Book Review: Half of a Yellow Sun—Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Every now and then, I come across a book written, not by an author, but by a storyteller. Someone who has mastered the art and power of language. Half of a Yellow Sun immediately struck me as a novel written by such a person. Raw, real, revolutionary, it was one of those books I lost myself in. I forgot I was reading, I was so immersed in the story.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has a way of writing that is both hard-hitting and beautiful. In the past, Bridget and I have talked about books that contained language so beautiful, we felt compelled to write it down. If I’m being truthful, this was not one of those books. There wasn’t a line that stood out or that compelled me to record it. Rather, the words did one thing and one thing only–that was convey the brutally fragile humanity of a society in turmoil. It wasn’t the words that stood out, but the characters. It wasn’t the language that drew me in, but the complexities of the relationships Adichie so expertly navigated. It wasn’t poetry, but stark portrayal of loss and remorse, triumph and love that kept me coming back for more. Adichie didn’t just write a story–she captured a volatile record of a country in wartime. And she did all of these things expertly.

To say I loved this novel would be to misspeak. The terminology would be all wrong. Rather, this novel challenged me intellectually. It filled me with questions. It drew me in. I respected this novel. I knew, right away that I would recommend this novel. In short, Half of a Yellow Sun did what a good novel should do. It made me notice and experience it.

You will not find any book quotes in this post. But you will find a challenge–if you are looking for someone who so expertly depicts the complexities of the human condition, then I challenge you to go out and read this book. Experience this book. Because it is a novel of true, masterful storytelling, and it deserves to be experienced.

–Chéylyn

In honor of PeePaw–a true bibliophile

“I know from personal experience that readers lead richer lives, more lives, than those who don’t read.”
― Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child

When my husband first brought me to meet his grandparents in 2007, I was obviously nervous. I knew how important PeePaw and Gran were to him, and I knew their opinion of me would matter greatly. But, the worries were unfounded, and we got along famously. They knew I was going to school to be an English teacher, and upon meeting PeePaw, we immediately launched into our list of favorite books ever, The Grapes of Wrath for him and Pride and Prejudice for me. We explored the classics and the contemporary. We extolled the joy in reading thrillers and memoirs and historical fiction. Happily, I had found a fellow bibliophile in PeePaw, and I knew I would always have someone to talk books with if I were to–one day–join this family. Books have been our love language ever since.

“Books are love letters (or apologies) passed between us, adding a layer of conversation beyond our spoken words.”
― Donalyn Miller, The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader in Every Child

When Joe and I moved into Gran and PeePaw’s old house in 2009, he couldn’t bring all of his books with him, so he left his giant library of books for me to enjoy. His only request, “Don’t just let them sit on the shelves. Read them.” And read them I have–some more than once. Because of his generous gift of books, I have had the great opportunity to learn more about myself. And more about him–a man with little formal education but so much knowledge and wisdom, an ever-present reminder that one does not have to have a degree in literature to fall in love with books.

When he received a Kindle as a gift, he was overjoyed at the one-click access to so many books. Already a voracious reader, PeePaw began to move through books even faster, selecting book after book after book. You might have even heard him enter into a debate with Aunt Kye over the validity of electronic reads being equal in superiority to paper books. He was vastly in favor of reading on the Kindle; Aunt Kye was definitely not–a fact he like to nettle regularly.

We’ve exchanged books and book recommendations so many times over the years, I have lost count. Our conversations usually begin with, “Read any good books lately?” Or, “Hey, I read the best book recently!”

Sadly, we lost our sweet PeePaw this week, and it has hit our family especially hard. He’s been a huge part of our lives, and his absence will be dearly felt. I will miss our book talks, but I am comforted by the many books we’ve been able to enjoy together. I will hold them closer to my heart so that I may revisit them when I am feeling sad. I will share them with others and pass them down to my book-loving kiddo. Don’t worry, PeePaw. I will not let them sit on the shelves. I will read them!

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”
― George R.R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons

Thanks to books, PeePaw and I have lived a thousand different lives, learned about a ton of different cultures and people, and traveled to various parts of the world we couldn’t physically see. But, more than that, books have given us a better understanding of each other. Books allowed us to see each other with different eyes, and they’ve given us a space to talk about difficult topics. This is why it is so important to help students fall in love with books! Reading gives them the capacity for compassion and understanding. It provides a better perspective of the world around them. And most importantly, it creates a space for critical conversations–a way to truly know the depths of the human condition.

