The Lauras, by Sara Taylor*****

TheLauras“It doesn’t do any good to just run away from something, you’ve got to be running to something.”

 

Alex’s mom has been hit one time too many by Alex’s dad, and she wakes Alex up and says to get a few things together and get in the car. They’re out of there. The rest of the story is an odyssey, both externally and internally, and within it, Alex comes of age. The story is beautifully crafted with gritty, nearly-tangible settings; however, it is the meticulous, absolutely believable characters that makes this story sing. It is the first outstanding work of fiction I’ve seen that features a transgender teen, and like so much great fiction, it provides an education to those of us that haven’t known anyone that claims this identity. In fact, this book may become the Rubyfruit Jungle for trans people and those that care about them. I read this novel free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Crown Publishing; it’s available to the public August 1, 2017.

Feminists have to cheer for Alex’s mother, who Alex calls “Ma”. Ma has a car, she has maps, she has some food, and she has Alex. When a state trooper pulls her over because both she and her car have been reported missing by Alex’s father, Ma tells him point blank that the car is in her name, and that Alex is hers, not theirs. No, she doesn’t need to come with him. No, she doesn’t have to make a phone call. It wouldn’t always play out this way for everyone, of course, but just seeing it work once, right here, is satisfying and it’s credible. In fact, there’s never a hole in the plausibility of this story, even though the events that unfold here are far from ordinary.

This trip, one that initially has a destination but turns into a wandering trek all across North America, gives Alex the first real taste of learning who Ma is. Any parent that has raised a teenager and has had a car understands the value of car talk. Both driver and passenger look straight ahead, and then sometimes things just naturally fall out of their mouths that otherwise would remain unsaid. Not having the money to keep a smart phone alive facilitates this even more; when there’s nothing else to look at, the choices are talk; silence; and sleep.

And so Alex learns that Ma was raised largely in foster care, and the road trip provides a chance to trace back the string, to see the places life bounced her in and out of through adult eyes. Essentially, they are homeless much of the time, sleeping in the car, in the occasional down-at-the-heels motel, and every now and then alighting long enough to procure an apartment, though never the sort you’d want unless you were desperate. Sometimes she works; sometimes they steal; sometimes they are given a handout; still, they survive, and the trek goes on. And we see the disastrous failure of the public school system to accommodate a kid like Alex, who is expected to check either the male box on the enrollment form, or the female box, and whose refusal to do so is treated as a behavioral issue.

There are times in my notes when I find myself referring to Alex as “she”, and it shows how ingrained our social system is, particularly for those of us that are older and have to work harder to think flexibly. At times I feel the same urge as those obnoxious school children Alex encounters in the story that want to know exactly what reproductive organ is inside Alex’s pants, because when I was growing up, that was how we identified gender. But as I watched Alex’s character take form within Taylor’s deep, intimate prose, I found that knowing Alex as Alex was enough. We never learn what’s between Alex’s legs, and by the end of the book, it no longer matters. That’s an accomplishment in and of itself.

As for Alex’s future, it’s a conundrum. What Alex wants most is for Ma to point the car toward home, toward Dad. Oh, please please please. It’s the refrain of children the world over whose parents have split, children clinging to the illusion that if they are all reunited, everything will be fine. Oh, of course it will! And we know early in the story that this will never happen, and we don’t want Ma to go back there. But Alex wants Ma, and Alex wants Dad. And this is a quandary that many readers will recognize as their own childhood longing.

One last word here is directed at teachers and parents. The literacy level here will be accessible to high school age students; however, there are sexual situations—as well as a sexual assault—and a lot of very profane language. If you wonder whether you want to put it on your shelf at school or home, get a copy and read it yourself first. I would have chosen to offer it to my own children when they were teens—they are grown now—but every family is different, and schools also have such a wide range of standards that you’re better off using your own judgment.

That said, this pivotal novel is highly recommended.

Hannibal, by Patrick N. Hunt***

HannibalHannibal was the first general to defeat the forces of Rome, and Hunt is the man qualified to tell us about it. I read my copy free and early thanks to Net Galley and Simon and Schuster. This book becomes available to the public July 11, 2017.

Early history has never been my area of concentration, but since retirement, I push myself out of my usual comfort zone, often to excellent result. This time it proved to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, Hunt is unquestionably qualified to discuss this topic. He is an historian of renown and has dedicated years to the study of Hannibal, even embarking on an expedition across the Alps in order to see what Hannibal experienced—or the closest proximity to it in modern times. On the other hand, I confess I was in it for two things: military strategy and history, which does interest me, and of course, the elephants.

