she begins to try and work with his attorney to help in the case, she also realizes that her parents free form parenting that precluded having Fred diagnosed has added to the difficulty in presenting a defense for him.

During her stay near the prison, she begins to reminisce about their childhood, offering a glimpse into the mind and shaping of Fred.  Including an incident where play with a young boy almost resulted in tragedy that shines a beam of genuine understanding into the naivete of the mind of one like Fred and how often the story is much more than it seems to be.

The book is a fascinating glimpse into life and scratching the surface of the mind of autism.  But, not only of autism, but simply how another mind can so differently process the world around them.  It is also about the families of the “challenged”, the fears and realities of what could befall them when they are left behind with the parents die, when they are turned over to the care of strangers, or turned out by society.

There seems to be a lot of people who didn’t like this book and I have to wonder if they really gave a chance to the story that it really told and not the one they expected to hear.  Or maybe because the story was a difficult one to open to.  Giving humanity to the discarded is often difficult for many to accept.  We want the simple and quick judgement, not the understanding that takes time and patience.  Or maybe it is that we are afraid if we take the time to truly explore beneath the surface to understand, we may find the differences between us is not so great as we previously imagined.

“No Book But the World” is an amazing work of fiction.  A wonderful and heart wrenching view into both the darkness and light in the depths of human experience, in love, family and responsibility.  Leah Hagen Cohen is a beautiful voice in the land of literature and I look forward to reading more of her in the future.


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The Fledgling by Octavia Butler

fledgling Octavia ButlerI don’t remember where I came up with this book on my reading list, but I am aware of the notoriety of Octavia Butler.  Fledgling is an interesting novel and I have admittedly very mixed feelings about it.  I do have some reservations about being totally frank about my feeling about this book because of her place in literature and as a cultural icon.  And the reality is that they are my feelings and needn’t be representative of anyone else’s.

Fledgling is a dark fantasy about a race that exists with humans and either evolved at the same time or prior to humans.  Octavia has redefined vampires as a creature that lives symbiotically with humans, mostly forming a lifelong family with their symbiots and only taking when needed but also giving long and healthful life to the humans.   However, the Ina bite also gives something akin to a drug that the symbiots become addicted to.   Its sort of a addictive/poly-amorous vampire story.

The main character, Shori, is a product of genetic engineering by her family.  Bred with human DNA so that she could remain out in the daylight and not fall into the deathlike slumber of her kind during the day.  The human symbiot whose DNA is blended with her parents Ina genes is of African descent which gives her a much darker skin tone than the rest of her kind.

Shori’s mother clan and father clan are all murdered by what is believed to be another clan of Ina.  As she begins to collect a new group of symbiots and learn about herself and who and what she is, she begins to solve the mystery of who murdered her family.  She begins to relay what she comes to know to her first symbiot, Wright as she pieces things together.  They begin to travel to a clan that she learned has the Ina sons she was promised to be wed to with her sisters before her family was killed.  Yeah, that made it a bit more interesting trying to figure out how that one works out.  Sisters of one family marry the brothers of the other.  Takes the polyamory concept to a rather bizarre level.  Interesting, but bizarre.

With her newly found family, her growing family of symbiots, they begin to piece together an investigation into who, or what, is killing off her people.

I mostly liked the book, but did find that it drug a bit in a lot of places.  The concept was intriguing though, portraying vampires as being in a symbiotic relationship with humans.  Though, there was one area where I did have some issues and that was in Ms. Butler’s insertion of racial bigotry into the story line.  Though I do understand the importance of such an issue, I felt it detracted from the story line she was developing and did nothing to aid the story.  In truth, I felt it weakened it.  I think that if she wanted to create a bigotry illustration, she would have been better served to have done it within the Ina people.  Much like was done in Enemy Mine when the alien race was used to show inequality.  But, that is just my personal opinion.

All in all, it was a very interesting novel that challenged ideas about conventional morality, norms and lifestyles.  Its a shame that it will be the last of what looked to be on the way of becoming a very interesting series.



The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger by Sarah WatersThe first book I read of Sarah Waters was Tipping the Velvet.  I was fascinated with her style and the rich and complex characters she created in its pages.  Its taken me a while to get around to another of her novels, but I have finally come back to her.

Little Stranger is a very different novel than Tipping The Velvet.  Its a haunted story about an old family living in a very old manor that is falling into disrepair.  Its enchanting in that it is told in the old gothic horror story that slowly draws you into the mystery of the tale and introducing each of the characters through the eyes of Doctor Faraday whose mother was a maid for the manor when he was a child and his earliest memories of it was taking a token from the plasterwork in one of the rooms.

Dr. Faraday begins to spend more and more time with the Ayres family after being called out to minister to their maid Molly.  He forms bonds with all the members of the family, particularly the daughter Catherine, a very plain spinster who is full of energy and has the strength and fearlessness of most men (and nearly the build).

