I bring you one of the books from Rosie’s Book Review Team list, a non-fiction one this time, and it is a police memoir with a difference.
Black, White, and Gray All Over: A Black Man’s Odyssey in Life and Law Enforcement by Frederick Reynolds
From shootouts and robberies to riding in cars with pimps and prostitutes, Frederick Reynolds’ early manhood experiences in Detroit, Michigan in the 1960s foretold a future on the wrong side of the prison bars. Frederick grew up a creative and sensitive child but found himself lured down the same path as many Black youth in that era. No one would have guessed he would have a future as a cop in one of the most dangerous cities in America in the 1980s—Compton, California. From recruit to detective, Frederick experienced a successful career marked by commendations and awards. The traumatic and highly demanding nature of the work, however, took its toll on both his family and personal life—something Frederick was able to conquer but only after years of distress and regret.
“Black, White & Gray All Over not only recounts the stories of Frederick’s life and career but also the stories of his fellow officers. An honest, no-holds-barred history of the city of Compton’s gang violence, crack epidemic, and legacy of government corruption leaves readers of all backgrounds with a better understanding of race relations as well as the gray areas of policework in one of America’s most brutal cities.” -Zora Knauf
“If Fred Reynolds’s memoir Black, White and Gray All Over was just about being a cop in Compton, California, dealing with gangs, murders, officers killed in the line of duty, and the politics that drives it all, it would be worth the read. This book goes deeper, into what it means to be a man, more particularly a Black man, and to overcome every obstacle along the way to redemption. Don’t miss this one!” -#1 Bestselling Author J.J. Hebert
Frederick Douglass Reynolds is a former Compton police officer and a retired LA County Sheriff’s Homicide Sergeant with a combined 32 years of experience working some of the worst areas of Los Angeles County. He retired in 2017 with over seventy-five commendations including a Chief’s Citation, five Chief’s commendations, one Exemplary Service Award, two Distinguished Service Awards, two Distinguished Service Medals, one city of Carson Certificate of Commendation, three City of Compton Certificate of Recognition, one city of Compton Public Service Hero award, one California State Assembly Certificate of Recognition, two State Senate Certificates of Recognition, a County of Los Angeles Certificate of Commendation, one Meritorious Service Award, two City of Compton Employee of the Year Awards, and two California Officer of the Year awards. He lives in Southern California with his wife, Carolyn, and their daughter Lauren and their young son, Desmond. They have six other adult children and nine grandchildren.
I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (author, check here if you are interested in getting your book reviewed) and thank her and the author for this opportunity.
This is a memoir, and as far from fiction as one could imagine. In fact, it is so full of facts and data that it can become overwhelming at times. The sheer number of events, of characters (well, not really characters, but real people: relatives, friends, neighbours, infantrymen, police officers, detectives, criminals, victims, local authorities, politicians…), of dates, of cases… make the book overflow with stories: sometimes those the author, Frederick Douglass Reynolds, participated directly in; others, stories providing background information to the situation or events being discussed or introducing some of the main players at the time of the action. I think anybody trying to recount even a small amount of what happens in the book would have a hard time of it, but anybody interested in the recent history of Compton law enforcement and local politics will find this book invaluable.
The author goes beyond the standard memoir, and although his life is the guiding thread of the book, he does not limit himself to talking in the first-person about his difficult childhood, his traumatic past, his petty criminal activities as a gang member in his youth, his time as a Marine Corps Infantryman, his less than stellar experience with personal relationships (until later in life), his allergy to compromise for many years (to the point of even refusing to get involved in the life of one of his children)… This well-read and self-taught man also offers readers the socio-historical-political context of the events, talking about the gangs, the rise of crack cocaine, the powerful figures moving the threads and holding authority (sometimes openly, and sometimes not so much), and he openly discusses the many cases of corruption, at all levels.
There is so much of everything in this book that I kept thinking this single book could become several books, either centring each one of them on a particular event, case, or investigation and its aftermath (for example. although Rodney King’s death didn’t take place in Compton, the description of how the riots affected the district makes readers realise that history keeps repeating itself unless something is done), or perhaps on a specific theme (as there is much about gangs, racism, corruption, the evolution of police roles and policing methods, violence in the streets, LA social changes and local politics, drugs…). Another option would be to focus on the author’s life and experiences growing up, on his personal life (his difficulties with relationships and alcohol, his PTSD…), and later his career, but perhaps mentioning only some of the highlights or some specific episodes, and with less background information about the place and its history (although some brief information could be added as an appendix or in an author’s note for those interested in knowing more).
This is a long book, dense and packed with a wealth of data that might go beyond the scope of most casual readers, but there are also scary moments (forget about TV police series. This is the real deal), heart-wrenching events (the deaths of locals, peers, colleagues, personal tragedies…), touching confessions (like the difficulties in his relationship with his son, becoming grandad to a boy with autism and what that has taught him), shared insights that most will find inspiring, and also some lighter and funny touches that make the human side of the book shine. Although Reynolds openly discusses his doubts, and never claims to be spotless, more upstanding, or better than anybody else, his determination to get recognition for his peers fallen in action, and his homage to those he worked with and who kept up the good fight clearly illustrate that his heart (and morals) are in the right place.
Most people thinking of reading this type of memoir are likely to know what to expect, but just in case there are any doubts, be warned that there is plenty of violence (sometimes extreme and explicit), use of alcohol, drugs, and pretty colourful language.
I recommend this book to anybody interested in the history of policing in LA (particularly in Compton) from the 1980s, gangs in the area, local politics, corruption, and any major criminal investigations in the area (deaths of rappers included). It is also a book for those looking for an inspiring story of self-improvement, of managing to escape the wrong path, and helping others do the same, and it is a book full of insights, inspiration, and hope.
I wonder if the author is planning to carry on writing, but it is clear that he has many stories to tell yet and I hope he does.
Thanks to the author for this book, thanks to Rosie and the members of her team for their ongoing support, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to keep smiling, to keep safe, and to share, like, comment if you wish. Big hugs!
Most of you probably know that I haven’t been promoting my books very much, but my friend, very talented blogger, fabulous writer, and wonderful artist, Teagan Geneviene (if you are not following her blog, here, what are you waiting for?) has created this wonderful image for my YA series Angelic Business, and I had to share it with you. If you are curious, you can always check the page I dedicate to My books (here), oh, and the first book in the series is free in most places. Just saying…
I bring you a new book by an author I read last year for the first time. Recommended to readers of historical fiction.
No Secret Too Small. A Novel of Old New Mexico by Loretta Miles Tollefson
A novel dedicated to all the world’s children caught in the cross fire of adult squabbles.
New Mexico, 1837. As New Mexico teeters on the verge of revolution, eight-year-old Alma’s family experiences an upheaval of its own. Ten years ago, her father, Gerald, chose not to tell her mother, Suzanna, that some of his ancestors were born in Africa. Now Alma’s mother has learned the truth.
Stunned and furious, Suzanna leaves the family’s mountain valley and takes Alma and her younger brother, Andrew, with her. Gerald allows the children to go because he believes they’ll be safer with their mother than with him in the mountains. However, as Suzanna, Alma, and Andrew reach Santa Fe, revolt breaks out and the children are exposed to sights no child should ever have to experience.
This trauma and the prejudice the children experience because of their heritage makes Alma long for home. But even if her mother can forgive past secrets, the way is now blocked by wintery weather and entrenched rebels. Will Alma’s family ever be reunited?
A heart-breaking yet ultimately triumphant story about secrets, prejudice, love, and the impact of adult conflict on our children.
