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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog Not Just Any Man: A novel of Old New Mexico by Loretta Tollefson #Historicalfiction with a diverse cast and a fascinating account of life in early XIX c. New Mexico

Hi all:

I bring you the review of the first book in a series I’ve been following for the last few years, and despite reading it out of order, or perhaps because of it, I loved it!

Not Just Any Man by Loretta Tollefson

Not Just Any Man: A novel of Old New Mexico by Loretta Tollefson Historical fiction with a diverse cast and a fascinating account of life in early XIX c. New Mexico

Just a man. Known for his character, not the color of his skin.

That’s all Gerald, son of a free black man and an Irish servant girl, wants to be. It’s an impossible goal in slave-holding Missouri, but in the West, mountain men and villagers alike seem to accept him without question.

New Mexico is all that Gerald hoped for, but shortly after he arrives in Taos, he realizes he wants more than he’d thought: A girl with her own complex ancestry and a high mountain valley with intriguing potential.

To make either dream possible, Gerald needs to earn something more than a scratch living. The only way to do that is to trap beaver. It’s a tough way to earn cash and the wilderness is an unforgiving place.

Can Gerald survive the Sangre de Cristo mountains, the Mohave Indians, and the arid south rim of the Grand Canyon as well as the fellow trapper who hates him for the color of his skin? Can he prove to himself and the girl he loves that he is, after all, not just any man?

Loretta Miles Tollefson grew up in the American West in a log cabin built by her grandfather from timber harvested from the land around it. She lives in New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo mountains, where she researches the region’s history and imagines what it would have been like to actually experience it. 

https://www.amazon.com/Not-Just-Any-Man-Mexico-ebook/dp/B07JQSZGWS/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Not-Just-Any-Man-Mexico-ebook/dp/B07JQSZGWS/

https://www.amazon.es/Not-Just-Any-Man-Mexico-ebook/dp/B07JQSZGWS/

Author Loretta Miles Tollefson
Author Loretta Miles Tollefson

About the author:

Loretta Miles Tollefson has been publishing fiction and poetry since 1975. (She’s not old–she started young!) Growing up in foothills of the Olympic Mountains in the log cabin her grandfather built and her father was born in led naturally to an interest in history and historical fiction. When she retired to the mountains of northern New Mexico, writing historical fiction set there was a logical result. The Moreno Valley Sketches books are the first in many planned books set there.

Before turning to historical fiction full time, Loretta wrote Crown of Laurel, a novel set in Seattle in the recession of the early 1980’s. Loretta holds a B.S. in Bible Education from Multnomah University in Portland, Oregon. This background informs her poetry collections Mary at the Cross: Voices from the New Testament and And Then Moses Was There: Voices from the Old Testament.

In the mid-1980’s, Loretta and her husband suffered the loss of their first child in the fifth month of pregnancy. Her poetry collection But Still My Child came out of that period and is designed to help others deal with the pain of miscarriage.

Loretta holds M.A.’s in Communication and in English Literature from the University of New Mexico. Most days, you’ll find her researching New Mexico history in the 1800’s and writing furiously. She publishes short historical fiction every week at https://lorettamilestollefson.com/

My review:

A copy of the novel was provided for my perusal, and I freely chose to review it.

This is the third of Loretta Tollefson’s Old New Mexico novels I read, although it is the first one in the series that relates the adventures of Gerald Locke and his family. I came across the second novel thanks to a review group I belong to (authors, if you are looking for reviews, check Rosie’s Book Review Team here), (Not My Father’s House, check the review here), loved it , and read the third one when it was published, (No Secret Too Small, you can find the review here), and loved it as well. When I was offered the option to read the beginning of the saga, I couldn’t resist. And although I know I haven’t read the series as it was designed and intended, it has worked wonderfully for me. It was like having hindsight in reverse: I knew everything that would happen later, and I got to see how things had started, and why they had developed the way they did. It was a fascinating exercise, as it helped me realise how well-conceived the whole story is, and how many details and words that we might not think are important to the plot when we read them, in the end, are fundamental to the development of the whole narrative. It all fits in, organically. This is not a series where books are just added to stretch the story or to tell the further adventures of the characters. This is a story told in three books, where each one gives more attention and voice to one of the characters in the family. And, although that does not mean each book cannot be read in its own right, the whole is more than the sum of its individual parts.

The author has personal knowledge of the area, and of the lifestyle as well, as stated in her biography, and her skills as a researcher and her interest in history shine through this book and the whole series. She manages to insert her fictional characters into a world that feels incredibly close to how life must have been in New Mexico at the time, and the inclusion of real historical events and characters (mayors [alcaldes, as the territory was under Mexican rule in the early XIX century, when the story is set], governors and other local politicians, priests, soldiers, and military men, trappers, Native American chiefs, members of the important families, merchants…), and her use of original sources from the era make give it a very vivid feel, as if we were immersed in the era, partaking in the trapping expeditions, and becoming involved in the complex and changing politics.

The style of writing is beautifully descriptive, with special attention being paid to the rhythm of the seasons, nature and landscapes, the land and the resources it could provide for sustenance and livelihood, and the action is narrated in the third person and present tense (that although it might come across as a bit weird at first, it adds to the impression readers get of sharing the experience with the characters as it is taking place), mostly from the point of view of Gerald Locke, although there are some brief fragments from other character’s perspective (we get to know what Suzanna thinks of Gerald before he does, and we also witness some interesting conversations that give us an insight into matters we are likely to have been wondering about, and others that might come to the fore in the future). Although there are plenty of adventures included in this novel, the pace is not a whirlwind, and it doesn’t rely solely on non-stop action. There are high pressure moments, but there is a lot of drudgery, hanging around, or simply travelling from one place to the next and then waiting around, as is the case in real life, and more so when you depend on the seasons, the weather, and the will and actions of others. As usual, I’d recommend checking a sample of the book to those wondering if the writing style would suit them, or the author’s blog, as she shares a lot of stories there as well.

I don’t want to provide too many details about the plot, other than those already included in the above description, which I think gives a fair idea of the adventures and the conflicts Gerald experiences. Themes like race and discrimination play an important part in the story, and the author explains in her note at the end of the novel what the society of New Mexico was like at the time in that respect. It sounds like the “melting pot” one hears mentioned very often when referring to the United States, which seems to be —in many cases and historical periods— unfortunately very far from the truth. Tollefson explains the laws and the traditions in the area, and why they were more tolerant there than in Missouri, where Gerald comes from. Of course, that does not mean that everybody was as understanding and open-minded as the more enlightened people, and one of the characters in the book exemplifies the worst of all behaviours: he is lazy; he blames others for his shortcomings; he is racist and prejudiced; he is abusive towards all he perceives as his inferiors or weaker than him (women, Mexicans, mixed-race…). He is a villain through and through, but there are other characters who are morally ambiguous, and although they seem to behave reasonably enough in some aspects (they might give Gerald a fair opportunity and help him along), they might not always be honest in all their dealings with others or with the government or the law (that is shown as capricious at best, truly unreasonable or worst in most cases), or might have other flaws (they drink too much, talk too much, tell tall tales, chase after women, are selfish and only think of themselves…).

The author offers a list of historical characters and also of the sources she has used at the end of the novel, and in her note, she explains how closely she followed some of the trapping expeditions and real events that took place then. The brief biographical notes she provides about the characters suffice to give us a good idea of how colourful some of these characters really were and to make us understand that she doesn’t seem to have strayed too far from the truth in recreating them.

As for the fictional characters… I’ve mentioned the villain, although I won’t say anything else about him to avoid spoilers. Let me warn readers, though, that he is the protagonist of some scenes that might cause upset or trigger some readers, as he threatens physical and also sexual violence and abuse in several occasions, and once quite explicitly so. I like Gerald, though. Especially after having read the other two novels, where we see him from other people’s perspective most of the time, it was good to get to know him and understand where he was coming from, his circumstances, his deep love for the land, and also why he makes a certain decision that will, much later (in the third book), come back to bite him. He is quite understanding and willing to give others the benefit of the doubt, and his view of the property of the land and the rights of those who live in it makes him a truly modern character, much more enlightened than most. Even if he doesn’t always choose wisely, he tries to do what he thinks is right. We also meet many of the characters that will play big parts in the other novels, like Suzanna, who already appears like a remarkable young woman who knows her own mind and has many skills, despite her age (not quite sixteen yet); her father (a man with an interesting past and quite open-minded when it comes to education and to his daughter and her future), Encarnación (the cook, who has a strong sense of loyalty and loves Suzanna’s family as if it was her own), Ramón (the perfect companion for Gerald, and one that will continue to play an important part in the series), and many others. As I’ve mentioned at the beginning, I was impressed by how well the arc of the characters works through the series, and how consistent the overall atmosphere and story is.