I will be thankful every day that PeePaw and I have shared the love of books. It is that love that ensures he’ll never be further away than the turn of a page.

–Bridget

“Reading changes your life. Reading unlocks worlds unknown or forgotten, taking travelers around the world and through time. Reading helps you escape the confines of school and pursue your own education. Through characters – the saints and the sinners, real or imagined – reading shows you how to be a better human being.”
― Donalyn Miller,The Book Whisperer: Awakening the Inner Reader of Every Child

Book Review: The Astonishing Color of After

I saw the stain after they removed my mother, after someone had made the first attempt at cleaning it out of the carpet. Even then it was still dark and wide, oblong and hideous. Barely the shape of a mother.

It’s easier to pretend the stain is acrylic paint. Pigment, emulsion. Water soluble until it dries.

The one part that’s hard to pretend about: Spilled paint is only ever an accident.

The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan is one of the most beautifully written books, especially within YA Lit, that I’ve read in a very long time. In the beginning, I set out with the intention to capture beautifully crafted sentences I came across, but I soon realized that there were so many beautifully crafted sentences that I would basically be transcribing the entire book.

The story follows Leigh, a young Asian American trying to cope with life after her mother’s suicide. Convinced that her mother has come back to her in the form of a red-plumed bird, Leigh follows a box of trinkets left on her doorstep to Thailand, her mother’s native country. While there, she relives memories, both her own and those of her Thai family. These memories teach her about who she is, who her mother was, and why her family has experienced this tragic loss.

Pan does an amazing job of painting the picture of Leigh’s heartbreaking new reality…reading Pan’s writing is a synesthetic experience, and such a beautiful experience it is! I couldn’t help being continually and pleasantly surprised by the vivid pictures erupting in my mind with each and every scene.

This book is an amazing read for students who have lost a loved one, whether to suicide or some other tragedy. It shows that suicide is an illness, and one that no one experiences alone. It also shows the complexities that lead to such a decision, as well as the ramifications for those left behind.

I give The Astonishing Color of After a full five stars. A debut novel, I can’t wait to see what else this author has in store.

The plane angles and tilts, and I fight the gravitational force, leaning to press my face into the glass. I catch a glimpse of the clouds below, and the edge of our shadow upon them, shaped like a bird.

–Cheylyn

Feminist Friday: Fabulous Books by Female Authors

For this Feminist Friday, we decided to each compile a top ten list of books written by fabulous females. Read on to see which books earned our recommendations.

Bridget’s List

To be honest, this was one of the hardest book lists I’ve had to make to date! There are so many fierce females writing books these days, and I have read so many awesome books by women in the last several years. I repeatedly changed my criteria for what made a book “top” of the pile. Most engaging? Best page turner? Most empowering? Best of all time? Ultimately, I chose to list books that spoke to me or changed me in some way in the last couple of years. In other words, these books–some Young Adult, some Adult–had me shook.

Ya’ll. This book. It gave me the most beautiful insight into the Black Lives Matter Movement, told through the eyes of a teenage girl who lost her friend in the most tragic of ways. Follow her path of confusion and growth as she tries to navigate two parts of herself.

https://www.amazon.com/Hate-U-Give-Angie-Thomas/dp/0062498533

I can sum up this book in two words: GIRL POWER! The Spice Girls would definitely approve this book. Join Vivian as she starts a feminist revolution in her small-town, football-loving Texas high school. Girls don’t get mad; they get even!

https://www.amazon.com/Moxie-Novel-Jennifer-Mathieu/dp/1626726353

What if Dexter was a teenage girl? Enough said.

https://www.amazon.com/Female-Species-Mindy-McGinnis/dp/0062320890

In this YA book, you’ll follow the life of a teenage girl who loses her sister but finds herself amidst growing up in a Mexican-American home. So much of this book reminds me of the hilarious and endearing antics of Jane the Virgin.

https://www.amazon.com/Not-Your-Perfect-Mexican-Daughter/dp/1524700487

This was another life-changer for me. This YA book follows a refugee family escaping war-torn Syria. It sheds so much light on the horrific refugee experience, and it opened my eyes in so many ways. It reveals the heartbreaking consequences of war and the destruction it leaves behind.