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 LorettaMilesTollefson.Wordpress.com
I discovered Loretta MilesTollefson’s writing through Rosie’s Book Review Team when I first read and reviewed one of the novels in the Old New Mexico series, Not My Father’s House (you can read my review here). That was the second book that tells the story of Gerald Locke and his family. The series also includes short stories and microfiction set in the same territory during the XIX century, and also a novel based on real events, The Pain and the Sorrow. I loved the setting of the previous novel and the characters and thank the author for offering me an early ARC copy of this novel, which I freely chose to review and enjoyed.
While the previous novel was set in the Moreno Valley, and we lived the life of mountain settlers, with its harshness, its dangers, its challenges, and also its moments of wonder and joy; this novel sees Suzanna and her two children (Alma and Andrew) move from town to town (from the Valley to San Fernando de Taos, to Chimayó and then to Santa Fe. In the process, they get involved, although marginally, in the political upheaval of the era, coming into contact with both, rebels and supporters of the Mexican government, and witnessing some tragic events. And although their lives in the Valley weren’t easy, they soon discover that sometimes, hard work and stubbornness are not enough to ensure a decent living.
At the heart of the novel is a secret, something Gerald kept from Suzanna, although, to be fair, she insisted she didn’t need to know. The situation reminded me of one of Antonio Machado’s poems: ‘Dijiste media verdad. Dirán que mientes dos veces si dices la otra mitad.’ ‘You told half a truth. They’ll say you lie twice if you tell the other half.’ The secret (if you read the description carefully, you’ll find out what it is) involves the assumption that we are not all the same, and some are better than others just based on our ancestors and their origins/skin colour. Such prejudice is more deeply rooted than Suzanna realised (or wanted to acknowledge), and it challenges her own opinion of herself and others. Her beliefs and her attitude are put to the test while she is away, and she learns truths about herself that she does not like but ultimately make her stronger.
As was the case in the previous novel, we can find a mix of fictional and true historical characters, and the author provides a summary of historical events at the end, which help provide a more detailed background to the story, a glossary of terms (both Spanish and also English of the period), and also brief biographical notes on the real historical figures that appear in the text. Some of my old favourites from the previous novel appear as well: Ramon, although he stays behind for much of the action, Old One-Eyed Pete, the trapper, Old Bill, Gregorio García, and some new ones that I love as well, especially señora Ortega (who can appear grumpy, harsh, and keen to tell unpalatable truths, but also a fair and honest woman happy to give other women a chance), and Antonia García, the mother of Gregorio, who grabs a second chance when it comes her way.
The story is told in the third person in present tense, not a common choice, but one that works particularly well as we see things form the point of view of Alma, an eight years old girl forced to grow up far too quickly for her age. She tries hard to be strong, to do her part, and to support her mother and brother, even if she doesn’t agree with what her mother has done. I love Alma and she is easier to empathise with than her mother, whose behaviour is sometimes petulant, unreasonable and selfish. She puts her children and herself in danger, and although her husband is in the wrong as well, her stubbornness drives her too far. Having read the previous novel, and knowing how hard Suzanna had to fight to survive in the valley, and the horrific experiences she went through, make her disappointment and her inflexible attitude easier to understand, although not so much some of the deep (and perhaps even not fully conscious) reasons behind it. The fact that others in her life don’t dare oppose her or prefer to let her do and keep the peace could have had dire consequences, for her and the children, although, of course, nobody realised how quickly the political situation would deteriorate, or how hard making a living would be for a mother of two on her own. (Or they underestimated Suzanna’s stubbornness).
The author manages to provide a strong sense of the setting, the historical period, and the customs and traditions of the era without overdoing the descriptions or disrupting the action. The story flows and ebbs, as does life, and we have quiet moments, of routine, work, and everyday life, but the three main protagonists (Suzanna, Alma, and Andrew) also travel, are exposed to dangers, and are shocked and traumatised by the violence around them. We learn about weaving, about life in the New Mexico of the late 1830s, and about the prejudices of the period. Unfortunately, some things don’t change, but at least the main characters in the novel learn from their mistakes. One can but wish the same would happen in real life in the here and now.
The ending is satisfying, and I am sure all readers will enjoy it. I don’t know if we’ll hear more about the Locke family and their adventures, but, somehow, I know they’ll be all right.
I think readers who get to this story without having read the rest of the series will be able to connect with the characters and follow their adventures without too much difficulty, although it will be easier to understand the motivations and appreciate more fully the relationships and the background to the story for those who have read the other two novels related to the Lockes’ (and I hope to catch up on Not Just Any Man at some point in the future). Although we don’t witness any violent acts directly, there are scenes illustrating the consequences of the violence bound to be upsetting for some readers of the book, and prejudice and racism are an important theme, so prospective readers need to take that into consideration when deciding if this might be the book for them. As I usually say, it is worth checking a sample of the book to see if the voice and the narrative style is a good fit for those thinking about purchasing it.
I recommend this novel to fans of historical fiction keen to learn about a little-known period of the history of the United States, to those interested in the life of pioneer women, and also any readers looking for a story that is as relevant and inspiring. And the bonus is that there are other books in the series for those who enjoy this one.
Thanks to the author for the novel, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and keep safe (and smiling)!
I hope you’re keeping well, or as well as possible in the circumstances.
I bring you another book by Sebastian Barry. Not for everyone, but quite extraordinary.
A Thousand Moons by Sebastian Barry
From the Costa Book of the Year-winning author of Days Without End
Even when you come out of bloodshed and disaster in the end you have got to learn to live.
Winona is a young Lakota orphan adopted by former soldiers Thomas McNulty and John Cole.
Living with Thomas and John on the farm they work in 1870s Tennessee, she is educated and loved, forging a life for herself beyond the violence and dispossession of her past. But the fragile harmony of her unlikely family unit, in the aftermath of the Civil War, is soon threatened by a further traumatic event, one which Winona struggles to confront, let alone understand.
Told in Sebastian Barry’s gorgeous, lyrical prose, A Thousand Moons is a powerful, moving study of one woman’s journey, of her determination to write her own future, and of the enduring human capacity for love.
‘Nobody writes like, nobody takes lyrical risks like, nobody pushes the language, and the heart, and the two together, quite like Sebastian Barry does, so that you come out of whatever he writes like you’ve been away, in another climate.’ ALI SMITH
Sebastian Barry was born in Dublin in 1955. His plays include Boss Grady’s Boys (1988), The Steward of Christendom (1995), Our Lady of Sligo (1998) and The Pride of Parnell Street (2007). His novels include The Whereabouts of Eneas McNulty (1998), Annie Dunne (2002), A Long Long Way (2005) and The Secret Scripture (2008). He has won, among other awards, the Irish-America Fund Literary Award, the Christopher Ewart-Biggs Prize, the London Critics Circle Award and the Kerry Group Irish Fiction Prize. A Long Long Way, which was also shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and the Dublin International Impac Prize, was the Dublin: One City One Book choice for 2007. The Secret Scripture won the Costa Book of the Year Award, the Irish Book Awards for Best Novel and the Independent Booksellers Prize. It was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Kerry Group Irish Fiction Award, Christopher Ewart-Biggs award and the James Tait Black Memorial Prize. He lives in Wicklow with his wife and three children.
Thanks to Faber and Faber and to NetGalley for offering me an ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.