The ending is also perfect. It seems to be a fairly happy ending (a bit hesitant, perhaps), but the epilogue hints at things yet to come. I don’t mean there is a cliffhanger at all, but readers will probably guess that the story is far from complete, and some of the things that seem solved are anything but.

In sum, I recommend this book to readers of historical fiction looking for a story about a historical period and an era not usually the subject of novels, and about people who don’t normally feature in historical books either, as they are not considered important enough. I mentioned Little House in the Prairie in a previous review, and fans of those books, and anybody interested in the pioneers, and in life in New Mexico in the early XIX Century should check this series. It is a joy.

Thanks to the author for her book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, keep reading, reviewing, smiling, and above all, to keep safe. ♥

 

 

 

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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog GIRL, WOMAN, OTHER: WINNER OF THE BOOKER PRIZE 2019 by Bernardine Evaristo (@PenguinUKBooks) Diverse, joyful, and inclusive #Bookreview

Hi all:

I bring you the review of one of the books that won the Booker Prize in 2019. I hope to read Atwood’s novel as well at some point.

Girl, Woman, Other: WINNER OF THE BOOKER PRIZE 2019 by Bernardine Evaristo

BRITISH BOOK AWARDS AUTHOR & FICTION BOOK OF THE YEAR 2020

WINNER OF THE BOOKER PRIZE 2019
THE SUNDAY TIMES 1# BESTSELLER

‘The most absorbing book I read all year.’ Roxane Gay


This is Britain as you’ve never read it.
This is Britain as it has never been told.

From Newcastle to Cornwall, from the birth of the twentieth century to the teens of the twenty-first, Girl, Woman, Other follows a cast of twelve characters on their personal journeys through this country and the last hundred years. They’re each looking for something – a shared past, an unexpected future, a place to call home, somewhere to fit in, a lover, a missed mother, a lost father, even just a touch of hope . . .
____________________________

[Bernardine Evaristo] is one of the very best that we have’ Nikesh Shukla on Twitter

‘A choral love song to black womanhood in modern Great Britain’ Elle

‘Beautifully interwoven stories of identity, race, womanhood, and the realities of modern Britain. The characters are so vivid, the writing is beautiful and it brims with humanity’ Nicola Sturgeon on Twitter

‘Bernardine Evaristo can take any story from any time and turn it into something vibrating with life’ Ali Smith, author of How to be both

‘Exceptional. You have to order it right now’ Stylist

‘Sparkling, inventive’ Sunday Times

https://www.amazon.com/Girl-Woman-Other-Bernardine-Evaristo-ebook/dp/B07GSXWFSZ/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Girl-Woman-Other-Bernardine-Evaristo-ebook/dp/B07GSXWFSZ/

https://www.amazon.es/Girl-Woman-Other-Bernardine-Evaristo-ebook/dp/B07GSXWFSZ/

Author Bernardine Evaristo

About the author:

www.bevaristo.com

Award-winning British writer Bernardine Evaristo is the author of seven books. She is also an editor, critic, dramatist and essayist. Her writing spans the genres of prose novels, verse-novels, a novel-with-verse, a novella, poetry, non-fiction, literary criticism and radio and theatre drama. Her latest novel, Mr Loverman, is about a 74 yr old Caribbean London man who is closet homosexual (Hamish Hamilton/Penguin, 2013 & Akashic Books, USA, 2014). Her writing is characterised by experimentation, daring and subverting the myths of various Afro-diasporic histories and identities. She has published widely in a variety of publications and anthologies.

Her books are: MR LOVERMAN (Penguin, 2013), HELLO MUM (Penguin 2010), LARA (Bloodaxe 2009), BLONDE ROOTS (Penguin 2008), SOUL TOURISTS (Penguin 2005), THE EMPEROR’S BABE (Penguin 2001), the first version of LARA (ARP 1997), ISLAND OF ABRAHAM (Peepal Tree, 1994). For more information visit BOOKS.

Her awards include a Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, EMMA Best Book Award, Big Red Read, Orange Youth Panel Award, NESTA Fellowship Award and an Arts Council Writer’s Award. Her books have been a ‘Book of the Year’ thirteen times in British newspapers and magazines and The Emperor’s Babe was a (London) Times ‘Book of the Decade’. Hello Mum has been chosen as one of twenty titles for World Book Night in 2014. She was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 2004, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts in 2006, and she received an MBE in 2009.

Her verse novel The Emperor’s Babe was adapted into a BBC Radio 4 play in 2013 and her novella Hello Mum was broadcast as a BBC Radio 4 play in 2012. Her new novel Mr Loverman was optioned by BBC television drama in 2014.

She is co-editor of two recent anthologies and a special issue of Wasafiri magazine: BlackBritain: Beyond Definition, which celebrated and reevaluated the black writing scene in Britain. In 2012 she was guest editor of the winter issue of Poetry Review, Britain’s leading poetry journal, in its centenary year. Her issue, Offending Frequencies, featured more poets of colour than had ever previously been published in a single issue of the journal, as well as many female, radical, experimental and outspoken voices. She is guest-editing the September 2014 issue of Mslexia magazine.
Her literary criticism appears in the national newspapers such as the Guardian and Independent and she has judged many literary awards.

She has judged many prizes and she founded the Brunel University African Poetry Prize in 2011. http://www.africanpoetryprize.org/

Since 1997 she has accepted invitations to take part in over 100 international visits as a writer. She gives readings and delivers talks, keynotes, workshops and courses.

The first monograph on her work, Fiction Unbound by Sebnem Toplu, was published in August 2011 by Cambridge Scholars Publishing. http://www.c-s-p.org/Flyers/Fiction-Unbound-Bernardine-Evaristo1-4438-3153-0.htm

Bernardine’s books have been translated into several languages including Mandarin.

Personal: Bernardine Evaristo was born in Woolwich, south east London, the fourth of eight children, to an English mother and Nigerian father. Her father was a welder and local Labour councillor and her mother a school teacher. She was educated at Eltham Hill Girls Grammar School, the Rose Bruford College of Speech & Drama, and Goldsmiths, University of London, where she earned a PhD in Creative Writing. She spent her teenage years acting at Greenwich Young People’s Theatre.
She lives in London with her husband.

https://www.amazon.com/Bernardine-Evaristo/e/B000APTPRY/

My review:

I thank Penguin UK and NetGalley for the ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.

My list of books to read has grown so long that sometimes I’m surprised when I realise some titles I’ve wanted to read for a while had been quietly waiting on my e-reader, and I’d completely lost track of them. This is one of them. I kept reading comments and reviews and thinking I had to read it once I got a copy, and I finally realised I had it already. Oh, well, a nice surprise for a change in a year that hasn’t had many.

I’ve never read any books by Evaristo before, although she’s been writing for quite a while and has become well-known and, judging by this book, deservedly so.

Although brief, the official book description gives a good idea of the content. There isn’t a plot in the traditional sense, a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. In fact, some reviewers have complained that this is not a novel, but rather a collection of twelve biographical notes, and they didn’t feel connected to any of the characters, as none of their stories were explored in detail. It is true that the book is a catalogue of the multi-faceted experience of British women from diverse ethnic backgrounds, social classes, locations (from the most rural to London and beyond), educational levels, professions, gender identities, politics, sexual interests, tastes… But rather than being true biographies (of fictional biographies), these are no stories told objectively from an outsider’s point of view. Although written in the third-person (the writing style is very special as well), we get each of these women’s stories from their own point of view, at least in their own chapter. The book is divided into 4 parts, each telling three stories that appear connected, as they are often the stories of relatives or close friends, sometimes going back several generations. The beauty of the way the book is constructed is that, as we keep reading, we come to realise that a lot of these women’s lives have intersected at some point or other, and that gives us also an outsider’s perspective on what they are like, or, rather, how they appear to others and what others think of them. Sometimes there is a huge gap between the two, but I found it difficult not to empathise with these women after seeing their lives through their own eyes, even when I might have nothing in common with some of them. When you’ve walked a mile in their shoes, it’s easier to understand who they are and to feel sorry when others dismiss them, misunderstand them, or even openly dislike them. Of course, I liked some characters more than others, but I was interested in their experiences, even those of the women I would never want as my friends.