https://www.amazon.com/Land-Permanent-Goodbyes-Atia-Abawi/dp/0399546839

If you haven’t ever read anything by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, you must. NOW! Americanah is a novel that paints a beautiful story of love and home. Tracing the love story of two Nigerian teenagers, Ifemelu and Obinze, Adichie shows that home is truly where the heart is.

https://www.amazon.com/Americanah-Chimamanda-Ngozi-Adichie/dp/0307455920

Delia Owens delivers an astonishing and heart-wrenching debut novel. Haunting and beautiful, the lyrical prose drove me to journal quote after quote. I found myself marinating on the language, letting the descriptions of the southern marshlands and the pain of isolation wash over me. Owens, in aching detail, reveals the beauty of nature and people, while also examining the ugliness of both.

https://www.amazon.com/Where-Crawdads-Sing-Delia-Owens/dp/0735219095

This was a book I picked up and put back down over and over. I knew I had to be ready to read it. I am glad for that because this book deserved all my time and attention. In this beautiful memoir, we experience Westover’s path to knowledge. Born to doomsdayers who shun governmental institutions, Westover walks into a classroom for the very first time at 17 years old. She seeks to answer this question: what does it mean to be educated?

https://www.amazon.com/Educated-Memoir-Tara-Westover/dp/0399590501

This book was the first memoir I truly fell in love with. Jeannette Walls tells the story of her experience growing up in a uniquely beautiful but dysfunctional household. Often left to care for themselves, Walls and her siblings were forced to grow up far earlier than children should. Walls weaves a story of what it means to be a family, showing how one can love each other through anger and pain.

https://www.amazon.com/Glass-Castle-Memoir-Jeannette-Walls/dp/074324754X

This book. Oh this book. It caused one of the worst book hangovers I’ve ever had. Leni’s journey is a difficult one, but beautiful, nonetheless. Her father comes back from Vietnam a changed man. His eruptive nature mirrors the Alaskan wilderness he moves his family to. This story follows a child and her mother as they try to manage the tumultuous Ernie and their volatile Alaska.

https://www.amazon.com/Great-Alone-Novel-Kristin-Hannah/dp/0312577230

So maybe I cheated a bit and added a bonus book. Don’t tell Cheylyn. 😉

For the first time since I became a mother, I found someone who knew exactly what I was going through. Rachel Hollis made my heart soar in Girl, Wash Your Face. In her honest portrayal of what it means to be a wife and a mother and a woman, readers realize they aren’t alone, and they are inspired to move past the myths and into their own truths!

https://www.amazon.com/Girl-Wash-Your-Face-Believing/dp/1400201659


Cheylyn’s List

“Sometimes, you read a book and it fills you with this weird evangelical zeal, and you become convinced that the shattered world will never be put back together unless and until all living humans read the book.” 
― John Green


So you see, I have this problem. Anytime someone asks me for my favorite anything, I come up blank. Which made coming up with a list of my favorite books by female authors incredibly difficult.

After much soul searching, ruminating, staring forlornly at a blank page, etc. I finally came up with ten books I feel rather good about recommending. Instead of making this an absolute favorites list, I ended up creating a ‘something for everyone’ kind of compilation. I hope one of these titles finds its way into your heart and onto your bookshelves.

Without further ado, here are my ten recommendations for books written by rockstar female authors, in no particular order.