I read Barry’s Days Without End, loved it (you can read my review here) and couldn’t resist when I saw his next novel was available. This story follows on from the previous one, and it shares quite a few characteristics with that one. Although I’ve read some reviews by people who hadn’t read the previous novel and said that they felt this one could be read on its own, I wouldn’t dare to comment on that. Personally, because the story follows closely on from Days Without End, and it refers to many of the characters we had got to know there, I’d recommend readers thinking about taking up this series to start by reading the previous novel.
This story, like Barry’s previous book, is a historical novel, in this case, set in Tennessee shortly after the American Civil War. In the previous novel, we followed two characters, Thomas McNulty (the first-person narrator) and John Cole, through their adventures as actors, Indian hunters, and soldiers, and learned that they had adopted a young Lakota girl, Ojinjintka, renamed Winona; in this second book, we hear the story from Winona’s point of view. The couple of men have settled down now, and the fact that this is not only a woman’s story, but the story of a Native-American woman, means that her ambit of action is much more restricted and despite her efforts to take control of her own life, she’s often at the mercy of laws and circumstances that consider her less than a human being. Although she is loved by her adoptive parents and the rest of the extended family she lives with, that is not a general state of affairs, and if life had treated her badly as a child, she also suffers a major traumatic event here, as a young woman. No matter that she is educated (she keeps the books for a lawyer in town), strong-willed, and determined. She is either invisible (just an Indian girl) or a creature to be abused, vilified, and made to take the blame for other’s crimes. That does not mean what happens to her does not reflect the events in the larger society (we do hear about racism, about lynching, about the corruption of the law, about Southern resistance…), but we get to see them from an “other” point of view, and it creates a sense of estrangement, which I suspect is intended by the author. While Thomas and John were outsiders themselves and always lived in the fringes of society, Winona’s position is more precarious still.
I have mentioned some of the themes of the novel, and others, like family relationships, race, gender, identity (Winona remembers a lot about her life as a Lakota, and the memories of her mother, in particular, bring her much comfort and strength), and the lot of women also play an important part in the novel. There is also something of a mystery running through it, as there are a couple of crimes committed early on (one a severe beating of an ex-slave living with Winona’s family in the farm, and the other one her assault) and Winona spends much of the novel trying to clarify what happened and to get justice, one way or another, as the authorities are not going to intervene because neither of them is important enough. Although she turns into something of an amateur detective, this is no cozy mystery or a light adventure novel, and there are plenty of harrowing moments in it, so I wouldn’t recommend it to people who are looking for cheerful entertainment.
The characters are as fascinating as those from the previous novel, although we get to see them from a totally different point of view. It Thomas was the guiding consciousness of Days Without End, Winona’s voice (in the first person) narrates this fragment of the story. We get to see things from her perspective, and that also offers us an opportunity to reevaluate our opinion of the characters we already knew. We also meet some new characters, but because of Winona’s status (or lack of it), we are put in a difficult position, always feeling suspicious and expecting the worst from those we meet, because she has no rights, both because she is a woman and because she is an Indian woman. Her voice takes some time to get used to. She has been educated, but a bit like happened with Thomas in the previous novel, her speech and thoughts are a mixture of vernacular expressions and lyrical images. She is sometimes confused and can’t make sense of what is happening around her, and at others can show a great deal of insight. When she reports the dialogue and words of others —although she is quite an astute observer of others’ behaviour —, all the people she mentions talk pretty much the same, no matter how educated they are, and farm-hands and judges cannot be told apart from the way they speak. Although I felt for Winona at an intellectual level and was horrified by the things she had to go through, perhaps because of the estrangement I mentioned and of the style of the narrative, I didn’t find it as easy to connect at an emotional level. I liked her and I loved her insights and some of her comments, but I didn’t feel as close to her as I did to Thomas in the first book.
The writing is beautiful and poetic at times, while at others it can be difficult to understand due to the mental state of the character and to her peculiar style. It reminded me of the stream-of-consciousness narration typical of modernist writers in the early years of the XX century. Winona’s thoughts jump from one subject to the next, and although the story is told in chronological order, memories of her time with the Lakotas and flashbacks from her trauma keep interfering in the narrative. This is not a particularly fast novel or a page-turner in the traditional sense, as it meanders along, with exciting and horrifying scenes intermixed with scenes of domesticity and everyday life. I confess to having to go back and forth at times to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, but it was worth it.
I highlighted many parts of the novel, but I’ll share a few samples (note that this is an ARC copy, so there might be some changes in the published version):
I wonder what does it mean when another people judge you to be worth so little you were only to be killed? How our pride in everything was crushed so small it disappeared until it was just specks of things floating away on the wind.
You can’t be a geyser of tears all your life.
‘She got to have some recompense in law,’ said Lige Magan. ‘An Indian ain’t a citizen and the law don’t apply in the same way,’ said the lawyer Briscoe.
Only a woman knows how to live I believe because a man is too hasty, too half-cocked, mostly. That half-cocked gun hurts at random. But in my men I found fierce womanliness living. What a fortune. What a great heap of proper riches.
I’ve seen some reviews who felt the ending was disappointing or unbelievable. I’d have to agree that there is something of the Deus ex machina about the ending, but overall I liked where the story ended and would like to know what happens next to Winona, to Peg (one of my favourite new characters), and to the rest of the characters.
Would I recommend the novel? It is a fascinating book, and one lovers of Barry will enjoy. I advise anybody interested in this historical period and eager to read this author’s work to start with the previous novel, as I found the style of this one more challenging and more difficult to follow, and having an understanding of the background of the characters helps put it into perspective. As I usually do, I’d recommend readers to check a sample of the novel before deciding to purchase it, but give it a good chance, as it does take some time to get used to the style, and the story is well-worth reading and persevering with. I will definitely be looking forward to the next novel.
Thanks to NetGalley, the publishers and the author for this novel, thanks to all of you for reading, remember to keep reading, smiling, keep safe, and if you know anybody who might enjoy it, pass it on!
Oh, and if you’re bored, remember a couple of my books are available for free, so don’t hesitate to give them a go and pass them on.
I bring you today the review of a book by an author who’s become well-known but I hadn’t managed to catch up with yet. I’m happy I have now. Extraordinary.
The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead by Colson Whitehead
Author of The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead, brilliantly dramatizes another strand of American history through the story of two boys sentenced to a hellish reform school in 1960s Florida.
Praise for Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad:
‘My book of the year by some distance . . . luminous, furious, wildly inventive’ Observer
‘An engrossing and harrowing novel’ Sunday Times
‘Tells one of the most compelling stories I have ever read’ Guardian
Whitehead is a superb storyteller . . . [he] brilliantly intertwines his allegory with history . . . writing at the peak of his game’Telegraph
Elwood Curtis has taken the words of Dr Martin Luther King to heart: he is as good as anyone. Abandoned by his parents, brought up by his loving, strict and clearsighted grandmother, Elwood is about to enroll in the local black college. But given the time and the place, one innocent mistake is enough to destroy his future, and so Elwood arrives at The Nickel Academy, which claims to provide ‘physical, intellectual and moral training’ which will equip its inmates to become ‘honorable and honest men’.
In reality, the Nickel Academy is a chamber of horrors, where physical, emotional and sexual abuse is rife, where corrupt officials and tradesmen do a brisk trade in supplies intended for the school, and where any boy who resists is likely to disappear ‘out back’. Stunned to find himself in this vicious environment, Elwood tries to hold on to Dr King’s ringing assertion, ‘Throw us in jail, and we will still love you.’ But Elwood’s fellow inmate and new friend Turner thinks Elwood is naive and worse; the world is crooked, and the only way to survive is to emulate the cruelty and cynicism of their oppressors.
The tension between Elwood’s idealism and Turner’s skepticism leads to a decision which will have decades-long repercussions.
