Book In a Minute: A Brief History of Seven Killings

A Brief History of Seven KillingsA Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Now that he has written (or started to write) an African Game of Thrones with the much-lauded Black Leopard, Red Wolf, Marlon James is popping up everywhere, including in a discussion on fantasy literature with George R.R. Martin. But I was more intrigued by the description of this earlier novel, so I decided to check it out.

Insanely well-written (possibly even over-written to be honest), A Brief History of Seven Killings is anything but brief. The sprawling novel recounts a fictionalized version of events surrounding an assassination attempt on Bob Marley in the 1970’s.

This is a looooong book, and I knew absolutely nothing about Jamaican politics going into it, so I seriously had to stop and read a couple of Wikipedia articles about Jamaica. Then I read the one about Bob Marley too, because turns out he was a massively controversial figure in relation to the political situation in Jamaica, not just a fabulous singer and songwriter. If you too know nothing about Marley (other than the lyrics to “Redemption Song” and “No Woman No Cry”), you’ll probably want to read that Wikipedia article too before starting this book, otherwise so much will go completely over your head.

But even if you are clueless about Marley and about Jamaican history, this is still a fascinating read because of all the amazing and clearly unique voices Marlon James has created for this work. Every voice rings true. I kept wondering if James was an actor at some point in his life to have such a perfect ear for the many ways people speak. From a cynical CIA agent to Jamaican gangsters to a young woman who had a one-night stand with Marley–each voice sounded amazingly vivid and authentic in my head.

I’m still kind of overwhelmed by all the history and politics, and it’s definitely grim, graphic and dark in many places. It’s also pretty definitely longer than it needs to be. But I was so impressed by James’ gift for voices, I kept on reading.

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Best of the Year

Taking a few minutes out of being a busy entrepreneurial executive at the hubby’s consulting biz to share my reading stats for 2018.  I finished 84 books — I read more than that, but I’ve made a separate list on Goodreads for “DNFs” (that means “did not finish,” for the uninitiated). I don’t rate those and I don’t include them on my list of what I’ve actually read.

I’m an avid audiobook fan and that led to my favorite discovery of 2018, Percival Everett. First I heard “The Appropriation of Culture” on Selected Shorts. Then, soon after, Levar Burton read “Graham Greene” on his wonderful podcast. After that, I went to the library and picked up a couple of Everett’s short story collections. I love his unique ability to combine a world-weary realism with an underlying sense of serenity. His stories feel kind of Buddhist in their world view.

Also “The Appropriation of Culture” manages to say some really important, insightful things about race while being freaking hilarious. Find it in his 2004 collection, Damned If I Do.

141202Besides Percival Everett, Levar Burton has featured works by Charlie Jane Anders, Octavia Butler and Daniel Wallace, among others. Burton’s podcast is a delight if you enjoy audiobooks. First there’s the creamy-smooth goodness of Levar Burton’s voice, but it’s also a wonderful forum for underrepresented authors. Many of the stories he’s chosen are by women and/or authors of color. It’s a fun way to discover authors who haven’t gotten as much exposure as they should have.

814-kplvc6lAnother great fiction discovery was Mick Herron. He’s been around for a while, but I finally picked up the first book in his “Slow Horses/Slough House” series and loved it. The Slow Horses are failed British intelligence agents. They’ve all done something egregiously wrong, but not quite criminal. Still, they know too much to be allowed back into ordinary society, so why not make use of them. The sad-sack screw-ups are relegated to Slough House (Slough House=slow horses, get it?!?!), where they are meant to shuffle papers and enter data until the end of time. They’re presided over by gruff, shambling, slobby Jackson Lamb, who may not be as washed up as he keeps trying to pretend to be.

And of course, they do NOT stay behind those desks and enter that data. They inevitably get drawn into various high-stakes adventures, which they botch up stupendously before generally getting their sh*t together in the final few chapters. It’s like Johnny English as written by Graham Greene (meaning the British novelist, not the Native American actor mentioned in the Percival Everett story cited above). Far less introspective than Percival Everett, but loads of fun to read. If you like a good caper story, especially of the “gang that couldn’t shoot straight” variety, read these.

Ironically, one of the worst novels I read this year was also by Mick Herron. Called This Is What Happened, it was an utterly unconvincing dystopian tale blended with the now tiresomely familiar twisty domestic thriller genre. Skip this one and read the entire Slough House series instead.

downloadAs for nonfiction, I read so many, many fascinating perspective-altering books this year, it kind of exhausted me. I highly recommend Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore by Elizabeth Rush. This book takes all the talk of climate change and brings it down to the personal level. Rush interviews people whose entire neighborhoods are now underwater and destined to stay there. She examines the faulty assumptions over the last fifty years that have made flooding even worse in places like New Jersey and New Orleans. It will definitely make you reconsider retiring to the seaside, I can tell you that.

9780252082122Another life-changing read was Goodbye iSlave by Jack Qiu. This under-noticed treatise is a bit dry at times but has so much important to tell us. Qiu writes about the morally questionable nature of our mobile device addiction — the slave labor that mines the materials, the toxic workplaces where people who are virtual prisoners assemble the things, the rising pile of toxic trash that comes from throwing all this crap away after just a couple of years. His book offers some possible solutions to the problems presented within the text, including the FairPhone, a repairable mobile device. I wanted so badly to get one after reading this book, but looks like they aren’t even available in the USA.

Last but not least, I read a lot more poetry than I have in years. Possibly this was because I was managing the poetry collection at the grouchy old-school library I last worked at. (You know the kind of library I mean: where the librarians all sit on stools behind a high desk, reading their own books and hoping you will go away and not ask them that question you’re about to ask. It was not a good fit.)

But at any rate, I got to read a lot of poetry. And what lingers with me now is Gabriel, the heartbreaking masterpiece of loss by Edward Hirsch. Published several years ago, this long poem/short book is a father’s elegy for the death of his beautiful, baffling, troubled son. Gabriel died at the age of 22, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene, it was many days before Hirsch was able to find out what had become of his son and learn where the body had been taken. Truly, it is every parent’s worst nightmare turned into art. The poem will especially resonate with anyone who has a child struggling, as Gabriel did, with mental illness and developmental disorders.

Hirsch with Gabriel in happier times

And those are my most memorable books from 2018. Sorry if it’s a heavy list, but it was a heavy year.

Happy reading to all of you in 2019!

 

Book reviews are on sabbatical…

There’s been a lull in my “Book in a Minute” reviews on the blog page. I switched libraries, then I had a shoulder injury, then I left the new library, then I tore up my knee and spent a couple of months catching up on Netflix. Now I’ve become a vice-president in charge of marketing and communications in my husband’s new engineering consulting firm. Because apparently there wasn’t enough chaos in my life.

Now things seem to be getting back on their usual rickety tracks and I’m finding more time to write (and think) about books again. Expect some new reviews soon and possibly even some news about some new writing from me in 2019–although possibly not under this pen name. Details when I’m able to share more with you!

As always, check out my Facebook page for news too.