Four Other Books I Read in November 2019

After reading seven books (and parts of a couple others) in November, It soon became obvious that I needed to split the seven read books up between two blog posts. Last week’s blog, https://janetswritingblog.com/2019/12/02/i-stretched-my-reading-horizons-in-november/ was about three of the books I read last month. Today’s post covers the other four.


The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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The Water Dancer, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This historical novel combines history with a touch of fantasy. The main character, Hiram, is a slave who was fathered by a Virginia plantation’s white master. Early in the book, while Hiram is a young boy, the author tells much of Hiram’s story from the point-of-view of Hiram knowing his father’s white son is his half-brother. I found that to be an intriguing way to introduce Hiram and to explore his feelings and mindset. It made me stop and think about how that reality must have felt like for slaves who had to live in situations where that was true.

In The Water Dancer, Hiram has some supernatural powers that he inherited from his slave ancestors. Those powers come in handy in his later life when he is part of the workings of the Underground Railroad. Being the child of the white master, he has a unique opportunity to study under a white tutor – who just happens to be part of the Underground Railroad.

Before reading The Water Dancer, I thought slaves had to find their own way to safe houses on the Underground Railroad after escaping. In The Water Dancer, many slaves were actually chosen by workers and agents on the Underground Railroad to be helped to escape and travel north to freedom. People involved in the Underground Railroad in The Water Dancer forged identification papers and other documents to assist slaves.

I want to learn more about the workings of the Underground Railroad after reading The Water Dancer.


Heads You Win, by Jeffrey Archer

I don’t know why, but this is the first book I’ve read by Jeffrey Archer. It certainly won’t be the last! I enjoyed listening to Heads Your Win on CD while I muddled my way through a fibromyalgia flare.

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Heads You Win, by Jeffrey Archer

This novel got a little long for me, but I found the premise of the book clever and intriguing. It starts in 1968 Soviet Union. Alexander’s father is murdered for trying to organize a trade union. Alexander and his mother flee to the docks where they must decide whether to be smuggled onto a ship heading to America or one heading to England.

At this point, the plot splits into two scenarios. One assumes they get on the ship to America, and it follows Alexander’s business life in pizza parlors. Through a friend, he gets involved in the underworld of priceless art. The other scenario assumes Alexander (a.k.a., Sasha) and his mother get on the ship to England where Alexander gets involved in politics.

The story alternates between Alexander and Sasha and illustrates just how much in our lives can depend on “the luck of the draw.” Alexander and Sasha both wonder from time-to-time how their lives would have turned out differently if they’d chosen “the other crate” at the dock.

In checking reviews of Heads You Win, I discovered reactions all across the spectrum. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a book get reviews so evenly spread between one, two, three, four, and five stars.

Many reviews state that the ending of the book confused them. I’ll add myself to that category. Someone I thought was dead, apparently wasn’t. And then the very last sentence in the book is one many readers say they didn’t see coming.


The Family Upstairs, by Lisa Jewell

This was the first book I’ve read by Lisa Jewell. The Family Upstairs is a psychological thriller. It might have been easier for me to follow in written form, but I listened to it on CD. The repeated use of the “f-word” might have been easier to take in written form, too. I guess some people have a limited vocabulary and talk like that all the time. This appears to be the case with one of the characters.

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The Family Upstairs, by Lisa Jewell

Twenty-five years ago, police found the parents dead in their home. All their children were missing except for their 10-month-old daughter who was found unscathed. The baby is adopted and her name becomes Libby Jones. She knows nothing of her biological family. Fast-forward 25 years and Libby receives a letter informing her that she has inherited the mansion in Chelsea that had belonged to her parents.

Libby learns who she was, and her long-lost siblings start coming out of the woodwork. This isn’t my type of book. I found it to be very strange.


Selected Poems, by Carl Sandburg

I borrowed this book from the public library early in the month and enjoyed reading ten pages of Carl Sandburg’s poetry each day until I finished it. There were poems I was familiar with along with many that I’d never read. I’d forgotten how raw Carl Sandburg’s poetry was.

Reading this collection of his poetry brought to my attention more than ever before just how far removed his retirement home in the mountains of North Carolina was from the rough and tumble life in Chicago that he wrote about so eloquently.


Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading A Woman is No Man, by Etaf Rum.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Thank you for reading my blog. You could have spent the last few minutes doing something else, but you chose to read my blog.