Based on the history of a real reform school in Florida that operated for one hundred and eleven years and warped and destroyed the lives of thousands of children, The Nickel Boys is a devastating, driven narrative by a great American novelist whose work is essential to understanding the current reality of the United States.
An Amazon Best Book of July 2019: Based on a real school for boys that closed in Florida in 2011 after more than one hundred years in existence, Colson Whitehead’s Nickel Academy is the kind of institution that purports to rebrand bad boys into good young men. So in theory it should be a good place for Elwood, a young black man who, although he had planned to attend a nearby college, was caught unknowingly riding in a stolen car. But what happens inside Nickel Academy does not match its public image, and Elwood is about to learn that, no matter how idealistic or optimistic he is, his life is taking a very bad turn. He is lucky to meet Turner, who does not share Elwood’s idealism and who helps him to survive Nickel Academy. But what Elwood experiences there will never leave him. Set in the 1960s during Jim Crow, The Nickel Boys is both an enjoyable read and a powerful portrayal of racism and inequality that acts as a lever to pry against our own willingness to ignore it. —Chris Schluep, Amazon Book Review
“Haunting and haunted…devastating…The book feels like a mission, and it’s an essential one…he pulls off a brilliant sleight of hand that elevates the mere act of resurrecting Elwood’s buried story into at once a miracle and a tragedy.”—Frank Rich, The New York Times Book Review (cover) “Stellar…heartbreaking…a beautiful, unforgettable young hero who walks right off the page and into your heart…If you have been thinking you should read Colson Whitehead, The Nickel Boys is the perfect place to start.”– Newsday
“America’s Storyteller. A book that will further cement his place in the pantheon of influential American writers.” — Time Magazine “The Nickel Boys is a chilling, masterful novel that explores the depths of evil and the resilience of the human spirit. Whitehead’s prose is dazzling, and the narrative’s nimble twist is a swift kick to the solar plexus.”—The Minneapolis Star-Tribune
“Propulsive and gorgeous and completely devastating.”—LitHub.com
“THE NICKEL BOYS is in conversation with works by James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and especially Martin Luther King…. It shreds our easy confidence in the triumph of goodness and leaves in its place a hard and bitter truth about the ongoing American experiment.” — Ron Charles, The Washington Post
“A tense, nervy performance, even more rigorously controlled than its predecessor. The narration is disciplined and the sentences plain and sturdy, oars cutting into the water. Every chapter hits its marks.”— Parul Seghal, The New York Times
About the author:
Colson Whitehead is the author of the novels Zone One; Sag Harbor; The Intuitionist, a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway award; John Henry Days, which won the Young Lions Fiction Award, the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize; and Apex Hides the Hurt, winner of the PEN Oakland Award. He has also written a book of essays about his home town, The Colossus of New York, and a non-fiction account of the 2011 World Series of Poker called The Noble Hustle. A recipient of a Whiting Writers’ Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship, he lives in New York City.
His latest, the #1 New York Times bestseller The Underground Railroad, is just out in paperback. It received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Carnegie Medal, the Heartland Prize, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Hurston-Wright Award, and was longlisted for the Booker Prize.
I thank NetGalley and Little, Brown Book Group UK for providing me an ARC copy of this book, which I freely chose to review.
In brief, this is an extraordinary book. Beautifully written, haunting, it vividly portrays and era and a place (the early 1960s in Florida), and illustrates the very best and the very worst of human beings and their behaviour. Although everybody should know about the true story this book is inspired by, my only hesitation in recommending this book to all is that it is a tough read, and one that could upset people who have experienced abuse or violence or prefer not to read graphic accounts of those topics. (It is not extreme, in any way, in its depiction of violence and abuse, and much is left to the imagination of the reader rather than being unnecessarily and openly graphic, but then, my level of tolerance is quite high, so it might not be an indication of other readers’ opinion. On the other hand, it is emotionally harrowing, as it should be).
I had not read any of Whitehead’s books before but had heard and read many comments about his recent success with The Underground Railroad, and was keen to see what he would write next. Although I can’t compare the two, based on how much I have enjoyed this story and the style of writing, I am eager to catch up on the author’s previous novels.
I went into this book not having read reviews or detailed comments about it, other than the short description on NetGalley, and I was quickly drawn into the story. After the brief prologue, that sets up the scene and introduces what will become the main setting (and a protagonist in its own right) of the story, The Nickel Academy (previously, The Florida Industrial School for Boys, created in 1899, a reform school in serious need of reforms), we get to meet the two protagonists, first Elwood Curtis, an upstanding boy, determined to make his grandmother proud, a firm believer in Martin Luther King’s philosophy and speeches, a hard student and worker, and later Jack Turner, a boy with a more difficult background whom we meet during his second stay at Nickel. The interaction between the boys, the differences between them, the unlikely friendship that develops, and the ways their lives influence each other, not always evident as we read it, form the backbone of this novel, whose action is set mostly in a momentous era, the 1960s, and with the background of the Civil Rights Movement at its heart. Elwood’s determination to follow King’s dictates is sorely put to the test at Nickel, but he does learn much about himself and about the world there, including some things that should never happen to anybody, no matter their age or colour. Turner, a survivor who has been exposed to a much harsher reality than Elwood from the beginning, learns a new set of values and much more.
As I mentioned above, the story, narrated in the third person but mostly from the point of view of the two main characters (the novel is divided into different parts, and it is clearly indicated which point of view we are sharing), is beautifully written. It lyrically captures the nuances of the period and the place, using a richly descriptive style of writing that makes us feel as if we were there, experiencing the oppressive heat, the excitement of being a young boy going on his first adventure, the thrill of joining a heartfelt protest, the fear of Nickel, the dashed hopes… And later, we also touch base with the main character’s life at different points after Nickel, including the present, when he hears about the unearthing of the story, and we realise that, for him, it’s never gone away; it’s never become the past. The author intersperses the words of Martin Luther King Jr.’s speeches, of James Baldwin’s stories, and, as he explains in the Acknowledgements’ section at the end, he also quotes from real life accounts from survivors of the Dozier School for Boys in Marianna, Florida, whose story inspired the setting and much of the story this book narrates. Although I didn’t know the story was based on a real place, I kept wondering about it as I read —it felt true, for sure—, and I was not surprised when my suspicions were unfortunately confirmed at the end. (The author provides plenty of links and information about the real story of Dozier and also includes a bibliography of the other sources he has used, which will prove invaluable to researchers and readers eager to find out more). The author’s use of quotes adds to the true feel of the novel while establishing a clear connection between this story and the troubled history of race (and to a slightly lesser extent class) relations in the USA. Although based on a real reform school, Nickel is a microcosm, a metaphor for the abuse and corruption that has marred not only the United States but many other countries, and a reminder that we must remain vigilant, as some things and behaviours refuse to remain buried and keep rearing their ugly heads in more ways than one. I, for one, will not hear talk about the White House and not think about quite a different place from now on.
The characters are compelling, easy to empathise with, and one can’t help but root for these young men who find themselves in impossible circumstances. Some are complicit in the abuse, some mere victims, but most are just trying to survive. As for the perpetrators… There’s no attempt at explaining why or how it happened. This is not their story. Their story has been the official History for far too long.
Apart from all I’ve said, there’s quite a twist towards the end of the story, which casts a new light on some of the events and on the relationship between the two boys, clarifying some questions that are left answered as the story progresses. This is not a mystery or a thriller as such, but the twist introduces an element of surprise that, at least for me, increased the power of the narrative and the overall effect of the story. The compelling plot of the novel is perfectly matched by the masterly way it is told.