Imagine riding into battle on the back of an elephant. Not only is an elephant massive, it is also impervious to most of the weaponry available at this time. Spears and javelins would just bounce off its hide. War elephants had their tusks sharpened, and being charged by such a force had to be terrifying. And in reading this history it occurred to me that Hannibal’s men would have been bemused indeed if they had known that elephants would be regarded by many of us, in future days, with great sentimentality. They would never have believed the elephant might become endangered. Who could kill elephants? But these are my musings, not Hunt’s.

Hunt is meticulous in demonstrating what Hannibal did and why he did it. He starts with his family background, in particular that he was the son of the great general Hamilcar, who took him to a temple, made him stand at the altar where the live sacrifice had been made, and swear lifelong hatred of Rome, whose government and military made war against Carthage and caused a lot of suffering. Hunt carefully separates what actually happened, from what probably happened, from what maybe happened, but the speculative language—may have, would have, almost certainly—slows me down, because each time the narrative picks up and I immerse myself in the text, I see the modifiers and draw back. I go back and reread in order to find out what is actually known, mentally removing all of the guesses and educated guesses, and then I am left with what is known. And although I appreciate that there are not vast treasure-troves of primary documents sitting around for Hunt to access, given the antiquity of the subject, I wish there were some way to read only the known facts. At the 70% mark I became frustrated and bailed.

Hunt quotes often from Livy and Polybius, both of whom I read many years ago as an undergraduate, and which still grace my shelves. My initial impression was that it might be more useful to go dig up those books, reread them, and give this one a miss. However, what Hunt does is sift through their information and provide an analysis that is deeper and more objective than theirs. Livy was, after all, a Roman; he is renowned as a scholar, but not necessarily objective.

And so those that have a serious interest in the history of Northern Africa and/or Southern Europe, or an interest in military history, can count this as a strong title to add to their historical libraries. To put it another way, what it lacks in terms of easy flowing narrative, it makes up for in accuracy and analysis.

Recommended to those that have a serious interest in world history or military history.

Summertime, and the Reading is Easy

On my radar for July and August:

Jane Crow, by Rosalind Rosenberg****

JaneCrowPauli Murray is the person that coined the term “Jane Crow”, and was the first to legally address the twin oppressions of color and gender. I had seen her name mentioned in many places, but this is the first time I’ve read her story. Thank you to Net Galley and Oxford University Press for the opportunity to read it free in exchange for this honest review. This biography is for sale now.

Murray was born in North Carolina and was a labor activist during the turbulent 1930s. She was academically gifted and hardworking, but tormented by the issue of gender. 100 years ago, in the time and place into which fate dropped her, there was no recognition of trans people, and so her sense of herself (the pronoun she used) was that surely there was some unseen physical aspect to her body that must be male. She searched high and low for a surgeon that would perform exploratory surgery to discover whether she had an undescended testicle or some other material explanation to explain why she was convinced that she was actually male. It hurts to think about it. Those born after the early-to-mid-20th century cannot comprehend how the suggestion that gender could be binary was seen, and Murray was a devout Christian as well, and became an ordained Episcopal priest. By the time trans people gained respect from a significant percentage of Americans, Murray was no longer here.

Despite the misery and confusion that was inherent in such a life, Murray was prolific. She was declined a place at the University of North Carolina because of her race, and later denied a place at Harvard Law because of her gender. She graduated at the top of her class at Howard Law, the only woman in her class. Later she would be largely responsible for inclusion of the word “gender” in the title VII in 1964. Those of us that have benefited from that law—and there are a lot of us—tip our hats to her memory in gratitude.

Rosenberg has done a fine job in telling us about Murray. Her documentation is flawless and her narrative clear. At times—particularly in the beginning, before Murray’s career really catches fire—it’s a trifle dry, but I would prefer a clear, scholarly, linear narrative such as this one, over an exciting but sensationalized, less well documented telling any day of the week.

Those interested in the American Civil Rights movement and the history of the women’s rights movement in the USA should get this book and read it. Even if used primarily as a reference tool, it’s an indispensable resource, particularly to those with an interest in legal matters relating to discrimination and equity.