If you enjoy my blog posts, please share that on social media and with your real life friends. Don’t be shy about telling others about my blog!


Let’s continue the conversation

I’m always interested to know what you’re reading. What are you reading or what have you read recently that you’d recommend to others?

Janet

Hook in Charles Frazier’s Nightwoods

Writers are advised to start a novel with a hook – something that will grab the reader by the throat and compel them to keep reading. The first sentence doesn’t necessarily serve as the hook, but when that happens the reader is usually in for a great ride.

I recently read Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier. For me at least, his first sentence got my full attention and I couldn’t wait to see what was going to happen in this story.

“Luce’s new stranger children were small and beautiful and violent.” – The first sentence in Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier.

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Nightwoods, by Charles Frazier

I’d be hard pressed to think of the opening line of another novel that piqued my interest or struck me quite like that one. In 10 words – just five more than the title of this blog post – Mr. Frazier introduced the book’s main character; told us that there are new children in her life who are strangers to her; and not only are those new stranger children small and beautiful, but they are also violent.

Do I have your attention? Okay, okay. Here’s the second sentence in Nightwoods:  “She learned early that it wasn’t smart to leave them unattended in the yard with the chickens.” Now you know that the misbehavior of those children will surely be a recurring theme in this book.

It turns out that Luce has “inherited” the son and daughter of her deceased sister, and they are wild.

Since my last blog post

I have made good progress with my work in progress, The Spanish Coin. Rather than being measured in number of words written, last week’s progress was made as I worked on character profiles and my book’s thematic statement. I realized that I had not tried to put the novel’s theme into words. Maybe I didn’t even know what the theme was?

I had to come to grips with the theme of my novel in order to be sure I had chosen the right protagonist, or main character. Discerning that the theme of The Spanish Coin is slavery was a milepost and surprise for me. I thought I was writing a murder mystery set in the Carolinas in the 1760s – and I am; however, the theme of the book has turned out to be slavery.

Five people have signed up for my newsletter since my February 19 blog post. This was given a boost, no doubt, by the fact that David J. Rogers reblogged my post on his site, https://davidjrogersftw.com.  As far as I know, this was the first time a post of mine has been reblogged. Thanks, David. Thank you, Philip, Gary, Katherine, Paul, Michelle, and Kay for signing up for my newsletters.

Until my next blog post

Speaking of my newsletters – which have neither been scheduled nor written – if you wish to be added to my mailing list, please fill out the form at the end of this blog post. With your encouragement, I believe The Spanish Coin will indeed be rewritten and published, giving me some news to put in a newsletter.

I will continue to put meat and bones on the characters in The Spanish Coin and perhaps get back into the outline. All the while, in the back of my mind I’ll continue to mull over my book’s hook.

I hope you have a good book to read. I’m reading The Taster, by V.S. Alexander.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have quality writing time.

Janet

 

 

You Need to Read These Books!

I had another good month of reading in May. I’m on a roll for 2017! If I were a faster reader, I could devour more books. In the meantime, though, I’ll enjoy as many as I can.

A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman

I’m running out of superlatives for the books I’ve read this year. I kept hearing about A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman, so I got on the waitlist for it at the public library. It’s a popular book, so it took a while for my name to gravitate to the top of the list.

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I thoroughly enjoyed this book. At times outrageously funny and at times heartwarming and touching, it held my interest from start to finish. Ove is a 59-year-old man. I could see my father, my brother, and even myself in him. I could see myself in his late wife when he recalled how it drove him up the wall because she delighted in planning the details of a trip to the extreme. That’s me! Thank goodness I have a sense of humor! Poor Ove is at odds with the world and having trouble keeping up with the modern world. For the most part, he’s not even trying to keep up.

The author, Fredrik Backman, is from Sweden, where his books have gained much acclaim. I am amazed at how well the humor in this book translated so well from Swedish into English. Although I don’t speak or read Swedish, I don’t believe the book lost anything in the translation. I look forward to reading Mr. Backman’s other books.

Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult

Maybe it’s because Mother’s Day was approaching when I was reading this book, or maybe the sentence would have struck me like a ton of bricks any time of the year. Ms. Picoult has an uncommon gift when it comes to writing. Her books tackle some of the most heart-wrenching issues of our day, and she has a wonderful way with words.

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I featured the following sentence in my Being the Balloon blog post on May 5, 2017:

“What it’s like to be the balloon, when someone lets go of the string.”   – from Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult

The context of that sentence is that Ruth, the protagonist who is a seasoned labor and delivery nurse, a mother, and the widow of an American soldier killed in Afghanistan, reacts to the death of her mother with, “What it’s like to be the balloon, when someone lets go of the string.”