I highlighted a lot of passages from the novel, but I thought I’d share the opening, and another paragraph from the preamble, to give you a taster. (As I mentioned, mine is an ARC copy, so there might be some changes to the final published version).
Even in death the boys were trouble. (A fantastic opening line that will become one of my favourites from now on).
When they found the secret graveyard, he knew he’d have to return. The clutch of cedars over the TV reporter’s shoulder brought back the heat on his skin, the screech of the dry flies. It wasn’t far off at all. Never will be.
A great novel, inspiring, appalling, tough, lyrical, fitting homage to the victims of a corrupt, merciless, and racist institution, and an indictment of the society that allowed it to exist. Highly recommended, with the only reservations mentioned above about the subject matter.
Thanks to NetGalley, the publisher and the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and always keep smiling!
I bring you another review of one of the books in Rosie’s team. Another great find.
Winter Flower by Charles Sheehan-Miles
This book is all about love, family, survival, acceptance and forgiveness… one big giant emotional rollercoaster ride
From the bestselling author of Just Remember to Breathe and The Last Hour, a shocking and poignant story of a family on the brink of destruction and the transformational events that could bring them back together–or tear them apart.
Every day, Cole Roberts reminds himself that life wasn’t always this bleak. He was once passionately in love with Erin. Sam used to be an artistic and lively kid. They hadn’t always lived in a shabby two-room house in rural Alabama, where he runs a mediocre restaurant in the middle of nowhere.
That was before Brenna disappeared. It was before Cole lost his job and they lost their home.
Every day it gets worse. Erin drinks wine out of the bottle and spends her days with a tormented expression, searching the web for signs of their daughter. Sam hides in his room and rarely speaks. And Cole works himself to a stupor for a paycheck a fraction of the size of his old salary.
Until one day a phone call changes everything.
Winter Flower is at once a tragic tale of the disappearance of a child; struggling with gender identity; of the dark world of sex-trafficking and the transformation and healing of a family. Sheehan-Miles’s longest novel delves into the depths of family life–and how, sometimes, we can heal and find restoration.
Charles Sheehan-Miles has been a soldier, computer programmer, short-order cook and non-profit executive, and is the author of several fiction and non-fiction books, including the indie bestsellers Just Remember to Breathe and Republic: A Novel of America’s Future. Charles and his partner Andrea Randall live and write together in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
Charles’ books include:
The Thompson Sisters & Rachel’s Peril
A Song for Julia
Just Rememberto Breathe
The Last Hour
Girl of Lies
Girl of Rage
Girl of Vengeance
Other Books: Prayer at Rumayla
Saving the World on $30 A Day
I write this review as a member of Rosie’s Book Review Team (authors, if you are looking for reviews, check here), and I freely chose to review an ARC copy of this novel.
This is the first novel I read by Charles Sheehan-Miles, who is a brand new author to me, although he has published a large number of books, and from the comments, I guess he has a legion of fans that were surprised by this book, as it is not a romance. I cannot compare it to his previous work, but I agree with the warning. If readers from his previous books approach this novel as a romance, they will be shocked, because it is far from it.
This is a long book (over 600 pages long), divided up into four parts, with a prologue set two years before the main action of the book, although there are flashbacks (memories) narrated in the first-person by the four main characters —all members of the same family— that offer readers a good understanding of the background to the current situation and help them get to grips with their circumstances, their pasts, and who they are. This is the story of a family, a married couple and their two children, on the brink of collapse due to a terrible tragedy that took place two years before the action we follow chronologically. Or so it seems. (The truth is a bit more complicated than that). Sam and Brenna, the children (adolescents by the time we met them) are close, and Brenna has always willingly played the role of big sister to Sam, there to protect and guide. Until she disappears. Carrying on without her puts a big strain on a family we soon learn was going through difficulties already (some more out in the open than others), and whose communication had ground almost to a halt. The parents, Cole and Erin, are living example of the “opposites attract” edict, at least from a political perspective (Cole, the father, who as a young man decided formal education wasn’t for him and moved up the corporate ladder at lightning speed, is conservative as can be, while Erin, the mother, a college graduate, is a convinced liberal who sacrificed her career to look after her children), and although the story opens up with Sam’s narration, we soon get to read their own perspective on the matter and the kind of traps they find themselves in.
This is a story that deals in many important subjects, and it could have been told in a variety of ways, but I am impressed not only by the subjects (adultery and its toll on family relationships, sex trafficking, rape, prostitution, bullying, harassment and violence against the LGBT community, missing youths, the isolation of the trans-gender experience for young people, prejudice and harassment at work…) and the sensitive and enlightening way they are handled, but also by the way the story is told. The author allows each character to tell his/her own story, and that makes us walk a mile in their shoes, no matter how uncomfortable they might feel. I am sure many readers will think, as they read, that they would have never reacted in a certain way, or allowed their circumstances to deteriorate to such an extent, but, do we truly know? Although, as the author reminds us in the final note, the events in the book are far from unique (yes, it is a work of fiction, but many individuals and families, unfortunately, will go through similar experiences to those depicted in the book), many of us will never have been in close contact with somebody in such dire circumstances, much less be directly affected by it, so, how do we know what we would do? The characters are not necessarily the most likeable when we meet them (drinking heavily, harassed, afraid for their lives, paralysed and frozen, unable to make decisions and move on), and they are all closed off from each other, trapped, physically or mentally, sometimes by others and their preconceptions, sometimes by their own fears and inability to grief and forgive. The author also makes a conscious decision to introduce the rest of the family —the parents and Sam— first, so we get to see the effect her loss has had on the family before we meet Brenna, the missing girl. Her situation is heart-wrenching, and the most extreme and difficult to read about, although none of the characters have an easy ride.
Thankfully, the author manages to achieve a difficult balance between telling the story, not pulling any punches, making sure people can understand and empathise with what the characters are going through, while avoiding extremely graphic scenes (both of sex and violence), and gratuitous iterations and repetitions of the abuse, which would risk further exploitation rather than facilitating understanding and empathy. Don’t get me wrong; this is a hard read, and readers with triggers around topics such as child abuse, rape, bullying, violence against women and the LGTB community, and racism need to be aware of it. Even people who don’t have such triggers will find it a tough read, but, on the other hand, this is a book with a big heart, and the individual journey of each character, and of the family as a whole, make for an inspiring and hopeful read.
I have already talked about how impressed I am by the story and the way it is told. I grew fond of all the members of the family by the end of the book (it’s impossible for our hearts not to go out to Sam and Brenna, but we get to appreciate their parents as well), and I particularly enjoyed the journey of enlightenment Cole’s father goes through. The author includes most of the reactions we can imagine to these subjects, from the sublime to the ridiculous, (not everybody changes and accepts either. Bigotry remains alive and well, as we all know), and they all felt true. I was particularly fond of Jeremiah and his wife — almost too good to be true— who are an ideal we should all aspire to. I also liked the fact that the story does not stop when most readers would expect it to, and even Sam makes comments on that. There is no magical happy ending here that just makes everything right again. All the members of the family will have to keep working at their relationship and supporting each other, but that is as it should be.
There were no negative reviews of the book at the time I wrote this, and the only objections (apart from the warning that it is not a romance) some people had referred to were Sam’s virtual game playing (that a reader didn’t feel added anything to the novel. Personally, I think it helps readers understand what life is like for the character and experience the kind of coping strategies adolescents in similar circumstances might use), and some others felt the book could have been shorter and still managed to tell the same story. That might be true, but I suspect some of the nuances would have been lost.
