BOOK REVIEW: Homegoing – by Yaa Gyasi

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Title: Homegoing
Author: Yaa Gyasi

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction
First published: June 7th 2016
Publisher: Knopf
Finished reading: November 21st 2016 
Pages: 305
Rating 4qqq

“You want to know what weakness is? Weakness is treating someone as though they belong to you. Strength is knowing that everyone belongs to themselves.”

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As soon as I came across this story a few months ago, I just knew I had to read it at some point. I always have a weak spot for a solid historical fiction novel, and Homegoing had all the signs it was going to be just that. I somehow ended up posponing this read longer than I had initially planned, but the Goodreads Choice Awards were the perfect excuse to finally pick up this novel by Yaa Gyasi. And there is no doubt that Homegoing deserves its nomination. It’s a truly interesting historical fiction novel set in both Africa and the US, starting in the 18th century with two characters and following their future generations during centuries. I actually kind of had One Hundred Years Of Solitude flashbacks every time I considered this aspect of Homegoing, and that is definitely a compliment. Sure, the story is a bit confusing in the beginning, mostly due to the sheer amount of characters that are introduced over time. The pace was also a tad slow at times, but that is all forgotten if you look at just how brilliantly written this story actually is. The author is able to include so many important moments in the history of both slavery and race problematics in general, and manages to do so without it feeling like a dull history book. Each character adds a little something to the story, and even though it was hard to keep track of them at times, the fact that there are so many of them adds to the charm. Homegoing is without doubt a very powerful and well researched historical fiction novel that I can recommend to any fan of the genre with my eyes closed.

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Two half-sisters are separated by forces beyond their control: Esi is sold into slavery, while Effia was married to a British slaver. Their future and and those of their future generations of family have been changed forever by this fate, and their destinies will eventually lead them through two continents and three hundred years of history. The true legacy of slavery will be revealed with its many many aspects, all with the help of these two generations of families.

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While not perfect, Homegoing is without doubt well researched and is one of the most interesting books on slavery I’ve read to this date. Thanks to the three hundred years and different generations of those families, Yaa Gyasi is able to talk about so many important fact relating to both slavery and race problematics in general. And even though the pace is a bit slow and the sheer amount of characters can get confusing, there is no doubt that this is an excellent historical fiction novel with a powerful message.

ARC REVIEW: The Bitter Side Of Sweet – by Tara Sullivan

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Title: The Bitter Side Of Sweet
Author: Tara Sullivan

Genre: YA, Realistic Fiction, Contemporary
First published: February 23rd 2016
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers
Finished reading: October 6th 2016
Pages: 336

Rating 4,5qqq

“We sit like that until the sun bleeds into the night sky and the cracks in the wooden shed door glow pink. When this happens I know we’ve made it through the worst of it. Pain is like sadness; both are easier to bear in daylight.”

*** A copy of this book was kindly provided to me by Netgalley and G.P. Putnam’s Sons Books for Young Readers in exchange for an honest review. Thank you! ***

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I have a weak spot for stories set in (for me) foreign cultures, so I was sold as soon as I read the blurb of this novel by Tara Sullivan. I’m glad I decided to read it, because the story simply blew me away. Even though The Bitter Side Of Sweet is a fictional story, it’s based on actual facts and it shows the author knows a lot about the topic. The descriptions of both the general setting, the cacao farm and the characters are very well done and help you form a better picture of something that is actually happening right now in those countries. The main characters and young brothers Amadou and Seydou are fictional, but they are an example of what thousands of children have to go through while they are being forced to work at a cacao farm under difficult conditions and without pay. And I can assure you, it definitely gives you something to think about. The story itself might have a few flaws including the credibility of the young brother’s journey, but the strong message behind The Bitter Side Of Sweet makes you forget all about them. Overall it’s without doubt a brilliant read I can recommend to everyone who enjoys the genre.

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Set in modern-day Ivory Coast, two young brothers are struggling to survive on a cacao farm. Amadou and Seydou are forced to work without pay and have to chop down enough cacao pods every day to avoid punishment. The higher the number, the safer they are and the higher the chances of not getting beaten. And who knows, the bosses might let them return home again if they work hard enough… The problem is Amadou doesn’t know how high the debt to his bosses is and they won’t tell him. They were only trying to earn money during the dry season, but were tricked into forced labor instead. With no hope of escape, all they can do is try their best to stay alive; until Khadija comes into their lives. She is the first girl ever to come to camp and has a wild spirit. She doesn’t stop her attempts of escape, involving the brothers against their will. But it does remind Amadou what it means to be free…

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My intuition was right when I first saw The Bitter Side Of Sweet mentioned, because it was exactly the book I enjoy reading. It’s a well written story with a fast pace and strong message that is not easy to forget. The characters are well developed and even though their ‘adventure’ is not at all times completely credible, it is still an excellent read. Therefore I can recommend this story to anyone who enjoys the genre and/or has an interest in the topic.

BOOK REVIEW: Twelve Years A Slave – by Solomon Northup

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Title: Twelve Years A Slave
Author: Solomon Northup
Genre: Non Fiction, History, Memoir
First published: 1853
Finished reading: December 26th 2014
Pages: 288
Rating 4

“Life is dear to every living thing; the worm that crawls upon the ground will struggle for it.”