The book is told in a style that is almost reminiscent of the true Victorian Gothic horror stories.   It rich in the detail of the surroundings and slow in building up the suspense.  For much of the book, you are unsure if its trying to be a love story, a drama, or a mystery with the slightest hint towards a ghost story.

I can understand why some people were not drawn to the story, as it is slow.  But, that was one of the magical things to me.  Its a nice change to get lost in the atmosphere of a well crafted tale that is as much about mood and details as it is about plot.  Having a fondness for the Gothic Horror, I was enchanted with the book and loved the curiosity of the slow pace in trying to figure out what the next unfolding would be.

I am thinking I need to read more of Sarah’s works, for this shows the diversity she is capable of.  She loves the history of her novels and wraps you in the details so you can be right there to breath in the dank air of the old mansion, the dust flying through the air from a room years past use and a family where times seems to have stood still.

Its a book that you can get lost in and be transported to another time.  She weaves it beautifully and if you don’t demand the every page must be action packed, but writing as it used to be, then grab it, find an overstuffed chair to curl up in and some soft music to play in the background while the rain taps the roof and you step through her time portal.

April 2015

The Weird Sisters – Eleanor Brown

Pink HouseThe Weird Sisters is a novel by Eleanor Brown about the Andreas family, particularly the three sisters, Cordelia, Rosalind and Bianca.  Their father speaks in Shakesperian verse.

I wanted to like this book.  And its not that I disliked it.  I had a mixture of both.  There’s not a great deal going on in the book to make up for the off putting aspects is the biggest problem.

All of the girls come home because their mother has breast cancer.  Rose never left.  But, the story isn’t really about her.  She’s what brought them together.

The book is told in what appears to be a collective voice of all three, but again, not entirely.  So, you lose track of if its the communal voice or a sort of individual voice.  This is without a doubt the most confusing part of the book.  But, though there are part of the story where it is interesting, it keeps losing it.  To be honest, I am not sure why I kept reading it.  I generally lose patience with books that I don’t care for.  Which probably explains why there are so few that I review with bad marks.  I can’t make it all the way through.  Well, I suppose since I made it through this one, I owe it at least a 2 star, but that is a bare 2 star.

March, 2015


The Execution of Noa P. Singleton – Elizabeth L. Silver

The Execution of Noa P. SingletonThe Execution of Noa P. Singleton was a very interesting and unique book.  Its about a woman, Noa P. Singleton who is on death row for killing a pregnant woman.  Its told in the first person, by Noa herself.  She is unapologetic and seemingly unremoreseful.  She has 6 months left till her execution date.  During her time in prison, she has had very few visitors save the media and attorneys.

Then she is visited by Marlene Dixon, the mother of the woman she is on death row for killing and a high powered attorney.  She says she has had a change of heart and no long believes in the death penalty and wants to help Noa’s sentence be commuted to life imprisonment instead.  Marlene brings with her a young man named Oliver to help her.  They want her to tell her story on the reason that it will help them in building the case that could spare her life.

The story is told in the form of journal entries and Noa speaks of her life on death row, the tedium of being kept in a cell for 23 hours of the day and allowed outside for 1 hour.  She seems to be indifferent to this as she seems to be about everything.

Marlene does add another voice later in the book as she begins to write letters to her deceased daughter Sarah.  And in these letters, you begin to see a very calculating and vindictive person.  This creates another level to the mystery and you begin to start questioning what really happened.

Noa begins to tell her life story to Oliver, slowly unfurling to him a far more complex person than he originally thought.  He begins to do his own investigating and what he discovers leads him to believe that Noa didn’t get a fair shake and hopes to try and get her a new trial with what he uncovers.

I have noticed that a lot of people seemed to dislike this book or only slightly like it.  Mostly because of the vagueness and indifference of Noa, and not enough from the other characters.  I disagree with this.  I found the book to be written in a very unique and haunting voice and wonder if this is what might be expected of a woman who was this close to her execution on death row.

I think its that people want a more “likeable” character in Noa.  Or, they want her to be a true sociopath.  What they find is neither of these, but a woman who is resigned, indifferent, bored.  Its only in her journal that the story of what happened begins to fully unfold.  Her father finding her just shortly before the murder.  The victim, his young lover, a girl her age that he met while he was trying to track her down.

She learns about Sarah when she meets Marlene, who wants her to break the two of them up because she doesn’t feel Noa’s father is good enough for her daughter.  More and more layers begin to develop as the story progresses.

I found it to be a very complex story told in a very authentic voice.  I would not be surprised to find there are many in prison that would have a similar tone.  Noa would be barely likeable to most people as she doesn’t even seem to care much about her father or anyone else in her life.  So, in that way, she was a sociopath.  But, she was not only lacking in empathy, but lacking in emotion almost entirely.  Its a haunted tale about how things are rarely how they appear and guilt and innocence are often a multi-layered thing on the same coin.

Its an excellent novel and even more so given its a first novel.  Well worth the time to read.  I, for one, will watch for the next book from this young author.

February 2015