As you can imagine from the above, the book deals in many important issues: race, gender, political views, aging, social changes, family relationships, identity in its many facets, prejudice, sexual and physical abuse, domestic violence, drug and alcohol abuse … The risk Evaristo runs in trying to cover such wide and numerous topics is to end up skimming over all of them and never getting into the nitty-gritty of anything. That might be true, but I see this book as a celebration of uniqueness and self-definition, rather than as an in-depth exploration of one single issue. We are not just one thing to the exclusion of everything else. We aren’t only daughters or only British, or only writers, or only adopted or only heterosexual… This book illustrates the multiple possibilities, the many combinations, and the complexity of womanhood (and humanity).

The author is well-known for her poetry, and she has called the style she uses in this book “fusion fiction” a form of rather fluid prose poetry, with no capital letters at the beginning of the sentence and no full stops to mark the end of a sentence. The lack of adherence to grammar rules has bothered quite a number of readers, who found it difficult to get used to, distracting, or pretentious. I was surprised at first, and more than once I had to go back to make sure I had got the right end of the conversation, but it seemed to work well with the text-to-speech option I often use (it adapted well to the natural reading rhythm), and I suspect the same might be the case for the audiobook version. I normally recommend that readers check a sample of a book when I think the writing style might not be to everybody’s liking, and this is a case in point. If you’re thinking about purchasing it, have a look first. (I am not sharing quotes because mine was an ARC copy and any quote would need to be fairly long to give any idea of what the reading experience might be like).

There is an epilogue at the very end of the book, which I wouldn’t call a twist, but it does put an interesting spin on some of the stories. If the idea that we are all connected somehow seems to flow through the whole book, the epilogue closes the circle. (I enjoyed it, although if this was a mystery, I’d say that I’d guessed what was likely to happen well before the last page).

I recommend this novel to readers who like to explore diverse characters and alternative voices, particularly in a UK setting; to those who like to experiment different writing styles, unusual formats, and unconventional stories.  And those who enjoy reading poetry should check it out as well. Some of the topics covered are quite hard and bound to be upsetting, even when not discussed in too much graphic detail, so caution is advised. I will keep track of Evaristo from now on, and I’m sure I won’t be the only one.

Thanks to NetGalley, to Penguin UK and to the author for this book, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and above all, keep safe.

 

 

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Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett (@britrbennett) (@LittleBrownUK) Great story, memorable characters, and a subject that will make readers think #Bookreview

Hi all:

Today I bring you the review of a book that has been causing a bit of a stir.

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett

The Vanishing Half is an utterly mesmerising novel. It seduces with its literary flair, surprises with its breath-taking plot twists, delights with its psychological insights, and challenges us to consider the corrupting consequences of racism on different communities and individual lives. I absolutely loved this book’ Bernardine Evaristo, winner of the Booker Prize 2019

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Ten years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ story lines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passingLooking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

Praise for Brit Bennett:

‘A writer to watch’ Washington Post

‘Bennett allows her characters to follow their worst impulses, and she handles provocative issues with intelligence, empathy and dark humour’ New York Times

‘A beautifully written, sad and lingering book’ Guardian on The Mothers

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B082KH5D4M/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B082KH5D4M/

https://www.amazon.es/dp/B082KH5D4M/

Author Brit Bennett

About the author:

Born and raised in Southern California, Brit Bennett graduated from Stanford University and earned her MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan, where she won a Hopwood Award in Graduate Short Fiction as well as the 2014 Hurston/Wright Award for College Writers. She is a National Book Foundation “5 under 35” honoree, and her essays are featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review, and Jezebel.

https://www.amazon.com/Brit-Bennett/e/B00PZ44052/

My review:

I thank Little Brown Book, UK for providing me an ARC copy of this novel in the first place, although later I also purchased my own copy which I review here.

This is the first novel by Brit Bennett I read, although I’m aware that her first novel, The Mothers, was very well-received, and this one has been highly praised and regarded as well. And, in my opinion, it deserves it.

The description of the book provides a fairly accurate summary of the main points of the plot, and I won’t try to be too inclusive when I mention the many topics the author touches on: race is paramount (is race only skin-deep?, different types of racism, the changing attitudes over the years, the burden of internalising other people’s values and what that does to the characters’ sense of self…), identity (while one of the characters lives a lie, a trans man abandons his birth biological gender to truly become himself), domestic violence, family, LGTB, rural versus city life, the importance of education, mothers and daughters, Alzheimer’s disease, love… It is a family saga, a story of two twin sisters and their daughters and how their lives split up at some point, sending them into completely different directions.

I’ve mentioned the issue of race, and that is the main focus of the book. The little place, somewhere in Louisiana, where the sisters are born is peculiar already when it comes to race. Although all the inhabitants are African-American, they are all so light that an outsider would not be able to tell they are not white. They are proud of it and consider anybody who is a shade darker than they are their inferior.  But, of course, the local white people know, and that has terrible consequences for the girls, who lose their father due to a lynching (for an imagined crime the man had not committed). It’s not surprising that they leave the place as soon as they can, but once in New Orleans things are quite difficult, and one of the sisters, Stella, ends up passing for white to get a job. That changes everything, and the sisters’ lives end up going in totally different directions. Although from the reviews I read I realised that many readers might be unfamiliar with the concept of ‘passing’, it has appeared in novels and even movies over the years. I recommend Nella Larssen, a female author from the Harlem Renaissance, whose novels Passing and Quicksand are fascinating and deserve to be better known, but both movie versions of Imitation of Life, although in a far more melodramatic fashion, deal with the topic as well, and in the musical Showboat we have similar concerns (and talk of miscegenation and the ‘one drop of blood’ dictum), and concepts that might appear bizarre now (like quadroon, octoroon, [Alexandre Dumas Jr was an octoroon if we apply that classification, and Alexandre Dumas father a quadroon], or high yellow) but made a big difference in the past, when it came to the treatment somebody received. Some of the readers don’t feel the book goes into these issues deeply enough, but this is a novel, and realistically, it would be impossible to discuss all the aspects of it and create a fictional story readers cared for as well.

The main characters of the novel are the two sisters, Stella and Desiree, and their two daughters, Kennedy and Jude. While the two sisters are identical twins, Kennedy and Jude could not look and be more different —Kennedy is blonde, has blue eyes, has lived a life of privilege, and has always been self-centred. Jude is dark-skinned, suffered prejudice and abuse as a child and grew up without a father, is hard-working and determined, and has always cared for her family and for others— but their lives still converge and collide at times, bringing some momentous changes to their lives. There are many more characters in the story, some more important than others (Early plays an essential role in Desiree’s life, and Reese complements Jude), and there are many people they come across: friends (I particularly liked Barry, who becomes a drag queen on the weekends and is a great agony aunt), neighbours, work colleagues… The first two parts of the novel centre mostly on Desiree and her daughter, while we only get to know more about Stella and Kennedy later in the book. While the central characters are well-drawn, that is not the case for some of the others, and they are not all sympathetic, not even the protagonists, but I felt the author manages to make their actions and their emotions understandable, even if we don’t like them that much. I wasn’t totally sure about the way Reese’s experiences are dealt with in the book. We hear about his difficulties and his process as a trans man, but this at times feels like an afterthought, and some readers have questioned how his story might appear to be linked to the concept of ‘passing’, although I don’t think that was the author’s intention (he sheds his previous identity and is happy to leave it behind, with no regrets, no matter how hard the practicalities are, while Stella struggles and feels she is living a lie).

The story is narrated in the third person, mostly from the point of view of the four female protagonists, although we are also given a brief insight into some of the other characters that come into the sisters’ lives, and we hear a bit more about Early and Reese’s thoughts and experiences. The way the story is told might be problematic for many readers, as the point of view often changes within a chapter, and although the changes are not excessively difficult to follow, keeping the story straight does require a degree of attention, especially because the chronology is not linear either. We go forwards and backwards in time, from the 1950s to the 1990s, although the story moves forward overall.

The writing is lyrical and precious at times, harsh at others, and the rhythm flows and ebbs, being quite contemplative in parts (as it befits a book about memory and identity). This is not a page-turner, but I felt the pace suited the novel perfectly. I had to share a few highlights with you, although I recommend that people interested in the book check a sample to make first, to ensure it works for them.

In New Orleans, Stella split in two. She didn’t notice it at first because she’d been two people her whole life: she was herself and she was Desiree. The twins, beautiful and rare, were never called the girls, only the twins, as if it were a formal title. She’d always thought of herself as part of this pair, but in New Orleans, she splintered into a new woman altogether after she got fired from Dixie Laundry.