A Line Made By Walking, by Sara Baume***

I was gob-smacked by this author’s last book, Spill Simmer Falter Wither, and when I saw she had another book out—one set in Ireland, one of my favorite settings—I immediately requested a DRC. Thank you to Net Galley and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt for letting me read it free in exchange for this honest review. The book is for sale now.

ALineMadeByWalkingHad I no obligation to the publisher, I might be tempted to write a rare one-word review: bleak. Our protagonist is grieving the death of her beloved grandmother, and the dog died too. She’s stuck in a place she can’t get out of mentally, but since she is an artist, she takes her ennui and lets it guide her through art, and the narrative follows a pattern in which each grim thought leads her to a different art theme mentally. The story is told in the first person, and so we follow her miserable wandering thoughts from one grim topic to another, and then at some point each train of thought ends with “Works about [ fill in noun here: beds, rabbits…whatever].”

“The world is wrong, and I am too small to fix it, too self-absorbed.”

Yup.

I continued reading because it seemed to me that her earlier book started out depressing and it took some time to warm up, but then once it took off I was in love with it. I waited for this to happen here. And waited. At the 16% mark, she notes that getting drunk provides her with a “heightened sense of despair” the next day, and my notes my notes say “Fuck me.”

The protagonist tells us of an instance when she follows her very elderly landlady down a set of steps and pretends this is her usual pace also, and my notes say, “What the hell else you gonna do? Tell her to move her butt? Give her a shove to help her along?”

Each time I have one of these magic moments, I know it’s time to read something else for a while and come back to this story with fresh eyes. This is why it took me so long to read and review. Had I not bailed at 68% and peeked at the end for some sign of redemption, it would have gone even more slowly. Our protagonist has family members that want to help, but she is not interested. Instead, we notice dead animals; we notice garbage. We notice mold and other ugly things, but we can’t get up and deal with them because we are depressed and going to continue sitting here, lying here, not seeking change and wallowing.

In fairness, the word smithery here is strong in places, and I like the figurative language. However, for me the double-whammy of perpetually depressed prose followed, every now and then, by reflections about art and art history, a subject that makes my eyes glaze over, is a powerful repellent, and I am never able to engage; perhaps by now, you suspected as much.

So the third star is here because I know there are readers that have a great love of art, and if you are one of them, your experience with this novel may be completely different from mine. I wanted to tell the protagonist to take her meds and shut up, but there may be some truly redemptive aspect of the art discussion that makes the rest of it flow beautifully for art lovers.

For most readers, I can’t recommend this novel, and if you take it up anyway, put the sharps in another room and lock up your pills and firearms. Seriously. But for those with an affinity for art and art history, this book should be considered.

Lockdown, by Laurie R. King*****

lockdownI am a big fan of Laurie R. King’s contemporary thrillers, and this one is no exception. Thank you to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine for the DRC, which I read free and early in exchange for this honest review. It’s for sale today, so now everyone can read it.

King’s feminist fiction is made more delicious by her careful attention to detail. There is NEVER a single moment in which the setting—which is primarily at Guadalupe Middle School—slips and shows the reader that the Great and Powerful Oz is really just a human behind a curtain. Her magic never falters. Every fine detail regarding school schedules, culture, and protocol is true to life. This reviewer spent a couple of decades teaching in a middle school not much different from King’s fictional one, and I have never seen any novelist get everything so completely right in using school as the main setting.

As the cover suggests, this story is centered around a school shooting in California that takes place on career day. This is ticklish business to say the very least, one that authors dared not approach for a long time. Now, with Columbine significantly in our rear-view mirror but with school shootings an increasing, ever-present concern, King works it like a pro. A large measure of her success has to do with the way she builds her characters. We have a complex blend, from the school administrator, Linda McDonald; to her spouse Gordon, who has secrets that must not be revealed; to Tio, the custodian, another man that holds his cards closely; to the kids, the kids, the kids. We have Mina, the perfect student who has worries all her own, to Chaco—my personal favorite—to a host of others. By the time we reach the climax, we feel as if we know each one of these people, and so it isn’t a story of violence in the broad sense, but the fates of real people that collide.

This white-knuckle read treats issues of class, ethnicity and gender with the sensitivity one might expect from a master of the genre.  When I finish, it is replete with the satisfaction I receive at the end of Thanksgiving dinner—but this feast is one I don’t have to cook up myself, which makes it all the better. I’ve read 11 other books, mostly galleys, since I read Lockdown, and yet in my memory this one stands out as exceptionally strong fiction, the kind of book one wants to read a second time. And I know that when I do, some things will leap out from the pages brand new, because such a layered, intricate story is full of delightful niches and crannies that aren’t necessarily seen the first time through.

