A Comic Interlude: Pirate King by Laurie R. King

Eleventh in Laurie R. King‘s imagined memoirs of Mary Russell — who is usually found investigating crimes related to national or international political intrigue, along with the retired Sherlock Holmes — Pirate King is a romp through Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic operetta Pirates of Penzance and the early British silent film industry, and, so, is correspondingly lighter in tone than the earlier books in the series. So, if you’re a reader of serious literature only who doesn’t appreciate levity, doesn’t have time for frivolous pleasures, and who CAN’T TAKE A JOKE, FOR PETE’S SAKE, (Just kidding!) you can skip over Pirate King and wait for the next book in the series.
There has always been humor in the Mary Russell series (starting with The Beekeeper’s Apprentice) especially in the playfully competitive relationship between Russell and Holmes (as they call each other.) Mary Russell is even on Twitter (@mary_russell). But here the author plays around more than usual with the idea that this is a fictional memoir about the fictional narrator’s life with Sherlock Holmes, a fictional character who, in the memoir, is actually a real person who bemoans the fact that he is thought to be fictional. In Pirate King, a film called Pirate King is being shot with a group of actors playing a group of actors who are filming a movie called Pirate King about The Pirates of Penzance, so Pirate King is a book about a memoir about a movie within a movie, with life imitating art, etc.
Well acquainted with disguise and artifice herself, Russell infiltrates the group of prima donnas, stage mothers, and professional actors as the assistant to the general manager of Fflytte Films. Fflytte Films is known for filming realistic films on location, and for realism’s sake, they set sail for Lisbon to find swarthy actors to play the piratical parts in the movie. Russell warns readers at the start that this escapade is so far-fetched as to be unbelievable. She begins with a playbill listing the cast of characters and inserts screen shots of random silent movie-style commentary such as “Where is Daniel?” and “Also the previous Monday…” throughout the book.
If you think that having Sherlock Holmes acquire at an advanced age a young, myopic, Oxford-educated bluestocking apprentice — who speaks multiple languages, is expert with a knife, and whose tongue is as sharp as the knife she keeps in her boot — is messing around too much with the Sherlock Holmes canon, then this series is probably not for you. But if you like novels with strong, smart characters, interesting plots, and some historical and intellectual underpinnings (and you don’t mind the idea of Sherlock Holmes meeting his female match) you should give this series a try.

Other opinions on Pirate King:
Bookotron
Jen’s Book Thoughts
Nonsuch Book
A Striped Armchair

Alternatives to The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Middle-aged, middle-class, white female readers in my library still rave about The Help, the bestselling novel by Kathryn Stockett, which is now also a hit movie, but back when I read it, it disturbed me how (………….spoiler alert, for anyone still planning to read the book…………) the launching of the young white main character’s writing career seemed to be the big climax. Publishing the black maids’ stories of the racism and discrimination they suffered while working as the household help to white families benefited “Miss Skeeter” much more than the maids themselves. (…end of spoiler…)
Novelist Martha Southgate recently wrote an essay on The Help book/movie for Entertainment Weekly that has been getting a lot of comments. The essay skewers the skewed picture that The Help presents of race relations in Mississippi in 1962, lamenting the fact that novels and movies about that time period so often put white characters at the forefront of the civil rights movement instead of in a supporting role. From the essay, The Truth about the Civil Rights Era:

Implicit in The Help and a number of other popular works that deal with the civil rights era is the notion that a white character is somehow crucial or even necessary to tell this particular tale of black liberation. What’s more, to imply that what the maids Aibileen and Minny are working against is simply a refusal on everyone’s part to believe that ”we’re all the same underneath” is to simplify the horrors of Jim Crow to a truly damaging degree.

What are some suggestions for novels on the civil rights movement in addition to, or instead of The Help, that feature African-American main characters? They seem surprisingly hard to find.
I only thought of Like Trees Walking by Ravi Howard, which is set in Mississippi two decades later than The Help, but refers back to civil rights history in the 1960s. There are excellent novels about slavery (e.g. Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez) and about other periods of the civil rights movement (e.g. Glorious by Bernice L. McFadden), but searching for novels about Mississippi in the ’60s centering on African-Americans, I found mostly nonfiction.
Searching online for suggestions, I found this Web site that lists titles and quotes reviews of fiction and nonfiction, a mix of adult and children’s titles, dealing with the civil rights era: Bombingham by Anthony Grooms is a possibility, dealing with the Vietnam War from the perspective of a black American male, who reflects on his childhood in the south. The Facebook page for the Callie Crossley Show suggests a mystery series featuring Blanche White, an African-American domestic worker, by Boston-area author Barbara Neely. The series is set in the 1990s, though, so isn’t exactly an alternative for those looking for an historical perspective on that time.
What about trying Freshwater Road, a debut novel by actress Denise Nicholas about a 20-year-old black female college student who travels to Mississippi to take part in Freedom Summer? Or Alice Walker’s Meridian? (Interestingly, Alice Walker posted her opinions on The Help on her blog and just reposted it recently with an update after seeing the movie; I agree with her comments about the novel, including her opinion that listening to the audiobook version of The Help is better than reading the book.)
Finding recommendations for movies to watch instead of The Help is a little easier:
Black and White Struggle with a Rosy Glow (New York Times)
Why Danny Bowes Is Not Going to See The Help