The hardest part about becoming someone else was deciding to. The rest was only logistics.

Sometimes you could understand why Stella passed over. Who didn’t dream of leaving herself behind and starting over as someone new? But how could she kill the people who’d loved her? How could she leave the people who still longed for her, years later, and never even look back?

The ending is perhaps a bit rushed, considering the length and depth of the novel, but it suits it and I enjoyed it. If you want to know if it’s a happy ending… Well, this is not that kind of book, but I’ll say it isn’t unhappy.

I recommend this book to people who enjoy literary fiction and novels that deal with complex and diverse topics, with a focus on female protagonists and their lives, who don’t mind a somewhat demanding and challenging writing style, and who are eager to discover talented female writers. Great story, memorable characters, and a subject that will make readers think. What else could anybody want?

Thanks to the publisher and the author for the book, thanks to all of you for reading, and if you’ve enjoyed it, remember to like, share, comment, click, and keep reading, and reviewing. And, always, keep smiling and stay safe!

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
Book review Book reviews Tuesday Book Blog

#TuesdayBookBlog HOW MUCH OF THESE HILLS IS GOLD by C Pam Zhang (@hayleycamis) (@ViragoBooks) How the West was won, but not as we know it

Hi all.

I bring you a pretty amazing book today. I hope you’re all keeping safe.

How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang

How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang

‘The boldest debut of the year’ Observer

‘It is refreshing to discover a new author of such grand scale, singular focus and blistering vision’ Guardian

America. In the twilight of the Gold Rush, two siblings cross a landscape with a gun in their hands and the body of their father on their backs . . .

Ba dies in the night, Ma is already gone. Lucy and Sam, twelve and eleven, are suddenly alone and on the run. With their father’s body on their backs, they roam an unforgiving landscape dotted with giant buffalo bones and tiger paw prints, searching for a place to give him a proper burial.

How Much of These Hills is Gold is a sweeping adventure tale, an unforgettable sibling story and a remarkable novel about a family bound and divided by its memories.

‘A truly gifted writer’ Sebastian Barry, two-time Costa Book of the Year winner

‘Pure gold’ Emma Donoghue, Booker-shortlisted author of Room

‘Remarkable. It will haunt readers’ Chigozie Obioma, Booker-shortlisted author of An Orchestra of Minorities

‘Dazzling’ Daisy Johnson, Booker-shortlisted author of Everything Under

‘This book is a wonder’ Garth Greenwell, author of What Belongs to You

‘Ferocious, dark and gleaming’ New York Times bestselling author of Fates and Furies

‘I envy you your first read of this book’ R. O. Kwon, author of The Incendiaries

‘A hypnotic, virtuosic novel’ Tahmima Anam, winner of the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize

https://www.amazon.com/How-Much-These-Hills-Gold-ebook/dp/B07SZL7V8B/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/How-Much-These-Hills-Gold-ebook/dp/B07SZL7V8B/

https://www.amazon.es/How-Much-These-Hills-Gold-ebook/dp/B07SZL7V8B/

Author C Pam Zhang

About the author:

Born in Beijing but mostly an artifact of the United States, C Pam Zhang has lived in thirteen cities across four countries and is still looking for home. She’s been awarded support from Tin House, Bread Loaf, Aspen Words and elsewhere, and currently lives in San Francisco.

https://www.amazon.com/C-Pam-Zhang/e/B01LZ3PS2E?

My review:

Thanks to Virago and to NetGalley for providing me an ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review.

My father was a fan of Westerns, and although as a child I was tired of always having to watch old Westerns (as a young man, my father used to read the Spanish equivalent of the Western dime novels as well), I must confess that that world, its mythology, and its true history, captivate me as well. And never more so than when the stories chronicle the people who hardly ever make it into the history books (although there has been a move towards redressing that in recent years). So this novel had all the elements to intrigue me, and it is a debut novel as well. And one I won’t forget in a hurry.

This new author has been compared to Cormac McCarthy (but I’ve only read one of his novels, so I don’t feel I can comment), and her choice of characters reminded me of recent books I’ve read and reviewed by Sebastian Barry. I know it is common place to write that you’re surprised a novel has been written by a debut writer, or it is their first novel, but it is the case here, and it’s clear that the author has a talent for writing (and I don’t doubt she has worked very hard at it as well).

The novel, set around the time of the Gold Rush, is divided into four parts, covering a period of around a decade in the life of Lucy (and her sister/brother Sam). The first three parts tell the story of how they got to the situation we find them in at the beginning of the novel, in reverse chronological order (sort of). The fourth part moves forward and we see what happened to Lucy afterwards, and we meet Sam again, albeit briefly. We meet the two sisters when they lose their father (they had lost their mother a few years earlier), see them struggle to try to bury him in the appropriate way (their mother had come from China and had taught them plenty of stories and traditions that they try to follow and live by), and eventually split up. The second part chronicles the events that had happened before, providing a background story of the family and also explaining how they lost their mother. Part three is hauntingly beautiful, and rather than the third person narration from Lucy’s point of view (that grows more insightful and elaborate as the novel advances) we get a narration from Ba, her father’s point of view. It’s not clear if this is his ghost telling the story or some memory that lives on, but it is addressed to Lucy, and it explains things that she does not know, some tragic and terrific, and some beautiful and lyrical. In part four we catch up with the siblings, years later, and learn what happened next. This is historical fiction gold, a revisionist story/history of the West, and a look at some of the forgotten figures and peoples in history.

Many themes are touched upon on this novel. I’ve mentioned history, but this is history from the point of view of outsiders, who although born in the country will never be accepted, and people will always look at them as if they were an exotic plant or animal (the tiger is a symbol hovering over much of the novel), either heaping abuse at them, exploiting them for entertainment or enjoyment, or trying to turn them into object of curio and study. Race and gender are at the forefront of the novel but remain somewhat ungraspable and ambiguous (is Sam a boy in a girl’s body, or a girl whose father’s wish for a son she internalised to the point where she no longer has a will of her own, or something entirely different?). Ultimately, there are myths, lies, pretences, stories we tell others and ourselves, gold prospecting, mining, the building of the railroads, migration, different models of womanhood, of culture, of family… It’s a novel about identity and how we build ours, and how others also cast upon us their own labels and prejudices. It’s a novel about survival and about much more.

Lucy, Sam, and their parents are unforgettable characters. If Lucy is the girly-girl, studious, and prim and proper, and Sam is the tomboy/boy, always following his father, they all play specific roles in their family, and when the family breaks, it’s difficult to keep going. The young sibling is far less naïve and weak than Lucy thinks, and they are both the children of their parents in more ways than they realise. It’s impossible not to feel for these orphans and their terrible circumstances, and the author does a great job of making us share in and understand why they are how they are. The story is at times breathtakingly beautiful and at others horrifyingly ugly, true to life. Although perhaps the style of the writing and the narration might not suit all tastes, I think most readers will connect at an emotional level with the characters, empathise and suffer with them.

The writing style changes throughout the novel, growing with the main character, and becoming more articulate and less impressionistic. The beginning of the novel reminded me of Sebastian Barry’s recent book A Thousand Moons, which also has a young girl as the protagonist, and there is a strong focus on description, not only of the physical world, but also of the emotions and the feelings the character experiences as she is confronted with her personal tragedy. For all her fascination with books and the intelligence that’s supposed to be her strong point, she can be naïve at times, and places too much trust in appearances. Later in the novel she is more insightful and the writing also reflects her progressive enlightenment and what it truly means. I’ve talked about the third part of the book, which is the jewel of the crown for me, but I truly enjoyed it all, although, as usual, I’d recommend prospective readers to check a sample first.

A couple of examples from the book (although I must remind you that I read an ARC copy, so there might be changes in the final version of the book):

And Lucy is reminded that what makes Ma most beautiful is the contradiction of her. Rough voice over smooth skin. Smile stretched over sadness —this queer ache that makes Ma’s eyes look miles and miles away. Brimming with an ocean’s worth of wet.’

A land stripped of its gold, its rivers, its buffalo, its Indians, its tigers, its jackals, its birds and its green and its living. To move through this land and believe Ba’s tales is to see each hill as a burial mound with its own crown of bones. Who could believe that and survive? Who could believe that and keep from looking, as Ba and Sam do, always toward the past? Letting it drag behind them. Letting it make them into fools.’

The ending might not satisfy readers who prefer everything to be tied up and a clear conclusion, but for me, I couldn’t think of a more fitting ending. I won’t go into details and leave readers to decide.