This is an excellent book that manages to combine complex and credible characters with a plot that deals with several difficult subjects, without becoming preachy or too graphic. It is horrifying, touching, and insightful all at the same time, and it makes readers witness the highs and lows of the human condition. I recommended it to readers interested in the subjects, but I advise those who might worry about possible triggers to proceed with caution. The author adds some resources (links to websites) for people who need more information about some of the issues raised in the book, and I thought the final conversation of the book, between Brenna and her grandfather in the garden —when the grandfather talks about the snapdragon, and how it grows back after getting rid of the dead stuff, stronger and more beautiful— stands as a great metaphor for the story, and explains the title. Highly recommended.
Thanks to Rosie, her team, and the author, thanks to all of you for reading, and remember to like, share, comment, click, review, and remember to always keep smiling.
As I’ve been telling you, September is read non-stop month for me, and today I bring you a great story set in a fascinating historical period and location that will be available today (13th September 2016). And it seems it’s going to become a TV series, so, you heard it here first!
I was contacted by the PR department looking after the launch of the book, asked if I wanted to take part in a blog tour, and I share also the press release.
DARKTOWN by Thomas Mullen
6th September 2016, Little, Brown hardback publication, £16.99
Atlanta, 1948. In this city, all crime is black and white
On one side of the tracks are the rich, white neighbourhoods; on the other, Darktown, the African-American area guarded by the city’s first black police force of only eight men. These cops are kept near-powerless by the authorities: they can’t arrest white suspects; they can’t drive a squad car; they must operate out of a dingy basement.
When a poor black woman is killed in Darktown having been last seen in a car with a rich white man, no one seems to care except for Boggs and Smith, two black cops from vastly different backgrounds. Pressured from all sides, they will risk their jobs, the trust of their community and even their own lives to investigate her death.
Their efforts bring them up against a brutal old-school cop. Dunlow, who has long run Darktown as his own turf – but Dunlow’s idealistic young partner, Rakestraw, is a young progressive who may be willing to make allies across colour lines. . .
From award-winning author Thomas Mullen comes a riveting and elegant police procedural set in 1948 Atlanta, exploring a murder, corrupt police, and strained race relations that feels ripped from today’s headlines.
Soon to be a major TV series from Jamie Foxx and Sony Pictures Television
‘A subtle, robustly written novel of compelling contemporary resonance. The ensuing crisis involves the entire community, pitting principles against passion, values against instinct.’ Observer on The Last Town on Earth
‘Mullen is both merciless and measured in his depiction of the natural forces that can drag idealism down to earth.’ Daily Telegraph on The Last Town On Earth
Thomas Mullen is the author The Last Town on Earth which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today. He was also awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize excellence in historical fiction for The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers and The Revisionists. His works have been named to Year’s Best lists in Grantland Paste, and the Huffington Post and his Atlanta Magazine true crime story about a novelist/con man won the City and the Regional Magazine Award for Best Feature. He lives in Atlanta with his wife and sons.
For more information, please contact Grace Vincent, Publicity Manager
Thanks to Net Galley and to Little, Brown Book UK for offering me a free copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.
This novel combines an intriguing plot (a police-procedural thriller about an African-American young woman murdered in mysterious circumstances that many want to cover up) with a tense and little explored historical background, post-WWII Atlanta, a place where racial tensions were alive and well. The story takes place shortly after the first African-American men have taken their posts as police officers. The Atlanta of the time is a segregated city, with white and black neighbourhoods, and where the poorest and most criminal area is known as ‘Darktown’. Nobody wants to police it, but the business is booming.
The new members of the police force have a badge and a gun, but can only police the African-American neighbourhoods, cannot enter the police station, are bullied by the white police agents, command no respect, have access to no resources and are stabbed in the back at the slightest opportunity.
The story is told in the third person from several points of views. Most of the story is told in alternating chapters from two of the police officers’ points of views: Rake, a white rookie whose partner is a racist and corrupt police officer who uses force, threats and intimidation to control criminals and peers alike, and Boggs, an African-American policeman, the son of a preacher who is one of the influencers of the well-off African-American community in Atlanta. Rake tries to be a good and ethical policeman but finds it difficult to confront the status quo, and although he tolerates the African-American policemen, he is not pro-equality. For him, the best case scenario is that they keep out of each other’s way. Boggs knows they are only there as a political gesture and any excuse will be good to get rid of them, but he takes a stand and decides to investigate the death of the young African-American woman white detectives don’t care about, no matter what the consequences. There are also brief chapters told from other characters’ points of view, but this is always relevant to the story and I did not find it confusing.
The plot is complex, with several murders, police corruption, false clues, and the added difficulties of the partial sources of information and the obstacles that Rake and Boggs find at every turn. There are many characters that appear only briefly and it is important to be attentive to the story not to miss anything, and towards the end, the author cleverly keeps some of the clues under wraps (you might have your suspicions but it’s not easy to guess the whole story and wrap it all up).
The action of the novel is kept at good pace,the writing has enough description to make us feel as we were sweating with the characters (and we can almost feel the violence in our own bodies), without ever being overdrawn, and there are quite a few chapters that end in a cliffhanger and makes us keep turning the pages. There is also a well accomplished underlying sense of threat and darkness running through the whole story and it’s impossible to read it and not to think on how much (and also how little) some things have changed.
The main characters have doubts, weaknesses and don’t always do the honourable or “right” thing but that makes them easier to relate to, although not always likeable. I missed having more of a sense of their personal lives (Rake is married but we know next to nothing about his family and although Boggs lives with his family, most of the focus is on the job) but that fits in nicely with the genre. Apart from an African-American Madam, the victim, and a woman who helps divulge some useful information, women don’t have much of a role in the story as seems to correspond to the period. Some of the secondary characters are odious whilst others are all too human, and at times become casualties in a war they never enrolled in.
A well-written story, with a complex plot, set in a relatively recent and turbulent historical period that will make you think about race, discrimination, and progress.
Thanks so much to Net Galley, the author, and Little, Brown Books UK (and Grace Vincent) for the novel, thanks to you for reading and don’t forget to like, share, comment and CLICK!
As you know I’ve been sharing new books and reviews recently. These two have just been published this week (the first one only available in hard cover at first) and I thought they might appeal to very different readers, but I enjoyed them both (in very different ways).
Wear and Tear: The Threads of My Life Hardcover by Tracy Tynan A life in clothes, lived with a big heart and plenty of talent.
A candid, entertaining memoir told through clothes.
Tracy Peacock Tynan grew up in London in the 1950’s and 60s, privy to her parents’ glamorous parties and famous friends—Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, and Orson Welles. Cecil Beaton and Katharine Hepburn were her godparents. Tracy was named after Katherine Hepburn’s character, Tracy Lord, in the classic film, The Philadelphia Story. These stylish showbiz people were role models for Tracy, who became a clotheshorse at a young age.
Tracy’s father, Kenneth Tynan, was a powerful theater critic and writer for the Evening Standard,The Observer, and The New Yorker. Her mother was Elaine Dundy, a successful novelist and biographer, whose works have recently been revived by TheNew York Review of Books. Both of Tracy’s parents, particularly her father, were known as much for what they wore as what they wrote.
In the Tynans’ social circles, style was essential, and Tracy had firm ideas about her own clothing for as long as she can remember. Shopping was an art passed down through the family; though shopping trips with her mother were so traumatic that Tracy started shopping on her own when she was fourteen.
