What Janine Is Reading: Book Club Edition
I run a virtual book club for seniors, volunteering for a non-profit (check it out and see if you’d like to help, or consider participating in the national village movement closer to your home), and we take turns picking out the books we read. One of the advantages this has is that the selections we read are varied in genre and tone, and my recent reading for the club (a mainstream historical women’s fiction novel, two literary mysteries, and a young adult memoir written in verse, each selected by different book club member) reflects that. Below are my thoughts on all four.
Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line by Deepa Anappara
Our March read was Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line. It’s a mystery novel that focuses on child disappearances in a slum in India. A boy named Jai with a love of police detective shows recruits his friends to help him investigate. Jai is resilient, funny, and probably has ADD. His way of seeing the world results in amusing turns of phrase like “I’m cold and my teeth are talking to each other.”
Jai’s partner in the investigation is Pari, a clever girl who is his friend. She is initially pulled in by Jai’s doggedness but quickly develops a drive of her own. Faiz, another friend of theirs, can’t aid them as much because he works two jobs but he follows their investigations and offers advice and where he can, helps. All three of the kids live in the same Basti (slum). Faiz is only ten; Jai and Pari are just nine.
Like many of the houses in the Basti, Jai’s is a one-room house with a tin roof. Running water is only available communally and only the faucets are only open a few times a week and for a few hours each time. Water has to be carried home for laundry or cooking to be done. There’s always a line to the one set of toilets in the morning.
But Jai is a relatively happy boy. For all his poverty, he is better off than some others. His parents love each other and don’t fight much. His father doesn’t drink or hit anybody. There’s some tension in the house over Jai’s twelve-year-old sister Runu’s desire to continue competing in relay races. Most people in their neighborhood think that’s not a seemly activity for a girl her age. But even Runu, who as a girl is required to do many of the household chores, isn’t unhappy. They have each other and Jai also has his friends.
The disappearances of two boys, one and then another, from their community not only panic some of the adults and devastate others, but they also create tension with the police. The police believe the kids ran away from a bad home to live on the street and they tell the residents of the Basti to stop complaining or else the police will demolish their slum.
Anxiety over this drives Jai and Pari to search even harder for clues, but though they show one of the boy’s pictures in a nearby bazaar, even make a trip they can ill-afford to the city (a city that goes unnamed) to learn more, they turn up little in the way of leads. And with each child’s disappearance, frictions in the Basti escalate and the book gets darker. When a five-year-old girl is taken, the animosity between Hindus and Muslims explodes and Faiz fears that he and his family will be targeted.
The author says in her afterword that she wrote the book to shed light on child kidnappings. She writes that 180 kids are kidnapped in India each year. The book also touches on other issues like the limitations imposed on girls in Jai’s community, the bigotry Muslim Indians face, income inequality, the lives of street children, and the futility of slum dwellers going to the police, who are corrupt, ineffectual, and indifferent.
It’s hard to grade the book because it’s well-enough written. I’d rate the writing a B-. However, due to its heaviness and what I described in the spoiler, I’m knocking the grade down some. C.
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The Giver of Stars by Jojo Moyes
I would never have chosen to read Moyes after everything I’ve heard about Me Before You but one of the book club members selected this as our April book and I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. There’s a controversy about similarities between The Giver of Stars and Kim Michele Richardson’s The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. The latter was reviewed by Jayne but not having read it I can’t weigh in on that.
The Giver of Stars is about four women who start a traveling library in Appalachian Kentucky mining territory in 1937. They ride on horseback (one on muleback) to deliver donated books to poor families who live in the mountains.
The main character is Alice, a young Englishwoman trapped in an unhappy marriage and in a household ruled by her iron-fisted father-in-law. Alice joins the library when a call for librarians is put out and the work helps her some sense of freedom and agency as well as allowing her to forge connections with her fellow librarians and the library’s patrons.