  • The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath (literary fiction)– I was assigned this book in college, and to be honest, I don’t think I actually made it through the text at the time it was assigned. I returned to it years later, and I loved it. Reading novels like this taught me that I love reading about the human condition, especially from a feminine perspective.
  • Beloved by Toni Morrison (African American lit)–Powerful, raw, uncensored. This novel ran me through so many emotions. A story of the trials former slaves had to go through as they adjusted to freedom, this was a book that truly stuck with me. But be prepared; this one is a hard hitter and wrings you dry emotionally.
  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (science fiction)–This is the first book in a series (and the only one I’ve read so far, though I’m dying to get my hands on the rest of the installment). I have talked about this book so many times, not only because it is well-written, but because it is science fiction written by an African American female. Which pretty much makes this series a unicorn in the world of sci-fi.
  • The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (fiction)– I adored this book. It is tender, quirky, and leaves you emotionally invested. All I can say is, “Yes. Read this book.” So good.
  • The Awakening by Kate Chopin (literary fiction)–my American Lit students just read “The Story of an Hour” so Chopin was on my mind. She has influenced some of my own writing, so I would be remiss if I didn’t include her. The story of one woman’s awakening, literally, it deserves to be on a list for feminist lit for so many reasons.
  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple (fiction)–Being human is messy. Being a mother is hard. Being a woman comes with a whole slew of emotional challenges. This book touches on all of this.
  • The entire Harry Potter installment by J.K. Rowling (fantasy)–These books will always have a special place in my heart. I read the first book at the age of 11, grew up with the characters, found a kindred spirit in Hermione Granger, and felt the magic running in my veins. It would be a huge understatement to say these books had an impact on my life. They fed my desire to be a writer, they provided me with a successful female role model (Rowling and Granger), and they gave me friends at a time in my life where I began realizing I was different from everyone around me (and therefore had difficulty making friends). I adore these books.
  • Mom and Me and Mom by Maya Angelou (memoir)–Maya Angelou is fierce. Enough said.
  • Get in Trouble by Kelly Link (fantasy)–A collection of short stories, each with a fantastical element. These stories are so unique and so interesting.
  • The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan (YA lit)–I will be posting a book review for this next week. All you need to know right now is that this is an absolute must read.

I hope you enjoy. As always, comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome! Until next time 🙂

Book Review: Blood Water Paint by Joy McCullough

Every now and then, you get your hands on a book that awakens something within you.

As I was reading McCullough’s Blood Water Paint, I couldn’t help thinking that this was a book I would want to share with my daughter. I immediately placed it in the hands of a female student when I made it back to work on Monday (I had started the book Saturday and finished it by Sunday). I couldn’t wait to tell Bridget about it…In short, this was a book I knew needed to be talked about.

Blood Water Paint is written partially in verse, partially in prose. A story about Artemisia Gentileschi, an artist in seventeenth century Italy, McCullough turns this amazing woman’s story into one that is both powerful and relatable, despite the distance in time.

The night my mother

finally slipped

from pain

to nothingness

I slumped to sleep

with tear-drenched sheets

and woke to blood.

The verse sections provide the reader a glimpse into Artemisia’s inner turmoil as she tries to navigate young womanhood without a strong female role model. Interspersed throughout are prose pieces in the voice of her deceased mother, relating the stories of Biblical women told to Artemisia throughout her childhood–stories which teach Artemisia the trials women must go through as they navigate a patriarchal society. The juxtaposition of the two women’s voices is powerful and incredibly haunting. Readers get a sense of the bond between mother and daughter that remains strong, despite death and absence.

Artemisia is an apprentice for her father, who is an artist…these terms are used loosely, for it is Artemisia who paints, while her father simply signs his name to her work.

In an effort to make a strong artistic connection to advance his career, the father has renowned artist Agostino come in to tutor Artemisia. Agostino uses his power, influence, and charm to seduce and eventually rape Artemisia. This act is made more horrific by the fact that Artemisia had begun to fall for Tino, as she called him, before she realized the kind of man he truly was. Her relationship with him had awakened her, both to the power in her ability to paint, as well as to the power in her awakening sexuality. However, after he rapes her, Artemisia descends into depression, during which she can no longer express herself through her art, and instead is haunted by the stories her mother told her as a child.

The front door slams

and slams again

as Father hurries after

Agostino, to beg

forgiveness from

my rapist.

Throughout this experience, Artemisia must deal with feelings of abandonment. Despite the likelihood that her rape was overheard by her brothers and maidservant, no one comes to her rescue. She realizes that, in her world, no one is going to help her–in seventeenth century Italy, women had no rights. Spurred to action by a desire for justice, as well as a desire to be heard, she takes Agostino to court; her case is founded on the idea that her father’s property (i.e. Artemisia) has been damaged. The case drags on for years, and Artemisia must endure humiliation, torture, and mutilation to try to prove her honesty so that her rapist will not walk away unpunished.

I take a length of cloth

and hold it to my head–

a wedding veil.

I do not regret the days of make-believe,

but for every time I played at bride

I should have played at goddess

river

warrior queen.