In sum, this is a book that has a distinct style of writing, tells a fascinating story, full of myths, tales, imagination, and also some truly awful realities of a historical period that has often been written about and represented in films and popular culture, but the official depiction glosses over many of the events and ignores a lot of the people that were there as well, just because their race, gender, lifestyle choices, or a combination of those, does not fit into the traditional history books. Its characters are unforgettable, and I recommend it to readers who enjoy a different perspective on historical events and who don’t mind taking up a narrative whose style might be challenging at times but it’s ultimately rewarding. A great novel.

Thanks to the publisher and the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to keep safe, keep reading, reviewing, and always, keep smiling.

Categories
Book review Book reviews

#Tuesdaybookblog #Bookreview Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward (@jesmimi) (@ScribnerBooks) Magic realism in the heart of darkness. A must read.

Hi all:

Today I’m sharing the review of a book that is not yet available in the UK but I hope you’ll keep it in mind. I’m sorry for including so many editorials reviews, but it’s received a lot of attention in the US and I’m not surprised.

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward
Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward

Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmnyn Ward

‘This wrenching new novel by Jesmyn Ward digs deep into the not-buried heart of the American nightmare. A must’ Margaret Atwood

‘A powerfully alive novel haunted by ghosts; a road trip where people can go but they can never leave; a visceral and intimate drama that plays out like a grand epic, Sing, Unburied, Sing is staggering’ Marlon James, Winner of the Man Booker Prize 2015

An intimate portrait of a family and an epic tale of hope and struggle, Sing, Unburied, Sing examines the ugly truths at the heart of the American story and the power – and limitations – of family bonds.

Jojo is thirteen years old and trying to understand what it means to be a man. His mother, Leonie, is in constant conflict with herself and those around her. She is black and her children’s father is white. Embattled in ways that reflect the brutal reality of her circumstances, she wants to be a better mother, but can’t put her children above her own needs, especially her drug use.

When the children’s father is released from prison, Leonie packs her kids and a friend into her car and drives north to the heart of Mississippi and Parchman Farm, the State Penitentiary. At Parchman, there is another boy, the ghost of a dead inmate who carries all of the ugly history of the South with him in his wandering. He too has something to teach Jojo about fathers and sons, about legacies, about violence, about love.

Rich with Ward’s distinctive, lyrical language, Sing, Unburied, Sing brings the archetypal road novel into rural twenty-first century America. It is a majestic new work from an extraordinary and singular author.

https://www.amazon.com/Sing-Unburied-Jesmyn-Ward-ebook/dp/B071FK5CHS/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Sing-Unburied-Jesmyn-Ward-ebook/dp/B071FK5CHS/

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

An Amazon Best Book of September 2017: A slamming, heartbreaker of a novel that is rendered with such stinging beauty and restrained emotion that despite the anguish taking place on the page, you won’t want it to end. For her third novel, National Book Award winning Jesmyn Ward, tells the story of Jojo, a young black Mississippi boy raised by his grandparents, who is forced to become a man far before he should because his mother is a drug addict, his father is in jail, and his baby sister needs a guardian. When Jojo’s dad is released from prison, Leonie packs Jojo and Kayla in the car, picks up her meth addled friend and drives north. What transpires is a nightmarish journey that weaves in and out of the present – Leonie’s meth induced highs, when she dreams of her dead brother who was killed by white hands decades ago, and the past — when a man named Ritchie served time alongside Jojo’s grandfather. Sing, Unburied, Sing shimmers with mythic southern memories to tell a story of the drugged and the damned and the fluttering promise of youth. –Al Woodworth

Review

“Ghosts, literal and literary, haunt nearly every page of Sing, Unburied, Sing — a novel whose boundaries between the living and the dead shift constantly, like smoke or sand. Set on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi (a place rich in oil rigs and atmosphere, if almost nothing else), the book’s Southern gothic aura recalls the dense, head-spinning prose of William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor. But the voice is entirely Ward’s own, a voluptuous magical realism that takes root in the darkest corners of human behavior … Ward, whose Salvage the Bones won a National Book Award, has emerged as one of the most searing and singularly gifted writers working today. Grade: A.”
Entertainment Weekly

“However eternal its concerns, Sing, Unburied, Sing, Ward’s new book, is perfectly poised for the moment. It combines aspects of the American road novel and the ghost story with a timely treatment of the long aftershocks of a hurricane and the opioid epidemic devouring rural America.”
The New York Times

“Staggering … even more expansive and layered [than Salvage the Bones]. A furious brew with hints of Toni Morrison and Homer’s “The Odyssey,” Ward’s novel hits full stride when Leonie takes her children and a friend and hits the road to pick up her children’s father, Michael, from prison. On a real and metaphorical road of secrets and sorrows, the story shifts narrators — from Jojo to Leonie to Richie, a doomed boy from his grandfather’s fractured past — as they crash into both the ghosts that stalk them, as well as the disquieting ways these characters haunt themselves.”
Boston Globe

Sing, Unburied, Sing is many things: a road novel, a slender epic of three generations and the ghosts that haunt them, and a portrait of what ordinary folk in dire circumstances cleave to as well as what they — and perhaps we all — are trying to outrun.”
New York Times Book Review

“While the magical element is new in Ward’s fiction, her allusiveness, anchored in her interest in the politics of race, has been pointing in this direction all along. It takes a touch of the spiritual to speak across chasms of age, class, and color … The signal characteristic of Ward’s prose is its lyricism. “I’m a failed poet,” she has said. The length and music of Ward’s sentences owe much to her love of catalogues, extended similes, imagistic fragments, and emphasis by way of repetition … The effect, intensified by use of the present tense, can be hypnotic. Some chapters sound like fairy tales. This, and her ease with vernacular language, puts Ward in fellowship with such forebears as Zora Neale Hurston and William Faulkner.”
The New Yorker

“[A] tour de force … Ward is an attentive and precise writer who dazzles with natural and supernatural observations and lyrical details … she continues telling stories we need to hear with rare clarity and power.”
O, the Oprah Magazine

“Gorgeous … Always clear-eyed, Ward knows history is a nightmare. But she insists all the same that we might yet awaken and sing.”
Chicago Tribune

“The novel is built around an arduous car trip: A black woman and her two children drive to a prison to pick up their white father. Ward cleverly uses that itinerant structure to move this family across the land while keeping them pressed together, hot and irritated. As soon as they leave the relative safety of their backwoods farm, the snares and temptations of the outside world crowd in, threatening to derail their trip or cast them into some fresh ordeal …. The plight of this one family is now tied to intersecting crimes and failings that stretch over decades. Looking out to the yard, Jojo thinks, ‘The branches are full. They are full with ghosts, two or three, all the way up to the top, to the feathered leaves.’ Such is the tree of liberty in this haunted nation.”
Washington Post

“In this lush and lonely novel, Ward lets the dead sing. It’s a kind of burial.”
NPR

“Ward unearths layers of history in gorgeous textured language, ending with an unearthly chord.”
BBC

“The heart of Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing is story — the yearning for a narrative to help us understand ourselves, the pain of the gaps we’ll never fill, the truths that are failed by words and must be translated through ritual and song …. Ward’s writing throbs with life, grief, and love, and this book is the kind that makes you ache to return to it.”
Buzzfeed

“Jesmyn Ward’s new novel is like a modern Beloved, with the cruelty of the criminal justice system swapped in for the torments of slavery … Sing marks Ward as the sharpest voice in the contemporary conversation around the past’s relationship to the present … Sing is an expansive endeavor.”
Slate

“Very beautiful.”
—Vox

“Macabre and musical. [Ward] has a knack for capturing vivid details from contemporary poverty: skeletal houses covered in insulation paper, laborers on the prison farm ‘bent and scuttling along like hermit crabs.’ Her lyrical language elevates desperation into poetic reverie … a gripping and melodious indictment of modern racial injustices.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

“If William Faulkner mined the South for gothic, stream-of-consciousness tragedy, and Toni Morrison conjured magical realism from the corroding power of the region’s race hatred, then Ward is a worthy heir to both. This is not praise to be taken lightly. Ward has the command of language and the sense of place, the empathy and the imagination, to carve out her own place among the literary giants.”
The Dallas Morning News

“After winning the National Book Award for Salvage the Bones, Ward is back, with an epic family saga, an odyssey through rural Mississippi’s past and present.”
The Philadelphia Inquirer