I wholeheartedly recommend this story to good people that love novels of suspense.  If it means you have to pay full freight—do it anyway. I would have.

The Accomplished Guest, by Ann Beattie*****

theaccomplishedguest Ann Beattie is a seasoned writer with a list of accolades as long as your arm, and this is why I requested a DRC of her soon-to-be-published short story collection, whose theme is visitors and travel. I was not disappointed. Thank you Net Galley and Scribner for letting me read it free and early in exchange for this honest review. This book will be available to the public Tuesday, June 13.

The first selection is droll; our protagonist is going to see an older man, and so we wonder…is this a boyfriend? Is it an ex? And as we move down the checklist, I love what she does with it. The next couple of selections are good but not as striking, but then the wind catches in Beattie’s sails and she is unstoppable.  Other favorites here are “Other People’s Birthdays”, “The Debt”, and “The Cloud”. I found myself highlighting most of the text, which is wasted effort, since I can’t quote most of the book to you, but it’s something that happens to me when I read top-drawer fiction. The story I loved best is “The Caterer”, which made me laugh out loud and woke Mr. Computer, who was slumbering next to me and had to get up the next day for work.

Short stories are wonderful bedtime material, because there isn’t the wrenching sensation in tearing oneself loose from the book. When the story is over, it’s time to bookmark one’s place and turn out the light. I’ve read over a hundred short story collections, and this one is among the best.

Highly recommended to those that love excellent prose, and in particular to Boomers.

Amish Guys Don’t Call, by Debby Dodds****

AmishGuysDon't Amish Guys Don’t Call is funny, absorbing, and ultimately lifting. Dodds has a great heart for teenagers, and this title is one that should grace every high school and middle school library, and will also attract parents and teachers of adolescents. I read it free and early thanks to Net Galley and Blue Moon Publishers. This book will be available to everyone June 13, 2017.

Samantha is still smarting from her parents’ divorce and her father’s inattention when her mother moves them to Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which is the heart of Amish country. Samantha has been in trouble for shoplifting, and the urge increases when she is in stressful situations. To her surprise and delight, she strikes up a friendship with Madison, who in turn pulls her into the most popular circle at school.  The one thing that gets in Sam’s way is her wholesomeness. She doesn’t drink, smoke, or use street drugs; not only is she still a virgin, but she’s never had a boyfriend. Madison tells Sam that all of this can end, with some careful time and grooming. Thus is “Project P” launched.

Despite the name of the boyfriend project, this book is free of explicit sexual situations. We see drug use, and sexual situations arise, so those considering whether this title is right for your teen or group of teens should bear this in mind. If in doubt, buy a copy for yourself and read it first.

At a big party held at night in a cornfield by Amish boys during their Rumspringa, a period in which some Amish groups permit their adolescents a taste of what the outside world is like and tolerate sometimes-extreme behaviors as a rite of passage, Samantha meets a young man named Zach. He’s handsome, and he’s drawn to her. We can tell from his behaviors (as well as the book’s title) that he is Amish, but it takes quite awhile for Sam to catch on. She is obsessed with his failure to provide her with his cell number. Is there another girl in the picture?

This story was a fun read, but I don’t recommend it to general audiences apart from those that really enjoy a wide variety of YA novels. Every nuance is explained thoroughly, and so whereas the text is accessible to students—with vocabulary at about the 9th grade level—most adults will want something more nuanced.  That said, if I were still in the classroom, I would purchase this title. Because the subject matter might provoke conservative parents, I would not use it as assigned reading or use it as a classroom read-aloud, but I know that a lot of students will want to read it.

Recommended for teens that are not from highly conservative backgrounds.

Grief Cottage, by Gail Godwin*****

Happy release day! This deeply moving story takes awhile to warm up, but once it gets moving, you’re pretty much in it for keeps. Those that love literary fiction will have to look far and wide to find better.

Seattle Book Mama

griefcottage“We know so very little about the people we are closest to. We know so little about ourselves.”

Gail Godwin has been lauded and honored many times over, and has five New York Times Bestsellers to her credit. I read Grief Cottage free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Bloomsbury USA. Now I have to find her earlier work and read it, because her extraordinary prose is worth seeking out. Those that love achingly brilliant literary fiction will want to read this book, which will be available to the public June 6, 2017.

