Sparked by Words

Ah, Reader, I

The most perfect book ends, and we, the readers, are left behind. The conundrum: Begin another immediately? Or bask for a long pause in the wonder of the story just read? Better yet, tell a friend about the book.

Here then, are the best fiction books I read in 2017. Not every book I read, or the non-fiction ones, these  are the fiction books I recommend to you. I’ll review a few titles each month so you can absorb the list in small spurts as you wander through 2018, looking for a good book to read. There may be a few spoilers, so be cautious.

The first two books I’ve selected present stories about cultures that subjugate women to secondary status. Yet both reveal women whose internal strength and firm adherence to personal objectives ensure the future of their communities.

 

America’s First Daughter by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie. This novel is based on the life of Martha “Patsy” Jefferson Randolph, oldest daughter of Thomas Jefferson. The focus of the book is how his political career, always shaky, impacted his family, including his slaves, and though it’s historical fiction, the book is a likely stretch of what might have happened. Dray and Kamoie researched thousands of original documents and letters, putting together a complex puzzle. Martha Jefferson, his oldest daughter, was a woman of her time when women had no legal rights but devised clever manipulations to be significant in society. A debutante in Paris, she witnessed the inception of the French Revolution, modeled on the success of American colonists, and served as Jefferson’s First Lady in the White House.

The book opens with Martha burning her father’s papers after his death, the ones she deemed too salacious or common to be preserved as her father’s words. She strove to protect her father’s legacy and in so doing, fabricated some of what we know about him by deleting certain documents that would have cast him in a negative light.

Sally Hemings, the other prominent woman in his life, his famous slave made lover whose descendant legacy is well documented, provides a conflicting view of what might have been preserved. It’s probable that the question of Hemings’ children being fathered by Jefferson is in dispute because of Martha’s actions. The book is a treatise against slavery even though Jefferson did not free all his slaves, a broadsheet for preserving democracy, and an eerie parallel of our current political climate, though a reverse of ideals in the present administration.

Were you to ask today about the woman most important to Thomas Jefferson, most folks would answer that it was Sally Hemings. Yet it was his daughter, Martha Washington, who shaped our image of the third president of the country, every part of what we know about him except his life with Hemings. Subjugating herself to the sideline, Martha gave us a man of dignity and noble purpose. In reality, he was all that, and also a deeply flawed human being like the rest of us. Dray and Kamoie have pulled Martha out of the shadows to stand in her own light.

 

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane by Lisa See. The story follows the life of a Chinese woman of an isolated mountain tribe destined to be the inheritor of a rare tea. She becomes pregnant by her lover and gives up her newborn daughter, cradling the infant without a name but with a small cake of the priceless tea. See describes the complex art, difficult hands-on labor, and uncertain success of tea growing in China. It’s also about a deep rooted culture that doesn’t recognize the value of girls even as it depends upon them for the family to function, and so allows the American adoption of Chinese girls with little paper trail to follow the children. See’s stories explore how women find ways of surviving China’s oppressive patriarchal society. Also touched upon are the place of ethnic clans in China, the way this century and the last one have impacted the country, the tea export business, the exaggerated value of extremely rare and exotic teas, and China’s quixotic relationship with America.

The robust tea fields of China have often been photographed. Even people like me who are tourists only via the Internet can identify rolling acres of tea plants. This book informed me of the back breaking work of growing a crop given to the whimsy of nature as much as any story is given to a grifter’s imagination. Tea farmers dedicate their lives in the fields and off to the health of the crop with no guarantee of a good harvest. Tea Girl replaced the romantic version promoted by the tourist industry with the grittier, truer one. The writer’s dedication to exhausting research and her passion for her ethnic heritage shines in the book, almost as good as Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, and much better than some of her other books.

If you’re wandering the book aisles, looking for a good read, these reviews might give you something to consider.

I’d love to know what books you’ve read in the last year or two that you’d most recommend.

 

 

Image of America’s First Daughter, courtesy William Morrow/Harper Collins

Image of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, courtesy Simon & Schuster

 

 

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Comments on: "Ah, Reader, I" (30)

  1. Sharon, these sound like real gems and I’m making a note if both of them. America’s First Daughter is both historically intriguing but also an unusual angle to approach a book and I can see this working well. Your review of Lisa See’s book is wonderfully visual, it’s as if I’m seeing the tea growing myself, the hard labour…a mysterious book! Thank you so much for sharing and I look forward to your other book reviews over the coming months.