“In her first novel since the National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones, Jesmyn Ward immerses the reader in a mesmerizing, cathartic family story … Ward’s spellbinding prose has a fervid physicality, teeming with the sights, smells, tastes and textures of her native Gulf town of DeLisle, Mississippi, rechristened here as Bois Sauvage. Her images pulse with stunning intensity, seeming to peer into the hidden nature of things, while laying bare the hearts of her characters. More powerful still is the seemingly boundless compassion that Ward demonstrates toward even the least lovable of her creations, expressed through lines that course with pain and love.”
Seattle Times

“Ms. Ward has mastered a lyrical and urgent blend of past and present here, conjuring the unrestful spirits of black men murdered by white men, and never shying away from the blatant brutality of white supremacy … Ms. Ward’s musical language is the stuff of formidable novelists, and never has it been more finely tuned.”
—The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“As long as America has novelists such as Jesmyn Ward, it will not lose its soul. “Sing, Unburied, Sing,” the story of a few days in the lives of a tumultuous Mississippi Gulf Coast family and the histories and ghosts that haunt it, is nothing short of magnificent. Combining stark circumstances with magical realism, it illuminates America’s love-hate tug between the races in a way that we seem incapable of doing anywhere else but in occasional blessed works of art.”
—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“[As] in everything she writes, Ward’s gorgeous evocation of the burden of history reminds me of Mississippi’s most famous writer, in a novel with more than a trace of As I Lay Dying … Always clear-eyed, Ward knows history is a nightmare.  But she insists all the same that we might yet awake and sing.”
—Milwaukee Journal-Sentinal

“[Sing, Unburied, Sing has] a fresh, visceral resonance … [its] story of grief, racism and poverty isn’t only Mississippi’s story but our country’s. So, too, let us hope, is its story of resilience and grace.
—St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“This book is so good that after you read it, you will want to read it again.”
Sun Herald

“If you’ve already encountered Jesmyn Ward, you need know nothing more than that she has a new book out. If you haven’t, put Sing, Unburied, Sing at the top of your must-read list. [Ward’s] writing is page-turning. In Sing, Unburied, Sing, she puts the reader in the car, palpably rendering the oppressive heat, Kayla’s misery, Jojo’s anxiety, the crustiness of their clothing, their unquenchable thirst and the whole electrified atmosphere. Perhaps the most memorable book I’ve read this year, Sing, Unburied, Sing would be an outstanding book club choice.”
Inside Jersey

“[Jesmyn Ward is] one of the most powerfully poetic writers in the country … Readers may be reminded of the trapped spirits in George Saunders’ recent novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, but Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a more direct antecedent.”
Albany Times Union

“Ward is a visceral writer, her sentences often hitting the reader like a slap across the face … Ward tells a sweeping tale about atonement and forgetting, shame and responsibility, and failure, sorrow, hatred and acceptance. She does not offer answers. And maybe there are none. But her vital novel shows that we must heed the singing of the past, and raise our voices to help those wounds to heal.”
—amNew York

“From the opening pages of Sing, Unburied, Sing, you know you’re in for a unique experience among the pecan trees and dusty roads of rural Mississippi. This intricately layered story combines mystical elements with a brutal view of racial tensions in the modern-day American South…Visitations from dead people, tales of snakes that turn into “scaly birds’ whose feathers allow recipients to fly—this material would have felt mannered in the hands of a lesser writer. But Ward skillfully weaves realistic and supernatural elements into a powerful narrative. The writing, though matter-of-fact in its depiction of prejudice, is poetic throughout…an important work from an astute observer of race relations in 21st-century America.”
BookPage

“No reason to delay this spell-bound verdict: With Sing, Unburied, Sing, her third novel, Jesmyn Ward becomes the standard-bearer for contemporary Southern fiction, its fullest, most forceful, most vibrant, and most electrifying voice … While Ward, born and raised in a small coastal community near Pass Christian, Mississippi, is operating within the contours of the Southern literary tradition—in the swampy lilt of her prose, in the scope of her concerns, in the way she entangles setting and character—she is also expanding it, heaving it forward, and revitalizing it in ways that no writer has done in more than a decade.”
Garden & Gun

“Ward tells the story of three generations of a struggling Mississippi family in this astonishing novel … Their stories are deeply affecting, in no small part because of Ward’s brilliant writing and compassionate eye.”
Publishers Weekly, starred review

“In her follow-up to the National Book Award-winning Salvage the Bones, Ward ambitiously fractures the extended family she portrays along race lines and moves her narrative from the tense realism of Southern rural poverty and prejudice to an African American-rooted magic realism … The narrative … sails through to an otherworldly, vividly rendered ending. Lyrical yet tough, Ward’s distilled language effectively captures the hard lives, fraught relationships, and spiritual depth of her characters.”
Library Journal, starred review

“In her first novel since the National Book Award–winning Salvage the Bones (2011), Ward renders richly drawn characters, a strong sense of place, and a distinctive style that is at once down-to-earth and magical.”
Booklist

“If Sing, Unburied, Sing is proof of anything, it’s that when it comes to spinning poetic tales of love and family, and the social metastasis that often takes place but goes unspoken of in marginalized communitieslet alone the black American SouthJesmyn Ward is, by far, the best doing it today. Another masterpiece.”
—Jason Reynolds, author of Ghost

“The connection between the injustices of the past and the desperation of present are clearly drawn in Sing, Unburied, Sing, a book that charts the lines between the living and the dead, the loving and the broken. I am a huge fan of Jesmyn Ward’s work, and this book proves that she is one of the most important writers in America today.”
—Ann Patchett, author of Commonwealth

Sing, Unburied, Sing is a road novel turned on its head, and a family story with its feet to the fire. Lyric and devastating, Ward’s unforgettable characters straddle past and present in this spellbinding return to the rural Mississippi of her first book.  You’ll never read anything like it.”
—Ayana Mathis, author of The Twelve Tribes of Hattie

“Read Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing and you’ll feel the immense weight of history—and the immense strength it takes to persevere in the face of it. This novel is a searing, urgent read for anyone who thinks the shadows of slavery and Jim Crow have passed, and anyone who assumes the ghosts of the past are easy to placate. It’s hard to imagine a more necessary book for this political era.”
—Celeste Ng, author of Everything I Never Told You

Author Jesmyn Ward
Author Jesmyn Ward

About the author:

Biography

Jesmyn Ward is a former Stegner fellow at Stanford and Grisham Writer-in-Residence at the University of Mississippi. Her novels, Where the Line Bleeds and Salvage the Bones, are both set on the Mississippi coast where she grew up. Bloomsbury will publish her memoir about an epidemic of deaths of young black men in her community. She is an Assistant Professor at the University of South Alabama.

https://www.amazon.com/Jesmyn-Ward/e/B001JOW9NW/

My review:

Thanks to NetGalley and to Scribner for providing me with an ARC copy of this book that I freely chose to review.

Sometimes, I’d try to write them down, but they were just bad poems, limping down the page: Training a horse. The next line. Cut with the knees.

It stays with me, a bruise in the memory that hurts when I touch it.

I would throw up everything. All of it: food and bile and stomach and intestines and esophagus, organs all, bones and muscle, until all that was left was skin. And then maybe that could turn inside out, and I wouldn’t be nothing no more. Not this…

“Because we don’t walk no straight lines. It’s all happening at once. All of it. We are all here at once. My mama and daddy and they mamas and daddies.” Mam looks to the wall, closes her eyes. “My son.”

Both of us bow together as Richie goes darker and darker, until he’s a black hole in the middle of the yard, like he done sucked all the light and darkness over them miles, over them years, into him, until he’s burning black, and then he isn’t. There…

“Let’s go,” I say. Knowing that tree is there makes the skin on my back burn, like hundreds of ants are crawling up my spine, seeking tenderness between the bones to bit. I know the boy is there, watching, waving like grass in water.

I decided to start with some quotes (and I would happily quote the whole book, but there would be no point) because I know I could not make its language justice. This is a book about a family, three generations of an African-American family in the South and it has been compared to works by Morrison and Faulkner, and that was what made me request the book as they are among my favourite authors. And then, I kept reading about it and, well, in my opinion, they are not wrong. We have incredible descriptions of life in the South for this rural family (smells, touch, sound, sight, taste, and even the sixth sense too), we have a nightmarish road trip to a prison, with some detours, we have characters that we get to know intimately in their beauty and ugliness, and we have their story and that of many others whose lives have been touched by them.