I highly recommend Small Great Things. In it, Ms. Picoult takes on the issue of race in America, and she has an uncanny talent for getting inside the skin of individuals from one end of that spectrum to the other in Small Great Things. The line that I focused on from the book in my blog on May 5 speaks to the humanity of us all.

In a nutshell, Small Great Things is about an African-American nurse in Connecticut who is barred from caring for the newborn infant of a white supremacist couple. Author Jodi Picoult masterfully writes from the point-of-view of the nurse, the white-supremacist father, and the white lawyer who defends the nurse. There is an explosive trial during which all kinds of raw emotions erupt. I think we all can learn some life lessons by reading and pondering Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult!

The Hidden Life of Trees, by Peter Wohlleben

I kept hearing good things about this book, which had been translated into English from its original German. I finally got it from the public library, but with too many other books to read and a lot I was trying to learn about the craft or writing. Therefore, I only got 40% of the book read before I had to return it to the library for the next person on the wait list. I will definitely check it out again so I can finish it.

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The Hidden Life of Trees:  How They Feel, How They Communicate – Discoveries from a Secret World might not appeal to everyone, but I thought it was very interesting. That might be because I grew up and again live out in the country. My parents instilled an appreciation and respect for trees in us. We have a variety of trees in our yard – dogwood, pine, ash, poplar, cedar, several varieties of oak, mulberry, sycamore, black walnut, sweet gum, holly, persimmon, and maple.

I thought I knew a lot about trees until I started reading Peter Wohlleben’s book. I now know that there’s a whole world out there I can’t see or hear. The book explains how certain tree species work together and how other tree species work against one another. It talks about how trees pump water out of the ground. It talks a lot about fungi and how fungal networks underground help trees in numerous ways. It really is quite fascinating!

The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah

I highly recommend The Nightingale, by Kristin Hannah. It is a historical novel about two sisters in France during the German occupation in World War II. The sisters cope with the occupation and resulting cruelties of war very differently.

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One sister joins the French Resistance and risks her life helping shot down Allied airmen across the Pyrennes and into Spain. The other sister’s nerves and wits are pushed to the limits as two German officers are billeted in her home. The book was inspired by a 19-year-old Belgian woman, Andrée De Jongh, who created an escape route out of Nazi-occupied France.

This book will pull on all your emotions. When the characters are cold and hungry – which was most of the time – you will feel cold and hungry, although I’m certain that I truly can’t imagine the level of hunger or fear the people who lived through the ordeal actually endured.

When we study World War II or hear stories about it, the emphasis is almost always on the battles. The Nightingale gives a paints a picture of life on the home front in France. It was this month’s book for discussion by Rocky River Readers Book Club. Everyone at our meeting had only praise for the book – how much it taught us and how well-written it was.

Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi

This historical novel is Yaa Gyasi’s debut as a fiction writer. It is different from any novel I’ve ever read. It is set in Africa. As part of my 2017 Reading Challenge I wanted to read a book set on each of the continents this year, so I was drawn to this novel. Unfortunately, I couldn’t finish reading it before it was due at the public library.

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Each chapter is about a different member of this family. It is about family ties and the horrible conditions in the slave trade. It puts a human face on slavery – a subject we tend to think of in terms of numbers and not the families that were torn apart in Africa. If I get a chance, I’d like to check this book out again.

The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, by Lisa See

Like Homegoing and The Hidden Life of Trees, I didn’t get to finish reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane before it had to be returned to the library. I couldn’t renew any of the three books because there were people on the wait list. The part of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane that I got read was fascinating in how it shed light on some of the superstitions held by the Chinese. I had no idea!

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The novel follows a young Chinese girl who is painfully aware from birth that she is not valued because she is female. Her family has to walk for hours to pick tea leaves for a meager amount of income. It is a difficult life. Her mother is the local midwife and she tells her daughter that she must follow in her footsteps in that occupation.

There is a ray of hope, though, because the girl’s teacher tells her that she can leave the harsh mountain environment and make something of herself. I look forward to checking the book out again in order to see how her life turns out!

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. I have come to the conclusion this week that I am trying to read too many books and not spending enough time on my writing. My goal in June is to strike a happy medium.