Margery, the woman who organizes the library, is the other major character. She is in her upper thirties, the book-loving daughter of an abusive (now dead) moonshiner, independent and independent-minded. In fact, she so values her independence that she has refused multiple marriage proposals from Sven, the man she loves.
Alice’s love life also gets attention, as do side characters comprised of four more librarians and the men in Alice and Margery’s lives.
This book made it easy to turn the pages. I enjoyed the unusual setting, learning about Eleanor Roosevelt’s traveling library program, and the theme of women coming together to support each other. There were some wonderful dramatic events including one that felt cinematic in both scope and visuals.
Moyes piled on a few too many dramatic events one after the other, and there was one spoilery development that bothered me.
To summarize all that, the novel felt manipulative.
Still, this is a quick, entertaining read. All the librarians are sympathetic, most of the secondary characters are distinctive and likable, and I loved learning more about Appalachia. B.
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Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
This YA memoir, made up of poems strung together like pearls, was our May read. Most of the poems are less than a page long and each is a vignette. Together they form a chain of memories and the story of a childhood. The book won the National Book Award for Young People’s Literature, the Coretta Scott King Book Award, and an NAACP Image Award for outstanding literary work.
The important characters are young Jackie, her mother, Mary Ann, her brother Hope and sister Odella, her maternal grandparents, Grandpa Gunnar and Grandma Georgiana, and her friend Maria. Jackie’s baby brother, Roman, and her aunt and uncle are also featured.
The book starts with Jackie’s birth in Ohio in the early 1960s and ends when she is in fourth or fifth grade. We experience her and her family’s joys and sorrows—how her parents split up, how close she is to her siblings, how they move to South Carolina when her mom decides to return there, and how Jackie and her grandfather’s love for each other develops as they garden together and grow vegetables.
We witness another move (to Brooklyn this time) as well, and how desperately Jackie misses South Carolina as well as how she meets her “forever friend” Maria in Brooklyn. And we witness the turbulent events of the 1960s and Jackie’s budding awareness of social justice and civil rights issues.
One thread that runs through the book is Jackie’s desperate desire to be a writer even though so many people think she should find a different ambition. The reader knows from holding the book in their hands that Jackie’s dream was realized, so seeing her determination to get there despite her struggles with school and reading is heartwarming.
Also heartwarming is Jackie’s child’s-eye view of her world. Woodson merges the child’s perspective with just a hint of her adult’s reflection, enough to give her memoir context but not enough to be intrusive. The language is spare, simple, direct, and all the more satisfying for it. When I finished the book I wanted more about the rest of the author’s life, which is just how a good memoir should make you feel. A-/A.
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Southland by Nina Revoyr
This, our June book club selection, is an #ownvoices mystery but also so much more. The story takes place in what was then Angeles Mesa and is now Crenshaw, a neighborhood in LA. It’s set partly in 1994 and partly further in the past, from the 1930s to the 1980s.
One of the three main characters, Jackie Ishida, a Japanese-American law student, gets reluctantly drawn into investigating the murder of four black teenagers in the 1960s soon after her grandfather’s death, a murder that took place in her late grandfather’s old market store. She joins forces with James Lanier, a Black community center counselor who was then a small child, to try to bring the killer to justice. In the process, Jackie gets to know her grandfather, whom she neglected while he was alive.
The writing is strong and the story centers at least as much on Frank Sakai, Jackie’s grandfather, as on Jackie herself.
Despite her background, Jackie is oblivious to racism (including racism directed at Japanese-Americans) when the book opens, so I had some difficulty liking her and relating to her at first, but by the end of the book, she’s a lot more sensitive and aware. I appreciated that evolution.
Lanier is a warm, caring man haunted by the murder of his cousin when he (Lanier) was a young child. He too undergoes an arc but I don’t want to spoil it.
Frank is a stoic, reserved, and tender man who has suffered losses. I won’t say much about him since so much of what we learn reveals itself slowly, but we follow him from his teens to his funeral and his story broke my heart.
The mystery has a twist or two but the main attraction here is the character-building; there’s nuance to these people and the ways they stumble toward completion–whether in solving the mystery or reaching out to others–are both affecting and believable.