And check out this Web site for reading suggestions for books in all genres from African-American authors:
White Readers Meet Black Authors

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks wasn’t as good as I thought it would be when I started it, so I can’t give it a rave review, but I enjoyed it. Librarians come off pretty well in it, too, which is nice.
People of the Book is historical fiction lite — historical chapters alternating with contemporary chapters about an Australian book restorer, Hanna, preparing an historical and religious relic, an ancient illuminated Jewish text, for display in a Bosnian museum.
The germ of the story came from the true story of how an actual centuries-old text the Sarajevo Haggadah, was restored after a Bosnian Muslim librarian saved it from shelling in the 1990s. The author imagines the history of the book and how it was preserved through different periods of war, bloodshed, and violence against Jews, and, finally, how the book came to be in the first place — a 14th-century Jewish text with colored illuminations such as would normally be found in Catholic manuscripts is extremely rare.
People of the Book is a good book group book, in that there is plenty of material for discussion, but it isn’t too subtly or ambiguously presented.

Read The Boston Globe review of People of the Book.
Read The New York Times review of People of the Book.

The King’s Rose by Alisa M. Libby

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What might it have been like for a 15-year-old girl to be chosen by King Henry VIII as his fifth wife? In The King’s Rose by Alisa M. Libby, young Catherine Howard tells us the story of her dizzyingly abrupt rise to the throne. With court intrigue, gossip, and suspicions, the second young adult novel by this  Massachusetts author will be enjoyed by historical fiction readers, fans of the Showtime series The Tudors, and readers of Melissa Marr’s Wicked Lovely series for young adults about the Dark Court of the faery world.
A beautiful girl, Catherine Howard caught the eye of the king. Or, more accurately, she was successfully thrust before the king’s eyes through the efforts of the Howards, seeking power for the clan. Not quite as innocent in truth as she was made out to be (the aged king calls her his “rose without a thorn”), Catherine nervously pushes out of her mind the fate of Henry’s fourth wife — Catherine’s cousin Anne Boleyn — as she struggles to keep youthful dalliances from being revealed to King Henry before she presents him with an all-important heir to the throne.
Based on historical records, The King’s Rose may make you wonder whether Catherine Howard really was as carefree and empty-headed as history makes her out to be.
Click here for an author interview with Alisa M. Libby at the Teens Read Too site.
Click here to check availability of The King’s Rose in the Old Colony Library Network catalog.

Like Trees, Walking by Ravi Howard

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Like Trees, Walking by Ravi Howard is the author’s first novel, expanded from a prize-winning short story he wrote while in college. Set in Mobile, Alabama, the novel is a fictional exploration of the repercussions of a real crime — the lynching of a 19-year-old African American teenager, Michael Donald, in 1981 — and the lack of effort by law enforcement officials to bring the guilty white men — members of the Ku Klux Klan — to justice.The narrator, Roy, is the younger of two brothers. In 1981, he’s in his last year of high school, preparing to go off to New Orleans for college the following year and trying to figure out how to tell his father that he doesn’t want to take over the family’s funeral home business, when his older brother, Paul, finds the dead body of his friend Michael hanging from a tree. Michael Donald was chosen at random and lynched on a street where known Klansmen lived. The whole African-American community is affected and mourns with Michael’s family. The last lynching in Mobile had been over sixty years before, a horrifying crime that belonged in the past, but here it had happened — in 1981 — to one of their own. Paul becomes obsessed by the fact that the known criminals go about freely while Michael is dead and buried. Roy looks on helplessly, wrestling with his lack of faith and his responsibility to his family and the larger community.
A finalist for the 2008 Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award, Like Trees, Walking is a short novel, quiet and reflective, that should start showing up on high school and college summer reading lists.
Check the Old Colony Library Network for availability of Like Trees, Walking.

Land of Marvels by Barry Unsworth

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Land of Marvels by Booker Prize-winning author Barry Unsworth happens to be another book about an archeologist, but this short work of historical fiction digs deep into the worlds of politics, finance, and military might. John Somerville, an English archeologist accompanied by his wife and assistants, is digging in the Mesopotamian desert just before the outbreak of World War I. Though he feels on the verge of a discovery that will salvage his career, his money is running out. This time pressure is embodied by the approach of a German-funded railroad line that will run right through his dig. While the ill-fated Somerville digs to unearth a valuable piece of human history, others are taking an interest in another kind of treasure lying below the surface in this region —immense oil fields.
This novel starts off slowly, but the last half will blow you away.
Check for availability in the Old Colony Library Network here.
Read The New York Times review here.

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