Three new books to share.
Lives Laid Away – Stephen Mack Jones
Jones’ second August Snow novel. Once again the former Detroit cop gets sucked into a case that goes far beyond the neighborhood he’s attempting to revitalize. In this case it deals with rogue ICE agents, sex trafficking, and racist biker gangs.
If that seems like a lot, I think you’re on the same wavelength that I am. This book was not nearly as enjoyable as the first in the series.
Which brings me to a conundrum. I enjoy finding authors I like who crank out books within a series. It gives me some reliable fall backs when I’m not sure what to read. They help pad the reading numbers, as they are often quick to get through. And since they are in series, they can be easier to find in ebook form if I’m trying to load the Kindle up.
But, no matter how original, how good the writing is, how interesting the characters are, I’m always troubled by how they often end up being minor variations on the same story. The twists and turns may be different, but once you’ve read a few books in a series, you generally have a pretty good idea of where the book will take you.
A good author will throw in enough fun along the way so that sameness does not distract. See the Bond series, or at least the good ones.
My lukewarm response to this book means I’m not sure I’ll stick with Jones’ writing if he continues to focus on his August Snow character.
Half of a Yellow Sun – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I found the next two books from scrolling through The Guardian’s Top 100 Books of the 21st Century list that was published in the fall of 2019.
This book came in at #10, which might be a smidge high, although it is a wonderful story.
It is set in Nigeria in the 1960s, the story split between two sections, one taking place in the early ‘60s shortly after the country gained independence from the UK, the other in the late ’60s as Nigeria descended into a civil war that led the the brief existence of the nation of Biafra.
The story is told from the perspective of six characters. Olanna and Kainene, twin sisters who have chosen very different paths. Odenigbo, Olanna’s boyfriend, who hosts political roundtables at the university he teaches at and is eventually a key element of the Biafran independence movement. Ugwu is Odenigbo’s “houseboy,” basically his servant, and is educated by Odenigbo which opens up a whole new world to him. And Richard is a white, English writer who becomes Kainene’s lover.
Through these characters we see the excitement of the early days of independence and the struggles of a new country with no history of self-government attempting to throw off the burdens of colonialism and create a new, shared culture. Once war breaks out, they show the dangers of tribalism and how governments can exploit cultural differences for their political gain.
The story of Biafra is heart-breaking, and Adichie puts you right in the midst of the suffering the people of eastern Nigeria felt during the brutal years of civil war. Sadly the story of Biafra has been repeated across Africa for the past 60 years, as the artificial borders the European powers drew when carving out their territories and the ethnic rivalries they exploited to maintain control created conflicts that have prevented so many African countries from having a chance for free and successful societies after independence.
Days Without End – Sebastian Barry
This book was #74 on The Guardian’s list. It is told from the perspective of Thomas McNulty, who came to the US as a boy in the 1820s to escape the Irish famine. He eventually lands in Missouri and, while attempting to find shelter in a storm under a tree, meets another boy named John Cole. They become fast friends and set off on a lifetime of adventures.
They serve as cross-dressing entertainment for miners in eastern Missouri. They join the Army and take part in the campaign against the Native peoples of the prairies and west. They serve as adopted parents to an Indian girl captured in a raid. They travel to Michigan and begin entertaining a new set of minors, with McNulty still dressing as a woman. Then it is off to the Civil War, where they survive both battle and the horrific Andersonville prison camp. Following the war they join an Army friend as he attempts to reclaim his ancestral lands in Tennessee. McNulty is forced back to the frontier to clarify the freedom of his “daughter.” His actions there eventually earn him a death sentence from the Army, which all set up a dramatic and satisfying conclusion.
Barry writes of the immigrant experience, the settling of the American west and the treatment of the Native Americas who lived there, the Civil War, and the post-war era.
There is another major part of the story that was unexpected, though. With an almost throw-away line early in the book, he establishes McNulty and Cole as not just friends, but lovers. As an adult McNulty comes to realize that he enjoys wearing women’s clothing not just on stage, but as his normal attire. When this helps save his life a couple times, the people around him come to think it is no big deal.
The whole cross-dressing in the 19th century frontier seems a little far-fetched, but there were certainly gay people in America at the time. Barry does a masterful job showing how a man can love another man and still be a fierce soldier, survive brutal imprisonment, be a successful farmer, and otherwise live as “normally” as the next man. Even if he likes to wear dresses.