There are two main narrators, Leonie, a young woman, mother of two children, whose life seems to be on a downward spiral. Her white partner is in prison for cooking Amphetamines, she does drugs as often as she can and lives with her parents, who look after her children, and seems to live denying her true nature and her feelings. Her son, Jojo, is a teenager who has become the main support of the family, looking after his kid sister, Michaela, or Kayla, helping his grandfather and grandmother, rebellious and more grown-up and responsible than his mother and father. Oh, and he hears and understands what animals say, and later on, can also see and communicate with ghosts. His grandmother is also a healer and knows things, although she is riddled with cancer, and his baby sister also seems to have the gift. The third narrator is one of the ghosts, Richie, who before he makes his physical (ghostly?) appearance has been the subject of a story Jojo’s grandfather has been telling him, without ever quite finishing it, seemingly waiting for the right moment to tell him what really happened. When we get to that point, the story is devastating, but so are most of the stories in the novel. Fathers who physically fight with their sons because they love an African-American woman, young men killed because it was not right that a black man win a bet, men imprisoned for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and for being the wrong race… The stories pile up and even the ghosts fight with each other to try and gain a sense of self, to try to belong.

This is magic realism at its best. As I said, the descriptions of the characters, the locations, and the family relationships are compelling and detailed. But there are elements that break the boundaries of realism (yes, the ghosts, and the style of the narration, where we follow interrupted stories, stream of consciousness, and where the living and those who are not really there are given equal weight), and that might make the novel not suitable for everybody. As beautiful as the language is, it is also harsh and raw at times, and incredibly moving.

Although it is short and, for me at least, a page turner, this is not a light read and I’d recommend approaching it with caution if you are particularly sensitive to abuse, violence, drug use, or if you prefer your stories straight, with no otherworldly interferences. Otherwise, check a sample, and do yourselves a favour. Read it. I hadn’t read any of this author’s books before, but I’ll be on the lookout and I’ll try and catch up on her previous work. She is going places.

Thanks very much to NetGalley, Scribner and the author, thanks to all of you for reading and remember to like, share, comment, click and REVIEW!

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Categories
Book reviews

#Bookreview THE LAST ROAD HOME by Danny Johnson (@dittybopper) Fate, love, race, violence, war and how some themes remain always relevant. And a #BookFair

Hi all:

Usually on Fridays I bring you new books and authors, and today is no different. But, before I talk about that book, I’ve realised that with all my changes in schedule I haven’t mentioned a very big book event that’s coming up (in just over a week!) that if you love books and are anywhere near Manchester, UK, on the 13th of August should join in. I’ll be there (OK, don’t let that put you off. There will be plenty of other writers too :)).

I'll be there! Why not come and join me?
I’ll be there! Why not come and join me?

Here there’s a video with some information about it:

50 or so fellow authors, hosted by Scarlett Enterprises, will be there on Saturday 13th August at the Red Rose Steam Society Ltd. Mining Museum in Astley Green, Manchester, M29 7JB

There will be models (from many of your favourite romance novels) in attendance (ladies, ladies, please…), music, great food, cakes, an ice-cream van, a BBQ and an evening event that will start around 7pm.

If you want to see the event’s page and  find out even more information, here it is.

Fellow author Christoph Fischer (who’s been my guest in a few occasions) will be there too, and he’s written a few posts about it (he’s been much more on the ball with it than me).

Here I leave you links to a couple of them:

Birthday post: Meet me in Manchester August 13th #‎MAEG2016‬

Manchester Calling #‎MAEG2016‬ – A chance to meet the authors August 13th

And now, as promised, the review. Today I bring you a new book that was published just this month. I mentioned a few weeks back that I was reading a book by an Southern US author and this is it.

The Last Road Home by Danny Johnson
The Last Road Home by Danny Johnson

The Last Road Home by Danny Johnson

“This novel is sure to join the rich canon of Southern literature.” –Anna Jean Mayhew, author of The Dry Grass of August

From Pushcart Prize nominee Danny Johnson comes a powerful, lyrical debut novel that explores race relations, first love, and coming-of-age in North Carolina in the 1950s and ’60s.

At eight years old, Raeford “Junebug” Hurley has known more than his share of hard lessons. After the sudden death of his parents, he goes to live with his grandparents on a farm surrounded by tobacco fields and lonesome woods. There he meets Fancy Stroud and her twin brother, Lightning, the children of black sharecroppers on a neighboring farm. As years pass, the friendship between Junebug and bright, compassionate Fancy takes on a deeper intensity. Junebug, aware of all the ways in which he and Fancy are more alike than different, habitually bucks against the casual bigotry that surrounds them–dangerous in a community ruled by the Klan.

On the brink of adulthood, Junebug is drawn into a moneymaking scheme that goes awry–and leaves him with a dark secret he must keep from those he loves. And as Fancy, tired of saying yes’um and living scared, tries to find her place in the world, Junebug embarks on a journey that will take him through loss and war toward a hard-won understanding.

At once tender and unflinching, The Last Road Home delves deep into the gritty, violent realities of the South’s turbulent past, yet evokes the universal hunger for belonging.

Advance praise for The Last Road Home

“In this intense and well?written debut novel, Danny Johnson probes deep into the cauldron of racial relations in the 1960’s South. The Last Road Home  introduces an exciting new voice in Southern Literature.” –Ron Rash, author of Above the Waterfall

“In The Last Road Home, Danny Johnson evokes a South that in many ways may be gone, thank the Lord. Yet Johnson’s compelling and heartfelt rendering of Junebug and Fancy couldn’t be more charged and alive. The long dramatic arc of their deep and ever evolving relationship traces a time and a place giving way to change in violent fits and starts. Yet this is no sociological treatise. It’s a flesh and blood story about two people, who risk just about everything time and time again, for nothing more and nothing less than to love each other.” –Tommy Hays, author of In The Family Way

The Last Road Home took me straight into the heart of a wounded boy who becomes a complicated man. By the end of this stunning novel, I felt I’d come to understand humans better than I had before, how we come to be the way we are: tender and full of fury. I don’t recall having such a reaction to a novel.  Author Danny Johnson shrinks from nothing. I say: read it!” –Peggy Payne, author of Cobalt Blue

“Johnson’s moving novel beautifully portrays the ways in which his young characters struggle to overcome the history that has so fully shaped their lives.” –John Gregory Brown, author of Decorations in a Ruined Cemetery

My review:

Thanks to Net Galley and to Kensington for offering me a free copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.

When I read the description of the novel I was interested in discovering a new Southern writer and seeing how Danny Johnson fitted in with a literary tradition filled with pathos and a heavy historical burden. Unfortunately, the news filled up with incidents of racial violence in the USA as I was reading it and it made the content of the book topical and urgent, even if the story goes back to the times of the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War.

The story is told in the first person by Junebug, a young white boy that at the opening of the novel is only eight years old and has just lost his parents in a car accident (his father made moonshine liquor and they were driving with the car full of alcohol at the time of the incident). The boy goes to live at his grandparents’ tobacco farm and becomes friendly with twin African-American siblings, Fancy and Lightning. This is South Carolina and although the friendship flourishes whilst they are kids, it is clear that whites and African-Americans know their places and there might be heartache to come. From very early on fate seems to be against Junebug that after losing his parents, and in short succession loses his grandfather and later his grandmother, being left looking after the tobacco farm alone aged only fifteen. By that point Lightning has left seeking adventure, his relationship with Fancy has moved on and things get more and more complicated.

The novel deals with many of the typical themes to be expected from a Southern novel: race relations (and interracial relationships), the weight of family and small town morals, historical memory (there’s only a passing mention of the Civil War, but the Ku-Klux-Klan plays an important part in the plot and later we hear also about the Civil Rights Movement). The novel is also a coming of age story, as we follow the main characters from a very early age, and see them change, in body and character, and discover new urges and feelings as they grow. (A word of warning: there is some sexual content, although not the most explicit I’ve read or even close.) As they live in a farm, there is a fair amount of detail of traditional farming tasks, from growing up tobacco, to churning butter or killing a chicken or a pig, which I enjoyed and I didn’t find overly long or distracting from the main plot.

Junebug’s life is marked by violence, and it reflects the violence that is part of the history and the atmosphere of the land. He gets fixated on his dog’s death (his father shots the injured dog at the beginning of the story) and his fate, apart from losing loved ones, seems to put him on the way of circumstances that lead to his use of violence (but I don’t want to give too much of the story away). After a serious warning from the KKK, he ends up in Vietnam, as a way of finding refuge (for strange that it might seem) from his loneliness. There he discovers he has a natural talent as a sniper but finally things come to a head when he realises he’s not as hard and as strong as he had always thought and one can’t hide from the consequences of one’s own actions and violence forever.