If you’re a writer, I hope you have productive writing time. I’m writing bios of my characters in the “new and improved” The Spanish Coin.

Janet

1863 Cabarrus County Tax Assessment

On the 20th day of the 2017 A to Z Blog Challenge, the featured letter is “T.” Most people don’t enjoy reading about taxes, but today I am blogging about the 1863 Cabarrus County Tax Assessment. I can safely say that there is only one Cabarrus County in the United States, and it is located in the southern piedmont of North Carolina.

What’s so special about it?

Cabarrus County is one of the few North Carolina counties for which the 1863 Tax Assessment records exist.

It is sobering to read the pages of the 1863 Cabarrus County Tax Assessment. It is a list of every slave owner in Cabarrus County, North Carolina at that time, along with the name, age, physical condition, and monetary value of each of their slaves. I can’t imagine what it must feel like to read this tax document through African American eyes.

I was pleased to find these records in 2003 when I was compiling a list of the 1,000+ slaves and free persons of color who were members of or were baptized at Rocky River Presbyterian Church between Concord and Harrisburg in Cabarrus County prior to 1870. I was able to supplement the church’s records with these tax records for my privately printed-on-demand booklet, “Slaves and Free Blacks Known to be Associated with Rocky River Presbyterian Church Prior to 1870.”

The following is a slightly edited version of one of my local history newspaper columns published in 2006 in Harrisburg Horizons weekly newspaper. The name of my column was, “Did You Know?” The original version of the article can be found on my website at http://janetmorrisonbooks.com/1863%20tax.html.

Did You Know?

Did you know that Cabarrus County is one of the few counties in North Carolina for which the 1863 Tax Assessment records exist? It wasn’t until I inquired in Charlotte and at the State Archives in Raleigh that I learned that no such records survived for Mecklenburg County.

“What’s the big deal?” you may ask.

The Congress of the Confederate States of America passed Statute 177 on August 19, 1861, which authorized the levying of a tax to help finance the Southern states’ government and military during the American Civil War. A tax rate of fifty cents per $100 valuation was established.

Taxable property included “real estate, slaves, merchandise, stocks, securities, money, and other property.” Subsequent legislation expanded the list in April, 1863, to include agricultural products, many occupations and trades, some businesses, and income.

The Cabarrus County Board of Assessors met at the courthouse in Concord on April 9, 1863. The Board increased the values of thirteen pieces of property in District (now Township) One and then recorded the names of all taxpayers by district.

The 1863 Cabarrus Tax Assessment records list each property owner in alphabetical order by district. The districts of 1863 essentially coincide with today’s townships. There are columns for number of acres of land owned, value per acre, and total value. The river or creek on which the land lay is also indicated.

In 1863, real estate in what is now Township One (the township in which Rocky River Presbyterian Church is located) ranged in value from $6 to $400 per acre. Most land was valued in the $6 to $20 per acre range. One of the exceptions was the half acre of land owned by Howie and Johnston, mercantile business partners in Harrisburg. Although their store closed in 1858, the property was valued at $200 in 1863.

It is interesting to read about the old land values and to think how things have changed, but the most intriguing part of the 1863 Tax Assessment records for me is the list of slaves. Under each slave holder is a list of their slaves by name. The age of each slave is given, along with their value. In cases of physical or mental disability, the type of disability is listed.

Pattern in slaves’ monetary value

There is a definite pattern in how the slaves were valued. Male children were generally valued at the rate of $100 for each year of their age, while female children were valued at $50 less. Slaves less than one year old were valued at $100. Young adult female slaves were typically valued at around $1,400, while young adult male slaves were valued around $1,600. The value of a slave in his or her late 30s began to decrease.

Two slaves listed as being blacksmiths were valued at $1,800 each, which was the highest value of any slaves in Township One.

It is sobering to read the names of the slaves and to see a monetary value placed on them. As an amateur genealogist and historian, I see tremendous value in the records.

Sources I used

1863 Cabarrus County Tax Assessment List on microfilm at the Lore Local History Room, Cabarrus County Public Library, Concord, North Carolina

The Confederacy:  A Guide to the Archives of the Government of the Confederate States of America, by Henry Putney Beers, 1968.

Until my next blog post

I hope you have a good book to read. (After reading one-third of Bittersweet, by Colleen McCullough, I decided I wasn’t interested enough in the story to finish the book. I’m reading The Mother’s Promise, by Sally Hepworth.)

If you are a writer, I hope you have productive writing time.

Janet