When Tracy started writing about her life she found that clothing was the focus of many of her stories. She recalls her father’s dandy attire and her mother’s Pucci dresses, as well as her parents’ rancorous marriage and divorce, her father’s prodigious talents and celebrity lifestyle, and her mother’s lifelong struggle with addiction. She tackles issues big and small using clothes as an entrée—relationships, marriage, children, stepchildren, blended families, her parent’s decline and deaths, and her work as a costume designer are all recounted with humor, with insight, and with the special joy that can only come from finding the perfect outfit.
“Tracy Tynan uses the universal medium of clothing to tell the highly specific story of her Bohemian British upbringing, and she does so with wit, candor and yes– style. For anyone obsessed with the intellectual gossip of yesteryear- or just obsessed with the language of fashion- this book will be a cozy bedfellow.” (Lena Dunham)
“Tracy Tynan’s memoir is a wolf in sheep’s clothing…Rich in humor and observation, its stylish tone belies the often harrowing nature of her formative years, and details with bravery and precision exactly who she was and what she wore.” (Anjelica Huston – Author of A Story Lately Told and Watch Me)
Tracy Peacock Tynan grew up in a tornado of glamorous, stylish eccentricity. So jealous!!!” (Simon Doonan -Author of The Asylum: True Tales of Madness from a Life in Fashion)
“Tracy Tynan takes on the paradox of style with unique flair in Wear and Tear, by hanging her book on the clothes she wore at key moments in her life. But the life of the exceptionally stylish, charming and resilient Ms. Tynan is like no other — a brilliant, famous father, a titan of culture addicted to S+M, an equally brilliant but alcoholic mother who’s become a cult writer, the promises and delusions of a life among the famous, a career as the go-to movie costume designer.
“Wear and Tear is poignant, surprising, and an enchanting inner view of what it is to come into oneself among the sacred monsters of the 20th century.” (Joan Juliet Buck)
“A page-turning memoir that affords an astonishing glimpse into rarified lives in the now-extinct Anglo-American literary jet set. Tracy Tynan inherited both her parents’ sartorial flair, and their skill with words.” (Matt Tyrnauer – Director, Valentino: The Last Emperor)
“Wear and Tear is a riveting account of life growing up as the only child of two famous and famously complicated personalities: theater critic Kenneth Tynan and writer, Elaine Dundy. Tracy Tynan recalls her fascinating and difficult childhood during the Swinging Sixties in London and New York, and the legendary actors and artists who frequented her parent’s life. She chronicles her growth as an artist, taking on myriad roles as lover, costume designer, step-mother, mother, and wife, with honesty and insights that make for can’t- put- down reading. Her independence and original style weave through the pages of her book just as they have always done in her life.” (Wendy Goodman – Design Editor, New York Magazine)
“In this wonderfully observed, elegiac, and least judgmental of memoirs, esteemed costume designer Tracy Tynan describes a society and personalities defined by style, and the ever shifting self-perception that characterizes out sized lives–and talent. Moving effortlessly between the world where post war American and British literature and cinema, theatre and politics, converge, Tynan details a now vanished golden age with wit, honesty, and that rarest of qualities—empathy.” (Hilton Als)
Wear and Tear is the first book that reveals style as a successful survival strategy. Tracy’s familial chaos required much dancing backwards in heels and looking good in the part. Written with compassion, she pulls no punches, her observations are not casual chic. A fascinating read about a creative clan. (Deborah Landis -Author of Filmcraft and Hollywood Costume)
“The daughter of celebrities reflects on fame, parenthood, and style. Costume designer Tynan makes her literary debut in a candid and entertaining memoir featuring her alcoholic, combative parents, theater critic Kenneth Tynan and novelist Elaine Dundy, and their assorted glamorous friends. Her vivid descriptions reflect her love of clothes, designers, fabrics, and, not least, shopping. Star-studded, gossipy, and engaging.” (Kirkus)
About the Author
Tracy Tynan is a costume designer and writer living in Los Angeles. Her credits include the movies The Big Easy, Blind Date, Great Balls of Fire, and Tuesdays with Morrie.
Thanks to Net Galley and to Scribner for offering me a free copy of this memoir in exchange for an unbiased review.
I knew who Kenneth Tynan was before I read this book. Although well before my time, I do love theatre, I’ve lived many years in the UK and I’d heard of his reviews, his wit, and remembered having seen pictures of him, but didn’t know much about his life. I didn’t know anything about his first wife, American writer Elaine Dundy, or his daughter Tracy, and I must admit that I’m not a big clothes buff. Having said all that, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. The clothes (or outfits) give name to the chapters and form the backbone of the book, assisting the author in organising her memories. I guess we all have things we remember, music, movies, books, and they help bring to our mind momentous happenings in our lives. Why not clothes, especially when they were so meaningful to her and the people she cared about?
Tracy Tynan’s life isn’t ordinary, whatever our definition of an ordinary life might be. Both her parents were popular, talented, brilliant and social butterflies. Their parties and events read like the who is who, first of London and then of the LA of the era. But they weren’t particularly gifted as parents. They seemed wrapped up on their own relationship, the people they knew, and their careers. Their daughter was often an afterthought, and even when they tried to connect with her they weren’t very skilled at it. But the author is generous to a fault and makes an effort to be fair and not to dwell or overdramatise matters. She tries hard to understand and does not moan or complain, despite having lived through pretty harrowing experiences due to her parents’ rocky relationship and to their difficult behaviour. She is sympathetic towards other’s plights and never self-apologising, something extremely refreshing.
The book is full of anecdotes but despite the many famous people the writer has met through her life this is not a scandalous book trying to exploit her connections and throw dirt at others. She always has a good word to say, even about people or actors she had a hard time with, and I got the distinct impression that she subscribes to the idea that if you don’t have anything good to say, you shouldn’t say anything at all. It’s a book full of passion for clothes, for life, for her friends and family. It’s a touching and warm book although it avoids sentimentality, cheap thrills and pulling at heartstrings.
This first-person account is a beautifully written book (she seems to have inherited the writing talent from both her parents), a page turner, understated, and we get to feel as if we were reading the memoirs of a friend. The chapter about her daughter, who was born premature, reminded me of my goddaughter, who was born in similar circumstances, and it resonated especially with me. Her reflections about getting older, her experience of losing loved ones, and her more recent activity volunteering with homeless organisations and those looking after women victims of domestic violence made me realise I had more in common with this woman than I could have ever guessed when I started reading.
If anybody is worried about reading these memoirs because they aren’t familiar with the people involved or are not interested in clothes, don’t let that stop you. The book can be enjoyed by readers who know the era and many of the famous actors, writers, directors, clothes designers… who formed the social circle of Tracy Tynan’s family, but also by all those who have an interest and a passion that has accompanied them throughout their lives, who’ve survived complicated family lives, who love their friends and their families, and who don’t fear reinventing themselves once over again.
I’m not sure if the paper copies will have pictures. The Kindle review copy I was sent didn’t, but that did not diminish my enjoyment.
Underground Airlines by Ben H. WintersSome nightmares look and feel too close to reality for comfort.
‘The most timely of alternate history novels. Ben Winters has created a spellbinding world that forces the reader to look around—and to look within. This is a thriller not to be missed and one that will not be easily forgotten.’ Hugh Howey
It is the present-day, and the world is as we know it. Except for one thing: slavery still exists.
Victor has escaped his life as a slave, but his freedom came at a high price. Striking a bargain with the government, he has to live his life working as a bounty hunter. And he is the best they’ve ever trained.