I did enjoy the style of the novel, its many memorable lines, the many themes that give one pause (that also include PTSD after Junebug’s war experience, although possibly even before that) and the details of everyday life offered by the narration. I spent over half the novel trying to accurately place it in time (we are given clues, like the price of things and the fact that Junebug’s mother’s grandfather fought in the Civil War) but Junebug mentions it is 1963 quite late in the story (although admittedly it would have seemed irrelevant to a child in his position). His style of language changes suddenly when he gets to Vietnam, as once more he has to adapt to new extreme conditions, and he seems to get into the role of the marine easily and with gusto.

I found the plot and the experiences of the main characters interesting, although perhaps too much is fitted into a single book and it does not allow for a deep exploration of the many different strands. Junebug is not very articulate when it comes to his feelings, although some of his reflections can be quite sharp. He not only tries to hide his feelings from others but also from himself (it’s not easy to trust somebody when all your loved ones die and you wonder if there’ something wrong with you), and even an experienced therapist has difficulties getting to the root of things, but that fits in with his experiences and his personality. Junebug has flashes of insight, like when he wonders how Fancy must feel, knowing that she’s considered a second-hand citizen only because of the colour of her skin. He does not notice a big social difference between him and Fancy and her folks, but he is young, naïve, inexperienced, and it takes him a while to realise that due to the fact that he is white and has a farm he belongs in a completely different universe in the eyes of his neighbours and a big part of the society. Personally, I would have liked to follow Fancy’s story in more detail, but that is not the focus of the book. Thankfully, the ending is not typical, although it might leave some wondering (considering the character’s age one can’t help but wonder if that’s the end).

In summary, a well-written novel that fits in within the Southern writing tradition, although not ground-breaking. I’ll follow the author’s career with interest.

Links:

https://www.amazon.com/Last-Road-Home-Danny-Johnson-ebook/dp/B017G7HE44/

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Last-Road-Home-Danny-Johnson-ebook/dp/B017G7HE44/

Thanks to Net Galley, to the author and to Kensington for the book, thanks to all of you for reading, and feel free to share, like, comment and CLICK! Oh, and if you’re near Manchester on the 13th, come and join us!

Categories
Book reviews Rosie's Book Team Review

#RBRT #BookReview Shattered Lies by S.J. Francis (@sjfrancis419) Two families and many lies #TuesdayBookBlog

Hi all:

I hope you’ll forgive the appearance of the blog. At the moment I’m doing a Branding course, and I’m planning on changing quite a few things, but I’m trying to go slowly.

As promised I’ll start sharing the prequel to my Escaping Psychiatry series from next week, but today I wanted to take the chance and share the review of a novel I’ve read recently as part of Rosie’s Book Review Team. First I share the description and editorial reviews.

Shattered Lies by S.J.Francis
Shattered Lies by S.J.Francis

Shattered Lies by S.J. Francis

She wants to know the truth, but some secrets might be better left alone…
Kate Thayer has a good life as a veterinarian, running the family horse farm–until she uncovers an act of unimaginable treachery by those she trusted most and learns that everything she knew about herself was a lie. Her paternal grandmother, the woman who raised her, is behind a number of devastating secrets Kate is compelled to discover. But the deeper she digs, the more betrayal she finds, changing her life in ways she could have never foreseen.

Editorial Reviews

“Francis writes a poignant and moving tale of bigotry, deceit, and the ultimate betrayal, where the people who you are supposed to be able to trust are the ones who tell the most devastating lies.” ~ Taylor Jones, Reviewer

“… The title implies a mystery novel or an action novel. When I first started to read this novel, I thought this would be a regular old-school mystery. Boy, was I surprised to find that the title implies so much more than the genre. The story is heartfelt and very real. I am very impressed with S.J. Francis. The way the author wrote the novel was super amazing and fascinating. She transported me back in time and made me feel the pain and confusion of a grandmother who thought she was doing the right thing…” -Rabia Tanveer for Reader’s Favorite

“Shattered Lies is the story of the cruel, inhuman things man does to man and the tangled webs we weave trying to cover up our heinous behavior. It’s a heart-warming and heart-breaking tale of a young woman who discovers that everything she believed about herself, her parents, her very life, is nothing but a lie.” ~ Regan Murphy, Reviewer

“SJ Francis examines the destruction of one family’s foundation under the weight of lies in her thoughtful and wonderful book, Shattered Lies… Shattered Lies explores the painful legacy of bigotry and how such a legacy can destroy many lives.  In doing so, SJ Francis writes with raw honesty using language that has become embedded in the culture of racism.  It will be uncomfortable and unpleasant for the reader at times. But I do applaud Francis’ efforts. She has crafted a memorable book that will leave a lasting impression. A very thought provoking book.” ~Tracy, The Writing Piazza

From the Author

FYI:

NOTE: 10% of this book’s sales from both editions will be donated to the Polycystic Kidney Foundation to help fight this insidious disease that strikes both adults and children. For more info about this disease see: pkdcure.org/

Here, my review (4 stars):

Shattered Lies by S. J. Francis. Family lies, race, and life in the South

I’m reviewing this book as part of Rosie’s Book Review Team and was offered a free ARC copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

The novel, as promised by the description, deals with important themes: family relationships, adultery, betrayal, secrets, lies, race, loss and grief, illness… The story shows us how two families, the Thayers and the Johnsons, who’ve always lived close to each other in the family ranch of the Thayers, a white Southern family, while the Johnsons (African-American) worked for them in a variety of capacities and lived within the grounds, are much more closely linked than they appear at first sight. Kate Thayer, the youngest of the family, finds a diary written by her mother that opens up a Pandora’s Box of secrets and lies, including suicide, child abandonment, and questions about her own identity.

Emotions run high for all the protagonists and also the less important characters, and as the story is narrated in third-person limited point of view it allows the reader to see things from inside the heads (and the hearts) of different characters. This does not make it confusing but instead it gives readers an opportunity to better understand some of the characters, which at first are difficult to like or empathise with (like Katherine, Kate’s grandmother).

The novel is full of emotionally tense moments, and many secrets are revealed very early on. That results in much of the story delving into the changing emotions of the characters (from anger, to guilt, to fear, and back again), with the rhythm of the story speeding up and slowing down at times rather than providing a totally smooth ride.

Despite punctual references to current times (several mentions of Obama, the years when different events took place, and comments about how things have changed over generations), the story seemed to live in a time of its own and in its own environment, creating a somewhat claustrophobic sensation. The only interferences by the outside world take place in the train (where there is a nasty experience with some white youth, and a nice encounter, which to Kate exemplifies the fact that people can fight against prejudice at a personal level, no matter what pressures they are subjected to by their environment), and later in the hospital, although even that serves mostly as a background for the family’s battles and eventual peace. This is mostly a personal story, although it reflects wider themes.

The North and the South are depicted as fairly different worlds, nowadays still, and the codes of behaviour and the topics brought to my mind Faulkner’s novels (although the style and the treatment of the material is completely different). It seemed difficult to believe that in the late 1980s nobody would have spotted that Olivia, Kate’s mother, was pregnant with twins (even if she didn’t want an ultrasound), and that the doctor wouldn’t  think of calling for help when he realised the delivery was not going well (especially as this is a family of means). But perhaps the details are not as important as the experiences in this melodrama that ultimately provides a positive message of hope and forgiveness.

This is an emotionally tense read, with some slower and somewhat iterative self-reflective moments, and some faster ones, exploring issues of identity, prejudice and family that will make you think about your own priorities and preconceived ideas. Ah, and 10% of the royalties go to the Polycystic Kidney Foundation, a very good cause (and relevant to the story).

Links to the author and the book:

Her Black Opal Books Author Page:

http://www.blackopalbooks.com/author-bios/bio-sj-francis

Her ShoutOut:  http://bit.ly/1r3oynM

Her web page: http://www.sjfranciswriter.com

Follow her in:

Twitter: https://twitter.com/sjfrancis419

Face Book: https://www.facebook.com/pages/SJ-Francis/480058115420325

More Blogs: sjfranciswriter.blogspot.com 

A Book Review 4 U: abookreview4u.blogspot.com

A Consumer’s View: aconsumersview.blogspot.com

OnefortheAnimals:    onefortheanimals.blogspot.com

Pinterest:   http://www.pinterest.com/sjfrancis419/

Google Plus: https://plus.google.com/u/0/104831238907682620486/about

Good Reads: http://www.goodreads.com/author/show/8423986.S_J_Francis

Thank you all for reading, and you know what to do, like, share, comment, and CLICK! Thanks for your patience!

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