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  2. Thanks for the suggestions. Our book club had huge discussions about one book in particular this year and I simply cannot remember the title.

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  3. One of the reasons Jefferson did not free all of his slaves: “According to Virginia law, slaves freed after May 1806 were required to leave the state within one year or face reenslavement. From that time the number of manumissions (the legal freeing of slaves) dropped to a mere trickle.” Monticello.org

    The Sally Hemings story is intriguing and sad. Even when I was young mixed marriages were definitely looked down upon and even taboo. I wonder what Thomas and Sally’s conversations were like…

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    • That was brought out in the book, and there is substantive discussion in the book about slavery and Jefferson’s reticence. Still, a lot of people wonder why he didn’t free Sally Hemings on his death. The novel doesn’t hesitate to cover difficult subjects. And yes, to be the fly on those walls…

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  4. Because of my vision problems I read one book in 2017 – Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. Good book too.

    Yeah. whenever I read a book that hits my heart I usually take a brief break, unless I can get another book by the same author, then I dive in immediately.

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    • I’m so sorry you’re still dealing with vision problems, Andrew. Didn’t you have surgery to correct them about two years ago? That’s awful if it didn’t work.
      Have you considered audio books? I have a lot of friends who love them.

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      • Sorry, for the delayed response. I am trying to blog in blocks of time. Still haven’t figured out how I want to do this.

        Three surgeries. And I was just told (for the third opinion) there is no solution for the eye. Too many surgeries have left it permanently damaged.

        I have been thinking about audio books. I read one book in all of 2017., The Alchemist by Paulo Coehlo. Need to get back into the reading. My 2017 was spent doing research and outlining for my next novel. So, it wasn’t a total loss.

        Can’t tell you how happy I am to be back. And to find you still here.

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      • Andrew, your last line is so sweet to read – “to find you still here.” You should put that in a love story, seriously.

        I’m so sorry about your eye problems. I really thought that you had healed. I’m guessing that glasses don’t help. I am glad you’re working on your next book and hope you post about your experiences when you start blogging again.

        As soon as I replied to the comments here, I went in search of your blog, and was disappointed to see no new entries. Now I’m very excited to welcome you back when you do return. I also blog in blocks, partly because I don’t have a laptop device and must sit in front of my desk top to do anything computer oriented. But I’ve made this work and am grateful that when I turn off this old dog, I’m free to do other things. No one finds me texting and distracted when I’m in their company.

        Happy New Year to you and Ali, and wishing you all things wonderful.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you. Between you and I, I haven’t posted yet because of severe writer’s block.

        As for the eyes, I don’t give a crap anymore. It is what it is. Time to move on.

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      • Just write shopping lists – something will trigger your creativity and you’ll be on your way.

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  5. Interesting, both of them.

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  6. I enjoy Lisa See’s books. I’ll definitely have to check this one out.

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  7. Thank you Sharon for introducing these books. Both sound strong and very interesting to me. I will put them in the shopping basket for now and buy as I run down my reading list.
    When I read a good book I do tell the friends I know would like it.
    Miriam

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    • I have so many books on my want to read list (most of the titles are suggestions from other bloggers) but unfortunately, I’m a slow reader. Still, I have to share those I really love.

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  8. Sharon, I’ve loved reading your book reviews, and have learned something about Martha Washington. I want to comment on your questions of which 2017 books I loved: Billy O’Callaghan’s The Dead House, J.C. Sasser’s Gradle Bird ( this southern writer broke the mold on this one) and Bren McClain’s One Good Mama Bone. Happy New Year, Sharon. I remain your devoted follower!

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  9. My favorite book of 2017 was the last one I read this last year, People of the Mist. I can’t say much about the title but the story was great. Kathleen O’Neal Gear captured the life of the Native Americans close to the Chesapeake Bay before the “white man” came.

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  10. Currently living vicariously through you, Shari. Apart from reading a few blog posts, I’ve not read a single book in nearly a year. Depressing to admit that, but it’s true. A season where work has had most of my moments.
    I hope your new year is treating you well. ♡

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    • Audrey, when I was a young mom and also a teacher, like you, I think I mostly read price tags in the grocery store and the TV Guide, so I knew which program I wanted to fall asleep in front of. There will be time to read, but it may be a few years. Just keep writing your poetry, please.

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  11. Great reviews of both books, Sharon. I wouldn’t have thought to read the first but you have piqued my interest and will put it on my list. The other someone has chosen for my book club so I look forward to reading it. I enjoyed Snow Flower and the Secret Fan which you put me onto.

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