This is such a powerful story for young women. It shows the intricacies of navigating womanhood, desire, and sexism, and even though Artemisia’s world is that of Italy in the 1600s, I still found I could relate to her story as a modern woman.

McCullough does a fantastic job of taking a real life figure, whose story was powerful in and of itself, and creating a work that is profound, poetic, and moving. I would highly recommend this book, especially to teenage girls, who can find a powerful, true-to-life role model in the young Artemisia.


YA Lit Next List

There are two problems that dominate my reading life in alternate phases. One is when I have so many things I want to read that I feel I will never get through them all, and two is when I am struck by the desire to read but I have no idea what to pick up next. Of them, I definitely prefer the former, but sadly, I am often struck by the latter. So, I thought I would begin sharing my Next Lists, to help those of you who might be struggling to find that next amazing book.

YA Lit used to be my genre of choice. But, as I grew older and my tastes changed, I began to gravitate more toward literary fiction. Which means I’ve fallen out of touch with what today’s YA Lit looks like.

Now that I’m teaching high school students, I’m returning to the world of young adult fiction so that I can be better informed when making book recommendations to my students. I’m not going to lie, it feels like returning to a long lost friend…

One of the things I love about YA right now is the emphasis on diversity. As you can see by my titles, I’m all about reading stories from various cultures and perspectives. I think it’s especially important for my students to read diversely–our school is located in a very insular community, and people tend to make assumptions about cultures they know nothing about. I want my kids to formulate their own opinions after seeking and gaining their own knowledge about topics such as religion, culture, sexual orientation, etc.

So here it is, my Next List for YA Lit, Spring 2019. They are listed in no particular order:

  • Internment by Samira Ahmed
  • The Astonishing Color of After by Emily X.R. Pan
  • Darius the Great is not Okay by Adib Khorram
  • Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds
  • Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu

It’s short and sweet, but these are titles I have repeatedly come across, and they all have fantastic recommendations. If you know of any titles I should add to my list, please leave them in the comments below.

Also, If you would like Bridget and I to review one of these books or others, let us know! We are always looking for recommendations.

Happy Reading!

–Chéylyn

Where the Crawdads Sing

“I wasn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know a sentence could be so full.”


“Autumn leaves don’t fall, they fly. They take their time and wander on this their only chance to soar. “

Finishing a great book is like ending a great relationship; you have to spend some time mulling it over, replaying each of the moments in clear detail. You realize its impact will be forever etched in your mind, knowing it will be a while before you can begin another without constantly thinking of the one you’ve just ended.

For me, Where the Crawdads Sing is one of those books. Delia Owens delivers an astonishing and heart-wrenching debut novel. Haunting and beautiful, the lyrical prose drove me to journal quote after quote. A speed reader by trade, I found myself slowing down to marinate on the language, letting the descriptions of the southern marshlands and the pain of isolation wash over me. Owens, in aching detail, reveals the beauty of nature and people, while also examining the ugliness of both.

In a dual-timeline plot, the story follows Kya, a child abandoned by her family in the harshness of poverty in the 1950’s, along with the murder of the town golden boy, Chase Crawford, in the late 1960’s, finally converging in an explosive ending.

In an amazing coming-of-age story, the protagonist, Kya, made me want to stand and say, “I am woman; hear me roar” as she navigates her small, isolated world. Left at such a young age to fend for herself, unable to read or write, Kya must use her knowledge of her much-beloved marsh and nature to help her survive the world and people around her. Her hunger for simple human connection and the mistrust of that same connection warring inside of her, Kya tries to open herself up to others. Some accept and return that openness, while others take advantage of it, serving as the heart of the plot.

This book truly has everything you could possibly want in a book–mystery, romance, nature, and the haunting knowledge that survival instincts are needed both in the wild and with people.

I give this book 5 (million) stars and recommend it for anyone and everyone. Now, please excuse me while I cry into my pillow and enjoy my book hangover in peace.

–Bridget

“His dad told him many times that the definition of a real man is one who cries without shame, reads poetry with his heart, feels opera in his soul, and does what is necessary to defend a woman.”

“Sometimes she heard night-sounds she didn’t know or jumped from lightning too close, but whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her. Until at last, at some unclaimed moment, the heart-pain seeped away like water into sand. Still there, but deep. Kya laid her hand upon the breathing, wet earth, and the marsh became her mother.”