A mystery to himself, Victor tries to suppress his memories of his own childhood and convinces himself that he is just a good man doing bad work, unwilling to give up the freedom he is desperate to preserve. But in tracking his latest target, he can sense that that something isn’t quite right.
For this fugitive is a runaway holding something extraordinary. Something that could change the state of the country forever.
And in his pursuit, Victor discovers secrets at the core of his country’s arrangement with the system that imprisoned him, secrets that will be preserved at any cost. ‘It is a rare thing when a writer has a fresh new provocative idea – and then executes it beautifully. This is what Ben H. Winters has done in his novel Underground Airlines. Imagine an America in which slavery still exists. Now imagine a dramatic telling of the story.’ James Patterson.
“Am I allowed to curse? Because holy heck, I want to. This book is shocking, bold, sad, human and wise. Put an expletive in front of each of those adjectives. It’s not post-apocalyptic fiction, but if you like that sort of thing, you’ll like this too. If you liked Station Eleven (an overused but appropriate comp!), World War Z, or Brief History of the Dead, then this is a book you should read.”―Rebecca Fitting, Greenlight Bookstore
“Underground Airlines is the rare book that actually fulfills the promise of being unlike anything you’ve ever read. The alt-world premise of a present day US where the Civil War never happened and slavery still exists in four states, is so perfect for the current dialogue about race that’s going on right now. It’s not that common to be reading a gripping page turner of a mystery and be thinking about voices like Ta-Nehisi Coates at the same time. It’s one of those books you only want to stop reading so that you can go out and start talking to people about it. I can’t wait until this book is out in the world so I can engage with other readers about it.”―Robert Sindelar, Third Place Books
“Ben Winters’ Underground Airlines is an ingenious speculative thriller wrapped around the core of our nation’s ouroboros history of institutional racism. While that may sound bizarre to some, Winters pulls it off with ease, crafting a novel that is both fantastic and scarily believable at the same time.”―Ian Kern, Mysterious Bookshop
“Ben H. Winters has crafted a timely, necessary, and gripping page-turner. The plausibility of Underground Airlines‘ central conceit is terrifying, made more so by the author’s deft blend of alternate history and modern mundanity, but the loose, often jaunty narration of its flawed protagonist, Victor, prevents its descent into hopeless, maudlin territory. Victor’s desperate pursuit of freedom or redemption, whatever the cost, propels the novel toward its inexorable and satisfying conclusion.”―Jake Cumsky-Whitlock, Kramerbooks
“Underground Airlines is a work of astonishing originality and ambition. Like the best art, it forces us to question our own assumptions. Is the machine of modern civilization really that far removed from the alternate reality that Winters presents here? We’re all implicated in this unsettling and visionary novel. Ben Winters is one brave writer.”―Patrick Millikin, The Poisoned Pen Bookstore
“I could not put Underground Airlines down. A brutal, hard-boiled detective mystery about what might have happened if Lincoln had been killed before ending slavery, it is thought provoking and vivid. It will live with you for a very long time.”―Rene Kirkpatrick, Eagle Harbor Book Co.
About the Author
Ben H. Winters is the author of, most recently, World of Trouble, the concluding book in the Last Policeman trilogy. The second book, Countdown City, was an NPR Best Book of 2013 and the winner of the Philip K. Dick Award for Distinguished Science Fiction. The Last Policeman was the recipient of the 2012 Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America; it was also named one of the Best Books of 2012 by Amazon.com and Slate.
Thanks to Net Galley and to Cornerstone Digital for providing me a free copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review.
When I read the premise of this novel, a United States where the Civil War hadn’t taken place and slavery was alive and well in modern times, I was intrigued. As part of my American Literature course I did read historical and literary texts related to the Civil War and later to the Civil Rights Movement, and I found the thought of what modern-day America might have looked like if things have gone differently both fascinating and horrifying.
The book is classed under alternative history, a subgenre that allows authors to imagine scenarios that might make readers shiver, or just reflect on how far (or otherwise) civilisation has come.
The world in Underground Airlines is on the one side very similar to the world we know (at least the bits we’re shown), and even the historical figures of importance are mentioned, although in some cases with a slightly alternative fate or role (like Lincoln’s earlier demise, and Michael Jackson’s different set of problems). Despite the genre, the book is not very heavy on history and does not hammer readers with deep analysis (there are subtle references to themes like the Mockingbird syndrome) and considering the nature of the subject it even manages to avoid heavy pulling at emotional heartstrings.
The story is told in the first person by Victor or… well, whomever he is. The main character is an African-American free man, but not really. He escaped from a slaughter house where he had been born and was supposed to spend all his life. They found his hiding place and forcefully recruited him to become an official agent who would find escapees and return them back to one of the 4 states where slavery is still legal, thanks to the 18th Amendment to the constitution. At first, Víctor made me think of Herman Melville’s The Confidence Man, whereby seemingly different characters tell different stories, although perhaps they are all one and the same master of disguise. But then I thought (and saw a comment that also made that reference) about the film Blade Runner, at least if we think about the first version of the film with Deckard’s narration. Victor is somebody who tries hard not to remember anything about his past (although memories, or more accurately flashbacks, intrude every so often) or to feel anything. He has become so adept at adopting other identities that when at some point Martha —a young mother he meets early in the novel and ends up embroiled in the whole intrigue — wants to know his real name, he’s no longer sure. He also reminded me of Deckard with regards to the doubt in many people’s minds as to his real identity. Is he a human being or a replicant? Victor insist (to himself) that he does what he has to do, that he does not care about the ongoing slavery and his own safety is his only concern, that he does not believe anybody can do anything or any of his acts can change matters, but…
What seemed to be a pretty streamlined occupation for Victor starts to get complicated when he is assigned a case where he soon realises something is not what it seems. The file is not complete, the phrasing is off, and the people he meets along the way seem to be hiding something, although he doesn’t quite realise how much. Agents and double agents, twists and turns, betrayals, and a visit to the Deep South are on the cards for the man whose only goal is to not make ripples and keep to the plan.
The book is written in a style that seems to fit in with the fictional character, although for me, somehow, the picture was as fractured as the man itself. Although I have a weakness for unreliable narrators, and Victor is indeed one of them, I had difficulty connecting with him, perhaps because he was himself disconnected and avoided looking at his emotions, and I am not sure he ever became a fully-fledged character for me.
The idea behind the story is good although I wondered if people really keen on historical fiction would find there is enough detail or would like to know more than the brief tasters and snippets that are hinted at throughout the novel. Personally, the novel made me reflect on the nature of world politics and economy, as in what is considered the developed world we seem to be happy to wear or consume products manufactured in near-slavery conditions with little concern for where they come from or only paying lip service to such issues. The specific reflections on race and racism will perhaps be more shocking to readers not very familiar with the topic or who have not read novels or classic texts by authors and figures who’ve written more extensively on it.
I liked the ending, although I wasn’t a hundred per cent sure how well it fitted in with the rest (but I won’t comment in detail to avoid spoilers). The issue at the heart of the investigation that costs many people dearly was to my mind less surprising than it was built up to be (the big whatsit kind of scenario) although in truth I’m not sure what I was expecting.
In sum this is a novel that paints a scary but somewhat familiar alternative version of history in the US (an uncanny version if one wants) and makes us think about issues of race, loyalty, identity, family and global economy. It can be a good introduction to the genre of alternative fiction and has enough intrigue for readers in search of a good story.
Strictly Necessary Cookies
Strictly Necessary Cookie should be enabled at all times so that we can save your preferences for cookie settings.
If you disable this cookie, we will not be able to save your preferences. This means that every time you visit this website you will need to enable or disable cookies again.