Los Angeles is almost another main character. The book has a strong sense of place and milieu and encompasses a panoramic view of Japanese-American and Black history in Southern California during the 20th century, ranging from Angeles Mesa’s days as grasslands and marshes (hard to believe now) to the internment camps (with a side trip to the battles in Italy when Frank joins the 442nd Infantry Regiment, the most decorated military unit in American history), to the Watts riots and to the wake of the Northridge Earthquake of 1994.
A few things bugged me and the most major of these was the novel’s treatment of depression. The other two were minor contrivances that also fall into the category of spoilers. There are one or two aspects of the book that I wish had come together with more strength at the end as well.
This is a very good book with excellent historical and setting detail. Recommended to the mystery lovers here with the caveat that while I wouldn’t call it bleak, there’s a lot of tragedy in the backstory. B/B+.
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Your virtual book group sounds wonderful, Janine! How many participants do you have?
Thanks for sharing about the books. I gave a copy of Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line to a friend not realizing how dark it is. Oops.
Apparently the Pack Horse Librarians are now a “thing” as I just recently saw an anthology with all four stories using this plot.
After a couple of personal tragedies and then the national tragedy that was COVID, I find myself rather less able to deal with bleak. These days it would take a lot of persuasion to get me to read a book described as “beautiful but heartbreaking” as a surprising number are, although I loved Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant” even though it pierced my heart. I therefore appreciate the warning re Djinn Patrol on the Purple Line.
OTOH there’s Jacqueline Woodson. Since you liked her memoir, I recommend her “Red at the Bone”, which is short, powerful, and so, so good that as soon as I finished I reread it. For such a short book, the characterizations are rich and the relationships deep and real. I didn’t care for her “Another Brooklyn” quite so much, but it too is quite short and YMMV.
@Kareni: Thanks. I am going to plug the National Village Movement whenever I do a post on my book club. It’s a wonderful organization and I hope someone will be inspired to participate, whether as a member or as a volunteer. It’s a great resource for seniors, especially if they want to stay home as they age rather than moving into a retirement community.
We have four book club members at the moment but have had as many as six in the past. Depending on the Covid situation here we may switch to a hybrid meeting that people can attend on Zoom or in person. If that happens, perhaps we’ll get more participation then.
I’m sorry about Djinn Patrol. Hopefully, your friend has a stronger liking for the deeply dark than I do.
@Jayne: How funny! I would have thought it was too small an umbrella to make a popular trope. But then I thought the same when I first heard of Amish romances.
As an aside, I wouldn’t be surprised if The Giver of Stars became a movie or a miniseries. It was selected by the Reese Witherspoon Book Club and I kept picturing Alice as Reese. But it is also very much movie material.
@Susan/DC: I have a theory that the high-conflict political discourse of the past several years is a big part of what made low-conflict contemporary romances with illustrated covers so popular. States of mind, both personal and national (or in the case of Covid, international) do affect our choices of reading material. Before March of last year, I was listening to Chanel Miller’s memoir Know My Name (read by the author) on audio. It’s excellent, but I had to stop when Covid struck our shores.
More generally, I don’t usually mind darkness if there’s a ray of hope at the end. But when there isn’t one, or if the book devastates me for another reason (such as resonating with a deep-seated fear, crushing my hopes, or if the supposedly hopeful part is unconvincing, to name a few), it can keep me away from novels of its genre for months or even years. That’s one of the reasons why I stick so closely to romance and fantasy; they almost always have happy endings.
I’ve had my eye on Red at the Bone. It’s good to know that you liked it.
@Janine, four book club members sounds like a nice intimate group where everyone has the opportunity to be heard. I hope your group will continue to thrive.
@Kareni: Thank you!
@Janine: Let us know what you think of “Red at the Bone” when you read it. I’m always nervous when I make a recommendation because not every book speaks to every reader, but I hope you like it.
@Susan/DC: I know the feeling and I will.