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This book was a gift of a friend who knows I always like reading historical books, whether fiction or non fiction. Twelve Years A Slave is not the first book about slavery that I’ve read, but without doubt it is one of the more powerful once. In this memoir Solomon Northup, born a free man, tells us about how he was kidnapped, then forced into slavery during twelve long years and finally rescued from such fate. It’s not an easy read and at times a bit slow in pace, but the message is powerful enough to keep reading. I think most people already suspect how slaves were treated in Southern USA back in those days, but actually reading a testimony makes it hard to ignore such inhumane treatment that was used on black slaves. Like Northup said in his book, it was part of the culture and most slave owners didn’t know any better, but still… Even humane masters as Ford were still seeing slaves as property and forced them to work for them. A heavy, but strong book and definitely recommended to those who are interested in reading more about the life of slaves.

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Solomon Northup was born a free man in the state of New York. He got married, had some children and were able to coope by working hard. Even in the free states, work for black men was harder to find, but both Solomon and his wife were creative enough to scrape together an income. Solomon plays the violin, and when to gentlemen invite him to travel with them to Washington with the promise of money, he quickly agrees to join them. Unfortunately, they deceived him and Solomon was kidnapped, severely beaten and then sold into slavery in 1841. Once crossing the border to the Southern States, he knew that nobody would believe he was a free man without his papers. And those who did, would most likely kill him rather than set him free. So he kept his mouth shut and during twelve years played the role of Platt the slave on different plantations in Louisiana.

Solomon/Platt had different owners during those twelve years and while some, like master Ford, treated him at least with humanity, others were mere brutes and unnecessarily cruel. They actually try to kill him various times when he refuses to be humiliated too much, and owes his life to more humane southerners. Solomon tells us the story of when he manages to escape against all odds and arrive safely back at master Ford’s land, who then protects him from harm. Solomon first works at the cotton plantation, and later is hired to sugar cane plantations as he is way more productive at the latter. He help building new houses and other useful buildings and stands out for his cleverness and violin skills. And then finally he meets the right man that will help him reclaim his freedom…

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If you are interested in reading more about the life of slaves during the years of slavery in Southern USA, Twelve Years A Slave is without doubt a must read. This is not just another testimony written by a slave, in this memoir we see the facts through the eyes of a free man that was forced into slavery. That and the fact that Solomon Northup clearly was an educated man, makes this book that much more powerful. The prose is not always easy to read, but the message makes up for it. Plus, this book was written back in 1853…

BOOK REVIEW: The Known World – by Edward P. Jones

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Title: The Known World
Author: Edward P. Jones
Genre: Historical Fiction, Contemporary
First published: August 14th 2003
Finished reading August 10th 2014
Pages: 388
Rating 3

“The hitter can never be the judge. Only the receiver of the blow can tell you how hard it was, whether it would kill a man or make a baby just yawn.”

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I first found this book when I was browsing for interesting historical fiction novels back in January. The story itself about a black farmer and former slave in the US of the 19th century sounded interesting and I decided to get a copy. After many months of collecting dust, I finally had the chance to read The Known World for the Dusting Off The Shelf Read-A-Thon. Unfortunately it wasn’t as good as I thought it would be… Don’t get me wrong, the story itself is definitely worth reading. It’s just that Edward P. Jones seemed to be wanting to include the stories of too many slaves and their owners, and the change in POV was confusing at some points. The fact that he wasn’t following a straight timeline didn’t help either, and it slowed down my reading considerately. If you don’t like keeping track of many characters and timelines, this book is definitely not for you. But if you like reading more about the situation of slaves and former slaves in the US before the Civil War, this one is still quite interesting.

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In The Known World, we mainly follow the story of Henry Townsend and his family. Henry is a black farmer and former slave who is now one of the few black slaveholders in the South. His former slave owner, William Robbins, has always favored him and helps him by selling him the first slave named Moses. Robbins is a very powerful man in Manchester County, and uses his influence to help him build and expand his farm. Henry’s parents don’t agree with his choice of owning slaves after all that took his father Augustus to finally buy them free. He doesn’t give in though, and when he dies at an unfortunate young age, he leaves his widow Caldonia in charge with quite a few slaves.

We read a lot about the years where Henry grows up being a slave of Robbins. His father bought himself free early in the story, but it took him years to buy his wife and son free as well. Henry worked close to Robbins during those years, and Robbins took a liking to the boy. Important to know about the slaveholder is that he has a black mistress and two children with the same woman. He is thus not the typical white slave owner and symphatises Henry in a way others might haven’t. When Augustus finally gets a chance to buy his son free, Henry keeps in touch with Robbins, and later starts his own farm close to the one he had worked as a slave. The Known World is also about the slaves Henry owns; different families all with their own problems. A few try to escape, others try to win over their owners. Caldonia doesn’t seem up to the task of holding the farm together when Henry dies, and the County has to jump in and intervene.

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 The Known World is an interesting book if you can ignore the multiple POV’s and the sometimes dense prose and suitable for those who enjoy historical fiction. It’s about the cruelty of the white officers, trying to make money out of selling free slaves, and violence used on innocent people. And it’s also about hope and a future without slavery… And the lives of those who still are slaves.