Marcus and his mother live alone and are very close; when she dies, it is as if the bottom has fallen out of his world. He is taken in by a relative he has never met; his Great-Aunt Charlotte lives on a tiny island off the coast of South Carolina. Haunted by his grief, Marcus is…

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Before We Were Yours, by Lisa Wingate**

beforewewereyoursLisa Wingate is an established author, but she is new to me. I received this DRC free and early, thanks to Net Galley and Random House Ballantine; it is available to the public Tuesday, June 6, 2017. And although I would love to tell you to run out and buy it right now, in all honesty I have never felt quite so ambivalent about a novel, at least not in recent years. There’s so much that’s good here, but there’s also some terrible material—albeit brief—that any sensible editor would have to question, and that every reviewer that’s paying attention has to notice.

We have two protagonists, both female. Our first is Rill Foss, the member of a large, poor family that lives on a riverboat. She and her siblings are scooped up by the authorities when they are left without an adult present while their mother is rushed to the hospital after complications in childbirth. After a harrowing sojourn at the Tennessee Children’s Home, she and a sister are adopted into a well-to-do, politically connected family, and she becomes May Weathers; yet Rill is still determined to return home to the Arcadia, the boat on which she was raised, where she knows her true parents will be waiting.

Our second protagonist is Avery Stafford, the beloved daughter of a senator that is grooming her to succeed him. All of her life, Avery has known she must consider every decision she makes with the assumption that the public will learn of it. But when she learns of a mystery that might affect the final years of her beloved Grandma Judy, who is in the early stages of dementia and living in assisted care, she follows the threads—carefully, discreetly—in order to learn more about her grandmother and in the process, about herself.

“Am I my father’s daughter, or am I just me?”

The prose is woven in a way that is fresh and delightful in most regards, and I admire the organization of the story as a whole, which is masterfully done. Ultimately, we see where May’s story and Avery’s meet, and although we are given a glimpse of how some aspects of the story will resolve, others are a wonderful surprise. The dialogue between Avery and Trent, a man that assists her in her inquiries, absolutely crackles. The characterization of Trent’s three-year-old son, Jonah, gets my vote as the most adorable tot to ever grace fiction.

There are two areas that hold this story back from a five-star rave here. The first and smaller concern is the depiction of the orphanage to which Rill and her siblings are taken. Wingate tells us in her end notes—which I read first, and you should, too—that the Tennessee Children’s Home Society was real, and that poor children were in fact routinely kidnapped and adopted, for high fees, to affluent families almost as if they were livestock; “Christmas babies” were publicly advertised, especially blond ones. The point is well taken, and Riggs is a well-drawn villain. However, the passages set in this place are so horrible and so harsh that in some ways, it’s almost a caricature. I found myself skimming passages here because I just couldn’t stand it. If I had my way, there would either be a wee bit more ambiguity here, or the section would be shorter. Sometimes less is more.

The other, larger concern here is the cultural deafness in the terms used. Even if racist terms were common among Caucasians of the time in question, finding them gratuitously tossed into this novel, not because they are key to the plot but merely as set dressing, is like finding a rattlesnake in my lunchbox. Why would anyone do this? I refer to the slur on a Chinese man that appears briefly and is not important to the plot; the mammy-like dialect written in for the African-American servant, which appears numerous times; the reference to American Indians of the north as ‘Eskimos’, the offhand references to slave cabins and ‘Confederate’ roses, and most particularly the place in which one of the children threatens a Black woman they think may steal from them by telling her:

“They’ll hang you up in a tree, they will.”

My god. A threat of lynching, just tossed in for flavor!

By the end of the galley, I was in love with the story and its main characters, and I initially rated this book four stars, but in going back over my notes, I realized that as long as the lynching reference remains in the text, I can’t go there, and I can’t do that. And I wonder—why in the world is it used at all? All it does is demonstrate how tough the children are, that they can chase away an adult that might mean them harm. Wingate could have done this dozens of other ways, and yet she chose this one.

So there you have it; it’s a brilliantly crafted story with significant social miscues that threaten to derail all that is done well here. Take your pick; read it or don’t. My own advice is that if you want to go there, get it free or at a discount. I cannot see rewarding a work that contains overt racism that is tossed in to no good purpose, and it’s a crying shame, because otherwise it’s a compelling tale by a master word-smith.